The Bookseller’s Tale, Oxford Medieval Mystery #1

by Dee
Dee

Dee

The Bookseller's Tale

The Bookseller’s Tale has a beautiful cover that immediately drew me to read it. It’s such an illustrious cover for a Medieval murder mystery. The series has six books listed in Goodreads, and I feel ready to be acquainted with new people and their stories. I find the title is quite intriguing for this genre, and it made me curious about the connection with the book’s theme. Is this about a murder of a bookseller? Or the bookseller is the murderer? Is/are the murder(s) related to something about books?

The Bookseller’s Tale is set in 1353’s Oxford, four years after the pestilence that devastated the town’s population. This is a theme that I’m interested in because I love the imagined reality of how people build their lives after such a great pestilence.

Featured image by: Camino Jimenez, Pexels

Tale of the Bookseller

Another series means another set of characters that I will spend my energy on to feel connected. This is why backstory is always an essential element in series. I’m happy to report that I read two variations of such introduction in a row, one with The Unquiet Bones and the other one with The Bookseller’s Tale.

The first chapter of The Bookseller’s Tale is a proper introduction that sets the tone and reveals almost all of the characters of the series. Nicholas Elyot, an Oxford dropout (I’m a bit unfair here…) who inherited a bookshop from his late father-in-law, is the stationarius and librarius of the University of Oxford. He has a love-hate relationship with the campus, which I definitely can relate to. His bookshop sells peciae, quills, and other books needed by the students.

I’ll be honest, Ann Swinfen doesn’t have to ornate her stories like anybody else to get me hooked. I couldn’t put the book down since I started Chapter One. The Bookseller’s Tale began when Alysoun tried to get permission from her father, Nicholas Elyot, to adopt a puppy from John Baker, their neighbour.

I don’t know why but I feel a deep connection with this first chapter. I loved how the lives of the Elyot household with their daily happenings and issues was illustrated in this chapter. The household consists of Nicholas, Alysoun, Rafe, and Margaret Makepeace (neé Elyot, Nicholas’ sister). Both Nicholas and Margaret lost their respective spouses in the pestilence, as were most of the people of Oxford at that time.

The description on how the bookshop is operating was also quite interesting. This is not the bookshop I know as a 21st-century person—this is something else. Nicholas employed two scriveners: Walter Blunt and Roger Pigot who help him run the place. I believe I am about to be educated by how the book trade is conducted in the 14th century Oxford.

The Bookseller’s Problems

Nicholas found a body floating in the river Cherwell as he walked back from Yardley’s farm, collecting feathers for his quill inventory. Struggling by himself to retrieve the body as to not let it float away to the Thames, Nicholas was helped by two passersby; one of them accused him of murdering the dead guy. To his surprise, Nicholas recognised the body. It was of William Farringdon who, not two hours ago, was a visitor to his bookshop.

William Farringdon was a student of Oxford and had talents in the arts of illumination. As the story continues, his fellow students regarded William as a helping hand, and everyone seemed to like him. The looming questions in The Bookseller’s Tale are: who murdered William and why?

Anyways, this strained relationship between the towns and the gowns left Nicholas unsatisfied as to how William’s death was handled. Since William was a student, the sheriff and the bailiff didn’t feel the urgency to solve the matter and preferred to leave it to the university’s hands. The problem is nobody could say definitively that the manner of William’s death was not suicide. Nobody saw him being attacked, but nobody also saw him plunge himself to death.

Out of compassion for William, Nicholas, then joined by Jordain, tried as they might to solve the murder of William Farringdon and get the justice he deserves. Granted, the town’s coroners agreed the manner of William’s death is by no means suicide. They saw the stab wound Nicholas discovered not long after he pulled William out of the river.

But there wasn’t any particularly suspicious behaviour in The Bookseller’s Tale that pointed out one possible solution. Nicholas and Jordain (also me, as a reader) had inklings from clues they found after they visited William’s dorm room. But they’re merely inklings. It felt kind of weird that the university didn’t seem to be taken aback by William’s death.

Nevertheless, the focus of finding the murderer(s) intertwined with the daily goings-on of the bookshop, the chattery of Alysoun and Rafe, also with Nicholas’ back and forth with the town’s authorities. As the story dwindled towards the end, the tension is suddenly heightened when Alysoun was missing.

