Bruce Holsinger can tell us, because he made up the term. The University of Virginia English professor created it to describe a written work in the Middle Ages that is politically subversive and could get the author in legal – or even deadly – trouble.
A Burnable Book is also the title of Holsinger’s new historical thriller, set in the 14th century, with Geoffrey Chaucer as one of the main characters – “medieval noir, you might call it,” he said in a recent interview.
Holsinger has garnered awards for his academic books, which include Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror and Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture. He’s also been writing fiction for about 15 years; he admits to being one of those people with a novel in the drawer. He doesn’t have to keep his fiction tucked away anymore, however.
Perseverance has paid off. “A Burnable Book,” his debut novel, resulted in a two-book contract. It began appearing on bookstore shelves last week, and favorable reviews are mounting.
Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, writing, “Holsinger delivers a first novel whose zest, breadth and color evoke ‘The Canterbury Tales’ … the intricate plot, sharp characterizations and sweeping depiction of medieval England make this a memorable fiction debut.”
“Holsinger is a graceful guide to the 14th century,” Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles wrote, “lacing his thriller with just the right seasoning of antique words and all the necessary historical detail without any of the fusty smell of a documentary.”
The story takes place in London and its suburbs, Southwark and Westminster; the year is 1385. Chaucer, who had yet to write the “Canterbury Tales,” works as a public servant for the English court and calls upon his friend, John Gower, to help him find a missing book of poems that contains a prophetic threat to young King Richard II’s life.
The people were real, as are many of the details and descriptions – it is historically accurate that Chaucer and Gower, also a poet who never achieved Chaucer’s fame, were friends – but the book of poems in question springs from Holsinger’s imagination.
The novel follows Gower as he tracks the mysterious manuscript from London alleys to the outskirts of the city to the royal court. Early on, it falls into the hands of prostitutes who are unable to read it, but are trying to sell it. Several subplots and themes are woven into the basic storyline, one of them being the friendship between Gower and Chaucer.
Holsinger said he wanted to explore their literary friendship, to imagine how it might have gone through shifting contours and difficulties, involving the shadowy sides of the two men. Gower doesn’t completely trust what Chaucer has told him – and not told him – about the book.
Being steeped in medieval literature and culture from his academic study influenced his desire to write fiction and use that time period, Holsinger said. “There’s a wealth of stories of such variety, and many different ways of telling them,” he said. “They speak to big themes – sin, jealousy, rivalry, love, difficult relationships. All kinds of wonderful, horrific things are in there, and modern storytelling derived from it.
“Some historical fiction glorifies the past and paints it in brighter hues – the ‘merry old England’ sort of thing – but I wanted to show the darker side,” he said. “Medieval people were every bit as complicated morally and ethically as people are today,” he said.
“Historical fiction allows you to tell big, sweeping stories about the past, yet forces you to ground these stories in the difficult intricacy of human relationships and rivalries,” Holsinger wrote in an essay for the HarperCollins crime-fiction blog, “Killer Reads.”
Writing fiction, he said, is so different from academic research and writing that they require using different parts of the brain. And as different as teaching is from writing, he likes to use “the power of storytelling” in his lectures, he said.
Holsinger seems able to switch easily from one mode to the other. Along with writing the novel – and now its sequel, which he hopes to finish this summer – he’s working on two academic projects. One of them explores the making and use of parchment and the other examines the role of liturgical culture in the history of literary and vernacular writing in the Middle Ages.
His writing and teaching topics came together last semester when he taught a massive open online course, or MOOC, on “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction,” described as “an introduction to the genre and craft of historical fiction.” He taught some of the genre’s classics and also invited five authors of historical fiction to lecture and interact with students via teleconference.
Holsinger also runs a blog entitled Burnable Books, where he talks about his writing and teaching. A recent article even notes that Chaucer had a party for the launch of his work, Troilus and Criseyde, which took place on March 6, 1386.
Source: University of Virginia