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"Period details fit unobtrusively with the action, and the pacing makes this a one- or two-sitting read at most." —Publishers Weekly
"The vividly drawn characters in THE SANCTITY OF HATE (Poisoned Pen, cloth, $24.95; paper, $14.95) enlighten us on many details of monastic life." —New York Times
"Historical mystery fans will find much to like here. The novel is well researched, with an intriguing plot and a timely message about religious tolerance." —Booklist
"Royal’s ninth (A Killing Season, 2011, etc.), though certainly not her best mystery, includes some fascinating historical information that may come as a surprise to many readers " —Kirkus
For the midges, it was frenzy time. They swarmed low over the mill pond where sharp-winged swallows swooped to dine in the insect cloud. Nearer the rising ground, massive black flies slowly gathered. Thanks to the carnage of midges, the flies were left in peace, using their freedom to seek a rotted fish or drowned creature upon which to feast and lay their eggs in the safety of the muddy bank.
They were soon to be rewarded.
In the slow-growing shadows, the mill wheel at Tyndal Priory turned with a deep groan, the great paddles squealing to a brief halt, then juddering forward to drop glistening water into the pond below. There the water grew dull and flowed lazily into the uneven patches of deep shade along the banks edged with thick rushes.
Pushed by the gentle current, a dark object floated toward the rank greenery. Bumping against the dense vegetation, it twisted to the side and an arm rose out of the water. The gesture might have been a greeting or perhaps a plea for help.
Neither gesture was intended. As the body turned in the rippling water, a man's head emerged. His eyes, clouded with death, stared at the unseen sky. A deep gash exposed raw flesh inside his neck.
The flies quickly settled on the wound in such number that the cruel injury was covered by their churning blackness.
Thus does nature look after the defenseless dead.
Prioress Eleanor was grateful for it. As she sat, straight-backed in her carved chair, she breathed deeply of the refreshing fragrance. Her pleasure would remain unspoken, but the brief respite from the summer heat sharpened her attention to the words of the pair before her.
Prior Andrew and her sub-prioress, Sister Ruth, were having a most unusual debate.
At stake was the admission of a young man who had begged entry to Tyndal Priory as a novice, a rare occurrence for this Fontevraudine priory on the remote East Anglian coast. In such matters, Prior Andrew was usually the cautious one. In contrast, Sister Ruth grew eager if the supplicant carried either wealth in his beseeching hands or exuded that sweet perfume of noble birth, a scent that invariably brought joy to her heart.
This morning's discussion presented an uncommon reversal.
"We know the family," the prior said. "Master Oseberne is a well-regarded baker in the village. There is no reason to suspect he will not honor his promise of a gold candlestick and a gift of bread for the hospital on one day each month." He frowned, an odd gesture of perturbation from this kind-hearted man.
Sister Ruth's glare was more in character. "The family is worthy enough for village folk. It is their son that I like not."
"He's a pious lad from all I've heard."
"I have lived in Tyndal longer than you, Prior. I remember when he was a wee boy and slipped into our grounds to throw rocks at our nuns on their way to prayer."
"And how old was this child?"
"Old enough to stand on two feet, be draped with a seamless garment to cover his nakedness, and find his way through the mill gate." Folding her arms, Sister Ruth settled into obstinacy.
Eleanor raised an eyebrow and turned to await her prior's response.
Sister Ruth's eyes narrowed.
The prioress molded her expression into one of expectant benevolence, then gently tapped her staff of office on the ground to remind both that she was waiting for further elaboration of positions.
"We are bound to forgive and obliged to show charity." Prior Andrew studied Sister Ruth as if searching for signs of these virtues in her face. Quickly he looked away, sadness in his eyes as he failed to discover any trace. "Young Adelard is no longer a babe," he said with a gentle tone. "I think he has grown into a wiser youth who now longs to serve God."
"Is a gold candlestick payment enough for the scar left on the cheek of the nun he struck?"
Eleanor rarely felt kinship with this woman, who often opposed her, but that remark touched her heart.
"Two candlesticks, perhaps?" The moment the words escaped his lips, Andrew knew the comment was better left unspoken. It sounded like a mockery of Sister Ruth. His face flushed with regret.
Oblivious to any insult, the sub-prioress turned thoughtful and jabbed a finger against her thin lower lip. "His father could not pay for so many. Indeed, I wonder that he can afford the one. I remember when his roof leaked and only the poorest ate his gritty bread."
"Which, not long ago, would have been most of those living nearby." Andrew swept his hand around the room, suggesting inclusion of all lands belonging to both village and priory. "God has smiled on us in recent years. The baker and his family now live in a finer house, and he even sells his bread to Mistress Signy when her own stores at the inn run short. As more people travel to our priory, many in the village have prospered as have we who are in God's service."
"In no small measure because our hospital infirmarian, Sister Christina, has wrought many miracles with her prayers for the sick and dying." The sub-prioress' arrogant expression faded as she glanced uneasily at Eleanor. "Although many questioned the sanctity of our anchoress after she was first entombed, sinners now journey here from all over England to consult with her."
