In anxious times, crime novels engage us and reassure us. Seems crazy, doesn’t it? A murderer is loose on the streets. We watch the sleuth(s), the more familiar the better, sort out the clues as they race against time to prevent more deaths. Although more people might fall, and the authorities might decide that the solution is inconvenient and choose to conceal the details with some vague palliative blather, the deaths are stopped, thanks to the sleuth. The community returns to “normal”, or very near—a new normal, or, as novelist Emily Wilson said “…creating a new, second-place vision for life after a terrible thing has taken first-choice hopes away. Justice can be part of that new hope, but it’s inherently a compromise. Justice is like a beautiful funeral: better than a terrible one, but the best would be not needing one at all.” [*] In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron cites a wealth of mind research to support her thesis that our brains crave stories because we learn via stories, trying out experiences to learn ways to cope with new challenges.[†] In a crime novel we follow the sleuth’s investigation, learning how we might do the same. We learn from their mistakes and their successes. We see how troubles might be resolved. We can even find comfort in realizing that everyone in a community has secrets, some more interesting or dangerous than others, but no one’s perfect. Even the familiarity of the regular ensemble of characters and settings in our favorite series is reassuring when calming down after a day of worries. All in all, it’s not such a crazy idea to pluck a crime novel off the shelf and curl up in our reading chair to read away the jitters.
As COVID-19 wormed its way into our lives I calmed myself before sleep by reading some of my favorite crime writers. For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I found them a comfort. Beginning in crisis, ending with order restored. To a degree. Donna Leon, Marty Wingate, Chris Nickson, Craig Johnson, Miranda James, Daphne du Maurier (suspense)… Some light, some a mix, some decidedly dark. Yet restorative. I have a good friend who once told me she wished I’d keep writing as Emma Campion because she could read those books; she can’t read my mysteries because they’re too scary. Time and again I’ve tried to explain to her why my novels about Joan of Kent and Alice Perrers are far scarier than my mysteries—Joan and Alice had so little control over their lives and I could do nothing to prevent their suffering. But she just couldn’t see it. Plenty do, thank goodness.
Of course, I have the added comfort of writing crime novels. I’m engaged in a new Owen Archer tale with some of my favorite characters, particularly Magda Digby. I find the plotting of crimes, followed by the investigation of a sleuth I love and trust, a curiously soothing endeavour. I know that Owen is determined to solve the crimes and that he will do everything in his power to do so.
It’s this commitment and deep sense of responsibility that pushes him to investigate. Compared with so many of the movers and shakers I read about in the news, Owen is an honorable, trustworthy person, a man who keeps his word and cares about others. I find him a reassuring companion in these troubled times. And Magda Digby, the Riverwoman…I would love to seek her out at her rock in the Ouse right about now to ask if I might just stay there under her care until COVID 19 spends itself.
How about you? What’s helping you cope?
(I hope one answer is reading A Choir of Crows! Out now!)
[†] Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Ten Speed Press 2012.
I’ll return to chat about my book and all things Owen Archer in my next post, but at the moment I want to bear witness to what is happening in the US and around the world in this month of June 2020. No preaching (I save that for my longsuffering friends). I’ll simply share a few items.
First, an thoughtful, savvy essay regarding both the pandemic and racism by M. Rambaran-Olm, “Black Death” Matters: A Modern Take on a Medieval Pandemic
Second, a powerful podcast from the PBS Newshour, ‘A very long, very loud existential scream.’
May we all be healthy, and live as one.
I am thrilled to announce that A Choir of Crows is the Severn House Editor’s Pick for May UK/July US!
As you know, the hardcover is released in the UK this weekend, and worldwide (in English) 2 July–the e-book as well. Here’s the link! If you prefer not to click on the link (though I love the illustration–all the crows surrounding the cover), here is the text:
A CHOIR OF CROWS is the twelfth intricately plotted historical mystery to feature detective protagonist Owen Archer, set in late 14th century York.
The action begins in the freezing December of 1374, with the great and the good about to descend on York for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as the new archbishop. When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster, and a flaxen-haired youth with the voice of an angel is found locked in the chapter house, Owen Archer, captain of the city bailiffs, is summoned to investigate.
Matters are further complicated with the arrival of an enigmatic figure from Owen’s past. Then a third body is fished out of the river – and Owen finds himself with three mysterious deaths to solve before the all-powerful Neville family arrives in York.
