Margaret Frazer

Posts tagged ‘joliffe’

I’m among those readers who need to know how a name is said when I am reading a book.  Since I’m often asked about how to say Frevisse’s name, and sometimes about Joliffe, I thought a small note here may be welcome.

The trick with “Frevisse” is that it is the French version of “Frideswide”.  Being French, it should probably be pronounced “fray-VEES”.  But since she is in England and the English are infamous for what they do to French names, I say it as “FRAY-viss”.

I hasten to add that I have absolutely no objection to a reader pronouncing it the way they prefer.  After all, England is a place of many dialects (and was in the 1400s, too), and there’s no reason you can’t claim “local usage” if your pronunciation differs from mine!

As for “Frideswide”, it is now pronounced “Fryswide” (with a long i in “wide”), but the spelling suggests that at some point the pronunciation was markedly different.  (I say that any language that takes “Belvoir” and pronounces it “Beaver” can’t be trusted in any of its pronunciations.)  So I pronounce it “Frid-es-wid” (with short i’s ), but equally possible in a medieval context it could be “Frid-es-WEEdah”.  I suppose it depends on which side of the Great Vowel Shift you want to be on?

Then there’s Joliffe.  For once, he is less trouble than usual.  I pronounce his name with a short o and no final e.  But if you prefer, it can be said with a long o.  And even with the final e, I suppose.

As you can see, I am not strict about any of this.  I suspect it’s all the reading I do in Middle English that has made my attitude toward pronunciation far more free-form than it once was.  (Not to mention what havoc medieval spelling has made to my spelling.)  So feel free to choose whatever slides easiest through your mind while you are reading and enjoy!

– Margaret

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer

WARNING: This is the original Author’s Note from A Play of Heresy. It contains light SPOILERS for the book. You may want to finish reading the novel before reading this note.

I was already at work on this book when I went to the symposium “Drama and Religion 1555-1575: The Chester Cycle in Context” at the University of Toronto in May 2010.  Besides the scholarly papers that were given, the entire cycle of twenty-three medieval plays from Chester, England, were performed out of doors on wagons moved from site to site on the campus over three half-days.  The plays began with the Creation of the World and followed through Old and New Testaments to Judgment Day.  Each was done by a different group from schools in Canada and the United States, with no attempt to unify their styles; all was done according to the individual group’s own imagination and resources, their styles widely diverging.

As someone who has seen much theater, both from the audience side and while performing on stages, I was as fascinated by the onlookers’ delight as much as by the productions themselves.  And by “onlookers’ delight” I mean my own as well as what I saw and heard around me.  People watched in riveted delight as the Temptress in the Garden of Eden changed into a slithering serpent; cheered when Moses pulled the tablets of the law from the rocky cliff behind him; laughed ourselves silly at the southern hillbilly shepherds settling down for a night of watching their sheep with their coolers of beer and snacks beside them – and were nonetheless deeply moved by their so-humble but sincere gifts to the Christ child.  Nor is anyone likely to forget Herod on his high throne, sneeringly throwing the occasional grape at the audience – or the silence as we watched the Crucifixion.  And I’m here to tell you that when the demons burst from the Hellmouth, to prowl and snarl only a few yards from our faces, we were truly taken momentarily aback.  Some plays were stronger productions than others, but at the end the overall feeling left was that we had gone on a wonderful journey.  You did not have to be Christian in that audience to be carried along on the mythic strength of the story.

In short — brought alive by theatrical imagination, these medieval plays work.

Which pleased me no end, since that was what I was imagining and trying to do with the plays in A Play of Heresy. Unfortunately, unlike the cycle of plays played in Chester and York, only two of the cycle done in Coventry remain – that of the Shearmen & Taylors and that of the Weavers.  If you should happen on a book titled Ludus Coventriae or the Plaie Called Corpus Christi, full of plays, take note this was published under the misconception that what are now called the N-Town plays were the lost ones of Coventry.  Instead, the book I used the most while writing this story was The Corpus Christi Plays, edited by Pamela M. King and Clifford Davidson, from Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.  Where occasionally things diverge in my story from the facts given in the book, pray remember that nothing is static and what is recorded of plays and pageant houses in the 1500s is not necessarily exactly how things were in the 1400s, a time for which we have less documentation about the plays.

