This fall at UVa I’ll be teaching a senior seminar called “Crime Fictions: Premodern/Modern.” The class will explore the literature of crime in medieval and early modern England, from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, alongside historical crime fictions set during the same era. We’ll read stories of murder, theft, subterfuge, and brutality, all with an eye to thinking comparatively and transhistorically about the nature of crime and its detection. While it won’t be a history class, I will assign a number of background and contextual readings that provide some basic information about criminal subcultures, early forms of detection and policing (what were a coroner’s duties in medieval London?), criminal trials and punishment, and so on. Also on the syllabus will be some selected readings on the history and style of crime fiction as a genre and a mode.
The topic is limitless, of course, so rather than attempting a responsible survey of the subject I’m organizing the seminar around a series of premodern/modern juxtapositions to help us distill the dark essence of crime fiction across the centuries. The syllabus will include several modern works of historical crime set in premodern England, and this is where I could use some help in coming up with additional titles. While I’m now an active writer of medieval-set crime fiction, I know comparatively little about this subgenre more broadly, and I’m sure there are some sizzling reads out there that students would love and that could teach us a lot about the subject in ways I’m not considering.
Note that the historical “fit” doesn’t need to be perfect–as long as there’s a rough correspondence between the date, theme, and/or setting of the premodern text and the modern crime novel–and note that the class is specifically about crime fiction written or set in England, which is why, e.g., The Name of the Rose won’t be on the syllabus. Here are just three examples of the sorts of pairings I’m interested in:
- Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play and the anonymous medieval morality play Everyman. Unsworth’s wonderful novel, which I taught last year in a historical fiction class, thrusts a troupe of medieval actors into the middle of an unfolding crime and its cover-up in rural England in the late Middle Ages. Like the novel, the medieval play explores issues of guilt, culpability, and the theatricality of crime and sin, and Death figures as a central character.
- Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death and Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. Franklin’s novel is set during the reign of Henry II and deals with issues of anti-Semitism, female agency, and detection, all revolving around the murder of a number of children in a medieval city. The novel was directly inspired by the Prioress’s Tale and similar medieval stories of blood libel and scapegoating, so the pairing here will help bring out themes of culpability, religious difference, and intergenerational violence.
- C.J. Sansom’s Heartstone and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Obviously very different contexts, but the juxtaposition will allow us to talk about the roles of royal authority, war, and national geographies in shaping the cultures of crime in early modern England. Sansom writes some of the most compelling historical detective fiction out there, and partnering Heartstone with the sordid criminal tragedy portrayed in Macbeth should inspire some great discussion.
Again, there are innumerable pairings one could come up with, so I’m eager to hear more suggestions. (And no, A Burnable Book won’t be on the syllabus, though I may run a chapter or two of the sequel by the class at some point…) Thanks in advance for the input!