As well as being a gripping murder mystery which kept me guessing to the end, A CHOIR OF CROWS offers fascinating insights into day-to-day life during a particularly turbulent time in York’s richly colourful history, as the obscenely powerful aristocratic Percy and Neville families battled for advancement, and almost everyone in the city seemed to be a spy for one faction or another – with Owen Archer and his family caught slap-bang in the middle of the lethal power games being played out. This was a dangerous, plague-ridden world, where life was often harsh, brutish – and cut unexpectedly short. A world dominated by the all-powerful Church and its attendant politics. (I particularly liked the vivid evocation of a bustling, thriving York Minster in its medieval heyday, which forms the backdrop to so much of the action).
The author handles a large cast of characters with an admirable deftness and sureness of touch, and the satisfyingly complex plot, which demands close attention from its reader, provides rich rewards to those who read the novel with the attention it deserves. As always with Candace Robb’s mysteries, real historical figures mingle seamlessly with fictitious as weighty matters of state intrude upon the lives of Owen, his family and friends. This was a time when the Hundred Years War against the French was raging, and England’s great hope, King Edward III’s warrior son known as the Black Prince, was struck down by a mysterious and (as it turned out) fatal illness. As part of the central mystery plot, Robb offers an intriguing (and to me entirely plausible) theory as to the cause of this disease.
I would wholeheartedly recommend A CHOIR OF CROWS to readers of C J Sansom, Ellis Peters, Susanna Gregory and Paul Doherty.
Needless to say, I’m thrilled. If you’re searching for places to order the hardcover in the UK, do check your local bookshops to see whether they’re taking orders. If not, Waterstones.com and bookdepository.com appear to have it available.
I hope this finds you well. Stay safe, and escape into a good book!
First and foremost, may you be safe and healthy.
As spring deepens and the lengthening days are raucous with birdsong and bright with blossoms and tender leaves, I am at home tending the garden, moving shrubs, transplanting saplings nurtured over the past few years, pruning, weeding. A nesting pair of crows have been assisting me, pruning dead twigs from the crowns of a Japanese maple and a redbud outside my office windows. At first I gathered the twigs that fell to the ground and piled them where the couple might pick over them, but I soon understood that I’d been mistaken—the crows had judged them unacceptable. Now I thank them for the pruning assistance as I toss the discards in the yard waste bin. The crows know…
Speaking of crows… As book lovers, you may have heard about publishers deciding to hold back books due to be published as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, and you might be wondering what’s happening with the 12th Owen Archer mystery, A Choir of Crows.
I am delighted to announce that Severn House has decided we all need a dose of Owen, Lucie, Magda, Michaelo, and company sooner rather than later. Publication has been moved forward! The hardcover of A Choir of Crows will be available in the UK on 31 May, and both the hardcover and e-book will be available in the US and Canada on 2 July. I hope this news brightens your day.
I am aware that bookshops in the UK find it almost impossible to order new books, both brick and mortar and online bookshops, a complex situation that may or may not change by late May. At the moment the Book Depository and Waterstones online are accepting preorders. I will have a better idea when we’re closer to publication date and let you know what options might be available. I welcome you to keep me posted in comments regarding your attempts to preorder a copy. Together we can make this work for all of us—bookshops, publishers, and readers.
In the US, I’m teaming up with a local bookshop, Third Place Books, for what will almost certainly be an online launch in early July. Online will mean more of you can participate, or at least view it! Right now it’s available for preorder at Third Place Books and your local bookshop, as well as online.
More sweet news (for me)… I was delighted to see the Kate Clifford series on a New York Public Library list, 30 Historical Mystery Series to Get You Through Any Crisis: “Set in 15th century York, Kate Clifford is a young widow trying to get herself out of the debt left to her by her two-timing husband. Estranged from her family and raising the children of her husband’s dead mistress, Kate relies on her intelligence and intuition as well as her wily servants to get her out of trouble both political and murderous. Turns out York is a minefield of deceit, betrayal and murder. Well known for her Owen Archer series, Robb writes mysteries that are intricate, dense with historical detail and great characters that truly satisfy history and mystery lovers alike.” And The Apothecary Rose appeared on a list, 10 Great Medieval Mystery Books. I’m feeling the love.