What is intriguing, besides the surviving plays themselves, are the odd bits of information scattered through the town records, such as where some of the guilds had their pageant houses, and the cost for painting Herod’s face and mending the devil’s garment.  These are winnowed out and gathered together in the delight-filled Records of Early English Drama: Coventry.

A more immediately available experience of drama in medieval Coventry is that staple of Christmas carols – “The Coventry Carol”.  It’s the lullaby that the mothers of Bethlehem sing to their doomed children at the Massacre of the Innocents in the play that, in this book, Basset is directing – one of the two plays that somehow survived when most of the Coventry plays vanished.  Listening to the song’s delicate, sorrowing beauty makes one wonder how much of all too perishable grace and beauty is lost from medieval times.

Now for Coventry itself.  Again I feel obliged to ask readers to move with me past the clichés about medieval towns, lest it be thought I write too rosy a picture of them.  Much of what we “know” about them (such as all their streets were narrow and dark and deep in filth, with people throwing rude things out of upper windows) dates from later centuries, when the shifting economics led to the over-population of towns and cities and the accompanying breakdown of their governmental and social structures.  Citizens of medieval towns — quarrelsome and ambitious among themselves though they might be (and the records show they definitely could be) — tended to be very proud and protective of their towns.  Sponsoring fine civic events such as the Corpus Christi plays was one way of showing it, mixing piety and civic promotion in a combination very common throughout medieval England.  The Tudor economics and their Reformation tore much of that to shreds.  For an in-depth look at the inner workings of medieval Coventry, there is The Coventry Leet Book, published by the Early English Text Society.

A number of records exist from medieval Coventry.  Out of them, I have amused myself by using names of some actual citizens in this story.  There was an actual John Burbage listed in the Coventry subsidy of 1434, when John Burbage of Bayly-lane paid 1s.8d, sign of a prosperous man.  Whether he was in any way an ancestor of Shakespeare’s Richard Burbage, I don’t know, but it’s diverting to know that Stratford-upon-Avon is not far from Coventry and that scholars love to speculate that the young Shakespeare may have seen the last performance of these plays in Coventry before the Protestants shut them altogether down.  (Turns out it was not, in the long run, the Lollards whom folk had to worry about.)  So, if we are speculating, let us speculate that the young Shakespeare perhaps met the young Burbage, descendant of John Burbage, then.  (But, no, I am not going to write that story.)

Johanna Byfeld of Much Park Street is likewise in the records.  And in the town records for 1441 is the order that “Richard Eme and all others, who play in the Corpus Christi pageant, shall play well and sufficiently, so that no impediment may arise in any play, on pain of 20s. to the town wall.”

Less happily, the 1431 Lollard uprising and its aftermath are also real, as are the executions, among others, of a Thomas Kydwa and of Alice Garton, just as told here.   For this background, “Lollardy in Coventry and the Revolt of 1431” by Maureen Jurkowski in The Fifteenth Century, vol. 6: Identity and Insurgency in the Late Middle Ages, edited by Linda Clark, was invaluable.

Of course, should you go looking for medieval places in Coventry mentioned and used in this story, you will find little.  The German bombing of 1940 burned out what was left of the medieval heart of the city, including St. Michael’s church (become, by then, St. Michael’s Cathedral) whose shell remains next to the new and glorious cathedral put up in its place for reminder of the great cruelties of mankind and of the grace of forgiveness and mercy.

For a wonderful site for “seeing” Coventry as it was and is, go to  There are maps of Coventry at different times over the centuries, and photographs from the late 1800s into the 21st century.  A journey in time both delightful and sad.

For a clearer understanding of how suicide – a word not used until centuries later – was seen and responded to in medieval times, Alexander Murray’s three-volume Suicide in the Middle Ages was invaluable.

