(creator: Sharan Newmanl)
|Catherine LeVendeur is, when we first meet her in 1139, an 18 year old novice at the Convent of the Paraclete in France, where her abbess is Héloïse (formerly of Héloïse and Abelard fame). Catherine is, her father realises, "not beautiful, not with that dark hair and strong chin, but such eyes! Norman blue. All the more startling through the black brows ... She was the most irritating, bewildering, troublesome child. Always too clever for a woman; always wanting to know what and why." But he warns his knights that she "has the sharpest mind and the clearest understanding of anyone here".
Abbess Héloïse tells her that, "You are the most brilliant scholar here ... you know it. You love your books more than your Maker". She also has a gift for figures but can be clumsy when handling things, and is ever liable to trip over. If there is a heap of mud. she is the one most likely to fall into it. "Mud and bruises were a part of what Catherine was."
Her father had sent her to the convent partly to conquer her sin of pride. But, although she tells her abbess that "In my whole life, the only place I have found love and acceptance is here, at the Paraclete", she soon gets other ideas - particularly when she meets the young Englishman Edgar. It is he who thinks, "She was the strangest, most confusing person he had ever met. She could converse with him logically, in carefully phrased Latin, with quotes, if necessary. She followed an argument to the conclusion and faced it without flinching. She seemed able to trip over anything, even her own feet. Her fingers were always ink-stained, as were her clothes ... Such attributes were unnatural and unpleasant in a woman." And yet he soon found that he loved her.
Sharan Newman (1949 - ) has an MA in Medieval Literature and has completed work for a PhD in History at the University of California. She has taught at Michigan State University, Temple University and the University of California, and lectures on medieval topics. She says, "The medieval period is one which I’ve spent most of my adult life studying and I still feel I’ve only begun to learn about it. The thoughts and actions of people then continually amaze and enchant me."
Apart from the Catherine LeVendeur series, she has written a trilogy about Guinevere, other novels and short stories and the non-fiction titles, The Real History Behind the DaVinci Code and The Real History Behind the Templars. She lives in Aloha in Oregon.
Death Comes as Epiphany (1993)
But Catherine has a mind of her own and goes on to have a lively and dangerous time of it, meeting in the process her licentious rumbustious uncle Roger who, despite being her uncle, insists that he truly loves her: "God can have your mind, Catte," he whispered to her, "Only give me your heart. Or any other parts He doesn't need". Then there is Aleran, the sexy holy man who tries to entice her, and Edgar, the young Englishman with whom she falls in love. There is a mystery about his background. When she first meets him, she realises that "For an apprentice stone carver. Edgar had a very elegant vocabulary".
There's plenty of action and fun, as when Catherine's uncle Roger comes to collect her and makes a noisy arrival outside the convent. While the sisters intone their praises, a loud voice outside declares, "Over here, you stinking bastard! Christ's beard! You couldn't find your ass with an eight-foot lance!" At this, "Sister Hermaline screamed and dropped her hymnal. Sister Emilie started coughing as Catherine pounded her back and begged her in a desperate whisper not to laugh. The abbess continued on alone, apparently oblivious to the raucous shouts and clanks just outside the wall."
Catherine keeps hearing voices (her conscience?) in her head, telling her such things as "You've made a judgment based on belief alone. Interesting, isn't it? God must prove He exists, but Edgar you take on faith. Think about it, Catherine. Think. What kind of scholar are you?" This does not sound very realistic, and as different type styles are used for these and for Catherine's own thoughts and responses, it all proves something of a distraction.
The author is nothing if not down-to-earth. Woken "by an unearthly sound. like the flapping of a million angry birds", she discovers it was due to "pages having farting contests in the double latrine. The echo goes through the pipes to practically every part of the keep". There seems to be lot about farting in these early books. Was it really such a significant part of medieval life?
