Reading Medieval Mysteries: An Overview
If you approach medieval mysteries from reading experience with the much larger genre of mystery novels, you may be disappointed. Medieval mysteries aren’t just a subgenre in the realm of mysteries. They’re a specific hybrid of the historical novel and the mystery novel. The vast majority of the medieval mysteries written in English are set in medieval Europe, with a few set farther afield, in the Middle East or Asia, for part or all of the action.
Medieval mysteries are distinct from mysteries set in other historical periods because, of course, their settings are constrained by facts that we know about the medieval period. I count as medieval mysteries those taking place from about the 6th century to about the 15th century, or 500 CE to1500 CE. Within these dates there are some givens:
- Most people in medieval Europe are illiterate.
- Books must be copied by hand onto scraped sheepskins. The printing press has not yet arrived to make books cheap enough for distribution beyond a privileged few.
- Christianity is the official religion. Judaism and Islam are practiced by minorities. Atheists and agnostics certainly exist but are scarcely acknowledged.
- War in medieval Europe is a constant, including everything from skirmishes between neighboring principalities to major Crusades.
- Firearms are introduced in Europe only at the tail end of the medieval period, and even then are rare. Writers of medieval mysteries must use other means of murder.
- Although the ancient Roman Empire has collapsed, parts of the Roman infrastructure, such as roads, remain.
- People who are not aristocrats own very few pieces of clothing. This may seem inconsequential, but in a medieval mystery, the murderer may have to continue to wear the clothes worn during the murder.
I find a medieval mystery much more satisfying when the author follows certain conventions:
- The story draws on both the historical novel tradition and the mystery novel tradition. For example, in Ellis Peters’ mysteries, Brother Cadfael deals with interpersonal conflict at his monastery even as he solves a crime. Peters also includes characters with their own subplots, often involving thwarted love. In Kate Sedley’s mysteries, Roger the Chapman has a complicated marital history that’s woven into the plot as Roger stumbles upon murders. Mysteries that are stripped-down procedurals, even if they’re set in the Middle Ages, don’t hold my attention from page to page.
- The number of murders in the series as a whole is plausible. A medieval mystery author can accomplish this by having the sleuth(s) move around. In Edward Marston’s Domesday mysteries, the main characters travel throughout England on business for King William in the turbulent 11th century. The conflict between Anglo-Saxons and their recently arrived Norman conquerors produces credible crime.
- Medieval social beliefs are presented accurately. Europeans in the Middle Ages were mostly misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic. Having too many enlightened characters strains the realism with anachronism. That said, an author like Caroline Roe can create a major Jewish character who is the physician to a Christian bishop because Roe’s mysteries are set in fourteenth-century Spain, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side, mostly in peace.
- The language in the dialogue sounds authentic. The author of a medieval mystery has to tread carefully in writing dialogue. With too many medieval words, the reader gets lost. This is a problem with some of Pat McIntosh’s novels starring Gil Cunningham. However, an author who uses modern English exclusively in dialogue may lose some of the appealing foreignness of the medieval period. Finding the right level of archaism is a challenge. Readers may feel a connection to the speech of characters in medieval mysteries because Old English (500-1100 CE) and Middle English (1100-1500 CE) are the forerunners to our current form of English. However, this is not the period of Shakespeare, whom many modern readers can comprehend with the help of some glosses.
- Facts about the medieval period are correct and are woven into the storyline. Ellis Peters places her Brother Cadfael in the middle of a war for the English throne, and pulls in the battles seamlessly. But I’m going to fault a medieval mystery if, for example, the philosophical debates of the era are reduced to clichés, as in Sharan Newman’s treatment of Heloise and Abelard in her 12th-century mystery series.
Reviews of Medieval Mysteries
In the column to your right is some commentary on the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters, the first major medieval mysteries, published between 1977 and 1994. In addition, the Cedar Park Blog has occasional reviews of medieval mysteries. Several dozen multi-volume series, not to mention stand-alone titles, are in print or available at libraries. This fiction subgenre hybrid clearly has multitudes of followers! ~KC
The Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters
Ellis Peters (pen name for Edith Pargeter) sets the bar for all medieval mysteries, and she sets it very high indeed in her series of novels starring Brother Cadfael. The plots are captivating, and the medieval cultural context is effortless. Why does Peters succeed?
- The Welsh Cadfael lives in a Benedictine monastery in Shrewsbury, England --> all set for some England/Wales cross-border chicanery with a bilingual monk.
- The series takes place between 1137 and 1145, during the civil war in which King Stephen and Empress Maud fight for the throne --> built-in background conflict with marauding armies.
- Cadfael entered religious life in early middle age, after a career as a Crusader and then a sailor in the Middle East --> voila, a knowledge of herbs and medicine that would have been unusual in England and an approach to English justice that is tempered with practical international experience.
- Each book has a serious crime for Brother Cadfael and his sidekicks to unravel, but there are also plenty of love stories --> ahh, human interest to complement the puzzle-solving.
Thirteen of the novels were adapted, with reasonable faithfulness to the books, for British television between 1994 and 1998. Derek Jacobi starred as Brother Cadfael, to my mind capturing the character completely.
Though it's not essential, I recommend that you read the series in order:
- A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977)
- One Corpse Too Many (1979)
- Monk's Hood (1980)
- Saint Peter's Fair (1981)
- The Leper of Saint Giles (1981)
- The Virgin in the Ice (1982)
- The Sanctuary Sparrow (1983)
- The Devil's Novice (1983)
- Dead Man's Ransom (1984)
- The Pilgrim of Hate (1984)
- An Excellent Mystery (1985)
- The Raven in the Foregate (1986)
- The Rose Rent (1986)
- The Hermit of Eyton Forest (1987)
- The Confession of Brother Haluin (1988)
- The Heretic's Apprentice (1989)
- The Potter's Field (1989)
- The Summer of the Danes (1991)
- The Holy Thief (1992)
- Brother Cadfael's Penance (1994)
- Prequel: A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (1988)