Since the sub-prioress had been one of those detractors, Eleanor greeted this subtle concession with a gracious nod. As for the efficacy of priory medical treatment, Eleanor never ignored Sister Christina's pleas to God, she being a woman surely bound for the name of blessed, if not saint. But Eleanor also knew that both the renown and prosperity of the hospital owed much to the more worldly healing skills of Sister Anne, apothecary and sub-infirmarian.
An olive-brown bird flew through the open window and over the heads of the trio. Landing on a nearby table, the small chiffchaff chirped with bright song as if eager to add his opinion.
Sister Ruth eyed the bird with suspicion.
Prior Andrew also glanced at the creature and without thinking ran his hand over his bald head. "Do you have cause to believe Adelard has not changed his ways since the last rock was thrown?"
"No." Her reply was hesitant, and she began to twitch.
Suspecting an attack of fleas, Eleanor restrained herself from offering one of her linen pouches of lavender as an antidote.
"He spends much time in prayer at the priory church. Brother John says that he begs answers on questions of scripture and faith."
"His father's prosperity is recent. Dare we conclude that he will always be able to provide the bread promised, even if he does present us with the promised candlestick? Men of such birth ..." The sub-prioress sniffed.
"Surely your objection is not based solely on his low worldly rank," Andrew said with annoyance. "In the village, that means little. Other than the crowner, no one there is of noble birth."
Eleanor was also growing impatient. "The baker's offer of one candlestick is adequate to brighten any altar," she said, "and his gift of bread to feed our sick honors charity. As for lasting affluence, we must never assume that prosperity shall continue beyond this moment, and that caution includes our priory. We would do well to recall the lesson of Job."
With a sharp twitter, the chiffchaff took wing, circled the room, and fled the chambers. Eleanor wondered if it had grown bored with the concerns of those God chose to rule the earth and all its beasts. Then she noticed a small white drop on the sub-prioress' shoulder, and amusement briefly pulled her thoughts down to a less celestial plane.
Sister Ruth's face was deepening to the color of a fine wine from the Aquitaine.
"Nor does our Order turn aside any with a true calling to serve God," Andrew said.
Eleanor nodded. "The mother house in Anjou serves as our model by taking not only the children of craftsmen but repentant prostitutes as well. All souls are equal in God's eyes."
"Surely we need not follow their practices in every respect!" Sister Ruth's forehead began to glisten, and the sour odor of fear wafted from her square body. "The abbey is large, and our small priory does not have the space or resources to imitate their singular benevolence."
Eleanor took mercy on the woman. "To our grief, you are correct. Even though our village is poor in magdalenes, we may at least follow the mother house's example and accept novices of lowlier parentage."
Andrew gestured with enthusiasm. "And we have done so already, much to the benefit of our priory and hospital. Sister Anne's father was a physician. Brother John was an apothecary when he lived in the world ..."
The sub-prioress waved his observation aside. "The charity of our hospital is ultimately under the guidance of the infirmarian, Sister Christina, who is not only a woman of inestimable virtue but is also the daughter of ..."
Eleanor thudded her staff on the floor. "We are drifting from the purpose of this discussion. The question before us is whether or not to admit Adelard, son of Oseberne the baker, as a novice to our priory."
The prior swatted at a fly. "I believe we should."
"I disagree." Sister Ruth sat upright with an implacable rigidity. Her thick body probably resembled the unyielding curtain wall of her noble brother's Norman fortress.
Shutting her eyes, the prioress knew she had lost patience. Her two subordinates had failed to compromise and seemed unwilling ever to do so. Could this meeting grow any more difficult?
When she heard a soft knock on the chamber door, Eleanor gratefully gave permission to enter.
As she stepped into the room, Gytha, the prioress' maid, looked uncommonly pale. "I beg pardon for the interruption, my lady."
Exuding rank displeasure at the intrusion, Sister Ruth eloquently turned her head away and muttered something incomprehensible.
"You surely have cause," Eleanor replied with especial gentleness. Her usually cheerful maid was uncommonly subdued.
Gytha bit her lip. "Brother Gwydo has found a man's body in the mill pond. He prays that you may come as soon as possible."
There was a collective gasp in the room.
"Send Brother Beorn to inform Crowner Ralf," the prioress replied as she rose from her chair and firmly gripped her staff of office. Then she gestured to her prior and sub-prioress. "We shall meet him at the site."
Although Eleanor knew no one could hear it, she could feel her heart pounding as if the Devil himself was beating a drum within her breast.
Eleanor bit her lip and nodded.
Grabbing a handful of tunic, he flipped the corpse over and pulled the man's black hair away from his neck. "There was a blow here as well." He pointed to the injury just under the man's ear.
The prioress stepped nearer the edge, as if considering whether to join the crowner in the mud, then knelt where she was and bent forward so she might better see the body. "Do you conclude that the head wound was suffered before his throat was slashed?"
