A PLAY OF KNAVES by Margaret Frazer

10 10 2018

The Third in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries

England, the spring of 1435 

He stopped at a gate into a ploughed field softly green with young shoots of grain. A lapwing was crying pee-wit from somewhere, but that was the only sound, and he bent and picked a small daisy out of the grass and chewed on its stalk for its sharp taste, leaning on the gate and gazing up at the White Horse on its hillside. Yesterday at this hour Medcote had been alive and now he wasn’t. That Medcote wasn’t a man to be mourned was beside the matter. Living and dying were a mystery deeper than any one man’s murder.
A man or woman lived and then they did not and mankind fumbled on its way and still there was the Horse, lifetimes old, in its flaring gallop across the hillside, its being a mystery among other mysteries.
Why had Medcote been such a curse toward everyone? […] Had he thought the power to make folk miserable was a greater power than to play fair with them? That was a mistake common to small-witted people – to think good was a weaker thing than evil. From all that Joliffe had see, evil – in both its greater ways and in such petty ones as bullying – was the weak man’s way, taking a fool’s pleasuer in his strength to destroy. To destroy was easy. To create was hard. And solid goodness to others was harder still, with maybe the hardest thing being to stand strong in the good against the anger and force of those who understood only ugliness and destruction. Against people like Medcote.
And like whoever had killed him.
Joliffe pushed back from the gate and went on toward the players’ camp, hungry for whatever was for dinner and ready to be away from his thoughts for a while.

In the third in this new series of books by Margaret Frazer, Master Bassett’s wandering players, now known as Lord Lovell’s Men, travel to the village of Ashewell, in the vale beneath the Uffington White Horse – to perform, but also to investigate, on behalf of Lady Lovell, an undercurrent of trouble in the area that no one has yet been able to put their finger on or do anything about.

And of course, among the players it is Dame Frevisse’s friend Joliffe who is the sleuth.

Three families, the Ashewells, the Medcotes and the Gosyns, are at loggerheads. An accidental killing by a young boy has never been forgiven ot forgotten. Now, in addition to that, young people are being forced into marriage with those they hate.

Then the first murder is committed – near the field where the players are camped. Of course, suspicion falls on them. To a lazy “crowner”, they would be convenient scapegoats. And while Joliffe is investigating, desperately trying to clear himself and the other players, a second murder occurs.

A little slow perhaps, sometimes, but that is not a problem when you enjoy the world and the company as much as I do these books. As always, her characters, both major and minor, are better than most, and the author’s in-depth knowledge of the period frequently leaves me with my mouth open. I am happy just to go on turning the pages, am always sorry when one of her books comes to an end.

But I want to quote a paragraph from the Author’s Note which I found very much to the point and in need of saying. By the late Middle Ages […] the feudal system still existed but no longer had the stranglehold on society that it had had even two hundred years before. Times do change. Think how different the lives we lead now are from those of two hundred years before our present time, and how different those times were from two hundred years before then. The Middle Ages were not a monolith that clunked down upon Europe with the fall of Rome and lasted like a solid, witless lump until the Renaissance arrived to Make Everything Better. There was change and growth, experiments in government and thought and religion that made the Renaissance possible.

 

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A PLAY OF DUX MORAUD by Margaret Frazer

3 10 2018

The Second in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries. England, 1434

He was on the curve of the stairs beyond sight of anyone at their head or foot when he met Mariena coming up. In the stone-walled narrowness he stepped as much aside as he could, flattening his back to the wall to let her pass. Though she had to turn sideways, too, there was room for her to pass without touching him but she did – and more than touched. She brushed her body, her breasts, and hips across his, for a moment paused with her fine-boned, beautiful face upturned to his, her lips slightly parted, inviting a kiss he might have given except that he was so startled he only stared at her in the instant before her gaze fell and she went on, with the slightest of smiles at the corner of her mouth and a sidelong look back at him from under her lowered lids before the curve of the stairs took her from sight.

Swallowing thickly, shaken by how easily she had raised him, he went uncomfortably downward, only to meet Sia on the last curve of the stairs. He would rather not have dealt with her just then and would have gone past when she stepped aside, out of his way, but she put out her arm, barring him from going down, and said, ‘She was waiting for you, you know.’

