Book Corner 2020.46

by James Meek

A wonderful story and a wonderful read. We follow the journey of a motley group of pilgrims attempting a venture from the Cotswolds, England to Calais, France, in the year 1348. Among our group:

– Lady Bernadine, daughter of Lord of the manor in the small town of Outen Green, who ventures forth to escape an odious arranged marriage and chase down her erstwhile paramour, Laurence Hacket

– Laurance Hacket, who is eventually encountered and added to the group, who turns out to be perhaps not all Bernadine hoped for and dreamed of

– Will Quate, good-looking young labourer, whose bondsman/freeman status is vague, and who journeys to Calais to join the fight against the French as an archer

– Hab, lowly pigboy back in Outen Green, who follows Will because he’s in love with him, and spends most of the book cross-dressed as his “sister” Madlen

– Thomas, Scotsman by birth, now scribe and proctor of a church in Avignon, France, to which he now hopes to return (I wasn’t clear what brought him to England in the first place)

– A band of archers with whom Will has thrown his fate, each one more grotesque and morally questionable than the last

– Cecile, or “Cess”, a Frenchwoman raped and abducted by the archers back during their last round of fighting in France, now a captive of one of them, the one who goes by the name of “Softly”

But I encourage you to Google “1348” and “plague” to see the main character of the story. OK, never mind, I’ll tell you: in 1348, the Black Death arrived in England.

The story is good enough, but what is hypnotic is the writing. Will, Hab/Madlen, and the archers speak an English untouched by any French or Latin. Bernadine’s speech is replete with French flourishes, Thomas’ with Latin. But to the lowly, words we today find mundanely English such as “doubt” or “punish” have them staring with incomprehension, protesting, “Too many French words for me”.

The story’s narration takes place alternately from the perspective of, and in the language of the archer contingent; Thomas; and Bernadine/Laurence. Here’s a random sample of the writing when the archers are the focus:

“The drum beat faster, Mad sang of a freke who went with an elf, and Sweetmouth hopped with two high-born maids who laughed so hard they had to hold each other to keep from falling over.”

And Bernadine:

“‘Had I passed Laurence a message saying I desired him to ravish me of my family and marry me in secret, I’m sure he would have responded.'”

And Thomas (whose passages are all excerpts of missives he is writing to two people back home named Marc & Judith):

“‘What, Judith, is the significance of my indulgent confession that I desired to be desired by you, carnally as well as spiritually?'”

There’s just a taste of how the story goes. I thought the switching between the different voices, which is done frequently, sometimes three times per two pages, was a wonderful device for moving the tale forward, and I delighted each time in hearing the different perspectives. The characters of Bernadine and Madlen were particularly deep; Laurence comical, seeming closest to a modern-day personality; Thomas a bit inscrutable (he’d like that word). I admit I had a little trouble juggling all of the archers’ backstories, real names, and “ekenames” (nicknames). Follow them all through the English countryside, and try not to freak out too much as you watch “the pest” (pestilence) following them as well… (  )

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