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Review: A Plague on Both Your Houses, by Susanna Gregory


Matthew Bartholomew is a physician and instructor at Michaelhouse, one of the Colleges at the young Cambridge University. His views of medicine are rather unorthodox for the 14th century, and he is viewed with suspicion by other doctors. On the eve of the Black Death, in the summer of 1348, the Master of Michaelhouse, Sir John, turns up dead. Everyone assumes it must be suicide, but Bartholomew has his doubts—especially since more bodies turn up. Bartholomew’s investigation leads him to something much better—a potential plot by Oxford scholars to undermine the credibility of Cambridge, perhaps?

Bartholomew is one of the more interesting and complicated detectives I’ve come across in a long while. He’s not limited by the medical practices of the period (as we’re told early on, his training was unorthodox, too), so he does seem a bit too modern at times (for example, in addition to being a physician, he also practices surgery, which at that time was practiced by barbers). I liked the plot; and as some who studied the 14th century as a student (even wrote a paper on the Black Death), I was interested by Bartholomew’s appraisal of the pestilence. He may have been trained by eastern doctors, but Bartholomew is just as in the dark about the bubonic plague as anybody else is in 14th century England. My interest was in the effect the plague had on the medieval mindset, so I was interested to see how people reacted: from self-flagellation, to going stark, staring mad, to throwing caution to the wind and enjoying full-tilt the pleasures of life, it’s all seen in this novel. Well done, there.

There are a lot of anachronisms, though: during the riot at the beginning of the book, the townspeople are referred to as “townies: (a mid-19th century invention); the author has her characters refer to themselves as “medieval”; the characters call the Black Death the “Death,” when people of the time would have called it pestilence (the term “Black Death” is 19th century in origin). Another character arrives” in the nick of time” to save our hero, hostels are arranged into “cartels,” and doctor are referred to repeatedly as “medics.” Bartholomew also expresses surprise when a tinker’s widow tells him she can’t read or write. The author seems a little bit confused by the medieval difference between a surgeon and a physician, and for a doctor, Bartholomew is awfully squeamish about the human body. Also, Bartholomew himself admits that he doesn’t know what brought the pestilence in, but he has a strange fascination with the rats scurrying about in the College…. these anachronisms aren’t obscure, a simple search in the OED will give you the origins of most of these words. But other than the anachronisms, I really enjoyed the plot of the novel, and look forward to seeing more of Matthew Bartholomew.

Comments

nishitak said…
Just stumbled upon your blog after a lot of book-blog surfing. Love your reviews...

I recently read another book "World Without End" by Ken Follett, which also describes in detail the social effects of the black plague in quite a bit of detail. If you haven't read, it is definitely worth a read...

My review of it is up at http://nishitak.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/world-without-end-book-review/

I am definitely bookmarking your blog for further reading :)

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