Tania BayardMar 11, 2022
Murder in the Cloister
Severn House Publishers 2021
There is a great temptation, when writing about the past, to sanitize its circumstances and attitudes to make the characters more palatable to present-day readers. Tania Bayard, who has written four mystery novels set in fourteenth-century France, does not make that mistake. Her Paris is filthy and smelly, with muddy streets and refuse lying in heaps, horrible diseases, stray dogs, and dead rats in the gutters. Her characters, too, wallow in prejudices and superstitions of all sorts. And those streets are filled with beggars, prostitutes, thieves, cheats, and would-be sorcerers and witches, ready to prey on upstanding citizens.
Yet fourteenth-century France, in these novels as in real life, also contains farsighted thinkers, gifted artists of all sorts, and would-be scientists. One of the shining lights is Christine de Pizan, a scribe at the court of Charles VI “the Mad” who will soon establish a name for herself as a poet and early feminist. Contrary to the stereotypes of medieval women as passive and obedient, Christine works hard to support her family and resolutely challenges the prejudices of the men around her, especially her frequent bête noire and sometime supporter, Henri Le Picart.
In Murder in the Cloister (Severn House Publishers, 2021), the sudden death of a young nun causes the prioress to summon Christine, who has already solved three crimes affecting the royal family, to find out what happened. On the surface, Christine has been hired to copy an important manuscript, but her investigations turn up not only secrets and lies but ongoing sources of tension among the nuns. And even as she races to untangle the mystery before more deaths occur, she must counteract Henri’s efforts to protect—or is it undermine?—her and what she fears is his undesirable influence on her young son.
Bayard has taken some flak for her decision to adopt a historical person as her fictional detective, but as she notes during this interview, any character she could have invented would have been less complex and less credible than Christine, who defied both her own society’s expectations and our own limited view of medieval women. So relax, don’t worry too much about the details of the crimes being fictional, and enjoy parachuting into a fully imagined past that you can hope never to experience in real life.
Tania Bayard is the author of four novels featuring Christine de Pizan, as well as the nonfiction works A Medieval Home Companion and Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of The Cloisters.
C. P. Lesley is the author of two historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible and three other novels. Her latest novel, Song of the Sinner, appeared in January 2022.