Another medieval mystery in which a brothel is depicted as a nice place to live and work and a whoremistress as a good person to work for? But that it seems is how it was in the Old Priory Guesthouse, and if I had to work in such a place I would certainly choose the beautiful but very human Magdalene la Bâtarde to be my abbess/protectress.
One of the girls, Sabina, who is blind, has recently formed a permanent and exclusive relationship with a wealthy saddler, Master Mainard, and moved out of the Guesthouse. Their love blossomed from a strange and touching start when the hideously birthmarked Mainard found at last someone who was not repelled by his appearance, and the blind Sabina found someone for whom her handicap was something to be treasured rather than tolerated. But when Mainard’s wife is brutally murdered, Magdalene finds herself defending Mainard, whom she likes and trusts, and taking part in the ensuing investigation. Being a whore and thereforepersona non grata in polite society, she is obliged to call on one of her circle of admirers, Sir Bellamy of Itchen (“Bell”) for assistance. Bell talks to Sabina:
‘You know, Sabina, it is Mainard who had the best reasons to want her dead.’
‘And I,’ Sabina said stoutly. ‘I told you I wanted to kill her.’
‘Because you expected Master Mainard to marry you?’
‘Marry me?’ She turned her face toward him, astonishment showing in her voice and every line of her body, even though her eyes could not open in amazement. ‘Why would Mainard want to marry me? I was a whore.’
The mystery is standard – the victim a vicious woman, a devil, whom everyone is more than happy to see dead – but it is well-narrated and it is firmly set in its time, depending as it does on both Stephen and Matilda demanding people’s allegiance and accusing them of treason if they fail to give it.
Perhaps the wonderful thing about this book, though, is the description of life in the whorehouses of medieval Southwark, both the good ones and the appalling ones. Take this snippet as an example. Sir Bellamy has just intervened between a whore called Diot and her whoremaster, saving her from a vicious beating …
Before [Diot] could decide whether her fear of this “special” house was greater than her fear of angering a man powerful enough to cow the whoremaster, he was back with a most beautiful, elegantly dressed woman.
‘Good God, what is this?’ Magdalene asked, stopping short when she saw Diot.
‘Never mind the dirt,’ Bell said hastily. ‘It will wash away. More important, listen to her speak. I do not know what has befallen her, but if she did not begin in a gentleman’s Household, I will kiss her as she is.’
‘Others have not found it so great a sacrifice,’ Diot snapped.
Magdalene’s lips had parted to make a sharp comment to Bell, but she turned her eyes to the woman. The filthy rags and the bruises that could be seen through them had given the impression of an utterly broken creature, but the tart retort to a dominant male and the faultless accent in the Norman tongue started a new train of ideas.
‘You were beaten and cast out of your last place,’ Magdalene said. ‘For what?’
‘Doubtless for refusing to obey orders,’ Bell put in, when Diot hesitated. ‘I saved her another beating, or maybe worse, for refusing to servise the whoremaster and doing some damage to his private parts.’
‘It was a whoremistress did this to me,’ Diot said. ‘I had hoped she would be more understanding, but when I refused to eat a man’s dung, she had me beaten, took my clothing and my few farthings, and cast me out like this.’
Magdalene sighed. There was, of course, no way to guess whether the woman’s statement was true. It was certainly not impossible. And she had now seen through the dirt what Bell’s male eyes had more quickly discerned that the woman was beautiful.
‘It was that house on Dockside opposite Botolph’s Warf,’ Bell said.
Magdalene shrugged. ‘Well, you would not want to go back there in any case.’
‘Looking like this, only that kind of place will take me,’ Diot remarked bitterly.
‘Yes, that is true. Which is why I will offer you a bath and a decent gown.’
‘How much?’ Diot asked, her eyes suddenly brighter with eagerness.
‘For caritas. I am a woman and a whore also.’