Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger begins with a young woman shoving a book to the maudlyn Agnes, hidden in a copse in the Moorfields outside London gate. Only seconds later, Agnes witnesses the woman’s torture and murder by a man who keeps demanding, “Doovay leebro?” And the woman’s last words, “Though fawn escape the falcon’s claws and crochet its snare, when father, son, and ghost we sing, of city’s blade beware!” are branded onto Agnes’ mind.
When the killer has gone, Agnes opens the book and, finding no pictures, discards it, for she is illiterate, and examines the embroidered silk cloth in which it was wrapped. She finds it far more interesting and valuable than the book.
But the book is what the killer and others want – a book of prophecy and treason.
A Burnable Book is set in Geoffrey Chaucer’s London in 1385. Holsinger is an award-winning scholar of the medieval period, so he knows his stuff, and he presents it in a way that makes you feel that you’re right there. He shows us a brutal London as it was in the late 14th century – filth and stench and the dire poverty of the poor trying to survive in a culture that does not favor them, while the wealthy live in extreme luxury, flaunting their gold, jewels, and furs.
Holsinger, who teaches at the University of Virginia, is a Guggenheim Fellow and a recipient of research fellowships from the American Council of Learned Studies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books on medieval culture have won prizes from the Modern Language Association, the Medieval Academy of America, and other scholarly organizations.
Chaucer engages his good friend and fellow poet, John Gower, to find the book, and Gower, who seems to know everyone from the young King Richard II to the whores in Gropecunt Lane and in the stews across the river in Southwark, soon learns that Chaucer is not the only person seeking the book.
That book is Liber de Mortibus Regum Anglorum, supposedly written during the reign of William the Conqueror three centuries earlier. It foretells in gruesome detail the deaths of thirteen English kings, the last being King Richard himself, making it treasonous and dangerous. The predictions are full of symbolism that Gower must decipher. For example, the first line of the thirteenth prophecy is “At Prince of Plums shall prelate oppose.” In playing cards at court, Gower learns that the Prince of Plums is a card. But what does it mean?
At Prince of Plums shall prelate oppose
A faun of three feathers with flaunting of fur,
Long castle will collar and cast out the core,
His reign to full ruin, mors regis to roar.
By bank of a bishop shall butchers abide,
To nest, by God’s name, with knives in hand,
Then springen in service at spiritus sung.
In palace of prelate with pearls all appointed,
By kingmaker’s cunning a king to unking,
A magnate whose majesty mingles with mort,
By Half-ten of hawks might shender be shown.
On day of Saint Dunstan shall Death have his doom.
As the bodies stack up, Gower must find the book and decipher the meaning of the last prophecy to save the king – and he must do it before the approaching St. Dunstan’s Day. And then his estranged son returns unannounced from Italy, adding his own mixture of suspense.
In between the story is another tale separated and told in italics – a sad one set in Italy that eventually ties in with the London one.
A Burnable Book follows the lives of several real historical people, including Chaucer, Gower, and Katherine Swynford, who is the Duke of Lancaster’s mistress and also Chaucer’s sister-in-law. Holsinger’s fictional characters are well drawn: Agnes, her sister Millicent, who is a higher-class whore fallen upon hard times; and young Eleanor/Edgar, a swerver and a swyver, who has gender issues but is trying to save his brother from a brutal master in the butchery trade.
I am a medievalphile and I enjoy a good mystery. This book more than satisfies both of these interests. Holsinger tells an intelligently-written but rollicking tale of murder and suspense with riddles and surprises. It reminds me of The Name of The Rose, one of my favorite books.
What is your favorite medieval mystery and why?