Murder and Mystery in Medieval Cambridge: Mistress of the Art of Death
Murder and Mystery in Medieval Cambridge:
Mistress of the Art of Death
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007
reviewed by Henry Edward Hardy
Mistress of the Art of Death (G. P. Putnam, 2007) is an engrossing yarn of skullduggery and forensic pathology in 12th-Century Cambridge, England. The protagonist is one Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar or “Dr. Trotula”, a physician and “doctor to the dead” from Salerno in the Kingdom of Sicily.
Adelia and her companions, Simon, a Jewish Italian “fixer” and Mansur, an Algerian eunuch, are sent on a mission by the King of Sicily to the aid of the Jews of Cambridge. This is not the Cambridge of the eponymous University. This is an earlier Cambridge, a prosperous merchant town with a small port, several Roman roads, a native wool industry and a Jewish quarter.
Adelia and her companions must redeem the Jews of Cambridge, who are interned in the local Royal Castle while under suspicion of murder and child crucifixion. She must gain the trust of the local people while investigating the awful murders and fending off the mostly unwelcome attentions of the local knights and crusaders.
The recreation of medieval life is serviceable, but as the author notes in an afterword there are a number of anachronisms. The town itself wasn’t known as “Cambridge” until hundreds of years after the time depicted. Nor would the term “doctor” have been used at that time for a physician or surgeon.
Trotula of Salerno was the reputed author of an authoritative text on women’s medicine, the Diseases of Women (Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum), also known as the Trotula Major. It is disappointing that Franklin did not acknowledge in the afterword, and odd that most reviewers have not noted, that the protagonist was based on the character of an historical author and scholar.
Mistress of the Art of Death starts with a curious sort of “over the shoulder” first person plural: “Here they come. From down the road we can hear harnesses jingling and see dust rising into the warm spring sky”. This seemed promising but likely to be a difficult conceit to carry throughout, and indeed the narrative soon assumes the more usual third person singular, only to return to the curious “we” form at the end. One suspects the heavy axe of an editor has been at work here to condense and commercialize what was probably once a bloodier, scarier, and less broadly accessible novel.
The character of Adelia presented here is that of a modern woman, scientific, irreligious, compassionate, egalitarian, and humanitarian. We don’t have the sense here that this “Dr. Trotula” would subscribe to the view presented in the Trotula Major that women are more susceptible to disease due to the “curse of Eve” resulting from the apple in the Garden of Eden. The character of the protagonist is being twisted to conform to a set of modern (or post-modern) sensibilities which would have been peculiar even to the enlightened Eleanor of Aquitaine or Empress Maud. When the book overreaches to appeal to modern sensibilities it produces a jarring effect which disturbs the “willing suspension of disbelief”
When Roger Picot, a knight of the Crusades and the erstwhile love interest, opines about what the crusades are achieving, the author is not talking only about the medieval crusades, but giving an allegory of the Iraq war: “They’re inspiring such a hatred amongst Arabs who used to hate each other that they’re combining the greatest force against Christianity the world has ever seen. It’s called Islam.”
Mistress of the Art of Death is particularly redolent of Ivanhoe, written by Sir Walter Scott and published in 1819. This novel chronicles the adventures of a young Saxon noble, Ivanhoe, in 12th century England. In Ivanhoe the essential dramatic conflict is the same as in Mistress of the Art of Death: Jews are accused of murder and witchcraft and held in the castle while the protagonist must solve the mystery while protecting the weak and innocent around themselves, as well as guarding their own reputation.
The character of King Henry Plantagenet in Mistress of the Art of Death is given sympathetic treatment as a democratically-minded monarch who falls prey to occasional carpet-chewing fits of madness. It is interesting to compare the more subtle and devious depiction of Henry in the play A Lion In Winter by James Goldman which was made into the sublime 1968 movie with Peter O’Toole as Henry and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Mistress of the Art of Death is a well-written and engaging book which offers a peephole into the goodness and depravity, enlightenment and ignorance of an imagined world of England, 900 years ago.
A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current.
Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy
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