‘And so were you,’ Joliffe said lightly; and because Sia was almost as near to him as Mariena had been and her face was turned up to him the same way, he kissed her. The kiss turned into more than he had meant it to be, with Sia’s arms coming around his waist and her body leaning into his, pressing him back against the wall.

He was the first to break it off, but Sia, still leaning against him, smiled up into his face with a sigh of satisfaction. ‘There now,’ she said. ‘That’s better.’ 

This is the second in the series of books by Margaret Frazer in which Joliffe takes over from Dame Frevisse, and it follows straight on from A Play of Isaac. The players – now Lord Lovell’s Players – are sent by their new patron to entertain the guests at the wedding of Sir Edward Deneby’s daughter Mariena. A wedding gift.

But there is more to it than that. Mariena’s previous fiancé had died in what may well have been suspicious circumstances, and Lord Lovell for one is suspicious enough to want to know more. So he commissions Joliffe, whose powers of observation and deduction he has come to respect, to see if all is as well beneath the surface as appearances may lead one to believe.

I like these Joliffe books very much. I prefer them to her other, Dame Frevisse, novels. Not only are they well-written and beautifully constructed (as are the Dame Frevisse novels, of course) but it is a sexy story, which the Frevisse stories definitely are not. Margaret Frazer seemed to find Joliffe liberating. Is it just that things happen to him that would never – could never – happen to Dame Frevisse?

Mariena, Sia tells him, ‘heats men to where they don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Never satisfies them, just heats them. They’re easy to have then […] These past few years, while she’s had suitors here now and again, some of us have gathered a pretty lot of coins helping them ease their longings. If you know what I mean.’

He’d have to be both gelded and stupid not to know what she meant and he said, smiling, ‘I’m no wealthy suitor come to woo. I’ve no coins to give you.’

‘You’re fair-bodied enough with a face I don’t mind kissing’ – Sia slipped free of his hands, came close, and kissed him again to prove it – ‘that I’ll have you for my own pleasure and no need for coins.’

Enough was enough – ‘ [When Dame Frevisse had decided enough was enough, that was it. This, however, continues] and he’d not had nearly enough. ‘Where?’ he asked. ‘And when?’ Since here and now clearly did not suit.

‘Tonight after supper. There’s a loft above the cow-byre. Behind the stables. Can you find it?’

Or is it that identifying with her virile male hero, she sees the world quite differently. Suddenly the women are all sex-objects.

Joliffe is great, and I love the detailed background of medieval drama and stagecraft and the lives of the players.





A PLAY OF ISAAC by Margaret Frazer

1 10 2018

It’s been a while since I posted here – personal stuff and travelling, and recently putting the finishing touches to my own historical novel – the first! More about that very soon!

Meanwhile, as well as several brand new indie books I downloaded, I’ve been rereading Margaret Frazer’s Joliffe novels. The late Margaret Frazer, I should say, for she passed away in 2013, and has been and will continue to be much missed. I reviewed all her earlier Dame Frevisse novels as they came out for MedievalMysteries.com. (which sadly is no longer with us in this universe either, though perhaps it is flourishing in some parallel universe!) but not the Joliffe stories.

Joliffe was a character who had appeared occasionally in the Dame Frevisse novels, and took over in a new series as the lead, the sleuth. For this, Margaret Frazer took us back in time from the mid-1440s, the date Dame Frevisse had reached by then, to 1434, soon after the events in The Servant’s Tale, the Dame Frevisse novel in which Joliffe made his first appearance.

