AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE by Susanna Gregory

11 03 2017

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew’s shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
‘Matt!’ he gasped. ‘Come out of there!’
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew’s shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
‘What is it?’ breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. ‘It looks like a goat,’ he said.
‘A goat?’ whispered Michael, in disbelief. ‘What is a goat doing here?’
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat’s head nevertheless, atop a human body.

Like the last Matthew Bartholomew story I reviewed here (The Tarnished Challice – six years ago!) An Unholy Alliance is long, and slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse’s teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew’s sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on “Lady Matilde”, a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] ‘How may I help you?’ she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. ‘I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?’
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
‘We have come to give you some information,’ said Bartholomew quickly

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim’s foot.

This circle is the sign of a mysterious “guild”of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people’s helplessness and gullibility?

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.

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