Lastly, I am happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Severn House to write two additional Owen Archer novels! So when I’m not gardening or taking long walks I am working on Owen Archer #13, tentatively titled The Riverwoman’s Dragon. I am dedicating it to my dear friend Joyce Gibb who died on Christmas Eve. Beginning with A Gift of Sanctuary, Joyce was my sounding board on early drafts, reading chunks of the manuscript as I wrote, offering insights. I miss her more than I can say. Over the years she urged me to give Magda Digby a central role in a book, and this past autumn I decided that #13 would be the one. She cheered me on.
The book is set in late spring 1375 at the beginning of a plague summer. You can imagine my unease when the topic on which I settled in the autumn began to seem horribly current in winter. But letting fictional characters express my feelings is cathartic, and spending my days in the mind of Magda Digby is a joy.
Be safe! Be well!
I am delighted to expand on my brief review of The White Nuns: Cistercian Abbeys for Women in Medieval France (University of Pennsylvania Press 2008) by interviewing the author, Dr. Constance Hoffman Berman to celebrate Women’s History Month.
First, so that you need not page back, here’s my initial impression: The first three chapters upend all I thought I knew about Cistercian convents—i.e., that they were few and far between, poor, and badly managed. All wrong. Why? Here’s the jacket copy: “Modern studies of the religious reform movement of the central Middle Ages have often relied on contemporary accounts penned by Cistercian monks, who routinely exaggerated the importance of their own institutions while paying scant attention to the remarkable expansion of abbeys of Cistercian women. Yet by the end of the thirteenth century there were more houses of Cistercian nuns across Europe than of monks. [!] …[Berman] charts the stages in the nuns’ gradual acceptance by the abbots of the Cistercian Order’s General Chapter and describes the expansion of the nuns’ communities and their adaptation to a variety of economic circumstances in France and throughout Europe. While some sought contemplative lives of prayer, the ambition of many of these religious women was to serve the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Focusing in particular on Cistercian nuns’ abbeys founded between 1190 and 1250 in the northern French archdiocese of Sens, Berman reveals the frequency with which communities of Cistercian nuns were founded by rich and powerful women, including Queen Blanche of Castile, heiresses Countess Matilda of Courtenay and Countess Isabelle of Chartres, and esteemed ladies such as Agnes of Cressonessart. She shows how these founders and early patrons assisted early abbesses, nuns, and lay sister by using written documents to secure rights and create endowments, and it is on the records of their considerable economic achievements that she centers her analysis.” I love this book! The women are so remarkable and inspiring that it’s astonishing to me that they were almost forgotten. Fascinating reading.
Of course I wanted more, and Dr. Berman kindly obliged. Enjoy!
Q: What prompted this project?
A: At the time I began the work no one believed there were Cistercian nuns, but in order to show that there were I found myself querying a sacred narrative of the early Cistercians. I was attacked viciously for suggesting that institution evolved gradually and for asserting that problems were not resolved before they had occurred. That was paralyzing for a time, but I did not altogether lose sight of how much good material I had, and I did not lose sight of the fact that the story I wanted to tell was not a composite of various instances or anecdotes from different communities, but one in which I could present different sorts of founders, of abbeys, and of management styles by abbesses. I wanted to argue for the variety of foundations for Cistercian nuns and their economic practices, but also for the diversity of female founders and leaders of such abbeys throughout a substantial region that included growing cities and sparse wastelands. This was all very slow going. While my research could have resulted in a series of shorter books about single dioceses or the like, what would have been lost was the story of how these abbeys, particularly those in the vicinity of Paris had histories that were interlocked in some ways, but that also had carefully delineated zones of influence.
Q: Aside from the discovery of this lack in the literature, what struck you most in your research?
A: I’ve been most struck not just by how many abbeys of Cistercian nuns there were and how many of their records survive, but how much those documents shed light on secular women who had sufficient power and authority to be involved in these religious foundations at a time when the traditional narratives would tell us that neither monastic nor secular women had much influence. If those nuns were lost to history because someone else controlled the narrative, so were many of their female founders and supporters who exercised their access to property to encourage prayers for souls. If many of those women had no “power” or authority, they nonetheless used their access to property to exercise what a recent author has called “agency.” That’s important, even if you might think that medieval religious women are just a big bore. The nuns themselves resisted the depredations of monks and clerics, but also collaborated with secular women who remained outside the monastic enclosure because if they became religious women, their property rights would have been lost.