There is excitement too, as when Catherine tried to help Edgar, accused of murder, escape from his prison cell by hauling him up on a rope. "The rope was getting slippery. Was it sweat or blood? Over and over she pleaded (for God's help) as the coarse rope inched through her hands, taking her skin with it." She then started screaming to create a diversion. The author has a nice sense of humor, so when Father Anselm saw her injured hands, he authoritatively announced, "Stigmata. Our dear Lady Catherine, so recently spared by Our Lord's mercy, has been given a further sign of her sanctity."
Catherine becomes an increasingly likeable character . When, desperately hungry, she is taken in and fed by a family of peasants, she "saw two pairs of enormous eyes. Children's hungry eyes ... Children were always fed last. Catherine wondered how much was left in the soup pot". She "handed the bowl to the children. 'It was very good. I've had all I want, thank you' ". The family then go on to rob her. No cosy sentimentality here. Or in the treatment of the little boy Adulf who unfortunately eats some poisoned soup intended for her.
It all makes a lively, interesting, if violent story. It certainly offers an unusual view of life in medieval times, and Catherine is a force to be reckoned with. It will be interesting to see what further improbable adventures lie ahead of her.
The Devil's Door (1994)
This makes a strong if over-long story, with Catherine's unconvincing voices still telling her things like: "Somehow you thought you could be part of the convent without obeying the Rule. That's the worst hypocrisy. Admit that the door to the cloister is now close to you and start living a decent secular life, if that's possible for you". Despite these unlikely voices, Catherine (who had, it must be admitted, a mad mother and uncle) seems eminently sane.
Abalard (and his son Astrolabe) still play an important role, as he is once again accused of heresy (his enemies dislike him "wanting to apply the rules of logic to theology"). Characters like Gaufridus, the very unusual and not at all isolated hermit, kept busy by his sister and her children, also come alive as interesting people. Catherine wonders about him, but, as her voices tell her, "One who gives what he has to the poor, takes in weary travellers, offers comfort and solace and suffers little children has already found the path to heaven".
The author is as down-to-earth as ever, what with an ancient megalith called the Devil's Fart, and the way that Edgar apologises to her after their first night as a married couple: "I hurt you. I tried not to, but I know I did". Catherine tells him, "Really, it wasn't as bad as I'd been told. The way some women talk, one would think slow evisceration was preferable to a bridal bed".
Edgar realises that "life with Catherine was going to be fun". Certainly plenty happens and it is not long before she is waking him up with the news that "There's a body in the privy". Then she herself is taken prisoner. Tied to a bed, she is told. "Remember, my dear, if you scream, I'll have to kill you". You can guess who risks all to rescue her. "While I was at the Paraclete, intending to stay," she tells Edgar, "nothing bad ever happened. Now we just seem to fall from one catastrophe to another." Edgar tells her firmly, "The world is full of disaster. We don't cause it. Anyway, did you ever consider that God sent us here so that we could put some things right?"
In a note at the end, the author explains, "Of course, The Devil's Door is a work of fiction. Catherine, Edgar and their families are pure invention. But the time they live in is not. I have done my best to make it as accurate as possible. This includes not only costumes and customs but also attutudes and beliefs .... My work is intended to entertain first and foremost, But I also truly love this time and these people."
The Wandering Arm (1995)
Suspicion is cast upon the Jewish community as the Christian authorities are all too eager to find a scapegoat. At the center of the storm is the Jew Eliazar, who seems somehow tied to both of the crimes. Edgar and Catherine once again risk all in their attempt to discover both relic and murderer.
Catherine Levendour, ex novice nun, now aged 19, continues to earn our sympathy. The story begins with her losing her child during childbirth, and getting desperately worried that it has died, unbaptised. But then the midwife tells her, "The child was wiggling when I turned it. As soon as that little foot appeared, I dipped my hand in the holy water Father Anselm gave me and said as I pushed it around, 'Child of God, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May Satan never claim thee.' .... 'You see?' the voices were smug. 'We told you to have faith.' She was so relieved she let them gloat." The historical details are well handled even if, as before, the voices fail to convince.
Catherine's sister Agnes, ever resentful both of Catherine's marriage and their father's Jewish connections, asks her, "Oh, Catherine, have you also abandoned Our Lord?"
