Author Rebecca Cantrell is right. When Jeri Westerson appears for an author event, she brings cool toys. She recently appeared for Authors @ The Teague on her Troubled Bones tour. Anyone who wanted to handle her medieval weapons was welcome to try them out. Jeri does a terrific program, fun and informative.
Westerson calls her style medieval noir. She said she was first writing historical fiction at a time when Publishers Weekly called historical fiction dead. She tried to sell it for ten years, and saw her agents come and go. One of those agents said, why don’t we try mysteries. After more rejections, Jeri thought maybe she should try mysteries. She decided to write medieval mysteries. She always loved Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael. But many of those medieval mysteries have a slower pace with a monk or nun as the protagonist. Westerson wanted to do something much different.
Westerson was reading Chandler and Hammett, so she decided to create a hardboiled detective in a medieval setting. Then, he would be hired to solve mysteries. She made him the typical lone detective. Crispin Guest is hard-drinking and hard-living. He gets beaten up. He’s a sucker for a dame in trouble. But, he also was a knight, so he’s educated, and has the skills he needs to be an investigator. He can read and write. He knows several languages. He has in intense sense of justice and honor. When Crispin Guest was convicted of treason, he lost his knighthood. Everything that defined him was taken. Guest redefines himself as “the Tracker.”
London becomes another character in Westerson’s books. Each book deals with a religious relic or venerated object. Troubled Bones, the latest book, deals with relics at Canterbury Cathedral, the bones of Thomas à Becket. Crispin got in some trouble in London, and the sheriff offered him options, go to jail or do a job for the Archbishop of Canterbury. So, Guest agreed to guard the bones of Thomas à Becket. The Archbishop was afraid the Lollards would steal them. Lollards were members of a reformist movement, and they didn’t believe in relics. While Crispin was in the cathedral, a pilgrim was murdered.
Westerson told us she had been waiting to do this book since she knew she was setting her series in the 14th century. She wanted to do this story. Jeri’s parents were rabid Anglophiles. They were history buffs, particularly British history buffs. Their collection included fiction and nonfiction from authors such as Thomas B. Costain and Norah Lofts.
As a kid, Jeri read a child’s version of The Canterbury Tales when she was eight nor nine. It had great illustrations. She loved the pilgrims. Then the afterword said Chaucer died before he finished The Canterbury Tales, and she was upset. Naturally, some of the bawdier tales were left out of the child’s version.
Jeri’s mother had a record of The Canterbury Tales. It included the prologue and some of the stories, written and read in middle English. Westerson loved the lyrical flow of the language.
When Westerson was young, her parents took the family to lots of museums. For a family of five, it was cheap entertainment because admission was free. One they visited was the Huntington Library. It had a Gutenberg Bible. There was one of Shakespeare’s quartos, and one of his bad quartos. And, there was the Ellesmere Manuscript. It was commissioned after Chaucer’s death. It was written by hand, and contains illustrations of all the pilgrims and Chaucer.
So, Westerson has been waiting to get to the right year to write about The Canterbury Tales and Chaucer. In Troubled Bones, Crispin Guest meets the pilgrims and Chaucer. Chaucer was quite an interesting person. He was a knight, a poet, a spy for the king. His sister-in-law was the mistress of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt.
Westerson said she does most of her research in university libraries. There are a number of archives on the Internet. Many of the small archives are thrilled to answer her questions. She’s only been to Europe once when she was eighteen. She was there for a month in England and northern Europe.
It was Canterbury Cathedral that struck her, and touched her the most. Westerson showed us a diagram of the Cathedral, showing it built outside the town. The monastery was there as well, and it was self-sufficient. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the voice of Rome, had his own manor house. She showed us a picture of the narrow gate leading to the cathedral, perfect as a gate to get to the heavenly cathedral. The west gate was still being built in Crispin’s days. There were towers and guards. Mercy Lane, on the way to the cathedral, was a medieval lane. Canterbury Cathedral is very much a character in Troubled Bones.
Thomas à Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. At one time, he was King Henry II's best friend. Henry II was the father of Richard the Lionheart and King John. Becket was Chancellor of England. Henry II had a problem with the Church. He wanted to try clerics in court, and the Archbishop of Canterbury told him no. They had to be tried in Church courts. Then, the Archbishop died, and Henry seized the opportunity. He had Thomas made Archbishop, even though he wasn’t a priest.
