Books

03.11.14

Five Little-Known But History-Changing Medieval Crime Stories

Medieval scholar Eric Jager, whose new book is Blood Royal, about a true story of murder in 15th-century Paris, picks five books about medieval crime that you probably missed but shouldn’t.

The Murder of Charles the Good, Count of Flanders

By Galbert of Bruges

This is the earliest surviving journal of its kind, about a brutal assassination and its causes and consequences. In 1127, Charles the Good was attacked in church by the rival Erembald family, who sliced their victim up with swords while he was at prayer. (Charles’s father had also been killed in church.) Galbert, a cleric, chronicled the murder, the investigation (including a bloody judicial duel), and the resulting civil war, which upset the balance of power in Europe.

Who Murdered Geoffrey Chaucer?

By Terry Jones

An investigation by the Oxford-educated Terry Jones (also of Monty Python fame) into the mysterious death (ca. 1400) of England’s premier medieval poet. Was Chaucer murdered?  And, if so, was it because his writings contained heresy? Or because he supported the deposed King Richard II rather than the usurper Henry Bolingbroke? Chaucer’s murder, if true, did not so much change history as warn people that England had changed course with the new Lancastrian regime.

John the Fearless

By Richard Vaughan

Duke John of Burgundy (1371-1419) was ambushed and assassinated on a bridge during a parley meant to reunite the two warring factions in France against Henry V. The outraged Burgundians allied at once with Henry, greatly prolonging the war. Ten years later, they captured Joan of Arc and sold her to the English, dooming her to the stake and slowing the French reconquest. John’s murder, in short, put the “Hundred” in the Hundred Years War.

Chronicles

By Jean Froissart

Richard II recklessly seized the inheritance of his banished cousin Bolingbroke, instigating his cousin’s return and Richard’s loss of his throne. Froissart tells a lesser known tale of intrigue that had unfolded two years earlier: Richard’s uncle Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, had been arrested for treason, imprisoned at Calais, then murdered in his cell. Gloucester’s murder spread discontent among the English nobility and greased the way for Richard’s fall two years later.

Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England

By Alison Weir

Weir recounts the bloody history of Edward II (1284-1327), whose calculating and steely queen Isabella made war on her own husband and helped depose him. Did she also conspire in Edward’s mysterious death — according to one story, with a hot poker thrust into his anus — or did Edward actually escape and die abroad years later?  In either case, his premature fall from the throne rewrote the dynastic history of medieval England.