Saturday, July 18, 2009

Medieval Mysteries' Sins of Omission

Teaching science fiction and fantasy over the last couple of years, I've come to the conclusion that history is often depicted as a mystery to be solved: what really happened in the past? It's a way of thinking about the past that I can live with in the rest of my working life, too.

Recently, I've had the chance to read a couple of medieval mystery novels—not written in the middle ages, of course, but set during the period. One, Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, features a female doctor from Salerno, visiting England in the 1170s; the other, A Plague on Both Your Houses, by Susanna Gregory, is set in Cambridge in (as you might guess) 1348, and its protagonist is also a physician, teaching in one of the Cambridge colleges.

Strikingly, both main characters are presented more or less as models of good medical sense—from a modern perspective. The Cambridge doctor, for example, doesn't believe in the efficacy of bleeding patients with leeches, while the Salerno doctor sterilizes things in alcohol. Perhaps relatedly, both show little religious feeling, and the female doctor is decidedly atheistic. It seems clear that both doctors are supposed to serve as protagonists that modern readers can identify with or relate to—they are our tour guides, more or less like us, modern and atheist (or only superficially religious), and they show us around a kind of simplified medieval world.

It's that simplicity of the medieval world depicted that irritates me about these books. In both (perhaps with a single counter-example in each case), religious figures like monks, nuns, and priests are generally depicted as venial, corrupt, hypocritical, and bigoted. The main characters, of course, are models of tolerance: in the Franklin book, the narrative focus begins on a collaborative group of detective figures: single female doctor, married Jewish man, single Muslim eunuch--that's a set of traveling companions you don't see every day, but is it intended to suggest that the book will counter our prevailing assumptions and stereotypes of the medieval world? If so, narrative tolerance is not equally extended to the medieval Christians, I think. In the end, I think the tour guides are too much like us, and the world they show us around is little more than a caricature, with surprisingly little in the way of telling historical detail.

In the end, I can't help comparing these books to Ellis Peters's Cadfael series, where the protagonist was also medically oriented—but his Christianity and his faith was really an essential and defining aspect of his character, even as he broke the rules of the monastery at times. Maybe that's how I can best put my finger on what I'm getting at: Cadfael knows he sins sometimes, but that doesn't make him a hypocrite in the books, it only makes him human. And Cadfael sees others--even the guilty--through that kind of lens as well. These more recent medieval mysteries might have been better off, I think, if they could depict human sinfulness more as medieval folks probably thought about it and see that all-too-human middle ground between sinlessness and hypocrisy. But our tour guides don't seem to see things that way at all in these books.

And maybe that's why I didn't find the mystery in either book compelling: the crimes (and too many of the characters) just don't seem medieval to me, and the motives of the guilty parties just didn't seem historically relevant. These are mysteries set in the exotic locale of the middle ages, but I'm not sure they're really medieval mysteries.


Michael said...

I think you've hit on why I don't care for a lot of historical fiction, mystery or otherwise, these days: the modern sensibility is always so very present, as though today's readers are too stupid to understand a different world and its truths and prejudices and mores and ways. I liked the one Cadfael book I read, and I seem to remember that the one Steven Saylor Ancient Rome book I read was good as well, but now I don't even try.

Erica said...

Both Peters and Saylor were very good at creating characters that fit in with the morals and mindsets of their time -- at least, as well as I can judge ;)

I can handle a balance between modern sensibilities and historical accuracy in my recreational reading, but all too often it swings far over the line.

ej said...

I thought it was interesting how Franklin depicted nearly all of the Christians as crazy Jew-haters, frauds, or kind-hearted gluttons.

I guess that's how we understand the middle ages these days-a society tainted by its beliefs. No attempt to try to understand those beliefs.

Historiann said...

Great analysis, Tom. Why do authors always assume we have to "relate" to a character in order for hir to serve as a window into another world? (That big about sterilizing instruments is hi-larious, BTW. What a crock!) What I like about history is the mixture of the familiar with the weird and utterly foreign, and that these coexist without conflict (as you suggest in the character Cadfael.)

The tendencies you describe also reveal a curious sense of superiority about the present, as though we have it all figured out and can just stand back, point, and laugh at our idiotic predecessors. Anyone who has any true knowledge of history would be much more humble about displaying that kind of ill-informed self-satisfaction, I should think.