Rest not in peace: 14th century murder

I walk where Hugh Singleton walked on the streets of Oxford and the castle, where he journeyed frequently as bailiff for the manor of Bampton and as 14th century detective, most recently in Rest Not In Peace. I have worn the long dress and coif his wife Kate wore, and looked in the little shops off High Street where she helped her father.

The grand and imposing buildings of nearby Cotswold stone are mostly newer, though some  buildings Hugh would recognise. And the gown and coif are strictly dress up for me for historical re-enactments put on around the country by the Plantagenet Society. Yet this all links me to a world that fascinates us and that we try to imagine. In England, I am always aware of the centuries upon centuries of people walking the same roads, worshipping at the same sites, living and dying in a slowly changing world. I have walked the Brother Cadfael route in Shrewsbury, lurked behind the chapter house pillar (now in a car park) behind which he dozed daily, and have to keep reminding myself that that particular (unreal).medieval monk never actually lived in that (real) monastery.I have stood outside the non-existent 221b Baker Street home of Sherlock, wishing to hear the wheels of hansoms rather than the hum of busses. In Avebury, in the midst of the stones, the presence of the past is sometimes, for me, almost an immediate experience, especially in rain and mist.

Literature, and specifically novels, opens up a door to other places and times, and to how life was or is  experienced in those places and times. I have found that consciously reading novels by authors from African or Asian countries has helped widen my awareness in ways I could not do by travelling even if that were possible for me. In the same way, the American author of the Hugh Singleton series, Mel Starr, can give his students (he teaches) and a wider readership a glimpse of the past. He knows much about the past as a historian and has visited the area of his books’ events, though he is also helped by an editor, Jan Greenough, who is local (and whom I know from church) and by a historically informed imagination and feeling for characters.

Plantagenet re-enactors can usually tell you more than you ever learned in school about the history and daily life of the historical period, -about the same as that of this series of books, and they know the life story of the character they enact whether a historical or an invented  person.Many learn and use the skills and crafts of the past. Audiences enjoy the chance to share this at least a little by taking part in dancing, archery or squire training, and listening to medieval music on medieval instruments, as well as watching the knights in combat. Some elements are not possible this way but imagined better in books though: the everyday toll of death from accident or illness, the Black Death itself, so well covered in Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, and especially the all pervading belief in a medieval Christian view of the world, and daily practices of prayer,  fully held by none today, even of devoted Church of England members using the same buildings or Roman Catholics proud of our (imagined) unchanging faith.

Our worlds intersect in literature.

Is this only a hobby for those who enjoy it, as I do? I would argue that it is an indispensable part  of education in our world today. We all are living in a century where what is done in one place has repercussions for the whole planet. What we struggle with politically can be looked at in other countries and the outcomes compared. It has been said that those who know no history are doomed to repeat it, and those who know history are doomed to watch them! We are no longer members of only one village with its local lord. It is profoundly disturbing to me when people are still  confined within a narrow knowledge and belief limited to  their immediate social network, and to find people  who cannot extend their sympathies beyond this.

The world is one.

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One Response to Rest not in peace: 14th century murder

  1. ahuntca says:

    I used to think that I was like lots of other people in the community or church, who imagined themselves in times past, who saw present circumstances in the pages of a book written about another place or time or set of circumstances or even of something that existed only in an authors imagination… It has been discouraging to me that the number who do, are actually quite few. It has been a part of my maturing to discover how different I am and how strange my interests must appear to others… and so I offer a resounding yes of agreement to your last sentence: It is profoundly disturbing to me when people are still confined within a narrow knowledge and belief limited to their immediate social network, and to find people who cannot extend their sympathies beyond this. Blessings!
    p.s. I find it interesting that historian that I am, I am not more drawn to visit Europe where western history is so much deeper than it is here… and centuries old history near enough to touch with hands and feet. I remember with amazement the day my church history prof (who I loved dearly and who was an expert on the dutch reformation) came to class with a plat map of a city block in Amsterdam or Leiden or some dutch city and on it were the names all the owners of each house back to 1400’s give or take a few centuries… including the man Jacob Arminius that we were studying. The building still standing. I may still get there, but it seems less and less likely as I age…


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