Mistress of the Art of Death

Ariana Franklin
Mistress of the Art of Death
(Penguin Canada, 2007)

Henry II Plantagenet, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou in 1171 of Becket fame.

In medieval Cambridge, four children have been murdered. The Catholic townsfolk blame their Jewish neighbours, so to save them from the rioting mob, the Cambridge Jews are placed under the protection of King Henry II. Hoping scientific investigation will catch the true killer, Henry calls on his cousin, the King of Sicily — whose subjects incude the best medical experts in Europe — and asks for his finest “master of the art of death,” the earliest form of medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy, from the University of Salerno, an expert in the science of anatomy and the art of detection. But her name is Adelia; the king has been sent a “mistress of the art of death.”

In a superstitious country like England, Adelia faces danger at every turn. As she examines the victims and retraces their last steps, Adelia must conceal her true identity in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft.

There is a portrait of Henry cursing his adversary, Thomas à Becket:

The king’s voice rose in a wail that filled the gallery like a despairing trumpet. “Sweet God, forgive this unhappy and remorseful king. Thou knowest how Thomas à Becket did oppose me in all things so that in my rage I called for his death. Peccavi, peccavi, for certain knights did mistake my anger and ride to kill him, thinking to please me, for which abomination You in Your righteousness have turned Your face from me. I am a worm, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. I crawl beneath Your anger while Archbishop Thomas is received into Your Glory and sitteth on the right hand of Your Gracious Son, Jesus Christ.”

Faces turned. Quills were poised in mid-account, abaci stilled.

Henry stopped beating his breast. He said conversationally, “And if I am not mistaken, the Lord will find him as big a pain in the arse as I did.” He leaned over, put a finger gently beneath Aaron of Lincoln’s lower jaw, and raised it. “The moment that those bastards chopped Becket down, I became vulnerable. The Church seeks revenge, it wants my liver, hot and smoking, it wants recompense and must get it, and one of the things it wants, has always wanted, is the expulsion of you Jews from Christendom.”

The clerks had returned to their work.

The king waved the document in his hand under the Jew’s nose. “This is a petition, Aaron, demanding that all Jews be sent away from my realm. At this moment, a copy also penned by Master Acton, and may the hounds of hell chew his bollocks, is on its way to the Pope. The murdered child in Cambridge and the ones missing are to be the pretext for demanding your people’s expulsion, and, with Becket dead, I shall be unable to refuse, because if I do, his Holiness will be persuaded to excommunicate me and put my whole kingdom under interdict. Does your mind encompass interdict? It is to be cast into darkness; babies to be refused baptisms, no ordained marriage, the dead to remain unburied without the blessing of the Church. And any upstart with shit on his trousers can challenge my right to rule.”

Henry got up and paced, pausing to straighten the corner of an arras that the wind had disarranged. Over his shoulder, he said, “Am I not a good king, Aaron?”

“You are, my lord.” The right answer. Also the truth.

“Am I not good to my Jews, Aaron?”

“You are, my lord. Indeed, you are.” Again, the truth. Henry taxed his Jews like a farmer milked his cows, yet no other monarch in the world was fairer to them or kept such order in his tight little kingdom that Jews were safer in it than in almost any other country of the known world. From France, from Spain, from the crusade countries, from Russia, they came to enjoy the privileges and security to be found in this Plantagenet’s England. [pp. 8-10]

The book illustrates the brutality of the “pig ignorant crusaders”:

But the Christian army was followed by the dross of Europe. The Pope’s pardon to sinners and criminals as long as they took the cross had released into Outremer men who killed indiscriminately — certain that, whatever they did, they would be welcomed into Jesus’ arms.

“Cattle,” Rowley said of them, “still stinking of the farmyards they came from. They’d escaped servitude; now they wanted land and they wanted riches.”

They’d slaughtered Greeks, Armenians, and Copts of an older Christianity than their own because they thought they were heathens. Jews, Arabs, who were versed in Greek and Roman philosophy and advanced in the mathematics and medicine and astronomy that the Semitic races had given to the West, went down before men who could neither read nor write and saw no reason to. [pp. 223-224]

“I’ll tell you what they’re achieving,” he was saying. “They’re inspiring such a hatred amongst Arabs who used to hate each other that they’re combining the greatest force against Christianity the world has ever seen. It’s called Islam.” [p. 225]

The book gives a tableau of blanket conceit of the church, its mean power exercised by accusing opponents of witchcraft or slander of church.

A clerical trial reveals that the law of the church did not recognize anyone under 12, bastard or Jew. Until 1171 there was only one burial place for Jews in all of England on the outskirts of London. Henry II created others.

The book renders a portrait of England in 1171 and gives some flesh to Henry II, portrayed as the man responsible for the introduction of Common Law:

We have been too busied with our own events to watch the assize in action, but, if we had, we should have witnessed a new thing, a wonderful thing, a moment when English law leaped high, high, out of darkness and superstition into light.

For, during the course of the assize, nobody has been thrown into a pond to see if they are innocent or guilty of the crime of which they stand accused. (Innocence is to sink, guilt to float.) No woman has had molten iron placed in her hand to prove whether or not she has committed theft, murder, etc cetera. (If the burn heals within a certain number of days, she is acquitted. If not, let her be punished.)

Nor has any dispute over land been settled by the God of Battles. (Champions representing each disputant fight until one or other is killed or cries “craven” and throws down his sword in surrender.)

No. The God of Battles, of water, or hot iron, has not been asked for His opinion as He always has before. Henry Plantagenet does not believe in Him.

Instead, evidence of crime or quarrel has been considered by twelve men who then tell the judge whether or not, in their opinion, the case is proved.

These men are called a jury. They are a new thing.

Something else is new. Instead of the ancient, jumbled inheritance of laws whereby each baron or lord of the manor can pronounce sentence on his malefactors, hanging or not according to his powers, Henry II has given his English a system that is orderly and all of a piece and applies throughout his kingdom. It will be called Common Law.

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