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The Complicated Case of Medieval Crime Fiction

What makes the job of being a medieval detective so difficult, and also makes the medieval crime fiction genre so good?

By Anne McKendry

Medieval crime fiction is an intriguing form of contemporary medievalism, combining the enormously popular genre of crime fiction with the historical novel and the Middle Ages. It’s not necessarily a combination that generates bestsellers—with the notable exceptions of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Barry Unsworth’s Booker-nominated Morality Play—but close to two hundred authors have written novels that conform to the conventions of this unprepossessing subgenre and many of these continue to publish prolifically. The overwhelming majority of these narratives are set in medieval Europe: what is now the United Kingdom features heavily, with France and Italy the next most popular, while Ireland, Spain and Germany also appeal.

It is a strange mixture, if one stops to consider it: a novel featuring a “detective” set in a time several hundred years before detectives and police forces emerged in both fiction and fact. There were, of course, sheriffs, bailiffs, officers of the court, coroners, lawyers and gaolers in the medieval criminal justice system, of which the sheriff appears to be the closest to what today’s readers would recognise as a detective. But investigating crime was only a small part of the medieval sheriff’s role; they had much broader responsibilities as the most senior administrative officer in their counties, including collecting revenue, executing writs and carrying out military tasks.

Indeed, one of the striking aspects of today’s medieval crime fiction is that very few sheriffs feature as the main protagonists. They sometimes appear as the detective’s associate or invaluable assistant—as in the case of Hugh Beringar in Ellis Peters’ well-known Brother Cadfael series—but more often, they are the antagonist in the narrative, there to provoke or even impede the detective-character’s investigation. For novels that invoke the characteristics of hardboiled crime fiction, especially, the sheriff often represents the corrupt institutions that the lone detective, as the “hero of the mean streets” (to use Raymond Chandler’s memorable phrase), confronts throughout his or her quest for justice. Contemporary medievalism, apparently, still has not recovered from the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.

Despite this ostensible anachronism, the conventions of crime fiction are admirably suited to a novel set in the European Middle Ages. The hardboiled tropes just mentioned allow for Chandler’s “soiled knight” to traverse the “mean streets” of the Middle Ages, undertaking violent interrogations or apprehensions when necessary and, while inevitably solving particular crimes, this “knight” is also engaged in a seemingly hopeless fight against social and institutional malfeasance. These detectives include Bernard Knight’s Sir John de Wolfe, an ex-crusader now investigating crime as a newly appointed coroner in late-twelfth-century Exeter; prolific author P.C. Doherty’s Sir Hugh Corbett, who tackles criminal activity during the reign of Edward I; and Jeri Westerson’s delightful Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight who sets himself up as a “Tracker” on the dangerous streets of fourteenth-century London.

While nearly all of these “hardboiled” medieval detectives are characters that have secular occupations—coroner, bailiff, lawyer, bookmaker, doctor, etc.—there are a large number of characters who are members of religious orders. These include monks, priests, nuns, abbots, prioresses, as well as lapsed religieux who nevertheless retain a deep faith. These detectives face greater restraints than their secular counterparts, especially the women, confined as many of them are to monasteries, abbeys and priories. As such, the conventions of golden age or clue-puzzle crime fiction often suit these medieval landscapes: a confined geographical location, a limited number of suspects, a trail of evidence easily followed by both detective and reader. Probably the most famous of the religious detectives are Eco’s Franciscan monk William of Baskerville and Peters’ engaging Brother Cadfael. Popular female religious detectives include Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma, Margaret Frazer’s Dame Frevisse and Alys Clare’s Abbess Helewise. There are, of course, many, many others.

It is with these religious detectives that the underlying structural instability of medieval crime fiction is most clearly evident: a crime occurs in which divine or diabolical intervention is an accepted possibility, which is then investigated by a (post)modern literary detective whose purpose is to follow the laws of “ratiocination”—collecting the clues, followed by a logical interpretation of the evidence that will reveal the perpetrator of the crime. An angry saint seeking revenge by flinging arrows down from heaven, or a devil sent from hell to cause havoc, or a death explained as simply “God’s will” are all solutions that are excluded from the literary detective’s conventional narrative arc. Inevitably, the medieval detective (particularly if a member of a religious order) will have to exercise high-level diplomacy in order to navigate around such explanations not only to reveal the all-too-human perpetrator, but also to avoid accusations of heresy.

A favourite example of the rational contortions medieval detectives must perform opens my recent book that undertakes a critical survey of this little-studied genre. This scene is taken from Peters’ first novel featuring Brother Cadfael, A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977), and demonstrates the irony produced by inserting the modern literary character of the detective into a premodern landscape. In the mid-twelfth century, the monks of the Benedictine monastery in Shrewsbury have decided that the bones of their patron saint Winifred should be removed from her burial site across the border in Wales and placed as relics in their church. One of the local Welsh landowners objects to this translation and he is discovered dead, shot by an arrow. Prior Robert immediately claims that the man’s death signifies Saint Winifred’s approval of their undertaking: “‘Behold the saint’s vengeance! Did I not say her wrath would be wreaked upon all those who stood in the way of her desire? . . . Saint Winifred has shown her power and her displeasure’” (Peters, Morbid Taste 93-94). But one of the onlookers objects to Robert’s assessment:

‘I don’t believe it! . . . What, a gentle virgin saint, to take such vengeance on a good man? . . . If she had been so pitiless as to want to slay—and I do not believe it of her!—what need would she have of arrows and bows? Fire from heaven would have done her will just as well, and shown her power better. You are looking at a murdered man, Father Prior.’

Brother Cadfael agrees and diplomatically offers his own interpretation of the crime scene: “‘And the young man’s right. This arrow never was shot from heaven. Look at the angle of it, up from under his ribs into the heart. Out of the earth, rather! A man with a short bow, on his knee among the bushes? True, the ground slopes . . . ’”(you can find this exchange on pages 93-94 of Peters’ A Morbid Taste for Bones). Cadfael’s tacit acceptance of divine intervention is key here: he does not deny that Saint Winifred could strike down a man who had displeased her; she simply was not responsible in this particular case.

Medieval crime fiction abounds with examples such as this and one of the great pleasures for readers of these narratives is to observe how the detective avoids an overabundance of modern investigative techniques that may disrupt the carefully constructed medieval landscape. As a consequence of these and other characteristics, the genre reveals itself as a varied, complex and appealing form of contemporary medievalism that not only recreates the European Middle Ages with an affectionate and rigorous approach to historical authenticity, it also makes intriguing interventions into crime fiction more broadly. For example, the opportunity to escape from the scientific imperatives of contemporary crime drama. No CSI team assists Brother Cadfael in his collection of clues. This is, to my mind, one of the most compelling gifts that medievalism bestows upon crime fiction.

Anne McKendry is a research associate at the University of Melbourne. Her book, Medieval Crime Fiction: A Critical Overview (2019), is published by McFarland & Co.

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