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Bruce Holsinger has won prizes for his nonfiction books on the medieval period from the Modern Language Association and the Medieval Academy of America.
He’s also a professor in the English department at the University of Virginia.
But when he decided to write a fiction book set in the middle ages, he discovered how much he didn’t know.
“Every two sentences, there’d be a speed bump there where I had to slow down and look something up and I started to realize, you know, I know so much less about this period,” Holsinger told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “But that was a remarkable and pleasurable process to realize the depth of my ignorance and to remedy it.”
The result is Holsinger’s new novel “A Burnable Book,” which takes place during the reign of Richard the Second.
Poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower are caught up in the search for a mysterious book that may or may not predict the death of the king.
By Bruce Holsinger
Newgate, Ward of Faryndon
If you build your own life around the secret lives of others, if you erect your house on the corrupt foundations of theirs, you soon come to regard all useful knowledge as your due. Information becomes your entitlement. You pay handsomely for it; you use it selectively and well. If you aren’t exactly trusted in certain circles, you are respected, and your name carries a certain weight. You are rarely surprised, and never deceived.
Yet there may come a time when your knowledge will betray you. A time when you will find even the brightest certainties—of friendship, of family, even of faith—dimming into shadows of bewilderment. When the light fails and belief fades into nothingness, and the season of your darkest ignorance begins.
Mine fell in the eighth year of Richard’s reign, over that span of weeks separating the sobriety of Lent from the revelry of St. Dunstan’s Day. London often treats the passing of winter into spring with cold indifference. That year was no different. February had been an unforgiving month, March worse, and as the city scraped along toward April the air seemed to grow only more bitter, the sky more gray, the rain more penetrating as it lifted every hint of warmth from surfaces of timber and stone.
At street level Monksblood’s stood open to the weather, a brick wedged beneath the alley door. I leaned in and gave a nod to the keeper. He tossed me a jar. At the foot of the stairs sat his daughter, a slight thing of about eight. With her foot resting on the next cask, she angled my jar beneath the tap and carefully turned the bronze spigot. I dropped a few pennies in her little palm. A wan smile, tired eyes bright for a moment beneath her shining brow, then she looked past me and up the stairs, waiting for her father’s next fish.
With the sour ale on my tongue I surveyed the undercroft tavern, lit weakly by a row of lanterns dangling from heavy beams. The tables were nearly empty, just two groups of men clustered along the hearth. Masons, fresh from work on the bridge. I got a few sullen looks. Steam rising from damp clothes, the muffled clatter of boots overhead.
In the far corner my friend sat alone, frowning into his jar as his finger traced a slow arc around its mouth. He seemed coiled on the bench, his brow knit, his eyes narrowed in concentration, the whole of him tensed against some unspoken thought.
“Geoffrey,” I said, and moved forward.
Half-turning with a start, he rose, his face blossoming into a smile. “Mon ami.” He spread his hands.
As my arms wrapped his frame I felt the familiar surge of anticipation: for court gossip, for poetic banter, for news of mutual acquaintances. Yet beneath the thin coat I also felt ribs, hard against tightened skin. Chaucer had lost a couple of stone that winter; there was less to him since his latest return from abroad, and his unfashionable surcoat, of undyed wool cut simply with straight sleeves, lent an almost rural aspect to his bearing. Normally he would dress like a bit of a fop. I wondered what explained the change.
For a while we just drank, saying nothing, two hounds sniffing around after a long separation.
Eventually he leaned over the board. “How has it been, John? You know…”
I looked away. “Let’s not bleed that wound, Geoff.”
He let that hang, then touched my elbow. “I hope it’s started to heal, at least.”
“I had her things removed and sold at Candlemas—most of them.”
Candlemas: purification, purging, the scouring of the soul and the larder. I thought, as I hadn’t in weeks, of Sarah’s prayerbook, its margins and flyleaves full of her jottings. It was one of the few of her possessions I had kept.
Chaucer moved his hand away.
There was a long silence, then Chaucer sighed, tapped his fingers. “John, I need a small favor.”
