Ellis Peters’ series of novels about the sleuthing monk Brother Cadfael began with A Morbid Taste For Bones in 1977. In the following decades, she would write a further nineteen novels about Cadfael, and a number of other writers would also adopt the idea of medieval detective fiction, with varying degrees of ambition and success. These days the historical mystery buff can choose from works featuring Owen Archer, Prioress Eleanor, Petroc of Auneford, Mathew Shardlake, and many others. From a brief survey of the genre, it’s a wonder that anyone noticed when the Black Death told hold, as the inhabitants of Britain had apparently been offing each other in industrial numbers right through the medieval era.
Most medieval mysteries retain the general conventions of detective fiction, and simply change the setting. The Brother Cadfael series, for example, would readily be recognised by anyone familiar with the “cozy” or “classic whodunnit” subgenre, even though it takes place in Shrewsbury during the twelfth century wars between King Stephen and the Empress Maud. The monk’s gentle scepticism, faith in human nature, and the meticulous examination of murdered bodies for physical clues to the crime, are all familiar from the mainstream of the detective novel tradition. The walls of the monastery provide often provide a convenient demarcation for the area within which a crime could have taken place, and the regular church services, with their accompanying bells, provide an unusually precise time structure for a culture which didn’t posses watches or timetables. There are obvious comparisons to be made here with the country houses and train timetables which are now regarded as such a hackneyed part of whodunnits. The hero himself, supported by his order, is freed from the necessity of working for a living which might otherwise take up all of his time, rather like Peter Wimsey and other leisured or aristocratic sleuths of the “golden age” whodunnits. These conveniences possibly suggest why a disproportionate number of the current crop of medieval sleuths have turned out to be clerical types.
Even when the historical genre becomes grittier and less “cozy”, it still maintains a recognisable shape. The world of Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake is very different from that of Brother Cadfael, with its corrupt churchmen, power politics and sadistic murders, but Shardlake would feel thoroughly at home in the company of Harry Bosch, Kay Scarpetta, or any number of modern American detectives. They still all believe in the application of evidence, personal integrity in the face of baffling evil, and the need for right to prevail.
Of course these statements can’t be generalised across the whole of historical mystery fiction. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost are both truly outstanding novels in both senses of the word, questioning the way we look at the world, and deconstructing the assumptions of detective fiction. However, in both cases the stories are “apocalyptic” – they leave little possibility for the investigating characters to repeat their activities in another novel. One of the key aspects of the classic detective novel is its “repeatability”, as detectives like Brother Cadfael and Matthew Shardlake, like their modern brethren, reappear in a succession of stories and apply their skills with reassuring success.
Placing modern-style detective stories in the medieval world, however, does more than provide a novel setting to cheer the jaded palate and instil a little historical knowledge along the way. It places, in the case of Brother Cadfael, a twentieth century template over twelfth century Shrewsbury. The conventions of the whodunnit are more than simply habits in telling a story, they are a way of interpreting the world. The people of twelfth century Shrewsbury, even the educated ones such as the monks, did not write mystery stories, and the texts which they did write, such as dream poems and the lives of saints, show a world which operates according to very different rules. By bringing medieval events under the conventions of the whodunnit, these novels assert not only that is the world like this, it has always been this way. Historical fiction has the power, if it is well-written and convincing enough, to persuade its audience that it embodies general truths about human nature, and to do so even more securely than novels set in modern times. Paradoxically, by setting its events back in history, a novel can persuade us that its truths are ahistorical, and even eternal.
To be more specific, we can recognise some very modern ways of thinking in the Brother Cadfael novels. His faith in caught threads and the direction of stab wounds, which might seem to us simple common sense, is closely related to a Newtonian view of the world which sees the world as operating according to mechanical rules, an the corollary that events can be traced backwards by paying attention to observed details. The frequent romance plots embody an assumption that it would be best if young people could marry out from motives of romantic love, and could be independent from their parents if necessary. No doubt young people have frequently taken this view throughout history, but it was not one of the principles upon which medieval social order was built. Despite being a monk, Cadfael has a very practical view of religion, firmly based on personal integrity, and not always requiring much intercession from a priest. His saint, St. Winifred, is an extremely docile one, who may be credited with “cures”, and possesses a dramatic legend in the distant past, but does nothing noticeable to interfere with the workings of the world. A good thing too, since Cadfael relies on the orderly and mechanical workings of the world for his detection to function. Indeed, St. Winifred is not even in the casket supposedly containing her bones in Shrewsbury Abbey, but far away in her native Wales. Cadfael, party to the benevolent conspiracy which left her there, reasons that if she wishes to exert miraculous power, she can do it as well from Wales as from Shrewsbury, which seems reasonable to modern novel readers, but surely would not to the hordes of pilgrims who flock to Shrewsbury in Cadfael novels such as The Holy Thief.
Pointing out these conventions is not a criticism of Peters: her novels are engaging, fun and well-written. Nor is it a demand that historical novels be more accurate and “true” to the worlds in which they are set, though novels, such as An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Name of the Rose, which attempt to come closer to medieval thinking, can be exhilarating and eye-opening. Pears and Eco are not being more “true”, they are being more persuasive, their apparent ability to slip inside the medieval (or Renaissance) mind at will is, like the character of Peters’ gently sceptical monk, an illusion based on novelistic technique and good research. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument suggests that it would be impossible to write a “true” medieval murder mystery, since medieval people did not write historical murder mysteries.
Indeed using the novel (a prose form descended from the works of the Greek Second Sophistic era, developed through the eighteenth century, brought to an extraordinary complexity in the nineteenth, and used as an art experiment in the early twentieth) to investigate the medieval world might seem an extraordinary activity. Never mind that the whodunnit is a specific branch of a specific branch of that form, with its apparent roots in Wilkie Collins and other Victorian novelists, and that the social conditions which enable the operations of the classical whodunnit sleuth didn’t even exist in the years before Collins. (Historical detective novelists can often be found twisting themselves into entertaining postures to engineer a situation in which their appointed sleuth can undertake activities like examining the body, interviewing witnesses, searching for clues and presenting their case to the authorities…) Peters’ novels are not attempts to “investigate” the medieval world, however, but expressions of a very modern way of dealing with human nature and human wickedness. By taking the conventions of the whodunnit and using them to explain the violent, cruel and chaotic world we see in our medieval past, we look for reassurance that our past makes sense, and that we are part of a comprehensible and enduring culture.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, September 2007