Catherine certainly gets involved in the action. She bursts in on her husband, as he was entertaining important guests: "Her head was uncovered and she had lost the ties from her braids so that her hair had travelled down her back in a perplexity of curls .... her boots were covered in street grime. She did not look like the wife of anyone respectable." "Catherine ," Edgar said with a sigh, "may I present Giles du Perche, archdeacon of Rouen? My lord, this is my wife".
It is the comic incidents like the this that the author handles best. She is good too on descriptions of life and work at the time, such as the underground workshop where Edgar gets a job with a silversmith. However, despite all the violence and action, the plot is a bit tenuous and takes a long time to unfold.
Strong as Death (1996)
All this makes a strong story, made all the more realistic by the fact that the pilgrimage route from Le Puy to Compostella was followed by the author herself, 850 years too late maybe, but she says that "many of the places mentioned in the book are not terribly changed from the twelfth century" and, of course, "the road to Compostela is still crowded with pilgrims". But in the 12th century, many of the pilgrims did not expect to survive the journey.
The tender relationship between Catherine and her husband Edgar is well described. When sharing a warm tub, she warns him that the servant in charge "will be back in a moment".
Edgar's finds he has a fear of heights, and this puzzles her. "She had seen him in real danger of death and he hadn't flinched .... He had been wondering about her as well. "You weren't frightened at all on the pinnacle, were you?" he asked.
There are interesting descriptions of sights on the way, as well as plenty mystery and action, although some of the numerous surprises (such as Brother James' highly unlikely relationship with not just one, but two of the main characters) do stretch credibility. However the author's own enjoyment of her story is infectious, as is her sense of fun even in the most macabre circumstances. When Catherine and Edgar bump into the hanging body of the latest victim, "Catherine closed her eyes. 'Please,' she begged, 'don't let it be anyone we know.' "
As the story progresses, Catherine's voices , reduced now to simple italics rather than fancy type, mercifully stop troubling her. Towards the end, when she is about to set off, as recklessly as usual, to trail two women behaving suspiciously, we are told that "She used to have voices that warned her against such idiocy, but lately they were unaccountably silent". Let's hope they don't return. Without them, this is the best book in the series so far. The author faces up to violent, disturbing subjects, and yet her concern and compassion are ever present. Recommended.
Cursed in the Blood (1998)
Once in Scotland, Catherine is surprised to find that Edgar's family is not at all what she had imagined. His father, Waldeve, is a cold tyrant and his remaining siblings are strange and full of secrets. Waldeve is interested in only one thing: vengeance. "Someone's going to Hell for this (the murder of his sons), and I intend to send them there one piece at a time." He has a nice line in a grace before meals too: "Lord God, bless this food and poison the meat of any man who goes against me. Twist the entrails of the unholy murderers of my sons until they scream horribly and beg for death. And then deliver them to me so that I may do the same. This we beg in thy name. Amen." It is a caricature, of course, but a lively one.
Edgar soon finds he has no alternative but to join in the hunt for the murderers. Separated from him, Catherine seeks refuge in a war-torn country while she searches for her husband. At one point she even takes refuge on Holy Island. She realises that someone is trying to kill Waldeve's whole family and even wonders if it could be Waldeve himself. It is a violent but episodic story, with little real detection work involved. Unfortunately, Catherine's voices have returned, but when they say things like Stop whining! Bear your affliction with patience. You're a grown woman, with a baby to care for, it is explained that "four years out of the convent and the voices of her teachers still haunted her". But the way she always hears such coherent sentences still seems distinctly odd.
The historical background, complete with Saxon and Latin rudities, is full of interesting details (such as the description of Holy Island) but the plot struggles to hold the interest and the dialogue is not always very convincing. When Robert, the son of whom Waldeve least approves, goes in search of his old close (very close) friend Aeldred who had left him to become a monk, he tells him,"Of all the men I knew at court, you were the best, the noblest, the truest friend. "
But Catherine herself remains quite an entertaining character, with a continuing enthusiasm for Edgar's company : "Catherine," asks Solomon. "Can't you think of anything but getting you and Edgar a bed?"
