The Clerkenwell Tales Paperback – Jun 1 2004
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Peter Ackroyd opts for full immersion in The Clerkenwell Tales after dipping a toe, or ten, in the Middle Ages with Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. The Clerkenwell Tales is a gripping novel about murder and religious and political intrigue in 14th century London. As hinted at in the title, a cap is generously doffed to The Canterbury Tales; several characters and chapter headings mimic Chaucer and, at least superficially, it takes the form of a series of interconnected tales.
Although this is a work of fiction, it is nonetheless as rich in historical material as, say, his evocative London: A Biography. Set in 1399, it's heavily underwired by events surrounding Henry Bolingbroke's usurpation of Richard II. On the whole an appendix, dubbed "The Author's Tale", keeps the Ye Olde London factoids from intruding on the yarn but there are moments, especially when he touches on Medieval customs and eating habits, where the research bubbles to the surface. However, like Hawksmoor and The House of John Dee, it's Ackroyd's judicious use of the more esoteric shards of the capital's past that really fuels the drama. This is, after all, Clerkenwell in the era of the mystery plays; a district inhabited by quack physicians, dung rakers, heretical sects and murderous clerics. (Think Umberto Eco in EC1.)
Clarice, the novel's demonic central force, is a sister of the House of St Mary beset by visions. "Some called her the mad nun ... others revered her as the Blessed Maid of Clerkenwell" but in this "turbulent time of a weak and wretched king" Clarice's prophecies of impending doom strike an ominous chord. Elsewhere in the City, a shadowy group of pre-eminent Londoners, known as Dominus, have long been plotting to dethrone Richard and install Henry. William Exmewe, an Austin Friar and Dominus member, has slowly nurtured a gang of lowly religious dissenters--the foreknown, or predestined ones--to, unknowingly, aid their cause. Believing themselves, as Christ's true followers, to be absolved from all sin, William has persuaded them to wage, essentially, a terrorist campaign to bring on God's day of judgement. The predestined ones will fire five churches, making five wounds upon London, mirroring the five wounds of Christ and the five circles of an ancient Christian symbol. (A mystical five-pointed pentagram was something of a motif in Hawksmoor.) Quite how these schemes (and counter schemes) pan out is best left unspoiled. Ackroyd fans and anyone who savours cunning, intellectually exhilarating mystery tales will not be disappointed. --Travis Elborough --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Ackroyd (The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde; Hawksmoor; etc.) brings late medieval London to life in this latest of his fascinating historical novels. Working with a cast of characters drawn from The Canterbury Tales, Ackroyd deploys his usual meticulous research to reconstruct the background of Chaucer's England in a prose idiom congenial to modern readers. The thriller plot concerns a visionary nun, a sect of violent religious heretics and a shadowy group of power brokers trying to orchestrate the ouster of King Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke. But the rather creaky conspiracy narrative, supposedly based in fact, is just a peg on which to hang a panorama of 14th-century life that takes in the cathedrals, cloisters, brothels, taverns and law courts while instructing readers on all things medieval, from medicine (dove droppings applied to the feet is the recommended cure for insomnia) to fast food (at street stands, roast finches can be had two for a penny). It's a society where elaborate courtesy balances gross indecency, pious ritual shades into sadomasochistic fetish, reflexive orthodoxy is troubled by new philosophies from the universities, corrupt and worldly churchmen contend with anti-clerical revolutionaries and science struggles to be born from a morass of superstition, alchemy and astrology. The characters seem both secure within and frustrated by the confines and mysteries of their narrow worldview and are badly in need of a renaissance. Ackroyd's brilliant evocation of their ideology and psychology lets us recognize the traces of our own time in this archaic past.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In the 14th century, there was much dissention in the church. The advent of the Black Death earlier in the century had changed people's belief systems. While most of England remained Catholic, there were many people who wanted to break away from the Church. One of these groups was the Lollards, declared heretics for their liberal views on religion. In this book, there is a group of people who want to rock the foundations of the church to its core, and the burning of churches in London is ascribed to the Lollards. The fictional story also includes the mad prophesies of a nun called Clarice.
Like the Canterbury Tales, the Clerkenwell Tales have a structure, though the vignettes are in a different order than the original Tales. Ackroyd does a great job of discussing each character in great detail, adding on to what we know of the characters from Chaucer. While Ackroyd does not stick with the genres of the Canterbury Tales (ie fabliau, romance, etc), he does give his reader a peak at another aspect of medieval English life: the mystery plays, or the stories of the Bible as performed by the members of the town's trade guilds. Ackroyd does a fantastic job of pulling bits and peieces of medieval English life together in one coherent whole.
Entertaining. Certainly excellent for someone with an interest in medieval times and life, London, British history, or murder and political intrigue. At 211 pages or so an easy and satisfying read. After reading this I am inclined to read more of Ackroyd's work.
The reality is that the underlying story tying them all together is weak - none of the characters are going anywhere together, they all just happen to live in and around one medieval town and so bump into one another. The underlying "whodunit" is unlikely to hold your interest. If you want better - and I mean head-and-shoulders above better - check out Catherynne Valente's book, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden (and good luck trying to put that down - Valente has written one addictive set of interwoven stories).
That said, Ackroyd does have some good tales and descriptions that rescue The Clerkenwell Tales from being something to completely pass on. "The Merchant's Tale" - and what befalls Radulf Strago, his wife and his apprentice (you learn throughout the book) - is a nice mixture of tragedy and humor. And Ackroyd's descriptions of medieval town life and culture are downright disturbing. It's a wonder anyone in medieval Europe lived past their 20's or 30's. Certainly you can easily see how something like the Black Plague was able to destroy so much so quickly in medieval Europe. The ignorance and naivety of even basic cause-and-effect is astonishing. And Ackroyd captures it all brilliantly.
Thus, if you're an aficionado of the medieval period (and if you're familiar with the Gies' Life in a Medieval Village book) Ackroyd's The Clerkenwell Tales should be on your reading list.
If you're looking for a great set of fun, intriguing, wonderfully written and beautifully interwoven stories, I'd recommend you check out Valente's The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden before reading The Clerkenwell Tales. (Of course, in hindsight, maybe Valente ruined me for being able to appreciate Ackroyd's Clerkenwell ....)