Biblical quotations are from the Bible in English – now known as the Wycliffe Bible — available in England in the 1400s.  Bibles in English were not completely forbidden.  Copies are known to have been owned by several kings, and license from a bishop could be had for lesser people to own one.  The Church’s principal objection to the Bible being in English was the abuse some people made of it, taking from it what they wanted in order to justify what they wanted to do.  It has always sounded better (at least to the perpetrator) to say, “The Bible made me do it.”

By the by, yes, there were organs in medieval England at the time, including portative ones.  Yet again I feel obliged to insist that, despite the tedious media clichés, medieval times should not be summed up as nothing but ignorant, ugly, and brutal, existing under a perpetually overcast sky with plague and warfare every day from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance.  The surviving art and literature and music from the time show a love of complexity, order, and beauty.  Study of the legal structure and the bureaucracy that supported it evidence a society striving to create and maintain an ordered life.  There were of course ugliness and injustices and outbreaks of violence – but those are not exclusive to medieval times and it is grossly unfair to characterize the period as if they were.  Almost needless to say, the simplistic willfulness of those who continue to portray the time as “nothing but nasty”, ignoring everything to the good that the medieval world has to offer, annoys the hell out of me.

Not to mention those who can’t trouble themselves to figure out that how things were in 1250 are not likely to match how things were in 1450.  Think: 1750 versus 1950.  Change happens – in clothing, attitudes, and societal structure.  “Even” in the medieval world.

More cheerfully, for those who also read the Dame Frevisse series and happen to remember a rat-faced spy Joliffe encounters when finding excuse to befriend Arteys in The Bastard’s Tale, you may find that scene plays differently now that you have met Sebastian in A Play of Heresy.

– Margaret

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer

Today is the big wrap-up for our virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy. In a couple of hours I’ll be posting the Author’s Note from the book here on the website. (Be warned! There are spoilers in there!) Meanwhile, vigorous discussions continue on Facebook — and will probably continue into the New Year — and I also recommend following my Twitter account.

In a few days I’m also planning to post a reading guide for you to use with your local bookclubs. Until them, I’d like to wish you all a Happy New Year! I hope you enjoyed the latest tale of Joliffe.

– Margaret

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer


This being their first time on the pageant wagon itself, with stairs to consider and the need to pattern people’s going out of and into the stage house – the place being small enough to make such considerations very necessary – the practice went unevenly, with more thought on how and when and where to move than on what was being said…

Because with these essays I’ve reached a point in A Play of Heresy where the investigation has become everything, leaving little mention of anything else on which to comment, I’m reverting to an issue that has come up at several points during the story – the matter of Anne Deyster’s property.

Very basically, under the law – keeping in mind that what I write here is in very general terms, with allowances to be made for local variations – a woman was considered to be the responsibility of her father, then of her husband.  How stringent the “I am responsible for you, daughter” was held to would depend on the individuals, however.  Since we know unmarried women left home to work as servants or to go into training for trades or even to pursue their own businesses, fathers couldn’t have been in charge of all the unmarried women all the time.  The same was undoubtedly true in marriages, and certainly among merchants it was possible for a woman to become legally a femme sole – a business woman for whose debts her husband could not be held responsible.  Then, in the fullness of time, a widow was considered to be responsible for herself, expected to make her own decisions and run her own life.  To me, this – and common sense – suggests that women were expected to be doing that to a significant degree before widowhood, rather than being powerless pawns in the male lives around them, then abruptly thrust into responsibility.  Social theory is one thing; reality on the ground is usually something else.

The thing is that all but the very poorest of widows would indeed have property to make decisions about, because under the law at all levels of society a woman was held to have a right to one-third of her husband’s property at the time of his death.  The idea was that a husband’s death should not automatically leave a widow impoverished.  Besides this, there could/should have been agreement made at the time of the marriage regarding dowry and dower.  Dowry was what the wife brought to the marriage – money or property or both.  Dower was the money or property or both that the husband promised would go to his wife should she be widowed.  Often the dower would include what she brought to the marriage as dowry, especially if land was involved.

Besides those provisions for her widowhood, a husband could will to his widow however much more of his property/money he wanted (supposing he was high enough in the social order that some or all of his property was not entailed to go to a specific blood-relation).  To some degree how much a man could will away was limited not only by a possible entail but by the automatic legal provision that a man’s children should have one third of their father’s property at his death.  Since, generally speaking, orphans were given into their widowed mother’s care until they came of age, this inheritance came under her control along with her own.