The First in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries

England, 1434

‘It’s not turned out so ill for you, though, has it?’
‘It hasn’t, true enough. But you?’
Penteney’s doubt was plain but Basset’s answer was unhesitant. ‘As far as any man is likely to get what he wants in this world, I’ve the life I want, no fear. And even if I didn’t,’ he added jestingly, ‘it’s a better life than the one I might have had if we hadn’t paid our price.’
‘Longer, at any rate,’ Penteney returned, matching the jest, but with something more than jest behind it.
‘Something less than jest was in Basset’s voice, too, as he asked, ‘And Roger? Do you ever hear aught of him? Or from him?’
There was silence then, making Joliffe wish for more than starlight by which to see Penteney’s face before he answered, ‘I’ve never seen him since, but I hear from him once a year. Sometimes twice. He’s well. He’s … doing well.’
‘And best not spoken of,’ Basset said.
‘Best not,’ Penteney agreed. ‘Basset, come inside. I’ve wine in my study. Let’s risk the time to talk …’
‘It’s not worth the risk, Hal. Even this is more than we should.’
‘But you’re well,’ Penteney insisted. ‘You can assure me of that?’
‘As well in my way as you are in yours. I swear it.’
Not knowing how long they would talk and afraid it would not be much longer, given their unease at it, Joliffe slid silently away along the wall. Given one thing and another, he thought he would rather be in his bed and seemingly asleep when Basset next saw him than be caught here listening.

Joliffe and the small company of players of which he is a member are in Oxford to perform The Play of Abraham and Isaac during the Corpus Christi celebrations. And of course they are delighted when a stage-struck “Eden-child” refuses to be parted from them.

But by then Joliffe had taken a clear look at the stocky, undergrown, widely smiling man in the doorway and somewhat eased out of his readiness for trouble. He had rarely seen one of that fellow’s kind grown to man-size because they mostly died young, but there was no mistaking their soft-fleshed slant-eyed faces. Eden children they were sometimes called, and children they stayed in most ways, no matter how long they lived, and there was rarely any harm in them …

This is Lewis, Master Fairfield, and when he refuses to leave them the Players are invited by his “keepers” to spend the next few days at his home, a large house on the outskirts of the city – not in the house itself – they are, after all, merely players – but a large barn is put at their disposal. They of course are delighted.

Then the mysteries begin. Why is Lewis, the Eden-child, heir to the family fortunes rather than his far more suitable brother Simon? What is the dangerous secret linking their host with the playmaster, Tom Bassett? And who is the dead man whose body is dumped outside  the barn door that night?

The first time I read this book, I was hooked. I knew at once that I would go on to read the whole series as it came out, book by book. This second time was even better in some ways.

Tomorrow I’ll do a post on the second in the series, A Play of Dux Moraud.





THE GLEEMAIDEN by Sylvian Hamilton

23 07 2018

The Third of the Sir Richard Straccan books

England, 1211

Père Raimond … She missed him as she would a limb. For nine years he had been her teacher and her father both, and she could barely remember the time before that. Her life had begun on the day he bought her.
Raimond de Sorules paid one Paris lire for the starveling urchin. He’d heard her singing in the market place, seen her scrabbling in the kennel for the rotten fruit thrown at her by those who thought it funny, and he followed her home. The mother was only too willing to be rid of her.
He scrubbed her in the horse trough at his inn. When he’d got the dirt off, most of it, washed her matted hair and de-loused her, he stood the small trembling body on a barrel and walked around it with a critrical eye, frowning at the raw weals on her knobby back and the bruises and bug-bites on her shins, ribs and arms.
The stable man sold him a pot of smelly salve. It stung, and tears rolled down her face, although she made no sound. He put one of his own shirts on her, far too big, but it would do for the time being. A length of twine served to girdle it so she wouldn’t trip on the hem, and the inn-keeper’s wife, sorry for the big-eyed waif, plaited her hair in one long, thick braid and tied it with a twist of wool.
That night she ate her fill for the first time in all her seven years.
He made a nest of pillows for her in his bed. Seeing the stark terror in her eyes, he set the great hard bolster firmly between them, but she didn’t sleep. Nor did he, and all that night, in the darkness, he could feel her desperate stare.

Sylvian Hamilton is a wonder with opening lines. This new book begins:

Countess Judith kept her husband’s head in a box. At night it perched on a pillow by her side, at meals it sat on the board by her plate …

Of course the head goes missing and later comes quite by chance into the possession of Sir Richard Straccan, hero of The Bone-Pedlar and The Pendragon Banner, dealer in sacred relics during the period known as the Interdict, when the whole of England was placed under interdict and no religious ceremony of any kind was permitted to take place.

