The Killer of Pilgrims by Susanna Gregory
16 September, 2010
As a long-time fan of Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series, I always look forward to reading each new book as though I’m greeting old friends. Does that make me weird? Of course it doesn’t! The Killer of Pilgrims is Bartholomew’s 16th outing as medieval physician cum sleuth in 14th century Cambridge. One of the reasons why I love Gregory’s mystery series so much is because she uses her extensive knowledge of history and the history of medicine in her novels. Who doesn’t want to know the historical difference between a physician and a surgeon? That medieval physicians treated you by first drawing up a horoscope? Or that only barbers and butchers were allowed to perform surgery? Or that washing your hands too much made people suspicious of you? Of course you do. And everything you’ll read about medicine and cures are true (trust me, I studied the history of medicine.)
I must confess I no longer read Gregory’s books so much for the mystery, which are not too intricate, but more for the rich social history of the period. Gregory uses real-life historical figures that she fictionally expands and her Cambridge is colourful, smelly and dangerous. And her characters are funny, hysterical and, although exaggerated, describe the many prejudices and fears that were all too prevalent at the time in a country slowly recovering from the plague.
In The Killer of Pilgrims, Bartholomew is busy teaching his pupils at Michaelhouse College (later to become Trinity College), tending to his predominantly poor patients and trying to prevent any outbursts of violence between the rival hostels and colleges of Cambridge. The town has also seen a spate of robberies of reliquaries, souvenirs from pilgrimages that people keep on their person to ward off evil and heal sickness. The students of the hostels and colleges have been competing with each other with pranks that have resulted in a few deaths. The university has also organised a game of camp-ball between the Carmelites and Gilbertines for which Bartholomew will act as the official physician, a job he doesn’t relish because of the violence involved. In this busy period, a dead body is found in Michaelhouse’s grounds and Bartholomew is once again called upon by his friend and colleague Brother Michael, the University Proctor, to be his official Corpse Examiner. Put in a half-finished roof, a deluge of rain, an empty pantry and a rich evil old lady who requests Bartholomew to tend to her toothache, and you get a complicated and deadly yet very merry romp through medieval Cambridge.
As always, I recommend you start right at the beginning with A Plague on Both Your Houses which sets Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael firmly in medieval Cambridge’s social scene. I guarantee you’ll come away with a healthy respect for today’s physicians.
Many thanks to Little Brown who kindly sent me a copy of The Killer of Pilgrims to review.