Of course you do. “Go on.”
“I’m looking for a book.”
“I’ve heard it was in the hands of one of Lancaster’s hermits.”
I watched his eyes. “Why can’t you get it for yourself?”
“Because I don’t know who has it, or where it is at the moment.”
“And who does know?”
He raised his chin, his jaw tight. I knew that look. “Katherine Swynford, perhaps. If a flea dies in Lancaster’s household she’ll have heard about it. Ask her.”
“She’s your sister-in-law, Geoff.” I felt a twinge of misgiving. However innocent on its face, no request from Chaucer was ever straightforward. “Why not ask her yourself?”
“She and Philippa are inseparable. Katherine won’t see me.”
“So you’re asking me to approach her?”
He took a small sip.
“Why me?” I said.
“How to put it?” He pretended to search for words, his hands flitting about on the table.
“This job needs a subterranean man, John. A man who knows this city like the lines in his knuckles, its secrets and surprises. All those shadowed corners and blind alleyways where you do your nasty work.”
I gazed fondly at him, thinking of Simon, and so much else. It was one of the peculiarities of our intimacy that Chaucer seemed to appreciate talents no one else would value in a friend.
Here comes John Gower, it was murmured at Westminster and the Guildhall; hide your ledgers. Hide your thoughts. For knowledge is currency. It can be traded and it can be banked, and more secretly than money. The French have a word for informers: chanteurs, and information is a song of sorts. A melody poured in the ears of its eager recipients, every note a hidden vice, a high crime, a deadly sin. Or some kind of illicit antiphon, its verses whispered among opposed choirs of the living and the dead.
We live in a hypocritical age. An age that sees bishops preaching abstinence while running whores. Pardoners peddling indulgences while seducing wives. Earls pledging fealty while plotting treason. Hypocrites, all of them, and my trade is the bane of hypocrisy, its worth far outweighing its perversion. I practice the purest form of truthtelling. Quite profitably, too. The second son of a moderately wealthy knight has some choices: the law, the royal bureaucracy, Oxford or Cambridge, the life of a monk or a priest. Yet I would rather have trapped grayling in the Severn for a living than taken holy orders, and it was clear that my poetry would never see the lavishments from patrons that Chaucer’s increasingly enjoyed. Yet I’ll never forget the thrill I felt when that first coin of another man’s vice fell into my lap, and I realized what I had—and how to use it. Since then I have become a trader in information, a seller of suspicion, a purveyor of foibles and the hidden things of private life. I work alone and always have, without the trappings of craft and creed. John Gower. A guild of one.
“You can’t be direct with her about it,” Chaucer was saying. “This is a woman who takes the biggest cock in the realm between her legs. She’s given Lancaster three bastards at last count—or is it four?” He waited, gauging my reaction.
“What is this book, Geoff? What does it look like? What’s in it?”
He stared again at a spot on the wall, his gaze unfocused and vague. “To be honest with you, John, I don’t know. What I do know is that this book could hurt me.”He blinked and looked at some spot on the wattle behind me.
Then, in a last whisper of French, “It could cost me my life.”
Our eyes locked, and I wondered in that instant, as I would so often in the weeks to come, what price such a book might extract from my oldest friend. He broke the tension with one of his elvish smiles. “If you can do this for me, John, get me this book, I’ll be greatly in your debt.”
As you are so deeply in mine, he did not say; nor did he need to, and in his position neither would I. I left Monksblood’s that morning bound to perform this ‘small favor,’ as Chaucer had called it, for the one man in all the world I could never refuse. The man who knew my own darkest song.
Excerpted from the book A BURNABLE BOOK by Bruce Holsinger. Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Holsinger. Reprinted with permission of William Morrow.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Open medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger's debut novel "A Burnable Book" and you're immediately immersed in another world, London 1385. Poet Geoffrey Chaucer has yet to complete "The Canterbury Tales," now the staple of college classes. And a book that has been written is something that people are willing to kill for because it appears to predict the death of a king. Chaucer charges his friend, John Gower, a lesser poet, with finding that book because, as Chaucer says, this job needs a subterranean man, a man who knows this city like the lines of his knuckles, its secrets and surprises. Gower is that man. He's a traitor of information, something he came upon - well, let him explain.