Q: In popular media nuns are too often depicted as unworldly, indeed a bit simple. Yet in your book and elsewhere in my research I’ve seen instead a wealth of evidence to the contrary. They are instead efficient and ambitious in their property acquirement and management. As were their female benefactors. What are some of your favorite examples of this?
A: Many of the women in this study had some tie to Blanche of Castile, Queen of France, but one who is less known, Blanche’s half-cousin Alice of Mâcon, who became the first abbess of Notre-Dame of Lys (1248-1259), Blanche’s second foundation for Cistercian nuns near Melun, east of Paris. and it was she who brought nuns from Maubuisson (Blanche’s first foundation) to establish Lys in 1248. (The jacket illustration is from le Lys.) Alice and her husband had sold her inheritance of the county of Macon to the King and after she was widowed in 1240 become a Cistercian nun at Maubuisson. She must have established many of the details of construction and provisioning at Lys in the 1240s when Blanche was preoccupied with her son’s Crusade and with taking over the regency. But surviving documentation from le Lys is sparse and has sometimes been misinterpreted with regard to the relationship between Blanche and her son. Details of acquisitions made by Alice in the 1250s survive only for the grange of Mâlay near Sens where Alice seems to have given particular attention to viticulture. In 1252 when Abbess Alice paid 194 livres tournois to Felix of Pontarlier and his wife Isabelle, for rights in a house, cellar and its appurtenances in the parish of Saint-Hilaire of Sens. That she was using livres tournois suggests that these funds were coming from the income from the sale of her county that she was still paid in that currency even after she became a nun. The urban property for storing wine, possibly before shipping it down-river to Paris was matched by properties acquired in 1253 at Mâlay itself when Alice paid 665 livres tournois to the bourgeois Peter of Châteauvieux of Sens and his wife Felicia for a house, barn, barnyard, vineyards and other rights in the censive and lordship of the Lord King at Mâlay-le-Roi. This village in the Vanne River valley east of Sens had already had a religious presence for some years, with a hospice or cell belonging earlier to the monks of Val-des-Choux. Until her death in 1259 Alice expended additional livres tournois for rights in the parish of Mâlay. Her managerial abilities in property acquisition were probably matched by her leadership of the community of nuns itself. Managerial activity further east, at Notre-Dame-des-Prés, near Troyes, is seen in viticultural acquisition is seen in a single year (1282) by that community’s Abbess Isabelle and her purchases paying a total of 62 livres at Chaumont, Moussey and Rivières. She is described as acting in these charters and sealing them with her seal, although a brother John, conversus, occasionally acted in her stead.
To the west of Paris, we see Matilda of Amboise, the daughter of one of Blanche’s cousins, Isabelle countess of Chartres, engaged in support of at least four communities of Cistercian nuns. Her mother had supported houses of Cistercian nuns at Lieu les- Romorantin and Eau-lez-Chartres and a smaller community near Tours on the Loire at Moncy. In the 1240s, Matilda of Amboise also had become associated with yet a fourth community of nuns that the abbey of the Cistercian nuns of Perray-aux-Nonnains to replace an earlier community of monks that had been founded there circa 1190. In 1249 Matilda of Amboise became the new countess when her mother Isabelle died. She confirmed to the nuns of Lieu their rights in the woods near the abbey and its great pond where they could make ditches to limit access, have rabbit warrens and rights to hunt small animals for feeding the sick, where the nuns could “guard, sell, give, uproot and reduce to agriculture.” This was to fund anniversaries for herself and for the souls of her father, Sulpice of Amboise, her mother, Isabelle of Chartres, and her husband Richard of Beaumont. The direct line died out with Matilda’s death in 1256 and so did the single-minded patronage that Cistercian nuns had received at these four houses from Isabelle and Matilda. Given that both of them had been heiresses in their own right, but without any direct heir after Matilda, they were able to be particularly beneficent patrons of Cistercian nuns for most of their careers. Perhaps here we see something about elderly women without surviving children.
Finally, three women associated with the abbey of Saint-Antoine-des-Champs located just outside the walls of Paris. Most striking is Blanche of Paciac, a bourgeoise and the daughter of Raoul of Paciac, citizen and possibly notary of Paris, and his wife Sedilia who made a donation to Saint-Antoine at the time of Blanche’s entrance as a nun at Saint-Antoine circa 1259/1260. In 1277 the properties purchased with the cash brought when Blanche entered the abbey were recorded by the abbess of Saint-Antoine and the abbot of Cîteaux in 1277: “In order that Blanche may be remembered perpetually and especially that after her death she be included in the prayers of the nuns serving the Lord at this house.” In 1259 just before she became a nun Blanche had given 400 livres parisis to Saint-Antoine; she gave an additional 1500 livres tournois in 1260. These funds allowed Saint-Antoine’s abbesses to consolidate rights at major rural centers at Aulnay, north of Paris, at Beaumont to the northeast and at Montreuil to the east of the city.
