Today the Mystery Author Alphabet Meme continues with W is for Westerson: Jeri Westerson.
Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Series. It’s her take on a hardboiled detective series in a medieval setting. Jeri’s books have been shortlisted for a slew of mystery awards including the Macavity, the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award, the Shamus, and RT Reviewer’s Choice Award. She has excerpts of the books at www.JeriWesterson.com.
**BOOK CONTEST** Comment below to win a copy Jeri’s latest book, TROUBLED BONES! Winner: Kelly Robinson!
JERI WESTERSON: Chaucer and Me
When I was a kid, I had a more or less ordinary upbringing but for one thing; in our house, medieval English history was king. We had conversations about the British monarchy at the dinner table. We had books of English literature, history, and historical fiction on our bookshelves.
And we had Geoffrey Chaucer.
I owned the most wonderful children’s version of the often bawdy book The Canterbury Tales, written sometime around 1387. It is unique in that it was truly the first great piece of literature penned in English. In Chaucer’s day, it was Middle English, a more German/Latinized version of the English we know (ever wonder about all those silent letters in our words? Well, they weren’t silent then). Prior to that, romances and histories were written either in Latin or French. This was now the dawn of Englishness. At this point, even the nobility spoke English, where before, after William the Conqueror came to England and replaced the Anglo-Saxon nobility with his own, the nobility spoke French. Now the lingua franca was English, a change not only in language but of mindset.
And it wasn’t just important for that. This showed us a slice of life of everyday folk thinking and speaking like everyday folk. The great romances and histories of the day were about ladies and princes, not the local Miller. In The Canterbury Tales, we get a sense of the real people of the period.
The book that I had growing up was the Deluxe Golden Book “Special Edition for Young Readers” illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. Oh, these were wonderful illustrations. As strange and as foreign as Middle English itself. I was drawn in by the whole package of weird and wonderful pictures and then these stories. All of these different medieval people were meeting in London to journey to Canterbury and they would each tell stories to pass the time. Stories of people like them, or great timeless stories from Ancient Greece or old Britain. The person who told the best story would win a dinner back at the Tabard, a tavern where their journey began, a tavern that really existed back in fourteenth century London.
And I knew these stories well. The Aesop-like Nun’s Priest tale of Chanticleer, the Wife of Bath’s tale of the Loathly Lady, the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale of the false Alchemist. I enjoyed them all. I was bitterly disappointed when I got to the end to discover that Chaucer never finished his tales. He died before he could. Who would have won? And what were the other stories to be told because they had to make the journey back to London? To this ten year old, it was a complete bummer.
But that wasn’t the extent of my partnership with Chaucer. My mother had a record of an actor reciting some of the stories in Middle English. How I listened to that! What was it? It was sort of English but not really. And it had a lyrical cadence to it like a romance language. I knew before I was old enough to ask that what I was hearing was something odd and special.
And then there was that one degree of separation from Chaucer himself.
We made frequent trips to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. This was a museum of books and manuscripts, with a gallery of a collection of Gainsborough paintings, including Blue Boy and Pinkie, and extensive gardens and grounds. When I was a kid it was free. Our parents went to lots of places that were free since we were a family of five with little to no money to throw around. In the Huntington Library, they have quartos of Shakespeare plays, a Gutenberg Bible, and the Ellsmere Manuscript. The last is the beautifully detailed handwritten and illustrated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, commissioned not too long after Chaucer died in the early fifteenth century. It is on parchment and done in careful calligraphy, complete with drawings of all the pilgrims, including Chaucer himself. I was intrigued again, now because of the floral designs and calligraphy that was to inspire a later career as a graphic designer.
I couldn’t escape the fellow and he followed me into adulthood where I could read all the stories, including the ribald ones, with a deeper appreciation for what the whole thing truly was. Not just classical stories retold, but of moral lessons through the persons of the pilgrims themselves.
Much later, when I created my medieval mystery series with a sleuth who was a hardboiled detective, I made him a disgraced knight who used to move in the more noble circles, including the household of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster. Why did I pick the time period of Richard II’s reign? Chaucer’s fault again. Because I knew I wanted to include him at some point in the series. And of course he will have known Crispin and been his friend, since he, too, lived in Lancaster’s household. So what better way to introduce him in the series than by reliving The Canterbury Tales and forcing Crispin to journey to Canterbury and meet some very familiar pilgrims in the fourth installment, TROUBLED BONES. Only this time it involves murder. And then, of course, Crispin has to get his friend Chaucer out of trouble. How much trouble? I suppose you’ll have to go on the journey to Canterbury along with them to find out.