All of this could make for some very wealthy widows among merchants, gentry, and nobility, but even at the more modest level of the village, a widow could be very desirable remarriage material, and many widows did remarry.  But others did not, and although the little given here barely scratches at the complexities there could be in individual situations, I trust it’s clear that Anna Deyster’s widowhood does give her economic options, with choices to consider and the freedom to make them.

For interesting reading and ample bibliographies regarding medieval wives:

Hanawalt, Barbara.  The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London.  Oxford University Press, 2007

Swabey, ffiona.  Medieval Gentlewoman: Life in a Widow’s Household in the Later Middle Ages. Sutton Publishing, 1999.

– Margaret

Follow the virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy on Facebook and Twitter.

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer


In the Silcok’s yard, standing beside the players’ cart, he considered going up to their room, but it was likely busy with sewing women at present.  Sewing and talking.  Possibly talking about the murder, so maybe there was something to be overheard and learned, but he was suddenly aware of being greatly tired, and instead of anything more ambitious, he loosed the rear flaps of the tilt, crawled in, and tied them behind him…

I’ve written elsewhere about the joy I take in vocabulary and my ongoing attempts to use words that are pre-1500 in my (especially later) books.  So, having come across in this chapter the word “splendidious”, I thought to share some of the vocabulary fun I’ve had over the years (110 double-spaced pages of fun) in my quest for properly medieval words.

To start with “splendidious” itself, it seems I was looking up “splendid” in the Oxford English Dictionary (13 volume edition) to see if it was period.  Here’s what I wrote:  “splendid: as such no, but ‘splendidious’ and ‘splendiferous’; whee!”

As you can see, I get enthusiastic over vocabulary.

And so, to continue with this peek into my working notes — with the note that anything in square brackets are comments I’ve added here:

abash/abashance/abashed/abashing/abachment: yes   [I’m itching for a chance to use some of these variants.]

biscuit: yes, orig. ‘bisket’ — “the senseless adoption of the French spelling with the French pronunciation” according to the OED

chirp: in the form ‘chircle’, yes; see also ‘chirm’

dainteous / dainteth / daintiful / daintily / daintive:  yes

daintiness:  no; but it’s fairly well the same as some of the above, so go for it

dainty: n.+ adj., yes

enjoyment:  no; but ‘enjoyse’ is period and means the same

flagrant:  c.1500 and only in the sense of ‘fiery’, ‘blazing’

garbage: as ‘offal’, yes; otherwise, no; try ‘waste’ or ‘refuse’ or ‘rubbish’

handsome: not in looks until late 1500s, it seems, but many other ways; c1430 it was used to mean easy to handle, to manipulate, or to wield or deal with or use in any way             [Hmm.  So a handsome man in the 1400s would be…]

imp: young shoot of a plant 800s; a child 1300s; child of hell 1500s

jog / joggle:  no, but ‘jot’ meant to jog, so I vote for ‘jog’ being okay for a hard-pressed novelist to use

kith:  yes; and ‘kith and kin’ and ‘kin and kith’

libidinous: yes, and don’t forget ‘lewd’ and ‘lecherous’

marbles:  the game, not by this name; ‘boules’, ‘bowles’, ‘bowlys’, knikkers’ (from the Dutch), and ‘billes’ (in France) all seem to be period.

nervous:  in current sense, late 1700s; in sense of having strong sinews, yes; “sinewy, muscular, vigorous, strong”

occasional / occasionally:  no, but Pecock uses ‘occasionarily’ in this sense, so close enough for me

plot: as small piece of ground, yes; n. otherwise, no, but the form ‘complot’ is period; v. no               
: no, but ‘complotter’?

quarrelous: yes  [And of course in any murder mystery you need at least one quarrelous person, yes?]

rascal: 1300s; a raskyl of boys   [So useful around Piers!]