The climax is nothing if not bloodthirsty - not even Edgar can escape serious injury - but the plot creaks and the final explanation of it all seem remarkably unlikely.
The Difficult Saint (1999)
Catherine (aged 26 now) and Hubert arrange for Agnes to be escorted to Germany, where she is relieved to find that she likes the look of her husband--to-be. The wedding duly takes place, but something seems to go wrong on the wedding night and it is not consummated. Then Gerhardt suddenly dies by poisoning, and Agnes becomes the prime suspect. Catherine and Edgar take their children (including his half sister, the young girl Margaret, who they'd brought back with them from Scotland) to Germany so as to help prove her innocence. It is Margaret whose life is threatened when she is mistaken for a Jew.
There is much about anti-Semitic violence, and Hubert's wish to return to his Jewish roots, and indeed the author seems to have rather more sympathy for the Jewish characters (there are no Jewish nasties!) and the Cathar "heretics" than the more conventional Christian ones. The most praised Christian is Bernard of Clairvaux. "He," the author explains in an afterword, "preached the crusade but, more important to me, he also took responsibility for the persecution of the Jews that followed and really did travel through Lotharingia and Germany in an effort to stop it". It ends up by reading rather like a glimpse of medieval France from a 21st century American Jewish viewpoint. The persecution of the Jews was real and nasty enough - but there just seems too much about it, and it is carried on from book to book.
The author has done much historical research so I must take her word for it that people kept saying things like Saint Lazarus's stinking corpse! or Saint Jerome's naked visions! But did they really say them as often as in this book?
The loving sexual relationship between Catherine and Edgar still rings true. "People thought it odd that after seven years she still found her greatest comfort in his arms. Catherine thought it impossible that she could find it anywhere else. Edgar was the balance that regulated her life. Without him she knew she'd soon slip into melancholy or choler." And the relationship between Catherine and the children sounds equally real.
The plot, including the final revelation of the murderer, is not convincing but seems episodic and too long drawn-out, and characters like the pious Agnes never really come to life. But there are still amusing moments, as when Jehan, one of Agnes' unappealing suitors is sold a crumpled piece of papyrus which, he is told will provide "words of power that cast a lasting spell to make any woman your adoring concubine ... or even wife if you prefer."
To Wear the White Cloak (2000)
As always, the author is good on domestic details, as when a knight's wife, seeing her husband off to the Crusades, asks worriedly, "You have the hose I knitted? You know how easily you get the ague when your feet are cold." And it is interesting to hear about the Jewish mokh, a spongelike object with a long cord sewn into it, that was used as a female contraceptive. Then there are the dinner menus: "First they were given eels in saffron sauce, then chicken in cumin and garlic, then an assortment of vegetables with lentils and every fresh herb that grew in France, Catherine thought. Then the pork was sliced and handed out. After that there was quail roasted with its own eggs, and a swan .... " Then there is James, Catherine's and Edgar's bouncy young son, who indignantly interrupts their love-making with, "Mama, Papa, why are you having fun without me?"
The Templars' code of behaviour is interesting too: "We take the same vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as any monk .... You'll be asked to fight for no booty but the glory of Christ, and then, when you are more worn than you can imagine, to wake at night and pray. You must set your minds on God alone and ignore the needs and desires of your body, You must understand totally that your reward will not come in this life."
The author comes up with even more unlikely epithets, such as "Origen's lost genitals!" from Edgar, and "Saint Radegunde's pristine privies!" from Catherine. And there are some nice dry comments as Edgar's young sister Margaret, wonders, "Why didn't God simply make the Truth so manifest that no one could doubt it? Then there would be no more Jews or pagans or Saracens. Of course, she thought as she remembered her family in Scotland, Christians could always find reasons to fight each other. On the whole, it seemed very bad organization on the part of Heaven. She supposed it was part of being Ineffable."
But these happy touches are not enough to save the rather tedious and prolonged plot, full as ever of unlikely happenings.