Inside the splendid, cross-shaped church [Waltham Abbey] the miraculous Black Rood hung over the west door, veiled now, of course, because of the Interdict. None in all England might gaze on the crucified Christ while its king persisted in his wicked flouting of the Pope.

Not that the head of Lord Joceran, Countess Judith’s husband, was a sacred relic – far from it.

In The Gleemaiden, Straccan sets out to escort an enormous bell from London (where no bells may ring because of the interdict) to the Abbey at Coldinghame, in Scotland (where they are in need of a bell and no interdict exists), but finds himself also excorting the beautiful Roslyn de Sorules, the gleemaiden of the title and her charge, a seven-year-old boy named David; Roslyn and David are refugees from the iniquitous Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France and are even now, in England, being pursued by three knights of the horrifying White Brotherhood, a company of fanatical heretic-hunters used by the Church to track down and eliminate “extreme cases”.

In the background are Gilla, Braccan’s daughter, and Janiva, the healer and wise woman with whom Straccan fell in love during his previous adventure (as readers of the first book will remember), and the spy, Larktwist also makes a welcome reappearance and plays a large role in ths book.

Larktwist sniffed. ‘What about money?’
Mercredi pushed a purse across the table, and Larktwist secreted it somewhere among his tatters, scratching as he felt the migration of a tribe of lice from armpit to groin.
Mercredi frowned. ‘Locksey’s a small place; you can’t pass as a beggar there, and they’ll drive lepers out, so get yourself cleaned up. Look respectable – if you can.’
‘Course I can,’ said Larktwist, affronted. He knew how to mix with nobs, if the need arose. He hitched his rags about himself with dignity and turned to leave. ‘Trust me.’
‘A touch of refinement wouldn’t go amiss.’
‘You want refinement? Easy! I’ll be as refined as a nun.’
As he reached the door, Mercredi said, ‘And Larktwist …’
‘Yes?’
‘Stick to him.’
‘Oh, I will, sir. Like shit to a blanket.’

Another great read, with many memorable scenes, such as the description of one small part of the slaughter that took place during the Albigensian Crusade, and a host of memorable medieval characters.





THE PENDRAGON BANNER by Sylvian Hamilton

22 07 2018

The second of the Richard Straccan books

England, 1210

‘Father?’
He sat up in bed. ‘Gilla?’
She had brought a candle; it lit her face and bright hair, edging them with gold as she stood at his bedchamber door.
‘What is it? Are you sick?’
‘No. Can I come in?’
‘Come here.’
She set the candle on the aumbrey and scrambled up onto his bed, tucking her bare feet under her. He reached to grasp one small slender foot and found it cold as stone.
‘Where are your shoes?’ he asked, wrapping the coverlid round her.
‘I forgot them. Father, I think I can find Janiva.’
‘What? How?’
‘I can scry for her.’
He drew in a long, long breath and let it slowly out. She could do that; it was an ability she shared with Janiva. Last year, when Gilla was kidnapped, the witch Julitta de Beauris had sensed that power in her and forced her to use it against her will. Later, Janiva had taught her how to manage the gift, if gift it was.
Uneasily Straccan said, ‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’
‘I can do it.’
‘Now?’
‘Yes. It’s easier when everything’s quiet.’
He reached for his bedgown and wrapped himself in it. ‘You need a bowl of water.’
‘No, it works better for me with the candle. I just look at the flame.’
She sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed, and he watched her as she watched the flame. ‘Janiva,’ she whispered, ‘Janiva, where are you?’

Sir Richard Straccan, hero of The Bone-Pedlar, continues his adventures as a dealer in sacred relics during the period known as the Interdict, when (King John having fallen out with the Pope) the whole of England was placed under interdict and no religious ceremony of any kind was permitted to take place.

This time, the King sets Straccan to find a banner woven by Queen Guinevere and carried into battle by King Arthur, a banner reputed to contain, sewn up inside it, the napkin used to wipe blood from the face of Christ during the agony in the garden of Gethsemane. His antagonist is the brutal Lord William of Breos, who wants the banner (said to guarantee victory in battle) for his own sinister purposes.

