The term “Middle Ages” contains a prejudice: that the era was merely an unremarkable void straddling antiquity and modernity. Recent scholarship has eroded this perception. The era produced Dante, Chaucer and Boccaccio as well as significant leaps in mathematics and even algorithms and cryptography. It was, moreover, a time when the lust for life was great and the powerful had lust aplenty. Bruce Holsinger’s captivating historical novel A Burnable Book is testimony to this more accurate view of a fascinating period.
The scene is London in 1385. Reigning over England is Richard II, later to adorn one of Shakespeare’s plays. The church is divided between Rome and Avignon while England hangs in the balance. A book, the “burnable” one of the title, appears, allegedly written during the reign of William the Conqueror. The book prophesies in historically accurate terms the death of every English king from William to Richard. Thus it falls to the book’s many temporary owners to decipher that prophecy and save, or not save, the reigning monarch.
But the true authorship of the book remains mysterious. Is it Chaucer, soon to write his Canterbury Tales? Is it Lollius, to whom the Roman poet Horace addressed one of his odes? Or is it the son of the novel’s narrator, who chews the fat with Chaucer and does some sleuthing of his own, even slinking into the brothels to ask prostitutes pointed questions? Thus the novel careens from court to academia, from house of God to house of ill repute, with scandalous overlap between the latter two.
The novel’s action proceeds at a steady clip and has the stench of authenticity, detailing everything from methods of torture to the happy custom of throwing refuse into the street. Its prose is erudite and focused, reading more like an academic thriller than a frilly period piece: John Grisham meets Umberto Eco. And Holsinger has clearly ventured to imbue his writing with the earthy English words that Orwell, among others, favored over their highfalutin’ Latinate counterparts. The language is also often bawdy, as befits a novel about bawds.
In his own book about England, Paul Theroux argued that England had been written about perhaps more than any other country, but the England he meant was likely that of Dickens, Austen or Hardy. About medieval England we know almost nil. This clever novel, as contemporary as it is distant, helps illuminate an England consigned for ages to a stagnant darkness.