There are some interesting characters ranging from Eon, the simple-minded but charismatic leader of the heretics, who is sure he is the son of God, to Pope Eugenius who has convened a council at Reims to be attended by the cardinals and bishops of Europe, many of them bickering amongst themselves and scheming for power. Catherine herself is five months pregnant but this doesn't stop her leaving 6-year-old James and 4-year-old Edana safely at the Paraclete convent, while she again risks life and limb. At one point she even goes begging in the streets, hoping to overhear some useful infomation. Well, credibility was never a strong point of these plots!
Her husband Edgar, partner now to her cousin Solomon, is away on a trading trip in Spain. Edgar's 15-year-old sister Margaret, travels to Reims with Catherine to meet her aristocratic grandfather Count Thibault. She still has a soft spot for Solomon, but, as Catherine tells her, such a match "was impossible. First Solomon was a Jew. But even if he converted (nothing seemed less likely) such a liaison would never be permitted. Margaret was too wellborn for a match with someone outside the nobility." But then she discovers that her grandparents have arranged for her to be married to one of their noble relatives in remote Carinthia, but she does not like to admit to them that she is not at all happy about it.
All this makes quite an interesting story, enlivened as always by the author's sense of fun, as when Catherine bursts in on a naked porter in bed: "She gasped and looked away .... Lambert quickly dropped a tunic over his head. "Well, what do you expect, barging in on a man in his bed?" he demanded.
As in the other books, there are some interesting historical details, such as the way that very ill children used to be measured with a length of string that would then be used "for a candlewick, for a candle the height of the child, to be given to the saint who would intercede for its life". And the way that women used to be sewn into their fashionably tight sleeves. But expressions like Saint Brice's babbling bastard! and Saint Martin's sacred horseshit! still seem overdone. Could it be the author's sense of humor running away with her again?
Catherine struggles hard to make sense of it all. "If Peter Abelard had taught her anything, it was that God didn't intend existence to be incomprehensible. If her intellect wasn't up to the challenge, then the fault lay in her. She knew the answer was in her memory somerwhere. " She prayed to her name saint, St Catherine, for help. "There was no blinding light of revelation, but Catherine was content. When logic failed, there was always faith. Perhaps with both a solution would appear". And so it does - a rather unlikely one, but that's what you come to expect in these books.
In her Afterword, the author explains how she has intermingled fact and fiction. The part about an invading army of heretics and demons was taken, not from a medieval source, but "on the recent irrational stories involving the year 2000, along with various panics resulting from rumors spread over the Internet. Our credulity hasn't changed over the past thousand years, only the focus of our fears." Yes, but medieval France was also profoundly different to contemporary America. Perhaps that's why, although the historical researech behind these books seems thorough enough, the stories don't always convince. But this is certainly one of the better ones.
The Outcast Dove (2003)
The Witch in the Well (2004)
It's a truly absurd story but it gets off to a really lively start and makes an entertaining and at times exciting fantasy. Catherine (or her author) has mercifully grown out of those tiresome voices she used to hear, although the comic expletives (Saint Andrew's flapping fish!, Saint Thecla's barking seals! etc.) are still widely used by everyone from rough knights to genteel ladies - and they never use the same one twice. But the author is good on domestic details, such as the over-exuberant behaviour of Catherine's young son James, and her sense of fun is never far away. When Solomon (Catherine's Jewish cousin) lets an old woman ride pillion behind him on his horse, he "found the way she kept twiddling her fingers very unnerving".
The violent plot does more than just strain incredibility - even Catherine's mad old mother, suddenly and inexplicably restored to sanity, makes an incredible appearance right at the end. Catherine herself describes what is happening as "almost mythic. I wish I could get rid of the feeling that we've wandered into some epic poem". But, nonsense though it all is, it makes enjoyable reading, and you're certainly left wondering what entirely unlikely thing will happen next. Recommended for its sheer fun and invention, it is difficult to see where the author can go from here.
|This was the first book in the series and, like the others, has a really stylish cover.|
|The last book book in the series escapes into complete fantasy, but is fun to read. Even the girl on the cover looks distinctly out of this world.|