Property at Aulnay was given by Lady Agnes of Cressonessart, whose Cressonessart husband and son, and her brother Robert of Mauvoisin had been Crusaders who turned back from the Fourth Crusade and became leaders of the Albigensian Crusade. Lady Agnes made and facilitated others’ early gifts to Saint-Antoine at Aulnay and was clearly a leader of the early community of Saint-Antoine. Although she probably took the nuns’ habit in 1212, she never became abbess of that monastery. Instead she retreated to her own property to live out her life, establishing that half of that property’s produce would support her as a lifetime annuity and making a post-mortem gift of the whole to Saint-Antoine to pray for her soul and that of her two late husbands. Later acquisitions at Aulnay came from Blanche of Paciac’s funds as did some of those at the viticultural property east of Paris at Montreuil.
At Beaumont-sur-Oise half a century later, the entire estate at Champagnes was acquired in 1264 using the funds that had been brought by Blanche of Paciac. In that year the nuns paid 280 livres to the widow and children of the late owner, the knight Thibaut of Champagnes. The family retained some nearby property and in 1269 Saint-Antoine paid 74 livres to the eldest son, John and his wife, for six arpents and additional 50 livres an additional three arpents when their daughter entered the abbey. In 1284 this son was an executor for his late mother, who is described as “the late Jeanne of Faisiac, once wife of lord Thibaut of Champagnes, knight.” In 1267 she had used other property at Beaumont to establish with Saint-Antoine a life-rent for herself, describing herself as Lady Jeanne, widow of the late Lord and Knight Thibaut of Champagnes, and now wife of the Knight, Lord William Eschalez of Montreuil-sur-Vincennes (where the nuns had their third grange east of Paris). She transferred to Saint-Antoine all rights she still had at Champagnes in return for twenty livres paid quarterly. Like Lady Agnes of Cressonessart in 1212, Lady Jeanne of Faisiac or Champagnes in 1267 had established an annuity with the nuns of Saint-Antoine. Unlike Lady Agnes, who became a sister or nun of Saint-Antoine, Lady Jeanne had chosen to remarry. What is most striking is how far across Paris (from Beaumont to Montreuil) were the properties of first and then second husband.
Q: You’ve opened the floodgates for future research. How would you encourage scholars interested in pursuing this?
A: For those looking for models for further research, or just looking for better understanding of how the documents were gradually focused into this story, I offer references here to some of the tables that are included, which provide valuable evidence about management of property, record-keeping and recruiting. In Chapter 4, table 1: Voisins: Widows as Donors, ca, 1217-26, provides the argument for the foundation of a house of Cistercian nuns not by a single famous woman of power or her family, but by a coalition of widows, many of them widows of knights. Chapter 4, table 3: Port-Royal provides different examples of evidence from a censier or rent roll created by the nuns of Port-Royal; it lists rents owed by the nuns as well as rents paid to them. Chapter 5, table 6: Lieu-Notre-Dame, provides examples of many more lists of payments on newly reclaimed land. Extracts from an entire volume of accounts for Blanche of Castile’s foundation at Maubuisson are found in Chapter 6, tables 12 and 13, Maubuisson, while table 11: Maubuisson, provides a partial list of the contents of that volume. Chapter 7, table 19: Saint-Antoine provides lists of holdings purchased by Saint-Antoine using the monetary gifts from a single woman donor and entrant. Chapter 7, table 21: Saint-Antoine, provides a list of individual holdings that were part of a larger property west of Paris purchased by those nuns. Elsewhere tables for Saint-Antoine show the nuns of that abbey consolidating holdings both inside Paris and beyond, using sophisticated contracts called augmentations of rent, and recording losses in income after 1348. Appendix Four provides valuable documentation on the size of certain houses of nuns. Any of this might enrich an author’s or a reader’s understanding of medieval women and the considerable opportunities that could be enjoyed by many more of them than was once thought.
Thank you so much, Dr. Berman!