I can’t compete with my writer friends’ achievements, but I can support them by reading and promoting their books.
This 2018 medieval mystery was written by my graduate school classmate at the University of Denver Joyce Tally Lionarons. Retired as a medieval professor and scholar at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, she now applies her talents to the detective genre. It’s clear from reading this book that she has not only done extensive research in medieval literature and language, but has also done her homework when it comes to the geography; the social, political, religious, and law enforcement structure; even the medical practices of thirteenth century York, where The Golden Crucifix is set. In addition, she brings to life a tangible sense of the street life at the time; the reader is immersed in the sights, smells, sounds, and the very tastes of the time and place.
Most literary scholars date the origin of the detective genre to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), but, of course, some find earlier examples of stories with similar characteristics. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detective_fiction)
The eighteenth century is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment period in Western history because of the rise of science and rationality as sources of knowledge, as opposed to folk traditions, superstition, religion, and anecdotal evidence. However, in the second half of that century the Gothic genre of literature, or tale of terror, rose in popularity. Poe, of course, is probably best known for his horror stories.
So, why the post-Enlightenment popularity of both Gothic and detective fiction? One theory is that it relates to the debate over human nature. Are we rational creatures for the most part, in a world subject to natural law, able to exercise reasonable control over ourselves and our environment, as Enlightenment thinkers would have it, or are we largely irrational creatures in a world governed by mysterious, supernatural forces beyond our control?
The Gothic plot usually begins with a protagonist in ordinary reality who encounters some kind of irrational phenomenon or experience that results in either death or madness or escape. Even if the protagonist escapes the irrational forces, however, they are not defeated and are just lying in wait for their next victim.
Keep in mind that the irrational forces can also be within the psyche of the protagonist him or herself, whether in the form of madness, uncontrollable impulses, or deliberate malice. This genre could be said to provide an outlet for our human fears of the unknown (including ourselves) or a reinforcement of those fears, or both. Thus the term “tale of terror”.
The detective story plot also usually begins with some kind of rational order that is disrupted by a crime, usually a murder, often violent. In this case, however, the detective comes to the rescue by applying close observation, physical evidence, witness testimony, logical analysis, and other investigative (similar to scientific) techniques of arriving at truth, solving the mystery, and restoring order. In this genre rationality triumphs, thus reassuring its readers that our rational nature can overcome the irrational forces in the world.
In the medieval world the rational and the irrational were understood in terms of a supernatural conflict between God’s ideal of a virtuous and orderly world, on the one hand, and Satan’s mission to destroy that world. Disorder and death come about because of evil represented by Satan and because of human sin. Redemption and salvation from evil come from adherence to the teachings of the Bible, the Church, and religious authorities, not from secular rationality.
The Golden Crucifix takes place in a world of filth in York, where the river Ouse is “a damp reek made up of decaying fish and the accumulated waste of the city.” The opening scenes introduce us to a world of lust and greed, in which traffickers in stolen goods are juxtaposed in the next scene with the wealth of the Church on display in a Twelfth Night procession. The treasures of the secular, in this case, criminal wealthy and those of the Church are surrounded by the filth of the streets, where prostitutes, pick-pockets, panhandlers and scrabbling poor freely range in a daily struggle for survival.
Such is the ordinary reality of that world, but there is some semblance of law enforcement, and when a prostitute is found murdered and the Golden Crucifix, a valuable article in the Church treasury goes missing, the local Coroner Matthew Cordwainer takes responsibility for solving both crimes along with other local authorities. Cordwainer is sixtyish, troubled by an arthritic hip, aided by a walking stick, and helped both at home and through the streets by a young manservant. He shows respect to both secular and religious leaders and gives lip service, at least, to religious observances. However, despite their sinful ways, he values the humanity of the prostitutes and is determined to bring the murderer to justice.
Later another prostitute, and then a local “madam” are found murdered. The Prioress of the nunnery is stalked and attacked, though she survives. Cordwainer navigates the world of the victims, the streets, the criminal traffickers, law enforcement, and the Church as he unravels the knots that tie the thefts, the murders, and the attack on the Prioress all together. He relies not only on observations, interrogations, and rational analysis, as in the typical detective story, but also on his knowledge and experience as long-time resident and Coroner in the city. As one comes to expect in detective stories, there are multiple suspects with means, motive and opportunity and it is Cordwainer’s dogged, persistent, methodical investigation that eventually untangles the knots and restores order, such as it is.
Full justice is another story as the Church has one jurisdiction, secular authorities another, and the methods of both interrogation and punishment in secular law enforcement fall far short of humane treatment.
The medieval mystery plays focused on Biblical stories and religious miracles, the mysteries of God’s world. While this supernatural world view provides the backdrop to The Golden Crucifix, the novel unfolds in an all too natural and mortal world, leaving us, as in the conventional detective story, with a reassuring sense of rationality overcoming crime. It also suggests, however, that in a world of human weakness, hostility, aggression, and lust for both power and pleasure, social disorder will endure. Thus, we are additionally left, as in the Gothic tale of terror, with a sense that malignant forces still lie in wait, though they may be more human than supernatural.
That is not to say there are no model citizens, and Cordwainer is one, but he seems to forever be hobbling through town with his bad hip trying to stay upright as he traverses the mud, the ice, animal droppings, and human filth that fill the streets.
Joyce Lionarons has published two additional Matthew Cordwainer medieval mysteries: Blood Libel and The White Rose. Enjoy!