How to Drain the Middle Ages of All Its Color, or a Review of The Lawless Land by Boyd and Beth Morrison

Hroznata was a powerful man in medieval Bohemia who also was very pious. On two occasions, he made a vow to go on a crusade but he broke them both. As penance, he founded a monastery. Used to having his way, he tried to interfere with the daily running of it, but the only thing he managed to do was to piss off the monks so that when he was captured and held for ransom, they stalled the payment and he died in prison.

A pawn in the political game played by her father, Princess Ingeborg of Norway married Duke Erik of Sweden when she was 11 years old and he was 30. At age 15, she gave birth to a son, Magnus, and a year later to a daughter, Eufemia. Duke Erik was a man of ambitions, who together with his brother Valdemar rebelled against their older brother Birger, the king of Sweden. A peace offering was made in the late fall of 1317 when King Birger invited Erik and Valdemar to a feast at Nyköping Castle. In the middle of the party, Erik and Valdemar were thrown into prison where they died–possibly of starvation–in early 1318. Now a seventeen-year old widow with two children alone in a hostile environment, Ingeborg joined her late husband’s allies and together they deposed King Birger and sent him into exile. They executed Birger’s son and heir to the throne, and made Ingeborg and Duke Erik’s son, Magnus, king instead. At the age of 19, Duchess Ingeborg was the legal guardian of her three-year old son and in his name, she ruled the largest kingdom in medieval Europe, reaching from Finland in the east to Greenland in the west.

The lives of Hroznata and Ingeborg are only two examples of why the Middle Ages are so fascinating. Both of these stories are true, and both of them would be good plots for historical fiction if they were not. Writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages is a big task. As an author, your imagination needs to be vivid enough to trump reality, and you also need to have the capacity to inhabit a cultural and psychological universe different from your own.

Two people who decided to tackle the Middle Ages through historical fiction are the siblings Boyd and Beth Morrison who have co-written the novel The Lawless Land (Head of Zeus 2022). Boyd is a New York Times bestselling author of thrillers and Beth is the Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The Lawless Land is the story of Gerald Fox, a knight without a lord who is on a quest to restore his family name and ancestral estate. In his pursuit, he meets Isabel, a young maiden on the run from her own wedding and who harbors more than one secret.

The novel is set in 1351, at the very end of the first wave of the Bubonic plague across Europe, also known as the Black Death (1347–1351). The setting is England and France on both sides of the English Channel.

Even though the novel is set in the late Middle Ages, the only thing that makes it medieval is because it says so. Gerald Fox is a man who has lost faith in his faith after having seen one too many battles. By making Fox into a battle-weary atheist, the authors have given themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card because by removing religion from the mix, they didn’t have to wrap their heads around the one thing that made medieval Europe tick: Christianity.

Christianity, or Latin Christendom to be precise, was the umbrella under which everything took place in the Middle Ages. The agricultural year was organized around the saints’ feasts, politics and piety were so closely intertwined there is no point in trying to separate them, agnostics and atheists did not exist, relics were big business, and royalty and nobility secured their place in heaven by donating and founding chapels, monasteries, and churches. Latin Christendom drove inventions in science, art, literature, and fashion. Latin Christendom was the reason why there were two legal systems in medieval Europe: Canon Law, or the law of the Church, and secular law. Latin Christendom was the reason why Jews and Muslims were discriminated against and tolerated at the same time. Latin Christendom is what gave medieval culture a mystical bent.

The book’s idea of what is Europe is outdated. The map at the beginning of the book is called “Europe 1351” but shows only France, northeast Italy, and southern England, even though medieval Europe reached all the way east to Ukraine, north to the Arctic, and south to Spain and Greece. No borders are visible on this map, which robs the reader of the knowledge that half of what we think of as France at this time was English, the other half consisted of regions more or less under the French king’s sovereignty, and that Turin and Genoa were powerful city-state republics with large hinterlands. For reasons unknown, the detailed map of southeast England is called “Canterbury” even though what is shown is the county of Kent with Calais added on the other side of the English Channel.

The McGuffin of the story is an expensive manuscript that was “saved” from destruction during the sack of Constantinople in 1204; the story does not divulge that Constantinople was sacked as part of the Fourth Crusade, when Latin Christians turned on Greek Christians and wreaked such havoc on the city that it did not recover until the Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1453 and breathed new life into it. In other words, the priceless manuscript was saved from being destroyed by the very people who saved it. Moreover, this manuscript is an heirloom of Isabel’s family because they didn’t want to give it up to a monastery, a logic that runs counter to how a medieval person would have thought. If there was an opportunity to donate a priceless manuscript to a monastery, they would have done so. Such donations were used as evidence of largess on behalf of the nobility and also as payment for prayers in the afterlife, an integral aspect of medieval culture and psychology.

The medieval world that comes across in The Lawless Land is without the color, absurdity, religiosity, mysticism, and bawdy sense of humor that permeated the medieval world. The characters are stiff, the plot is predictable, the ideas of what is and was Europe are outdated, the ideas of what it meant to donate objects to a monastery and indeed join a monastery display Protestant prejudices against holy objects and religious institutions of what is today Catholicism. What matters in historical fiction is not only that the authors get the facts straight; they also need to capture the essence of the time period.

On its dust jacket, The Lawless Land is given an endorsement by Lee Child, which makes sense. The Lawless Land is written like a thriller, and it reads like one. Change the year from 1351 to 2022 and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. So, if you are looking for Jack Reacher in the fourteenth century, this is the book for you. If you are looking for historical fiction set in the medieval world, I suggest you move along.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.