BRUCE HOLSINGER: The second son of a moderately wealthy knight has some choices: the law, the royal bureaucracy, Oxford or Cambridge, the life of a monk or a priest. I would rather have trapped grayling in the Severn for a living than taken Holy Orders, and it was clear that my poetry would never see the lavishments from patrons that Chaucer's increasingly enjoyed. Yet I shall never forget the thrill I felt when that first coin of another man's vice fell into my lap, and I realized what I had and how to use it.
YOUNG: Got that? It might take a minute. But soon, the rhythms of medieval speech and life become as familiar as, oh, reading a "Game of Thrones." Bruce Holsinger's new book is called "A Burnable Book." We meet not only Gower and Chaucer but butchers and prostitutes, all caught up in a plot against King Richard II. Bruce Holsinger is currently on leave from his job as a professor at the University of Virginia. He joins us from WCVE in Richmond to talk about it all. Bruce, welcome.
HOLSINGER: Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.
YOUNG: And how much fun did you have?
HOLSINGER: I had so much fun writing this book. It was one of the great pleasures of my life, one of the great intellectual challenges of my life, too.
YOUNG: Well - because we have to say, people are thinking, oh, Chaucer, you know, he's someone's bawdy. I remember that. He's a little bit randy. Someone stepped their butt out a window. They made fart jokes.
HOLSINGER: Yeah, yeah.
YOUNG: This is - I actually gave this book to a young person to read it and wondered if I should, because this really tells what life was like for prostitutes and church leaders who were seeing prostitutes. I mean, this goes beyond bawdy.
HOLSINGER: It's way beyond bawdy. And I think the Middle Ages are beyond bawdy. This was a society that was - its literature was obsessed with the dark side of life, a lot of medieval literature is crime literatures. Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale" tells us about a triple homicide. The Icelandic sagas and medieval drama are all obsessed with crime and true crime. So I, you know, it was very dark period. And Chaucer is a poet who's not just interested in a sunny bawdy side of life but in the darker sides of life too.
YOUNG: Well, in this case, in a very dark tale about a potential prophecy that the king is going to be killed. How much of this is real? Start with Chaucer himself in this book, his character in this book. Was he really the controller of the customs for the port of London?
HOLSINGER: Yes, he was. He was the controller of Royal Custom, which was a royal appointment. Soon after the events set in this book, he became justice of the peace for the county of Kent and also a member of parliament. And Chaucer had a very public life. He was a public official.
YOUNG: And how about John Gower, who becomes our guide and narrator largely through the book. A lesser poet, you write, but a real one?
HOLSINGER: Absolutely a real one. And we know a lot less about Gower than we do about Chaucer's life, seems not to have been documented as well. But what we do know is very intriguing. He was a close and apparently longtime friend of Chaucer. And the way I like to imagine his literally friendship with Chaucer, in some ways, Gower plays - in this book anyway - Gower plays Salieri to Chaucer's Mozart or - and I like that idea of a slightly bitter rivalrous, artistic friendship, and that's how I imagine their relationship.
YOUNG: Did know you - were you walking around - you are a medieval scholar. Did you - where you walking around with all of this information or - and I wondered because you say in the notes to the reader, after half a career spent studying and teaching the literature of the Middle Ages, I found it - surprised to realize to realize I couldn't answer a simple question from my younger son: Did they have forks?
YOUNG: You headed your research. So how much of this came out of research even you had to do? And how much was just, ah, this is too good, this information. There's got to be a novel here.
HOLSINGER: Well, I think part of it is that I thought for so long and thought I could do this. And when I sat down and started to write the story, it's like every two sentences, there'd be a speed bump there where I had to slow down and look something up. And I started to realize, you know, I know so much less about this period. But that was a remarkable and pleasurable process, to realize the depth of ignorance and to remedy it.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, what about the language? It's very familiar in some places here. I've just opened a page. She felt a dark and secret thrill. We get that. Then as we just heard: I would rather have trapped grayling on the Severn. What does that mean? And how much was it important for you to speak in the language of the time even though there are times when I felt myself, you know, thinking, OK. I might even need to look some of this up.