scribble: yes.  c.1465 Plumpton Correspondence: “scrybbled in haste with my own hand in default of other help”

tousled:  yes; ‘touse’ is to handle roughly; drag or push about; of a dog, to tear at, worry

unconcious: not until 1700s; try ‘insensible’

vengeance:  oh, yes, no trouble. Also venge, vengeable, vengeably, vengeant, vengement, venger, vengeress (name of a spear c.1450), vengesour.  But not vengeful; go figure.

whore / whoredom / whorehouse / whoreson:  yes. Not so incidentally, “horeling” is someone who is a fornicator, whoremonger, adulterer, paramour.  [And by the way, “ho” was a medieval slang word for “whore”. But I’d never get away with using it.]

yammer: yes

Alas, somehow I’ve never had occasion to question a word beginning with an x or z, so here I make an end.

– Margaret

Follow the virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy on Facebook and Twitter.

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer


They parted at the corner of Much Park Street and Earl Street, Burbage saying he would be glad to get back to his proper work, Master Waldeve muttering glumly that he might as well find out a new rope before he did anything else.  Joliffe said nothing but plain farewell to them both.  Since Master Waldeve went rightward and Burbage cut slantwise across the street toward his own Bayley Lane, Joliffe went left.  What he needed to do now was find Sebastian.  Or let Sebastian find him…

Often in my books I often cannot explore aspects of medieval life in as much detail as I enjoy.  For the sake of the story, much has to be left out.  As someone wisely said, 90% (or was it 95%?) of what an author researches does not show up in the finished work.

To the good, that large, unused portion of research usually informs what is there, and without it the finished work would be far poorer.  Thus, in readying for A Play of Heresy I read Alexander Murray’s Suicide in the Middle Ages1, to add to what other information I gathered from other sources, and yet very little of Murray’s compendious scholarship made it overtly into the novel.  (I should add, by the way, that rather than being as depressing as I feared Murray’s work might be, it was quite humane and fascinating.)  One thing I brought away was how relatively sympathetically the suicide was treated in medieval England.  On the continent, the usual practice seems to have been to drag the dead body publicly from the site of death through the streets to somewhere outside the town or village, for it then to be thrown into a ditch or river or onto waste land, to rot as it would.  In England, there was no such traumatic treatment of the body, and while there was no possibility of burial in consecrated ground, the suicide having damned their soul beyond salvation, burial was allowed in unconsecrated ground without exposure of the body to elements and animals.

Still, the psychology underlying the medieval view of suicide is intriguing, giving insight as it does into a world view unfamiliar to many of us now.  Suicide and attempted suicide were believed to be caused by melancholy — depression, in modern terms – which “was a particularly noxious complaint” in the Church’s eyes, based on St. Augustine, “since the melancholic’s despair suggested that he was not suffused with joy at the certain knowledge of God’s divine love and mercy”, making the melancholic someone “turning away from all that was holy.”2

Worse, deep melancholy was thought to be caused by the possession of a demon, “since in order to control the victim’s soul the Devil creates the delusions and melancholy which often precede such an attempt” at suicide.3 Exorcism sometimes helped, but sometimes it did not and the devil won, and because the victim succeeded in killing himself while his soul was possessed by a devil, he could be considered nothing else except damned.  That must, inevitably, have added another layer of sorrow to the survivors’ grief, but gives us an insight to a world view no longer predominant in Western culture.

Interestingly, while madness was a recognized defense in medieval English courts (with the rider to be watchful for people faking it), such exculpatory madness was never attributed to the Devil except in the case of suicides, so deep did the conviction run that only someone utterly damned would kill themselves.

As a pedantic aside, no one of course could commit “suicide” in medieval England:  The word “suicide” did not come into use until the 1700s.  Before then, the killing of one’s self was termed “self-murder” (which, by the way, in Latin is suicide) and so I call it that throughout Heresy.

– Margaret

1 Murray, Alexander.  Suicide in the Middle Ages.  Oxford University Press, USA.
2 Solomon, Andrew.  The Noonday Demon. p.292.
3 Goodich, Michael, editor.  Other Middle Ages. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. p.154.

Follow the virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy on Facebook and Twitter.