Up to that point, Nicholas and Jordain seemed to be calm and collected as they gathered evidence and uncovered the culprit’s identity(s). Everything is revealed slightly later than I’d like, but it paid off. Ann Swinfen hid one essential character for the ending, only mentioning them in passing within previous chapters. To be quite honest, I didn’t expect such an important clue was hidden with this person. I also didn’t expect the ending… Was justice served? I won’t spoil it.

Verdict

The Bookseller’s Tale left a mark on my heart and brain. I love it. This is a book that is carefully thought of and written. I loved that The Bookseller’s Tale reminded me of the times when we, humans, were kind towards each other. Also, this book is clean.

The Bookseller’s Tale: Conclusion

There are two personal takeaways from this book. One, this a book about greed. The message that spoke loudest to me was the greed of university members to gain more by exploiting young and eager students. Where have I heard that before? Oh, right! My own story. Fortunately, mine didn’t end with a murder. Or was it unfortunate?

Two, this book is about compassion and humanity. I loved that The Bookseller’s Tale reminded me of the times when we, humans, were kind towards each other. Perhaps I should extend the period of me shutting off the news feed. This book is heart-warming to me, the way Nicholas and Jordain jumped to the quest on finding William’s killer(s), the motherly gestures of Margaret, the carefree Alysoun, Rafe, and the puppy…

I have learnt so much just reading two hundred or so pages of The Bookseller’s Tale. My additional readings span from the pecia system to the town-and-gown tradition to abbesses of Godstow Abbey to Faddan More Psalter. I couldn’t help myself but roam around the world wide web for what is called an Irish Psalter. I can imagine there was plenty of this type of book during this period, probably stored in various museums today.

During my reading, I chose to have Faddan More in my mind as the Irish Psalter being copied by William. In my imagination, that was the book being copied, and then somehow found its way back to Ireland, and then it got lodged in a bog until its finding in 2006.

The Bookseller’s Tale also taught me about the town-and-gown thing. Having spent my bachelor studies in a city with a similar setting, I must admit that the custom is not palpable in mine. Gathered from my reading, going as far back as 1209, towns and gowns didn’t always go well together. The previous book I read, The Unquiet Bones, mentioned the St Scholastica Day riot on 10 February 1355.  

I was introduced to the significance of Godstow Abbey in Ariana Franklin’s The Death Maze. I remember that I wrote a review mentioning the period when Rosamund Clifford stayed there. The description of Godstow Abbey in The Bookseller’s Tale is much more elaborate and detailed. I favour this version more because the words somehow transferred me to Godstow Abbey of that period, and not the ruins that it is today.

The Bookseller’s Tale left a mark on my heart and brain. I love it. I love how the story was written, arranged, and delivered. Ann Swinfen is such a remarkable author. No, wait… Ann Swinfen was such a remarkable author. As the case with Ariana, I just found out that Ann Swinfen passed away in 2018. My heart was warmed and stolen at the same time by this book. I promised myself that I will allocate time to read the rest of the series, although I’m also heartbroken that there will no longer be a continuation after the sixth book.

Words I Learnt

  • eke: manage to support oneself or make a living with difficulty.
  • bejant: from French, bec jaune, “yellow beak,” was a term for freshmen or undergraduates of the first year (Wikipedia to the rescue!)
  • impudent: not showing due respect for another person; impertinent.
  • bedraggled: dirty and dishevelled
  • sluice: a sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate.
  • nobbut: nothing but (dialectal British)
  • distrained: to force or compel to satisfy an obligation by means of a distress
  • pettifogging: a lawyer whose methods are petty, underhanded, or disreputable
  • one groat: groat is the traditional name of a defunct English and Irish silver coin worth four pence, and also a Scottish coin which was originally worth fourpence, with later issues being valued at eightpence and one shilling. (Wikipedia)
  • weir: low head dam
  • fritillaries: Fritillaria is a genus of spring flowering herbaceous bulbous perennial plants in the lily family.
  • eddy: a circular movement of water, counter to a main current, causing a small whirlpool.
  • quandary: a difficult situation; a practical dilemma.
  • cerecloth: waxed cloth used for wrapping a corpse.
  • temerity: excessive confidence or boldness; audacity.
  • stridulation: the act of producing sound by rubbing together certain body parts, mostly associated with insects.
  • countenance: a person’s face or facial expression.
  • sidled: walk in a furtive, unobtrusive, or timid manner, especially sideways or obliquely.
  • mendicant: given to begging.
  • carrel: a small enclosure or study in a cloister.
  • mettle: a person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.
  • tantamount: equivalent in seriousness to; virtually the same as.

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