A Plague on Both Your Houses

13 Sep

Susanna Gregory is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Cruwys, a Cambridge academic who was previously a coroner’s officer. She writes detective fiction, and is noted for her series of medieval mysteries featuring Matthew Bartholomew, a teacher of medicine and investigator of murders in 14th-century Cambridge.These books may have some aspects in common with the Ellis Peters Cadfael series, the mediaeval adventures of two men, a highly intelligent physician and a Benedictine monk who is senior proctor of Cambridge University. Matthew Bartholomew’s activities as a healer, including examination of corpses, embroil him in a series of mysterious crimes, both secular and monastic, and he reluctantly assumes the role of an amateur sleuth. Sceptical of superstition, he is somewhat ahead of his time, and much accurate historical detail is woven into the adventures. But there any resemblance to the comparatively warm-hearted Cadfael series ends: the tone and subject matter of the Gregory novels is far darker and does not shrink from portraying the harsh realities of life in the Middle Ages. The first in the series, A Plague on Both Your Houses (1996) is set against the ravages of the Black Death and subsequent novels take much of their subject matter from the attempts of society to recover from this disaster. These novels bear the marks of much detailed research into medieval conditions – many of the supporting characters have names taken from the documentation of the time, referenced at the end of each book – and bring vividly to life the all-pervading squalor of living conditions in England during the Middle Ages. The deep-rooted and pervasive practice of traditional leechcraft as it contrasts with the dawning science of evidence-based medicine is a common bone of contention between Matthew and the students he teaches at Michaelhouse College (now part of Trinity College, Cambridge), whilst the conflict between the students of Cambridge and the townsfolk continually threatens to escalate into violence.

Matthew Bartholomew is a fictional physician living in fourteenth-century Cambridge. He is a master at the College of Michaelhouse at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches medicine. The series begins with the imminent arrival of the plague (the ‘Black Death’, although this wasn’t a term that was used at the time). Like all medici of his age, Bartholomew is concerned that his remedies may not be effective, and dreads the onslaught that is about to come. A Plague on Both Your Houses takes place in that devastating time of fear and uncertainty. The rest of the series is post-plague – which was an equally terrifying time. People thought God and His saints had deserted them in their darkest hour, and it did not go unnoticed that the mortality rates were high in some of the religious foundations: the Cambridge Dominicans were wiped out to a man. Why should people listen to the Church when the Almighty had ignored the prayers of His priests? Some settlements dealt with the question by rededicating their churches to the Virgin Mary, on the grounds that she might be more open to petitions, while others turned to more ancient religions or witchcraft. Countless villages lay deserted, and the entire population of All Saints’-next-the-Castle in Cambridge died, so there were many empty properties and abandoned farms. Labourers were in short supply, so they began to demand higher wages, which was one of the factors leading to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. It was thus a time of religious and social upheaval, and there was always that niggling question: would the pestilence come back to wreak havoc a second time? Bartholomew was raised by his sister Edith. He went to the Abbey School in Peterborough, and then studied at the University at Oxford. While there, he heard about an innovative Arab medicus teaching in Paris, and travelled there to begin an apprenticeship with him. He returned to Cambridge, where he was offered a Fellowship at Michaelhouse. His friend and fellow protagonist is the ambitious and portly Benedictine Brother Michael, based on one Michael de Causton, who was associated with Michaelhouse in the 1360s. Through the books, Michael gradually amasses power until he effectively runs the University from his ‘elected’ position as Senior Proctor.

While the similar Cadfael series is sometimes credited as popularizing what would later become known as the historical mystery, there are widely disparate views of what should be considered the first historical mystery. Many credit Agatha Christie, whose Death Comes as the End (1944), set in Thebes, 2000 BC, understandably unaware of the publication nine years earlier of Wallace Irwin’s obscure and anachronistic Julius Caesar Murder Case, featuring “Publius Manlius Scribo, star reporter and sports columnist on the Evening Tiber.” More accurately perhaps, Barry Zeman, of the Mystery Writers of America, points to American author Melville Davison Post’s Uncle Abner short stories, written in the early 20th century, but set in the previous one, as “the starting point for true historical mysteries.” Ancient historicals, spanning the pre-Christian era to the late fifth-century AD and set principally in Egypt or Rome, continue to flourish today. About 30 years ago, three writers independently thought of setting a mystery in ancient Rome. Lindsey Davis was first with 1989’s Silver Pigs, which introduced Marcus Didius Falco, who sleuths during the reign of Emperor Vespasian, followed by John Maddox Roberts’s SPQR novels and Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series. But still many credit Ellis Peters with creating the historical mystery label, through her beloved series featuring 12th-century crusader-turned-monk Brother Cadfael, which kicked off in 1977 with A Morbid Taste for Bones. Numerous talented writers, like Susanna Gregory, have taken up Peters’s mantle by setting their plots throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Historical mysteries nowadays cover a wide scope of human experience. Some of the very best of today’s work is set on murderous roads less traveled. Eliot Pattison, best known for his Edgar-winning Inspector Shan books set in Tibet, brings pre–Revolutionary War North America vividly to life in Bone Rattler and Eye of the Raven (2007 and 2009), conveying the complex relationships between Native Americans and Europeans via gripping murder mystery plots. British author Simon Levack’s phenomenal Aztec mysteries, only two of which have been published in the U.S. (The Demon of the Air and Shadow of the Lords [2005 and 2006]), feature a solid and original premise matched by their execution. The best writers ground their captivating story lines firmly in what is known about the period they write about. Many sate the reader’s curiosity about where they have and have not diverted from the historical record in informative postscripts. However, as author Andrew Pepper correctly points out, “There is no such thing as a pure and untainted historical record. All history is narrative, and all histories are shaped according to contemporary issues and agendas. Verisimilitude, not accuracy, should be the benchmark for the historical writer.” Along the same lines, Priscilla Royal, who has written six medieval mysteries (including Valley of Dry Bones), notes, “Even if we rely on primary sources, we must remember that document survival is accidental, alternative points of view often did not survive, and thus we are left with a skewed view of the period.” It’s easier to get some details right than others. As Margaret Frazer, whose The Apostate’s Tale (2008) and other Sister Frevisse books are set in 15th-century England, observes, “The hardest thing is staying ‘in period,’ of having the characters behave according to their time, their beliefs, not ours.” That doesn’t matter as much for everyone. By contrast, Tom Rob Smith deliberately made the female lead in both his books “very modern rather than historically accurate, because I had no desire to write a female character who wasn’t integral to the plot.” And getting the facts and psychology straight, as best one can, is only a first step – as many writers are probably only too well aware!

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