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The Clerkenwell Tales [Paperback]

Peter Ackroyd

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Book Description

June 1 2004
From a master historian -- a brilliantly original historical novel set in late-14th century London.

“I am sister to the day and night. I am sister to the woods.” Sister Clarisse, a nun in the House of St. Mary at Clerkenwell, experiences visions. She dreams of the English King. Are her prophesies the babblings of the crazed? Or can she “see” a future in which Henry Bolingbroke overthrows Richard II?

This clever and colourful novel begins with The Nun’s Tale, and continues with The Friar’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale and The Clerk’s Tale. Thus, story by story, Peter Ackroyd builds his portrait of medieval London. The people are disenchanted with the Church, with its wealth and corruption, its Pope in Rome and its Pope in Avignon. But heresy is dangerous -- almost as dangerous as rebellion. This is a novel about spies and counterspies, radicals and idealists, murderers and arsonists, sects and secret societies. It is a tale richly atmospheric and satisfying in its historical detail.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books (June 1 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0749386304
  • ISBN-13: 978-0749386306
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 159 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #775,111 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Amazon

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.

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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Canterbury Tales with a twist Jan. 22 2005
By Ellis Bell - Published on Amazon.com
Peter Ackroyd draws on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to tell a tale of suspense and intrigue in late-14th century London. The characters are all Chaucer's, but Ackroyd chooses to display them in a much different light.

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.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For the literati, a mighty tasty bit of a tome Oct. 5 2004
By KatPanama - Published on Amazon.com
It's 1399; do you know where your Chaucer is? Ackroyd borrows both form and characters but puts them to different tasks. Who knew (I guess I should have) that the Puritan concept (also Presbyterian) of predestination actually had its roots in an intense debate within The Church in the 13th and 14th centuries. Wonderfully written and enjoyable. E.g., Part of the secret tunnels that connected the Clerkenwell cloister to the priory of St. John of Jerusalem now can be seen in the basement of the Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London. Who says history doesn't have a sense of humor?
20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars veritable time-travel Sept. 28 2004
By Joaquin Ibarrez - Published on Amazon.com
the author has created a delightful, pensive, historical fiction whose genesis is Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales." This 213-page opus is recommended to all medievalists, early-renaissance lectors and avid readers of English history. If one enjoys "The Canterbury Tales" one should find pleasant satisfaction in this delicious re-creation.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An author well Versed June 20 2007
By Stephen McHenry - Published on Amazon.com
The author displays such thorough knowledge of customs, culture and language of 1399 London as to place the reader directly into the midst of the superstition, bad medicine, medieval law and class struggle during a time when the king Richard II is being overthrown. Religious political forces are at work to frighten the citizenry and further the overthrow. Common folk are caught up or nearly missed as daily lives are written of in the format of the Canterbury Tales (but easier to read, although it is in the English of the period). There is murder, double crossing, simple folk, master deceivers and a touched nun who maybe speaking from God or the Devil.
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.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Small-time PI tackles big-time adversaries July 10 2007
By Gary Coffrin - Published on Amazon.com
I have read this book four times in the past two decades. My appreciation has grown with each reading. Andrew Bergman, born in 1945, has fondly captured an earlier time. This book is a grand romp set in America when Dewey is seeking the Republican nomination to stop Roosevelt from gaining a fourth term.

Bergman's Jack Levine is the perfect 'retro-eye.' LeVine is bald and plump, a big guy with a big nose. He is not handsome, but he is witty; not slick, but he is smart. He has plenty of attitude, and his wise-cracks and social commentary hold up well when compared to the best of the earlier pulp writers and even Chandler himself. Levine smokes Luckys, drinks Blatz beer, listens to baseball on the radio, loves attending the fights, and hates to miss reading Dick Tracy. His Manhattan office has a moose head that he uses for a hat rack. The period details feel right.

President Roosevelt's re-election and the shape of a post-war world are at stake when the daughter of an affluent banker (and major backer of Republican Dewey) is being blackmailed. LeVine tracks the shenanigans and accompanying murders directly to FDR's staff. LeVine's job is to protect the reputation of his clients (the banker and his daughter). If the story were to become public, the election would be delivered to the Republicans - something LeVine wants to avoid.

This determined shamus fights to stay alive and goes nose-to-nose with some of the top power brokers in wartime America. The plot and repartee are intelligently crafted. The concluding chapters offer an action-filled chase that is picturesque and credible. The author delivers action and settings that are easily visualized.

This is an strong work that is sure to delight fans of earlier detective fiction. Of the three Jack LeVine mysteries to date, this is by far my favorite.

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