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer


The household might seem to be waiting for them, but more likely they were all gathered in the kitchen and around the table only because they were just finishing the mid-day meal…

The origins of using a jury to determine guilt or innocence of a crime is rooted so far back in time that scholars write happy reams of speculation on not only when they began but on how they actually functioned.  When matters become somewhat clearer in England around 1200, the problems do not smooth away, because the function and form of juries has proven to be an ongoing process, so that what was true in 1200 was not necessarily still accurate in the 1400s.  But basically, the process of trial began with a jury of presentment.  Their task was to determine who should be tried for whatever crime had been committed.  The matter then went to the petty jury for full trial.

Mind – I said “basically”.  Medieval English juries worked under many different principles than modern ones do, beginning with the fact that rather than being ignorant of the crime and suspect they were trying, medieval English jurors were expected to know about both and “in some cases the presenting jury may have been turned immediately into a trial jury…”1, guaranteeing they were well-acquainted with the case.

Moreover, besides what they were expected to find out for themselves, “Priming a jury with information … was quite in order.  In personal actions the jurors’ names were supposedly given by the sheriff to the parties so they might supply them with information. . . [A] statute of 1427 suggests it had become the practice to supply it before the trial took place.”2 Nonetheless, “At the trial, hearsay was, indeed, taboo and judges must make sure that jurors did not rely upon it.  Jurors must know the truth, and were sworn to tell it to the best of their knowledge.  If, however, they did not know it or possessed imperfect knowledge they could not then support the prosecution, for they must not reach their verdicts on the basis of mere ‘thoughts’.”3 Outside witnesses could be brought in and, like the jurors, were expected to testify to what they knew, not on hearsay or opinion.  “A jury which acquitted in defiance of reason was liable to punishment by the king. . . If the case was one of murder, the jurors, when they returned their verdict, might be asked by the justices who in fact was the guilty party if not the accused.”4 [My bold.]

Now there is a scene that would be great fun to write.

Through the 1300s there was a change toward having the petty jury consist increasingly of “members [who] had not served on the juries which presented the crime.  The king was not at all pleased by this for he felt the chances of conviction were reduced.  Maybe he believed that petty jurors who were meeting the case for the first time might, through their lack of knowledge about it, be lacking in sympathy for the party injured.  Despite the increasing use of the testimony of witnesses [my bold] this fear may not have been unfounded.  Nonetheless, in 1352 Edward III had to give in to popular pressure and agree that no indictor should be put on a petty jury if challenged by the accused.”5

I emphasize the “increasing use of the testimony of witnesses” to counterbalance a tendency in the more simple sources to undervalue the effort that juries were expected to put into finding correct verdicts.  To quote from (gasp!) Wikipedia: “The source of juror knowledge could include first-hand knowledge, investigation, and less reliable sources such as rumor and hearsay” (citing Daniel Klerman, “Was the Jury Ever Self-Informing” Southern California Law Review 77: (2003), 123), which points up the kind of blanket statements that reduce medieval matters to a simplicity they rarely were in reality.

Of course, as with anything to do with the law, none of this was as simple as given here.  There were all manner of nuances and complexities based on time and place and who was involved — and all of those shifted over the medieval centuries.  I like lawyers but you won’t find me trying to write a book centered on one because I’ve done enough research to realize I have no business getting into the mass of complexities medieval law involves, for fear of the myriad pitfalls awaiting me!

– Margaret

1 Bellamy, John.  Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages. 1973. p.145
2 ibid. p.148
3 Pugh, Ralph B.  “Some Reflections of a Medieval Criminologist”.  Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 59 (1973) p.98
4 Bellamy, John.  Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages. 1973. p.151
5 ibid. p.145

Follow the virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy on Facebook and Twitter.

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer


The next day began gray, with low clouds and scudding rain, well suited to Joliffe’s dark humour and, he did not doubt, to a number of other people’s.  It had been bad enough, seeing him hanging there, dead.  Today he would have to look at his body again and did not care even for the thought of that...

By late medieval times in England, the coroner (properly “crowner”) had become the official first-responder where a doubtful and/or unexpected death had occurred.  It was his duty to determine whether the death were accidental and therefore of no interest to the king, or due to a crime and therefore potentially bringing profit to the king through the seizure of property of the guilty.