HOLSINGER: Yeah. Well, grayling is a kind of fish, the Severn is a river. What I was trying to do there is simply imagine now he might have thought about his situation. But one of the great things about working with medieval sources is, every old word is an archive in itself. And you can really see Middle English vocabulary coming to life in medieval poetry. And one of the things I like to do is have unfamiliar words that - I don't think you have to look them up - but having the context of the story explain them and have - in every case, I want them to be at the service of the story, because I think the story has to come first.
YOUNG: Well - and I didn't look them up.
YOUNG: I mean - because you're right because they become a groundswell.
HOLSINGER: That's right.
YOUNG: They'll pull you along through the book. And suddenly, you're in that time and we love to be in that time. Look around at all the popular literature right now. I mentioned "Game of Thrones," but it feels as if everybody is returning to this sort of mystical medieval time to write. Is that part of what prompted you as well, you know, I'm a scholar in this time period?
HOLSINGER: It is. And I'm also very interested in the endurance of the Middle Ages in the modern world. And so many of our institutions come from that period: universities, jury trials, in some ways, government bureaucracies. The printing press is an invention of the Middle Ages, not an invention of the Renaissance. And I think that we definitely have so much of that still with us, still part of our culture and our language, certainly in the Western world.
YOUNG: Is that why you make a book the centerpiece of the novel, the "Burnable Book," of the title.
HOLSINGER: Yes. This book is a - something that I thought very carefully about. And I actually wrote the prophecies from beginning to end before starting to tell the story. So the 13th prophecy, the one that foretells the death of Richard II, they're all written in a alliterative verse, a kind of poetry that you'd find in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." And I tried to do it in such a way that each prophecy would encrypt some secrets that Gower and the other figures have to trace down and decipher in order to figure out who's behind this conspiracy and who's behind this book.
And medieval culture had a very particular way of thinking about books and about written language. Books were materials things. They're written on animal skin. The culture is very self-conscious about that, about what it means to write on skin, what it means to have skin. The body of Christ, there's a charter to be written on human flesh as a book. So those kinds of analogies, those kinds of metaphors between the book and the body, between writing in the flesh, those are very important for this culture. And they're things that I tried to bring out on this novel.
YOUNG: Boy, when are you coming back from your leave of absence so we can take your course?
HOLSINGER: I teach again in the fall.
YOUNG: Well, it just sounds terrific. You know, I mean, it's a rare book where the characters can make joke about Sir Gawain and Lancelot, and you can get it. It's a joke of the day.
HOLSINGER: And to be honest, there are a few little inside jokes from medievalist colleagues that will get a laugh in an audience of medievalists more than at your average bookstore.
YOUNG: Can you give us one of those medieval jokes?
HOLSINGER: Yes. One of them is when Gower is talking about Chaucer, and he says, Chaucer gave me that elvish smile of his. And Chaucer, in a very self-deprecating moment in "The Canterbury Tales" described a character that's supposed to be him or at least supposed to be the narrator of the framed narrative in "The Canterbury Tales" and described him as elvish.
YOUNG: You medieval scholars are a laugh riot.
HOLSINGER: Back-slapping. Aren't we? Isn't it just...
YOUNG: Bruce Holsinger, his debut novel is "A Burnable Book." It is just a very compelling one as well. Bruce Holsinger, thanks so much.
HOLSINGER: Thank you, Robin. It's been a pleasure.
YOUNG: And again, Jeremy, maybe not for kids. It was pretty steamy back in those medieval times, it turns out.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I think we might be able to get a medieval reference on the show every day. I think Jerry Brown, the governor of California brought up medieval times last week when he was talking about the high-speed train.
YOUNG: They're in now. HERE AND NOW is production of NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.