Crime Fictions: Premodern/Modern

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!




8 comments on “Crime Fictions: Premodern/Modern

  1. Jocylin on said:

    Will you also be offering the class as a MOOC?

  2. Anonymous on said:

    I was eagerly reading the above notice, but disappointed when I got to the end because there was no notice of your teaching the class on Coursera. Is that a possibility? If so I want to be notified so I don’t miss it.

    The class I took before was great and I was hoping you would do another. This one certainly sounds exciting — I’m an old mystery fan from way back and would like to learn more.

    • Anonymous on said:

      The previous comment is not anonymous, however the form wouldn’t let me leave a name, so it should be listed as from Lacrecia, on April 2, at 2:09pm.

  3. Barbara Winters on said:

    MOOC please!

  4. Vicki Rentel on said:

    They’re not great literature, but Margaret Frazer’s Dame Frevisse mysteries are lovely mysteries, based loosely on Chaucer’s characters, e.g. A Nun’s Tale, A Servant’s Tale, The Bastard’s Tale. Dame Frevisse travels from her convent frequently to London and the surrounding English countryside. They’re not scratch-and-sniff realistic, but they’re pretty good nevertheless. Candace Robb’s Owen Archer mysteries are also terrific, set mostly in York. If I had to choose between Frazer, Franklin, and Robb I think I’d probably choose Frazer and Robb over Franklin, whose Adelia’s feminist doctor-shtick sensibility bugged me (and I’m a feminist doctor).

  5. Puzzle Doctor on said:

    There’s loads of medieval mystery reviews over on my blog In terms of illustrations of medieval life, then the Hugh Corbett (1300), Brother Athelstan (1380) and Kathryn Swinbrooke (1450) series from Paul Doherty are chock full of them. There’s also his Canterbury Tales series – mystery stories told by Chaucer’s pilgrims at night.

    There’s also the series by Michael Jecks’ series set in Medieval Devon that tends to highlight an aspect of Medieval life in each book – e.g. The Leper’s Return concerns the treatment of lepers, The Crediton Killings concerns life in a band of mercenaries, etc

    Hope this helps.

  6. Deb O on said:

    The first mystery novel in English: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers.

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