Matrix by Lauren Groff

Set in 12th century France and England, this stunning, richly detailed novel was inspired by poet Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and later Queen of England. At 17, Marie is living at Eleanor’s court, but is considered unmarriageable due to her great height, lack of beauty, and uncertain parentage. She’s well educated and ran her mother’s estate for two years. Eleanor sends Marie off to England to be prioress at a rundown, impoverished abbey, with twenty nuns. After reluctantly settling in, Marie rides her warhorse to evict a family who refuse to pay rent, installing a family who can supply the abbey with much needed food. When poetry sent to Eleanor doesn’t have the desired result, Marie helps improve the abbey and its lands, with sheep, a scriptorium, and even a labyrinth. Visions of Mary often guide her to new and bigger projects. Later, as Abbess, Marie makes enemies but has plans to make her island of women safe, secure, and often pleasurable. Readers will be swept up in the tales of abbey life and the bold ideas Marie introduces. To read more about strong women in religious life in the Middle Ages, try The Joys in My Life by Alys Clare, Hild by Nicola Griffth, or the delightful Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, including The Bastard’s Tale. Two of many novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine are The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland and Captive Queen by Alison Weir.



The Second Sleep

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Robert Harris has written books set in ancient Rome (Pompeii), in 1938 (Munich), and in the near future (Conclave), so I was intrigued to see a medieval setting. Young priest Christopher Fairfax travels to a small town to bury their priest, but all is not as it seems, for Christopher or for the reader. Very hard to put down, with plenty of unpredictable plot twists. An antiquarian society is deemed heretical by the Church in this often dark, thought-provoking thriller.

The Siege Winter

siege winter jacketThe Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin

Another notable historical novel from Ariana Franklin, finished after her death by Samantha Norman, her daughter. The story is narrated by a dying abbot to a young monk, which makes a good frame for the book. After 11-year-old Em is attacked in the fen country of Cambridgeshire, archer Gwilherm de Vannes rescues her. Em has amnesia, so Gwil calls the red-headed girl Penda, dresses her as a boy, and teaches her archery. They join a troup of tumblers and travel as entertainers, giving archery exhibitions. Along the way, Gwil is searching for Thancmar, an evil monk who preys on redheads. Then their story joins the larger one of war in 12th century England between Empress Matilda and her cousin King Stephen, fighting for England’s throne. During a blizzard they meet Empress Matilda and two of her knights, and end up at Kenniwick castle, where young Lady Maud is forced to play host to Matilda. The castle is soon under siege by King Stephen, and the archers’ skills are needed. While it is wartime and there is violence, the tone of this book is not dark, as it focuses on the relationships and daily lives of Gwil, Penda, and Lady Maud, all appealing and memorable characters. Readers of medieval fiction will enjoy this book, especially fans of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries.



foundation jacketFoundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

Foundation: The History of England from its earliest beginnings to the Tudors.  By Peter Ackroyd

Life in medieval England was nasty, brutish and short.  Mr. Ackroyd does not spare on the horrid details of daily life in very old England. In the beginning, people, mostly Celts lived in mud huts with their livestock. If you got sick, there were the leaches and the bloodletting followed by a poultice of cattle dung applied to the affected area.  There were constant wars between competing factions and soldiers were easily expendable. And this was before the “100 years war”, which actually lasted 114 years.  If you got into trouble, really bad trouble, like William Wallace who dared to defy Edward Longshanks (see the movie Braveheart) you could be hanged, then dis-emboweled while you were still alive, then drawn and quartered which meant that your head and limbs were severed and put on display. If you were a heretic, which there were not many, you would be burned at the stake.   If you were a King and were deposed by an opposing faction you could die by having a red hot poker shoved up your backside.

Here is Richard the Lionheart, who was not so noble, but was really good with a sword.  King John was so bad that the barons teamed up and presented him with the Magna Carta, the basis of all western law.

Here too is the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which some people still regard as the end of true English civilization, with England being overrun by Normans.  The Author shows through archaeological data that long before the “Norman Conquest”, the Celts were being infiltrated by a constant stream of Danes and Vikings, who intermingled with the population.”

