Five Wounds: Touching History

five-wounds-20-jan-2015-kindle

I’ve just finished reading my copy of Katherine Edgar’s Tudor novel, Five Wounds. Set during the Pilgrimage of Grace, it imagines the bloody rebellion against the dissolution of the monasteries from the perspective of a teenage girl. As the north rises in protest, Nan Ellerton is wrenched away from the world she knows by her father, and forced to choose which side she stands on.

The opening line is taken from a Book of Hours, a symbol of the religion Henry’s reforms would ultimately destroy:

Oh kindly Jesu for the wound of your left foot keep me from the sin of envy…

This prayer echoes through the whole book, a reminder of the world that is being swept away. In late medieval England, the Five Wounds of Christ were objects of deep religious emotion. Prayers like this one are found everywhere, from the scribbled margins of cheap prayerbooks to the most expensive and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. One of the first manuscripts I ever touched – the bizarre, home-made Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61 – contains not only prayers to the Five Wounds, but also a crudely-sketched image of a shield. It contains the four wounds to Christ’s limbs and the fifth heart in the centre, drawn with little dashes around the edges, as if they were stitched onto a banner. In other manuscripts there are vivid, blood-red images of the wound pierced through Christ’s side, sometimes rubbed away by devout readers who touched, and even kissed, the page.

Magic figures and the Wound of Christ from a prayer roll

London, British Library, Harley MS T. 11. Prayer Roll with Wound of Christ

What strikes me about this prayer is that, in picturing Christ’s wounds, it pictures something that is empty space, a rent in the body. It tries to make tangible that which is by definition intangible: an opening where no opening should be. And that’s how history itself often seems to work. We look back into the past and try to touch it, to feel it, to make it seem real. We try to overcome its intangibility. Five Wounds achieves this perfectly, making you want to reach out and touch Nan’s world.

The great thing about good historical fiction is the way it teaches you without you even noticing – especially if you read it as a child or a teenager. I must have been nine or ten when I first read Cynthia Harnett’s A Load of Unicorn – so, slightly younger than the intended audience of Five Wounds – and a passing description of medieval printing and paper-making stayed with me, detailed enough that it’s still what I have at the forefront of my mind when I’m reading about real medieval book culture. The detail in Five Wounds has this blend of painstaking accuracy and lightness of touch. I liked that a minor lord’s name links him to a manuscript of Handlyng Synne that still exists; a relic kept by women stands for a whole culture of medieval piety. You don’t have to puzzle out these links, but they’re there if you recognize them – or there for you to recognize later on – and that’s what makes this world seem real enough to touch.

You can read an extract of Five Wounds here.

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