Thursday, December 24

A Christmas Eve Medieval Murder

 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

  Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…

…and especially not Brother Cuthbert of Fairmore Abbey in my second Stanton and Barling novel, The Monastery Murders. It opens on Christmas Eve, with poor Cuthbert dispatched in the most grisly manner by an unknown hand. 

I would love to be able to state here that there was a profound reason for setting the book at Christmas. But it was a totally pragmatic one: I needed snow for my plot, and lots of it! January is the best month for that here in the UK. 

Calendar page for January c1500 British Library

Then I had to decide on specific days for the timeline of the novel. I have an introduction scene to Stanton and Barling where they are attending a bear baiting in London, just before they are called to the above mentioned first murder. Some readers have commented about how the bear baiting scene really set the tone for the book, but what a difficult read that scene was to read. I can completely understand that, as it was very difficult for me to research and to write. 

For those who don’t know, bear baiting was a barbaric sport that was hugely popular in medieval times and continued to be so for many hundreds of years. A bear would be chained to a pit and forced to fight a number of dogs let loose upon it. Bears were extremely valuable and tended to be kept alive to face this terrifying torment over and over again. The dogs faced death as well as mutilation. I wish I could say that this truly horrible spectacle is now firmly in the past, but sadly not. It’s still carried out in many parts of the world, both openly or in illegal fights.

Bearbaiting, mid 14th century England British Library

What was important in terms of timing for my novel was that bear baiting was a major spectator sport and took place on feast days. Feast days were literally red-letter days on the medieval calendar, of which more later. They consisted of Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and Epiphany, along with an elaborate calendar of commemorations and feasts of saints.  They were similar to our holidays, in that people were excused from work and ate and drank as richly as they were able and took part in leisure activities. January 1st was celebrated as a feast day. January 1st—New Year’s Day, right? Wrong. 

For much of the medieval period, the beginning of the year varied and dates other than January 1st could be used:  March 25 (the feast of the Annunciation), Easter (the date of which varied and still does) and 25 December (the Nativity/Christmas). The reason for this was that there were two separate calendars in play. On the one hand was the Julian or Roman calendar, which is very similar to today’s. On the other was the liturgical calendar, which was laid out according to the feasts of the Christian year.  

Calendar page January c1497 British Library

In the liturgical calendar, Christmas is a twelve-day feast. In case you’re thinking the medievals had it easy, think again: the entire season of Advent, in which people prepared for Christmas, was one of fasting. January 1st, the eighth day, was celebrated as the Octave of Christmas, so that worked. My bear baiting was taking place when it should have. When I figured out times for the news of the murder to reach London, it worked out perfectly that Brother Cuthbert had been murdered on Christmas Eve. 

And, yes—that was a lot of work to get Stanton and Barling some snow! And if you want to find out what really happened to the unlucky Brother Cuthbert, then you can find your copy of The Monastery Murders here

Merry Christmas, all!

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 

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