The Black Death shows up in the 1300’s and a third of the population dies.  The author postulates that it was not Bubonic Plague but instead was Anthrax, Influenza, or a form of Haemorrhagic Fever.

Regarding the Jews “The history of the Jews in medieval England is an unhappy and even bloody one.  Since Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, some other group of merchants had to be created.  The Jews became moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure.”

The last part of the book is devoted to the Wars of the roses; the house of Lancaster vs. the house of York, the white rose vs. the red rose.

In conclusion Ackroyd says : “when we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion.  There is in fact a case for saying that human history, as it is generally described and understood, is the sum total of accident and unintended consequence.”  I guess some things never change.     There is a volume 2 to this history, “Tudors the history of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, which will be published in October of  2013.


Medieval Mysteries

In compiling this booklist, I was thinking about why I find reading medieval mysteries so appealing. I think it’s the detailed settings and ways of life that are so different than life today, but with characters modern readers can relate to and revisit in further books in the series. Characterization, setting, and plot are all important in medieval mysteries, and all the books listed here are part of a series. 

Medieval Mysteries

Ash, Maureen. The Alehouse Murders introduces Knight Templar Bascot de Marins, recovering from injuries in Lincoln, England, and his young, mute servant, Gianni. 

Clare, Alys. Fortune Like the Moon begins the Hawkenlye series, with Helewise, Abbess of Hawkenlye and Josse d’Acquin, French knight. 

Clark, Cassandra. Hangman Blind introduces Abbess Hildegard. 

Franklin, Ariana. Mistress of the Art of Death begins the Adelia Aguilar series. Adelia is an Italian-trained medical examiner working for Henry II. Her Muslim bodyguard Mansur pretends to be the physician for Adelia. 

Frazer, Margaret. The Novice’s Tale is the first Sister Frevisse mystery, set at St. Frideswide Abbey in England. This is one of my favorite series, with excellent setting, story, and characters. Sister Frevisse gets to travel more than most medieval nuns, so there is also variety in the settings. There are 17 books so far. She has a related series as well. A Play of Isaac is the first book featuring Joliffe, an actor, playwright, and a spy. He travels with a small troupe of actors who are like a family, often struggling to make ends meet, but preferring travel to settling down in one place. 

Gellis, Roberta. A Mortal Bane introduces London madam Magdalene la Batarde and Sir Bellamy Itchen. 

Gordon, Alan. Thirteenth Night is the first Fool’s Guild mystery, featuring Theophilus or Feste, a jester and secret agent, and Viola, who becomes his wife and apprentice. The pair travel extensively, from Italy to Constantinople. 

Grace, C.L. A Shrine of Murders is the first book featuring Kathryn Swinbrooke, Canterbury physician. 

McIntosh, Pat. The Harper’s Quine is the first in the Gil Cunningham series. Gil is a young lawyer in Glasgow, who is assisted in his investigations by French mason Master Pierre and his daughter Alys. Strong female characters and vivid portrayal of village life add appeal. 

Newman, Sharan. Death Comes as Epiphany introduces Catherine LeVendeur, student of Heloise at the Paraclete in France and Edgar, her betrothed and student of Peter Abelard. 

Peters, Ellis. A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first in the classic twenty-one book Brother Cadfael series, set at a Benedictine Abbey in Shrewsbury, England, near the border of Wales. Brother Cadfael is a monk, herbalist, and former man at arms.  

Robb, Candace. The Apothecary Rose features soldier turned spy Owen Archer, and his wife Lucie, an apothecary in York. 

Roe, Caroline. A Remedy for Treason begins the Isaac of Girona series. Isaac is a blind Jewish physician in Spain.

Sedley, Kate. Death and the Chapman begins the Roger the Chapman Tales. Roger is a peddler, traveling around England, which he enjoys more than life at home in Bristol with his mother-in-law and young child.

Tremayne, Peter. Absolution by Murder is the first in the Sister Fidelma series. Fidelma is a dalaigh, or legal advocate, in 7th century Ireland, and is sister to Colgu, the King of Muman. She is assisted in her investigations by Brother Eadulf of Canterbury.