Meanwhile, Janiva, the healer and wise woman with whom Straccan fell in love during his previous adventure (as readers of the first book will remember) is accused of committing murder by means of witchcraft:

‘In malice, she also sought to kill you, my lady, and your child …’
From the bosom of his tunic he drew something wrapped in a rag and threw it down on the board. ‘There’s proof.’
Richildis reached and picked it up. The rag fell away. Something dark, dry and shrivelled, something that seemed to have arms and legs and perhaps a head, like a small mummified monkey, rolled onto the board.

And Julitta, the wicked witch, sometime mistress of King John himself and now mistress of William de Breos, is up to all her old tricks again – including child-sacrifice.

This book is as wonderfully readable and as crammed with eccentric characters and vivid medieval detail as the first one was (a wise woman/healer arrested and accused of witchcraft; lepers, including one who was once a bishop; two quite different kinds of hermit; and a man who has lost his memory and is accused of murder – the corpse is brought into the court to testify). My only complaint is that the Prologue, in which we are present at the death of Guinevere hundreds of years earlier, is so well-written that we want (or at least, I wanted) that story to go on. The Prologue read more like an introduction to the life of Guinevere. After that, it was an anti-climax to find myself back in the fourteenth century with Sir Richard: the fourteenth century had suddenly become reality, the sixth the exotic escapist dream.





THE BONE-PEDLAR by Sylvian Hamilton

22 07 2018

This is the first of three posts reviewing the three books written by the late Sylvian Hamilton who, with this, her first book, immediately became a great favourite of mine. Unfortunately, these three, the Richard Straccan books, are all we shall ever have.

(I wrote these reviews some years ago but find they are not included on this site, so here they are. All three stories are very highly recommended.)

England, 1209

‘[Until] a week ago I would have said I had no enemies! I’m a quiet man. I live peacefully. I go about my business honestly. I don’t mess with the supernatural.’
‘You trade in it.’
‘What?’
‘Of course you do. Relics. What are they, if not supernatural?’
‘They’re not sorcery!’
‘They’re power,’ she said flatly. ‘Power can be used for good or ill.’
‘Relics are good,’ he said angrily. ‘They heal.’
‘They can harm, too. I’ve heard of relics that struck down thieves, paralysed evil-doers and smote blasphemers dumb, liars blind, oath-breakers dead. Power works both ways. You trade in the uncanny, Sir Richard, and you deal with powerful folk. Among them is one at least who seeks your harm.’

In the crypt of the Abbey Church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their Bishop,” must be one of the best opening-lines ever. And hard, you would think, to follow.

The story is set in the reign of bad King John, during the period known as the Interdict, when (the King having fallen out with the Pope) the whole of England was placed under interdict and no religious ceremony of any kind was permitted to take place.

It is as though we are there:

We see the poverty of the priests (they can perform no ceremonies, remember, no marriages, nothing – not even funerals: the dead are piling up!), and the desperation of the monks and nuns – unless, that is, they happen to possess an important relic, in which case of course pilgrims come to the abbey to see, pray at, kiss, the sacred object, and pay for the privilege. And the monks will do anything to obtain such a relic.

We meet a spy who dresses as a beggar, maggots, stench and all, mingles with the crowd in a crypt with a spring of holy water, is caught and thrown out – and becomes for a while one of Straccan’s team; a wandering monk with nine “loonies” in tow, taking them on a lifelong pilgrimage from shrine to shrine; abjurers, forced to live between the high and low tide lines, desperately trying to get on board any vessel departing the country. What is an abjurer? She does not explain. She shows us glimpses (often wonderful cameo-scenes) of England at the time, but she does not lecture us.

In fact, Abjuration of the Realm was an oath taken to leave the land for ever. By taking this oath, one could avoid penalties such as mutilation or even death, though abjurers who did not have the means to travel abroad – Britain being an island – died on the wet sand between the tide-lines of starvation and exposure.

