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Medieval Reads: The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L Sayers

By Gillian Polack

The Nine Tailors is a novel that led to me an early interest in the bell making of Loughborough and the bellringing of the Fens. When friends took me into the Fens for research for a novel, I was delighted to find a bellringing pillar in an old church. I looked at the carved notations on the pillar used by the bellringers and generally felt as if my world were cosy and comfortable. This is the Middle Ages Sayers brings us in The Nine Tailors.

I want to finish right there, as if that paragraph says it all.

In a way, it does. Novels that carry this particular cultural baggage have one critically different element for readers outside the United Kingdom. One of the aspects of detective novels we assume will be there for us and will make the tale more interesting is the setting. Books set in the United Kingdom, in particular, have a strong cultural call. Midsomer Murders is with us forever because of that cultural call. The emphasis is on the English and the Scottish much of the time, but it doesn’t only describe them. It rings out to all the English-speaking countries and from there echoes to the world.

Because I’m from Australia, I always think of this as bringing us snow in summer. When I was a child Christmas cards had snow on them. It was midsummer, but there was still snow. This is the England of classic detective tales. Miss Marple carries with her, throughout the world, a feeling of “This must be England.” Even when it isn’t. Even when it’s a fictional variety of culture that never was.

The Nine Tailors is a splendid example of how the Middle Ages is part of this, a single bell in a comforting historical peal.

So many elements of this novel link to the Middle Ages and yet, if you read it as a whodunit, it looks as if it’s contemporary for the time it was written. There are buildings from the past, but the rest of it… it’s all linked to the plot. Focus on the plot and the layers of meaning and culture in things that are linked are less visible.

This means I won’t focus on the plot and won’t even talk about who killed whom and why and when. I feel as if I’m betraying my mother, who loves detective novels, but I’m not. This is a different kind of detective work. We’re looking for how the Middle Ages in that small region of England that holds this detective story together. I didn’t go to East Anglia to see my church – I was in Cambridgeshire. The region is fenland, not a specific shire.

First, the social structure that Sayers gives has definite medieval links. This is because Sayers sets the novel in a rural village at a time of crisis and opens it with a lord and his manservant having car troubles. The fact that Lord Peter is Lord Peter and not a lawyer from London or a butcher from Bath sets up the whole novel in terms of hierarchy. This hierarchy is not the medieval one, for East Anglian society has changed considerably since the Middle Ages, but novels that set it up so that we can see the various layers from the top down (or, in other novels, from the bottom up) accept the memory of a social structure.

This acceptance of memory is partly because it accepts the importance of a landowning class, but also of the Church of England in underpinning that social structure, but that’s another story for another time. The links to the Church of England also ring back to the Middle Ages, however, because Fenchurch St Paul is a church town and the church at its heart is critical to events and is medieval.

The Nine Tailors is not a novel about the Middle Ages. It doesn’t even celebrate the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages is the period when the town was built and when the church was built and where the layers come from. In a peal of bells, it’s the deep one that holds the other notes together.

This is not an uncommon use of the Middle Ages in English novels that play with traditional society and have a hero from that society. The Middle Ages is the unquestioned heart. It’s a safe place that’s simply there, without causing problems. It’s more than colour, but less than plot.

Maybe, in The Nine Tailors, we can think of it as that pillar in the medieval church I visited in the fens, with the marks of the bellringers carved into it.

Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack

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