Lacking an established police force (and no quick way to bring them on the scene anyway), it was the duty of any citizens present or in the vicinity of a crime to apprehend the perpetrator or else, if he was fleeing, to raise the “hue and cry”.  The hue and cry required, by law, that everyone in hearing set out in hot pursuit and, if possible, lay hold on the wrong-doer and afterward keep him secure until the crowner could be summoned to take over the official duty of investigating the crime.

The coroner’s business, when he arrived, was to gather as many facts about the death as possible, both by questioning witnesses and studying the body and the scene of the crime (or whether the death was accidental death), as detailed in The Laws and Customs of England by Henry de Bracton (as translated by Samuel Thorne and published by the Harvard University Press, 1968) where the coroner’s duties are given at length, beginning with, “[Wherever men are found dead] it is the business of the coroners to make diligent inquiry with respect to such, and if they have been slain, as to the slayers, when he is unknown, and therefore, as soon as they have their order … they ought to go to those who have been slain or wounded or drowned or have met untimely deaths … [and] at once and without delay to the place where the dead man has been found, and on their arrival there to order four, five or six of the neigbouring vills to come before them at once and by their oath hold an inquest …  on the slain man…”  The coroner is to ask where he was slain and under what circumstances, and who was present when it happened, and which of them “were guilty as principals and which as accessories, counsellors or instigators.”  Whoever is found guilty by inquest is to be arrested at once “if they are present or can be found elsewhere, and handed over to the sheriff and clapped in gaol.”

On the other hand, if the victim is found in the fields or woods, it is to be learned “whether the dead man was slain where he was found or elsewhere.  If he was not slain there, as may be ascertained by presumptions, often, if he has wounds, by the flow of blood, the traces left by the malefactors are to be promptly and immediately discovered and followed,” whether of cart, horses’ hoofmarks, “the footprints of men or in some other way, according as that may best and most efficiently be done.”  And so on.

In The Medieval Coroner by R.F. Hunnisett goes into great detail regarding all the duties of medieval coroners and other matters concerning them, but here, for now, it’s murder that most occupies us, yes?

– Margaret

Follow the virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy on Facebook and Twitter.

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer


The smiths had begun readying their pageant wagon, too, but had yet to roll it out of its shed into the yard. Their shed being higher than the weavers’, they had been able, so far, to work sheltered against the likely chance of rain. With the westering sunlight slanting low and long into the shed, Joliffe could see the steps from the wagon to the ground were already in place and that the stage house’s frame at the wagon’s far end was up. Deeply involved in his own work as he had been, he had not yet taken in much about other guilds’ plays, but here a thick post fixed to one side of the wagon, a high crosspiece thrusting out to one side, could only be the “tree” from which Judas was said to have hung himself in his despair and guilt. That meant the smiths’ pageant must be the Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion…

To put it in brief: We don’t know what they looked like and we don’t know how they were built.  Not for certain.  Not nearer than reasonable guessing.  We know that they were specially constructed for their purpose and were a considerable investment.  When the Protestants finally brought an end to performances of the medieval cycle plays, one guild’s account book recorded the dismantling and piecemeal sale of its wagon; apparently it was so specialized that it could not be put to another use as it was.

Other details are gleaned in bits and pieces from other account books and from what the plays themselves obviously required in production, but there is nothing definitive – neither how the wagons looked nor how they were used.  Most pictures online and in books are either of much later pageant wagons (take note that Baroque extravaganzas from the 1600s do not accurately reflect medieval stages) – or not wagons at all (they lack wheels and are obviously simply scaffolds, no matter what the label says) – or are attempts at reconstruction by people who extrapolate strenuously, sometimes beyond the evidence, in the attempt to make a medieval pageant wagon that could carry the burden of technological complications the author thinks are required for an effective production, even if sometimes that means adding an unwarranted second wagon.

These latter recreations are done apparently by people without actual theatrical experience, unaware of how little it takes to carry an audience imaginatively anywhere director and cast want them to go, but that is a theme for another essay altogether.  Here I have to confess that in writing A Play of Heresy I never had to go into heavy-duty detail on the structure of the pageant wagons or how they looked beyond superficial matters like paint and the position of the stagehouse.  The story doesn’t require more than that, and to include unnecessary details would have been self-indulgent.

