A Renaissance Mystery Wrapped in a Medieval Enigma

Author S. J. Parris (a nom de plume for Stephanie Merritt) is new to my acquaintance, and I am very glad to have made it. Her newly released novel, Sacrilege (Doubleday, April 2012) is third in her series of Giordano Bruno mysteries, and so far the only one I have read. That is a state of affairs I plan to remedy as soon as possible.

According to Parris’ web site, she developed a love of history while a student at Cambridge, especially the history of the Renaissance period. In Sacrilege, this love of history is evident not just in the complexly woven plot, but also in the clear descriptions of life in a civilization long on treachery and short on public sanitation. You can almost smell the surroundings she describes and their unwashed denizens.

The Brits love their history, and with good reason. Their history is replete with such luminaries as Thomas Becket, the archbishop who defied a king and who was murdered for his obstinacy; Henry II, the king indirectly responsible for Becket’s murder and the man who instituted the common law; Queen Elizabeth I, the woman who ruled far better than her father and who guided England through its Golden Age; and a young Italian scholar named Giordano Bruno.

Giordano Bruno is, sadly, lost to most history courses, even though his philosophy influenced the thinking of the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, and his cosmology influenced Galileo. Bruno was a brilliant young man who could not long suffer the intellectual strictures of the Dominican Order, left, and began to wander philosophically and literally through Europe. He found favor with the King of France, and for a time served as his envoy to England. At some point, he may have served as a spy for Walsingham.

These are some of the characters and this is the milieu of Sacrilege, a thriller that starts with a cry for Bruno’s help from a woman he once had a dalliance with. She has been accused of murder in the town of Canterbury. The victim: her abusive husband. Bruno, who still has feelings for the woman, is taken in by her story and seeks the approval of his spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, to go to Canterbury to investigate. Walsingham is at first reluctant. However, he is also concerned about plots by Catholics in Canterbury to depose the queen and reinstate the Catholic faith, and feels that Bruno might be able to develop information about such a plot if, in fact, one did exist. Walsingham acquiesces, and Bruno and Sophia Underhill—the wronged wife– set off on their journey to clear her name and find the real murderer of her husband.

S. J. Parris (from her web site)

Once there, Bruno renews his pursuit of Sophia and this time he finds his attentions warmly reciprocated. Or hotly reciprocated, rather. He also uncovers a plot on the part of some of the town canons and burghers to aid the invasion of England by the King of Spain and to unite Catholic insurgents by restoring the lost relics of Thomas Becket, which were supposedly destroyed by Henry VIII. The investigation also connects the abduction and brutal murders of young boys from the town, although Bruno is at a loss to understand how they tie into the plot. The outcome is truly a surprise, as is the identity of the murderer of Sophia’s husband.

The beauty of this plot is that it is constructed on an edifice of accurate history and on real historical controversy: Was Bruno, in fact, a spy of Walsingham’s? Were Becket’s bones destroyed by Henry VIII or did pious monks spirit those bones to safety? If so, could a future restoration of the Catholic faith in England have been one of their motives? As recently as 1988, workers unearthed a corpse that might well have been his. Scholars still disagree, however, and it remains one of history’s mysteries. But to Parris, it is all crystal clear. Parris spins a tight web whose interstices you must pull apart carefully in order to reveal the entire construct.

Historical footnote: In 1600, the Roman Inquisition arrested the real Giordano Bruno because of his various heretical ‘opinions,’ and he died a horrible death by hanging—upside down, gagged, and naked—over the flames that consumed him. The same Cardinal Inquisitor who served as one of his judges, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, later figured in the first trial of Galileo. Pope Pius XI canonized Bellarmine in 1930. The Vatican acknowledged its errors in the treatment of both men some 400 years after their conviction. It’s all better now.

Rating (4/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

One thought on “A Renaissance Mystery Wrapped in a Medieval Enigma

  1. Nice review. This was a very intriguing period in British history, with constant changing of fortunes between Catholics and Protestants, and plenty of treachery too.

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