THE novel A New Heaven and a New Earth is the third of Katharine Tiernan’s trilogy about St Cuthbert and his legacy. It is of greater length and complexity than her two previous highly engaging volumes (Summer Books, 28 June 2019 and 17 July 2020).
It is 1069, and Northumbria has risen up against Norman rule, prompting William the Conqueror to lay waste the province with fire and sword. The Community of St Cuthbert at Durham, headed by seven married priests with families, sworn to maintain his tomb, is caught up in the conflict and struggles to survive.
As ever, Tiernan puts flesh on the bare bones of the contemporary sources — in this case, the monk Simeon of Durham — and endows her characters with personalities and back stories. Thorgot, whose story we do know from the chronicle, escapes from Norman captivity in Lincoln and becomes chaplain to Olaf, King of Norway, before becoming a monk, and finally the right-hand man of Durham’s Norman bishop. The visionary monk Aldwin is drawn to make a difficult journey to join the Jarrow community before becoming Prior of Durham’s newly founded monastery.
Edith, merely a name in the sources, is a priest’s wife who falls foul of Pope Gregory’s injunction to clergy to put away their wives, and ends up in self-imposed exiled on Lindisfarne. The distasteful self-righteousness of her monkish son is vividly drawn, as is the misogyny that the Normans bring to the cult of Cuthbert — something that the saint himself, with his warm and loving relationships with women, would not have recognised.
Tiernan has an unusual ability to project herself into the heads of her characters. We hear their different voices: Edith’s chatty exuberance, Thorgot’s earthiness, and Aldwin’s more Latinate cadences. We see Thorgot’s spiritual struggles as he has to learn humility as a novice, and Edith’s black misery at her husband’s rejection.
Tiernan wears her considerable erudition lightly, and the reader is guided gently through the transformation from a Saxon Church to one more directly controlled from Rome. But her writing is also very much anchored in the physical world. Birds sing, food has a scent and flavour, and the wind is bitingly cold. This longer and more complex work marks Tiernan’s debut as a significant historical novelist.
TWENTY years ago, Matthew Kneale gathered together a random collection of people in a boat, and the result was his totally absorbing English Passengers. Now he goes back 600 years, and returns to the journey theme, with equal success.
The year is 1279. An ill-assorted band of pilgrims gathers for a journey to Rome. An irascible nobleman is doing penance for punching an abbot. Warin the tailor, sizzling with resentment against priests and the nobility, is escorting his daughter Beatrix, the self-appointed voice of God. Matilda Froome has, unsurprisingly, embraced celibacy after 18 children, and become a mystic, with a duty to improve others. A libidinous noblewoman is looking for a divorce so that she can marry her toyboy. Constance believes that her adultery has made her young son ill. Margaret wants more pilgrim badges for her hat. The simpleton peasant, Tom, son of Tom, is begging his way to Rome to save his cat from the fires of purgatory.
The interaction of a group of people who would otherwise never have met is always entertaining, and we are reminded just how wearing and unintentionally comic those who choose to share their holiness with others for their own good can be. This is also a thoroughly 21st-century take on the medieval fabliau: a story with broad humour and stock types. We have the stock characters, but, unlike the puppet figures of the fabliau, all these people have back stories.
Kneale also shows how God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, as Tom shames the others into searching for the travellers whom they have pushed out into the snow.
At either end of the ostensibly merry tale, a note of grim reality obtrudes. The book opens with an anti-Jewish pogrom in London, and ends with people looking on as a procession of Jews obeys Edward I’s edict to leave the country. They react as a fabliau’s medieval listeners would: some grin, some spit, most are totally indifferent. With our 21st-century sensibilities, we shudder, because we have seen where prejudice and indifference lead.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
A New Heaven and a New Earth: St Cuthbert and the conquest of the north
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Atlantic Books £16.99
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