Under the Greenwood Tree : Outlaws in Medieval England and modern medievalist crime novels
The Department of Literature, The University of Oslo, Cand. Philol. Degree, Spring Term (2007)
The genre of historical detective stories goes at least as far back as 1945, the year Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End was published. This murder mystery is set in ancient Egypt and was clearly inspired by the knowledge of ancient history and archaeology she acquired when she accompanied her archaeologist husband on his excavations in the Middle East. About a decade later Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series appeared, this time with Old China as a backdrop. Since then the genre has grown in popularity, and this is reflected in the increasing number of authors who now write historical murder mysteries. Today this field is represented by, among others, a former forensic scientist and a computer expert, as well as historians and ex-police officers. Within the sub-genre of medievalist crime novels, which is the subject of this thesis, there are currently at least 20 active writers. Ellis Peters’ A Morbid Taste for Bones was published in 1979 and she is for many the Grand Old Lady of the medievalist sub-genre.
Her series taking place in mid 12th century Shrewsbury featuring brother Cadfael, former crusader now turned monk, has even been serialized for television, starring Derek Jacobi as the main character. The novels reflect her love for her native town as well as her interest in local history, and many of her plots are based on real historical events. After her, an increasing number of authors have tried their hand in the field, with settings from most areas of England, and time periods ranging from the Early Middle Ages to the Reformation. The writers take their characters from different walks of life, monks and nuns, doctors, bailiffs, coroners and secret agents, to just mention a few.