Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hildegard of Meaux: medieval mystery woman

Sometimes it seems like everybody and their mother is writing historical mystery fiction, but I've found an author and a heroine I'm definitely sticking with. It's British novelist Cassandra Clark and her Cistercian nun Hildegard of Meaux, the latter a denizen of the 14th century. Parliament of Spies is the fourth novel in the series, so happily I have some backtracking to do (as well as seeking out this book's sequel).
Clark creates an almost cinemagraphic evocation of time and place, with vividly drawn characters, convincingly authentic language, and scads of period detail. Why this hasn't been picked up for a PBS series, à la Cadfael, beats me. I concur with the Guardian's assessment that "Hildegard is an engaging protagonist, sensible, kindly, resourceful and believable."
After the death of her husband, a knight in the service of the young King Richard II (right), Hildegard enters the Cistercian order, one of the wealthiest in England due to its involvement in the European wool trade. Its abbots and prioresses were the advisers of kings and princes. There's plenty of material for Clark to mine in her series because the abundance of plotters and factions of the time would make one's head spin. As the Financial Times wrote, "Clark capably draws out the turmoil of rebellion and fealty boiling under Richard II's insecure reign." This page gives some great background on the series and its context.
Cistercian nuns; detail of Yates Thompson ms 11 f.6v, c.1290, British Library
In Parliament of Spies, the King is beset by his rapacious, power-hungry uncles; his wife, Blanche of Castile, is having trouble conceiving an heir; ominous rumblings continue from the House of Lancaster; and the French are threatening to invade by sea. Visiting London for the opening of Parliament along with the retinue of the Archbishop of York, Hildegard is drawn into a network of spies at Westminster, while a certain unwelcome person from her past rises dramatically from the dead. Even my beloved Geoffrey Chaucer makes a fleeting cameo! Plus, Hildegard makes guiltless, passionate love with a gorgeous Spaniard. What? A nun breaking her vows in such a flagrant fashion? How can this be?? You'll have to read the book to find out!
Tall, handsome, and intelligent, Richard cultivated art and culture at his court. In this manuscript illustration to his poem Troilus and Cressida, Chaucer is shown reading to the King and his courtiers (c1415, Unknown Artist. MS 61, fol 1v, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).
Need a handy reference for the reign of a particular British royal personage? Try this fully illustrated new arrival: The Kings and Queens of England by Ian Crofton. Below, a full view of the Yates Thomson manuscript page. These nuns definitely appear to have a great deal of agency in their order's affairs.

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