Unfortunately for me, I wanted to understand more.  First, there’s the matter of balancing the wagon itself – balance and counterbalance so there’s no danger of tipping.  And the position of the stagehouse for at least one of the plays in the book.  And size.  And proportions.  And… And… And…

I was working things out in my head at the point when my editor asked if I had a picture of what a pageant wagon looked like.  Herewith are the sketches I sent her of my guesses.  You can judge for yourself whether they were of any interest to the cover artist, but they certainly served to settle my thoughts as I moved forward with the story.

Medieval Pageant Wagons - Margaret Frazer

Medieval Pageant Wagon - Margaret Frazer

– Margaret

Follow the virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy on Facebook and Twitter.

A Play of Heresy - Margaret Frazer


Joliffe took in that bit of information with a jolt deep in his guts.  Was still finding his way to some response when Sebastian said with less satisfaction, “Not that that suffices to prove anything…”

In the early days of new prosperity for Basset’s company, Joliffe treated himself to a small book of poems by Thomas Hoccleve, purchased from a scrivener in London.  If you’d not heard of Hoccleve before then, I’m not particularly surprised.  Despite his poetry seeming to have been reasonably popular in his own time (born in the late 1360s; died 1426), it afterward fell from notice for a few centuries, was then noticed and denigrated by scholars for a few generations, and only in the latter half of the 1900s began to be appreciated again.

Hoccleve himself admired and knew his contemporaries Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, and seems to have actually been one of several scribes who copied out some manuscripts of their work.  His admiration did not keep him from a personal creative vigor all his own, though, including a wry willingness to write against the grain of fashion.  Where it was common practice to set poems in the fair, green days of Spring, he began one long work with:

“After that harvest had inned his sheaves,                                                      [brought in]
And that the brown season of Michaelmas
Was come, and began the trees rob of their leaves . . .
And they into color of yellowness
Had died and been down thrown underfoot . . .”

And whereas it was commonplace to have a poem take place as a dream to the poet, Hoccleve instead preferred to keep the moment intensely awake and personal as:

“And in the end of November, upon a night,
Sighing sore, as I in my bed lay,
For this and other thoughts which many a day,
Before, I took, sleep came none in my eye,
So vexed me the thoughtful malady.”                                    [melancholy/depression]

Indeed, he was very much the poet of the personal, to a degree that only the captive Charles, duke of Orleans matched in England at the time.

Hoccleve worked for his living all his life as a government clerk in the Office of the Privy Seal at Westminster, but at some point in his life he had some manner of mental breakdown – “…the substance of my memory, Went away to play for a certain time…”  — so severe that it incapacitated him and frightened people away from him.  When he recovered, he wrote of that, too – the anguish of losing control of his thoughts, the friends who deserted him, and his struggle to recover, all the while questioning the reason why it happened to him.

Hoccleve seems to me very much a poet who would appeal to Joliffe, both for his wry humor and deep thoughtfulness, as well as for his rich use of words.  I personally think I may keep for my own use in moments of severe irk, “Vexation of spirit and torment, Lack I right none.  I have them in plenty”!

There’s a quite satisfactory Wikipedia article about him, including a contemporary painting of him presenting one of his works to the future Henry V, and a painting of his much-admired Geoffrey Chaucer that Hoccleve included in a manuscript of his own poems as a “remembrance” of Chaucer for the sake of those who had not known him or had forgotten what he looked like – an endearing gesture on Hoccleve’s part toward a man he never ceased to admire.

There are various modern editions of his works.  From my own library, I can recommend:

Hoccleve, Thomas. “My compleinte” and Other Poems. ed. Roger Ellis.  University of Exeter Press, 2001.
Hoccleve, Thomas. The Regiment of Princes. ed. Charles R. Blyth.  Medieval Institute Publication, 1999.

– Margaret

Follow the virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy on Facebook and Twitter.

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © Margaret Frazer. All rights reserved.