"So I might. Why slit his throat, then strike him on the head? Unless, of course, the injury was suffered in a fall just after his throat was cut." He fingered the back of the man's head. "The bone is soft here. I'd say the blow might have cracked his skull, but I feel no loose fragments." He rocked back on his haunches and looked around. "The stream banks are higher where it flows through the forest." He gestured toward the village. "Had he fallen there, his head might have struck a large rock, but this is summer and the water level is low. He would not have fallen into the stream. Most likely, he was killed near the water and either fell or was pushed in."
"Why was he floating in our mill pond?" Eleanor considered the short distance between priory wall and the pond with apparent unease.
The turning mill wheel groaned loudly as if protesting innocence of the crime.
Ralf rose to his feet with a grunt. "There is no cause to suspect anything besides chance occurrence for the body to be here, my lady. The hands and face on the corpse have swollen. From my experience, I'd say the body has probably been in the water for a couple of days at least. Cuthbert is searching the stream bank outside this priory. It shouldn't take long for my sergeant to discover where the fight took place. This death is the king's problem."
"A fight?" Prior Andrew frowned as he pointed to the mutilated neck of the corpse. "You think that was the result of some petty disagreement?"
"A slashed throat suggests more than a minor quarrel between men with too much ale in their bellies," Eleanor said.
"I would agree," Ralf replied, "which may make solving this crime an easier matter."
"So you believe the corpse drifted downstream, into priory grounds, and went over the mill wheel with the cascading water?" She raised a hand to shade her eyes from the sun, then looked down at Ralf. "As you said, the water level in the stream is low. If this man died farther up the road to Norwich, wouldn't someone have seen the body as it floated past the village?"
"Unless he was killed at night. Then the body would have passed unnoticed, entered the pool above the mill where it may have sunk until the force of the water flowing over the wheel pulled it forward. You may be confident, my lady, that this death is under King Edward's jurisdiction."
Eleanor folded her arms as she considered this. Her expression suggested polite doubt.
"If I may, I would look upon the body, my lady." Sister Ruth gestured to her prioress for permission. Granted it, she stared down at the corpse for a long moment and scowled. "I do not recognize the fellow," she said. "He is not from one of our village families."
"Nor do I know his name, but that means little," the prioress said. "Many strangers have come here in recent times, some of whom I have had no cause to meet." She turned to her prior.
Andrew shook his head. "We could ask Mistress Gytha to come here and look upon the body."
Eleanor winced. Perhaps she should have asked her maid to accompany them. But the sight of this corpse would unbalance anyone's humors, and Gytha had been surprisingly downcast of late.
"She knows those in the village," the prior was saying, "and goes to market days as well as on visits to her brother." He looked down at the crowner and winked. "Others as well."
Ralf flushed and looked down at his hands. "No need for her to look on this." He rubbed his fingers together to brush off lumps of mud. "I've seen him. His name is Kenelm. Cuthbert said he came to Tyndal village last winter and remained. I know of no one here who will grieve over this death."
"Has he no family, then?" Eleanor gazed with fresh sorrow at the dead man.
"None that he claimed," Ralf said. "Nor does any woman here hold his bastard at her breast."
Sister Ruth lowered her gaze and glowered at a rock, suddenly deemed worthy of her displeasure.
"That is Kenelm?" Prior Andrew began to lean over the edge of the bank for a closer look, but his bad leg would not take his weight. He winced and stepped back. "I did meet him once. He came to the priory, seeking employment."
"Did you take him on?" The crowner raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
"I turned him away. We needed no one, and his manner was churlish. He looked fat enough, and I fear his demeanor made me disinclined to offer work out of simple charity."
"A wise decision, Prior. As I heard the tale, he was paid to guard some pilgrims traveling from the south to the shrine of Norwich's sainted William. When they arrived here, he fell ill."
Ralf spat. "Or so he claimed. These pilgrims were simple souls and had given him all he demanded at the beginning of the journey, not at the end."
Sister Ruth snorted. "Surely they could require him to complete the work for which he had been contracted, or else demand return of the fee."
Ralf shrugged. "According to Cuthbert, they took pity on him in his sickness and let him keep the coins. And so they were left to travel without the protection of his stout cudgel. I hope God shielded those innocents, for they had little else to keep outlaws from feasting on their purses."
"To my knowledge, we never saw him at the hospital for any cure." Sister Ruth considered this for a moment. "I shall ask Brother Beorn, who might remember this low-born stranger." She spun around and glared at a lay brother but a short distance behind her.
Excerpted from The Sanctity of Hate by Priscilla Royal Copyright © 2012 by Priscilla Royal. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 7, 2013
I've read all the books in this medieval mystery series so far, and liked them all. I especially like The Sanctity of Hate because of the portrayal of the clash between Christians and Jews in the 13th century. As a Jew myself, I've read a lot about Jewish history, and I'm familiar with the tribulations of Europe's Jeewish communities at that time. All of the prejudice and ignorance led to many expulsions of Jews from various parts of Europe. England was the first, in 1290. It's good that the author also makes the point thatthe hatred wasn't universal, and that there was interaction between the Christian and Jewish communities, even at a time of yellow badges, ghettos and expulsions.
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Posted January 1, 2013
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