Medieval Mysteries


Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001
For readers looking for summer reading other than the latest Danielle Steele novel, here are five mystery writers (not including Ellis Peters, author of the well-known Brother Cadfael stories) who will transport you back to the Middle Ages.
The Brothers of Glastonbury
Kate Sedley (St. Martin's, 1997) Seventh in a series featuring Roger the Chapman.
The widower Roger travels throughout the English countryside selling his wares from the pack he wears on his back, leaving behind his 2-year-old daughter in the care of his mother-in-law. As he travels, he senses God directing his way, leading him into situations where he is called upon to right wrongs and uncover evildoers. Well-wrought 15th-century English settings, engaging mysteries, and religious themes make the series worth reading.
The Difficult Saint
Sharan Newman (Tom Dougherty Assoc., 1999) Fifth in a series featuring Catherine LeVendeur.
Catherine, daughter of a Jewish trader in 12th- century France, is a pious Christian who has a knack for solving mysteries. Her father, raised Catholic, secretly returns to his childhood faith, endangering the whole family. Catherine fears for her father's soul and his physical safety as the family conducts business throughout Europe. Newman respects both her Christian and Jewish characters, whom she places in the context of the second crusade.

The Monk Who Vanished
Peter Tremayne (St. Martin's, 1999) Eighth in a series featuring Sister Fidelma.
Sister Fidelma is a religieuse and a dalaigh, an advocate of the law courts of Ireland in the mid-7th century. She is called to investigate crimes and is often accompanied by Brother Eadulf, a Saxon and a follower of Rome; he represents the archbishop of Canterbury to the king of Muman, one of Ireland's five kingdoms. Tremayne's plots are often filled with religious and political tensions. The strange names and place names are sometimes hard to read.
A Trust Betrayed
Candace Robb (Mysterious Press, 2001) First in a series featuring Margaret Kerr.
The author showed skill at bringing the medieval world to life in the Owen Archer series, set in 14th-century England. She does it again in this new series set in 13th-century Scotland, when the Scots fought for independence. Margaret's husband disappears, his cousin is murdered, and Margaret travels to Edinburg, which teems with British soldiers, in order to find out what happened to them. Readers enter a medieval world of political intrigue and confused loyalties.
Cruel as the Grave
Sharon Kay Penman (Ballantine, 1999) Second in a series featuring Justin de Quincy.
Penman fails to draw the reader into the medieval world, perhaps because she doesn't treat religion seriously. The other series all show that belief in God was as natural as breathing air, and the characters in those series operate in a world clearly created and governed by Him. None of the major characters in Cruel as the Grave act as though God matters, and they are in and out of each other's beds as often as any character in Sex in the City.
During the late Middle Ages, before the dawning of the Renaissance, the plague swept across Europe, killing an estimated 1/3 to 1/2 of the continent's total population. The Hundred Years War between Britain and France dragged on, and even during periods of peace, armed bands roamed the countryside, looting and pillaging. Unsurprisingly, people seemed obsessed with death, as their art and literature attests. Many believed the events foretold in the book of Revelation were unfolding before their eyes. Historian John Aberth digs a little deeper into this period in From the Brink of Apocalypse (Rutledge, 2000). Using the first four horsemen of the Apocalypse (famine, plague, war, and death) as his template, and many primary sources as supports, he describes in great detail the main scourges of the Late Middle Ages. Mr. Aberth views the people of the Middle Ages as heroes who "wrested hope from despair" and paved the way for what would become the Renaissance: "If the Four Horsemen were destined to ride together upon the earth, perhaps at no other time were men and women better equipped to endure the ordeal; culturally and psychologically, they were imbued with the assumption that every thing appeared by design in accordance with the will of a beneficial God."

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