Today’s guest post comes from medieval scholar and author, Bruce Holsinger. Bruce’s novel, A Burnable Book, went on sale this week and is set in Chaucer-era London where murder, betrayal, intrigue, and dangerous politics swirl around a book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book has received high-praise for its vivid portrayal of medieval life and colorful cast of characters which includes a few historical figures, ladies of the night, and even a transvestite. In the post below, Bruce shares where he drew inspiration for the women in A Burnable Book.
Worshipful Sir, and Our Most Intimate Friend,
Your muse finds herself in peril. Upon your return from Rome you will fondle not her supple skin but this rough parchment. Here on the banks of the Arno it will await you, just as my flesh awaits reunion with your own.
Those pleasures must be delayed, for in the morning I leave our Tuscan Eden for the coast. From there I shall arrange passage to that faraway island our histories call Albion, and you call home.
Thus begins a letter written by a mysterious, unnamed woman at the center of A Burnable Book, a historical thriller set largely in England during the final decades of the fourteenth century. Addressed to her lover, whose identity we discover only near the end of the novel, the letter tells a tragic story of love and loss, desire and denial, vengeance and brutality, all of it centering around the fate of a lost book of prophecies now circulating in the streets and alleys of London. But the tale this woman tells is also a story of triumph over circumstance and strength in adversity, aspects of her character shared by many historical women living in a society whose institutions, laws, and social conventions overwhelmingly favored men.
There are a great many strong, vibrant women depicted in A Burnable Book, beginning with two members of the English aristocracy who play key roles in the story’s unfolding. Katherine Swynford is the mistress and future wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and by this point in history (spring of 1385) had already borne the duke several illegitimate children. Joan, Countess of Kent (the “Fair Maid of Kent”), widow of the Black Prince and mother of the current king, is perhaps the most beloved woman in the realm, and her status allows her to work behind the scenes as the thriller reaches its climax. Both of these women lived long, rich, and influential lives in the age of Richard II, though it was quite a challenge to remain faithful to history while inventing the fictional roles I created for them in the novel.
Other women depicted in A Burnable Book are purely fictional, though no less challenging for that. Millicent Fonteyn is an independent woman of Cornhull, a former prostitute determined to escape a horrific past. Her sister Agnes works in the London sex trade as a “maudlyn,” a name that shows the close medieval association of Mary Magdalene with prostitution. There is also Joan Rugg, a bawd who runs a crew of maudlyns on Gropecunt Lane (a real location in medieval London); and, across the river in Southwark, Bess Waller, owner of a stewhouse along Rose Alley. Joan and Bess are businesswomen above all else, with an eye on coin and customers, and their cross-Thames competition for “jakes” (johns) and maudlyns is one of the minor subplots in this novel of urban vice and corruption.
All of the women characters in A Burnable Book are based closely on the writings of medieval women that have been recovered and studied by historians over the last ten to twenty years. One of the pleasures of writing the novel came in reading the wealth of myth-busting scholarship about medieval women’s lives: Alison Weir’s Mistress of the Monarchy (on Katherine Swynford), Ruth Mazo Karras’s Common Women (on prostitution in medieval England), and Caroline Barron and Anne Sutton’s collection Medieval London Widows, among many others. One recent and particularly fascinating strand of women’s history focuses on the lives of medieval “singlewomen,” a term found in English documents as early as the fourteenth century to refer to women who had not yet married or never would—often a surprisingly large percentage of the population in medieval Europe.
The result of all this work by academic historians has been to correct a number of enduring myths about medieval woman’s social roles, business interests, property ownership, and literacy. The writers of the mysterious letter quoted above is a (fictional) case in point. The daughter of a Castilian mercenary and an English gentlewoman, she is well traveled, reads and writes in more than one language, speaks several tongues fluently, has learned the craft of embroidery and the arts of the household, and draws on all these skills to—oops, sorry, no spoilers! But if she is an exceptional medieval woman she is also a typical one, writing and telling her own story in her own voice, with all the resources her life experience has provided her. I hope readers of A Burnable Book will find her story as absorbing to read as it was to write!
A Burnable Book is available wherever books are sold. Follow Bruce on Facebook to read an excerpt. If you are interested in hosting Bruce Holsinger for a virtual visit to your book club via Skype or FaceTime, please contact Janis Seftel at the Helen Heller Agency.