There are three very believable sorcerers. Two are evil: a depraved Scottish nobleman not above sacrificing children (he kidnaps Straccan’s daughter), and his accomplice, an ancient desert Arab the nobleman had picked up on his travels. The third is a Templar, also with a background in the Middle East, whose knowledge of the magic arts has got him into trouble with his Order, but who uses it to oppose the two evil sorcerers.

There are two witches, both young, both beautiful, one good the other bad: (Straccan falls in love with the former, in lust – has he really been bespelled? –  with the latter). There is a saint in the making, a genuine saint. There is the King, parsimonious John, who turns out to be one of the most relaxed and amusing characters in the book.

And there is our hero himself, Sir Richard Straccan, ex-Crusader who now deals in relics – “authentic” relics, not the cheap fakes sold for coppers at every street corner. These relics, which are extremely valuable, are usually the body parts of saints. Such objects as a kneecap of St Peter, three hairs of St Edmund, and the Holy Foreskin are mentioned, as well as an ear – the ear of St Marcellinus:

‘Can’t find it. Haven’t had an ear before, have we?’ Peter turned over several small boxes, pouches, bundles. ‘No. Oh, is this it?’ He held up what looked like a withered blackened folded scrap of leather. ‘I suppose it might be an ear.’ Both men looked doubtfully at it. ‘Who was Marcellinus, anyway?’

Straccan consulted his list. ‘It says here, an early blessed martyr. Let’s have a look.’ He turned the darkened scrap over in his fingers, sniffed it, shrugged and handed it back. ‘Keep it dry. It’ll start to smell if the damp gets at it.’

One relic that keeps cropping up is the finger of St Thomas, which Straccan has been commissioned to obtain for a wealthy patron. Little does he know that the finger is needed to make up the sum of eleven relics (of the eleven good disciples of Jesus) that the Scottish sorcerer will need to protect himself when he sacrifices Straccan’s daughter in his attempt to call a devil from Hell.

An unforgettable start to a great series.





GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD by Michael Chabon

8 07 2018

Two “gentlemen of the road”, vagrant warrior/mercenaries with their trusty swords and horses – almost knights errant, almost Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, but equals in most ways, and both essentially con-men. They have to be in order to survive.

One – Amram – is a gigantic African who, it transpires, set out years ago in quest of his daughter, taken by raiders. He never found her, and is no longer really looking. But he cannot go home without her.

The other, Zelikman, is a Jew – a Jew with a sword.The author seems to find this paradoxical, I am not sure why.

Perhaps it is the self-image of the New York Jew – the wise-cracking cowardly comedian at one extreme, the awe-inspiring pacifism of The Last of the Just at the other. But in fact, since Abraham fought Chedorlaomer and his allies more than three millennia ago, and Joshua and David among many other generals and kings conquered the land of Canaan and much of the surrounding area, and centuries later they fought back against the all-conquering Assyrians and Babylonians and were deported from their land to Babylon (where, finally, they sat down and wept), and centuries later again Jewish freedom-fighters like Judas Maccabeus and Simon bar-Kochba caused the Seleucid and Roman Empires so much trouble that the whole might of the empire had to be sent against them not once but repeatedly and finally the city of Jerusalem razed to the ground and the inhabitants of Israel and Judah – again! – deported en masse, and this time dispersed to the four corners of the earth.

This is not a passive people.

Then, for many, many years, they had no homeland, they were no longer a “nation” as such, but a religion, a culture, an ethnic minority (“race”) that kept themselves separate here, there and everywhere.

Our second hero, Zelikman, then, comes of one such community in France. Everywhere he travels he is thought of as and referred to as a Frank;  but back home in France, to the Franks he is a foreigner. He is also a physician, the last in a long line of physicians, and the first, it seems, who has not stayed at home and practised as one.

Then they rescue and, having rescued, take on the burden of helping, a fugitive prince, the rest of whose family have all been murdered in a bloody coup d’état. How could Zelikman say “No” when he learnt that this was the heir to the Jewish Kingdom – yes, Jewish Kingdom! – of the Khazars. All right, Amram is at first reluctant to get involved in “politics”, but for some strange reason he finds himself growing very fond of the efeminate and infuriating young prince.

Something very different, then, from the usual medieval whodunit or romance, and very strongly recommended.