However, Thomas took his job seriously, and the next time Henry II brought up the subject of trying priests, Thomas said no. The priests were under the jurisdiction of the Church. Henry was frustrated, and, at court, asked, “Who will rid me of the troublesome priest?” Four barons killed him while he was at prayer in the cathedral. The people immediately declared Becket a saint, and the Church made it official only a year later. Canterbury Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage. Henry II said, please forgive me for having him murdered, and wore sackcloth. Pilgrimage sites were very popular at the time because people could get points off their time in purgatory by making a pilgrimage.
Westerson showed us illustrations of Becket’s shrine. A canopy was lowered over it to protect it at night. During the day, though, people could touch the bones. It’s just that some started to take home bones as souvenirs. There was a charge to come and see the shrine.
The shrine to Thomas à Becket is no longer there. There was another Henry who had problems with the Church. Henry VIII took over the Church of England. He dissolved the monasteries, and destroyed shrines, particularly this one. It was a shrine to an Archbishop who opposed a king named Henry.
The coffin of Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, is also there. His surcoat, helm, gauntlets and sword are on display. It’s unusual to have the originals in a museum.
Jeri told us she likes to write about medieval times because she likes to play with the weapons. She does pack them in her luggage when she flies. The TSA always picks her luggage when they do random searches. She thinks they actually take everything out and play with them.
Then, Westerson took time to show us the weapons she brought. The broadsword weighed three pounds, and was forty-four inches long. It was a one-handed weapon, more or less. It was designed as a hacking and slashing weapon. It was not used as a foil, as it is in many films.
She said everyone needed a good dagger. If you’re caring a small shield, a buckler, it’s also good to have a dagger. That’s where the term swashbuckler came from. A man could block a broadsword with a dagger and a buckler. Women wore jewel-encrusted daggers. Westerson even recommended a particular dagger because if someone was stabbing with a dagger, there would be momentum with their hand, and when the dagger stops in the body, the hand might continue, and the person would be cut. So, she said you wanted a dagger with a piece to stop the hand from being cut.
Jeri had a piece of mail in her possession. She said it was part of a piece sent to a museum for repairs. It would rust, so it needed to be cleaned in sand. She demonstrated the use of a little battleax, saying it would be used on horseback, and the user would slash away. She showed us what most of us would have called a mace. But, hers is a flail. Attached with a chain, it’s a flail. Without a chain, it’s a mace. That would be used on horseback.
She showed us the gauntlet, then the sugarloaf helm. It was called that because sugar came in a container of that shape.
Jeri Westerson's next book, Blood Lance, has jousting in it. She'll have a powerpoint in which she’s on a 2000 pound Percheron dressed as a knight. It’s hard to see with the helm. But, the knight on that horse would plow through foot soldiers.
Asked to talk about Crispin’s apprentice, Jack Tucker, Westerson said she introduced him in the first book, Veil of Lies. He was an orphan, eleven years old, and a cutpurse. Each book is now a year later, so Jack ages. Westerson has turned in book five, and is working on six. Jack is a Huck Finn, Artful Dodger character. He’s all kinds of things to Crispin, including the child and family he’ll never have. After a couple books, Crispin takes him under his wing, seeing him as his legacy. In Troubled Bones, Jack has his own chapters, and many readers say those are their favorites.
Westerson likes writing a series because she’s writing the world’s largest novel. She knows the backstory. Jack’s growing up, and, someday, Crispin might. Jack starts at eleven, and he’s now thirteen/fourteen. The characters change in the course of the series.
Most of the books are set in London. Maybe one will be set in France. Chaucer is in the next one. In this series, she can follow Crispin, but also can follow the historical timeline. She can include the politics of the time, and sometimes, more of the actual characters who lived.
To finish up, members of the audience tried on the helm and gauntlet, and played with the medieval weapons while Jeri Westerson signed books. This program combined books, history and weapons, a little different for Authors @ The Teague.
Jeri Westerson's website is www.jeriwesterson.com
Troubled Bones by Jeri Westerson. St. Martin’s Minotaur. ©2011. ISBN 9780312621636 (hardcover), 288p.