THE CLERKENWELL TALES by Peter Ackroyd

12 11 2013

Clerkenwell Tales cover

England 1399

1399 is the year in which Richard II of England was deposed and murdered, and the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, son of John o’ Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, seized the throne as Henry IV – an act which led directly to the Wars of the Roses the following century.

In this fascinating novel, we follow a plot by a group called “Dominus”, whose aim is to stir up unrest in the City of London by means of a series of murders and explosions in churches (things don’t change) and so make it unlikely that the people of London will rise in support of Richard.

The author’s arrangement of chapters, his way of telling the story, is strange and was – to me – a little off-putting, at least at first. Each chapter focuses on a different character – and the characters are nominally those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though they are not to be identified with them (as for instance the characters in Doherty’s An Ancient Evil areintended to be). For these are The Clerkenwell Tales, not The Canterbury Tales, and all the characters are linked by their association with the nunnery known as The House of Mary, in Clerkenwell.

So, each chapter is like a short story, the tale of that character (not, be in noted, a tale told by that character). But it works. The characters interact and chapter by chapter we become familiar with them all. Not only do we see the plot unfold and witness Richard’s downfall, but we are told so much about the lives of the many different people that we come to feel completely at home in the London of the turn of the century.

The main character, though, is Sister Clarice, a nun who prophesies: is she possessed, is she a witch, is she a heretic – or are the prophecies genuine?

Brank Mongorray opened the window of the nun’s chamber to enjoy the air of May. He was on the first floor, above a lead cistern of water which the birds used for their refreshment. John Duckling was crouched silently against it, so that he might hear any words that were spoken.

‘Did you hear the thrush this morning, Brank?’ It was the nun’s clear voice, known now by so many. ‘They say that if a man is sick of the jaundice and sees a yellow thrush, the man shall be cured and the bird shall die. Is that not too cruel?’

‘A man has an immortal soul. A bird does not.’

‘Who can be sure of that? Dieu est nostre chef, il nous garde et guye.’

Duckling had never heard her speak Anglo-Norman before; for some reason this seemed to him to be evidence of her duplicity. There was more conversation but the monk and nun had moved away from the window; Duckling could make out only occasional words until he heard her cry, ‘When will come the day of the Seven Sleepers?’ Then she called out, ‘Deus! cum Merlin dist sovent veritez en ses propheciez!’ These were marvellous strange words from a young nun: Merlin was no more than a devil worshipped by the little folk who lived in the moors and marshes. He could hear Brank Mongorray talking quietly to her. Could they be in league against the world of holiness?

If you enjoy good writing and a wealth of detail, read it.

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