Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 5 - "A Burnable Book," by Bruce Holsinger

The City of London, having lost at least half of its population to the Black Death in 1348, recovered surprisingly rapidly. The decades that followed offered unprecedented opportunities for those who had been fortunate enough to survive: the sons of peasants from Kent and Surrey, Suffolk and Norfolk, flocked to the capital to take the place of the thousands of apprentices who now lay buried in the mass graves beyond the City walls. There were fewer opportunities for girls than for boys, although some doubtless made good marriages, and the most talented could find well-paid work as embroiderers: for those less fortunate, prostitution offered a very uncertain lifeline.

The wool-trade was at the centre of London's prosperity in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. In the countryside, labour-intensive subsistence farming gave way to pasture for sheep, whilst, in the cities, the export of raw wool was gradually replaced by the more profitable trade in dyed and woven cloth. Ships from Spain, France, Flanders, and Venice, arrived at London's docks, bringing silks, wine and spices, in return for woolen cloth and linen. Ideas, as well as goods, were exchanged, and numerous languages were spoken in the streets leading up from the wharves.

Medieval wool merchants, from Filippo Calandri's Trattato di Arithmetica 1491, Biblioteca Riccardina, Florence, Ricc. 2669 (image is in the Public Domain). 

The fluctuations of the English wool trade. Image: Dr Jennifer Paxton

Map of London in 1300. Image: Grandiose (licensed under CCA).

The City was largely self-governing, its administration centred in the guilds, and in the Guildhall, and the language of governance was English. Since 1066, Norman French had been the language of the royal court and aristocracy; Latin the language of the church and scholarship; and English the language of trade. Now, with trade increasingly the basis of England's prosperity, English came into its own as a literary language. Poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower turned away from French and Latin, to write in English. Fluent in all three languages, they created a new language, recognisably "English," rather than Anglo-Saxon, with much borrowing from French and Latin. 

Bruce Holsinger's novel, A Burnable Book, is set in the City, and in Southwark, in 1385. Richard II is on the throne, and Chaucer and Gower are both characters, as are a group of prostitutes, who move between the stews around Winchester Palace, and Gropecunt Lane, in the heart of the City. Like many of the elite of their age, Gower and Chaucer are well-connected, both internationally and within the City. Chaucer has traveled in Italy on enigmatic diplomatic missions; whilst Gower's son, Simon, has worked there for the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, here depicted, convincingly, as a brutal thug (although he is believed by some to have been the model for Chaucer's knight in The Canterbury Tales). When a mysterious book is brought to London from Italy, prophesying the death of the King, all of the characters are thrown into a turmoil of intrigue and suspicion, from which they will struggle to escape.

Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve's "The Regiment of Princes," 1412 (image is in the Public Domain).

The tomb of Sir John Hawkwood, by Paolo Uccello, 1436, Florence Cathedral (image s in the Public Domain).

"Under a clouded moon, Agnes huddles in a sliver of utter darkness and watches him, this dark-cloaked man, as he questions the girl by the dying fire. At first he is kind seeming, almost gentle with her. They speak something like French: not the flavour of Stratford-at-Bowe nor of Paris, but a deep and throated tongue, tinged with the south. Olives and figs in his voice, the embrace of a warmer sea. He repeats his last question. The girl is silent. He hits her. She falls to the ground. He squats, fingers coiled through her lush hair. 'Doovery lleebro?' he gently chants. 'Ileebro, mee ragazza. Ileebro.' It could be a love song. The girl shakes her head."

"We live in a hypocritical age. An age that sees bishops preaching abstinence while running whores. Pardoners peddling indulgences whilst seducing wives. Earls pledging fealty while plotting treason. Hypocrites, all of them, and my trade is the bane of hypocrisy, its worth far outweighing its perversion. I practice the purest form of truthtelling ... I have become a trader in information, a seller of suspicion, a purveyor of foibles and the hidden things of private life. I work alone and always have, without the trappings of craft or creed. John Gower. A guild of one.

John Gower, University of Glasgow, MS Hunter 59 (Tl 17, 6v - image is in the Public Domain).

"'You can't be direct with her about it,' Chaucer was saying. 'This is a woman who takes the biggest cock in the realm between her legs. She's given Lancaster three bastards at last count - or is it four?' He waited, gauging my reaction. 'What is this book, Geoffrey? What does it look like? What's in it?' His gaze was unfocused and vague. 'To be honest with you, John, I don't know. What I do know is that this book could hurt me.' He blinked and looked at some spot on the wattle behind me. Then, in a last whisper of French, 'it could cost me my life.'"

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.