My mother has read quite a few historical mysteries, and I even remember reading a short story or two featuring the then-newborn (not literally) Sister Fidelma as a sleuth. At the time, it was quite easy for me to accept the notion that monks and nuns were once permitted to marry and to co-habit.
It was Big Finish’s Book of Kells, an Eighth Doctor/Tamsin story from the last series of the Eighth Doctor plays, that inspired me to look for Peter Tremayne’s first Fidelma book. Lo and behold, the library had it (though it’s been some 12 years since Tremayne began writing the series) so I plunged in. Judging by the emergence, and the fervor, of the International Sister Fidelma Society, I am not alone in finding the period about which Tremayne writes to be absolutely fabulous. Fidelma herself is a great character, but she wouldn’t exist unless there was a world for her to inhabit. Ireland of the 7th century is just such a world, one whose level of civilization and sense of equality for women boggles the mind of those indoctrinated with a perception of the Dark Ages and the medieval church as purely restrictive and barbaric. Why did it disappear? you may ask yourself. Well, that is the subject, or one of the subjects, of Absolution by Murder.
Of course, there wasn’t really such a thing as “Ireland” and much less a concept of the “British Isles” at 664 during what is now known as the Synod of Whitby. When the Synod sets out to decide which church, the Celtic or the Roman, that the Christian inhabitants of Northumbria will follow, it picks out a brilliant and seminal moment in time—though the participants don’t quite know that. Fidelma is not only part of the Celtic delegation and a young religieuse from the Abbey at Kildare, she is a dalaígh, which is a kind of law expert and arbiter from the Brehon courts, which means she has studied law (and various other subjects) for eight years. Raised as an Eoghanacht princess, this means she is incredibly well-educated as well as having a great deal of power. She is independent and fiery (as demonstrated in the first scene where we meet her) and also dedicated to justice. Does she sound too good to be true? Perhaps, but she’s a very winning character. She is also a great female role model of the kind which are probably scarce in Anglo-Saxon traditional history. For one thing, we get primogeniture from the Anglo-Saxons, and given that the Northumbrian characters in the book treat women with less respect, we are led to believe that Irish society, as well as the Celtic church, were much more democratic and less gender-biased.
So how do the Celtic and Roman churches differ? you ask. Well, Tremayne has provided a brilliant way into this complicated (and often theologically thorny) issue by giving us this Synod, where the speakers are debating these very issues—while at the same time, the characters’ personal prejudices tell us a lot about the mores of the day, too. The Celtic church is centered at Iona (which I found out, after searching Google Maps, is a tiny island off the coast of western Scotland) and was founded by Columcille, St Columba. St Columba brought literacy to the tribes of Picts (or, as they are called in the book, the Cruthin; instead of Brits, y’all could have been known as the Cruts at one point). Among other things, the Celtic church and Roman church have different liturgy, different tonsures, etc. Ascetics following Paul’s precepts are beginning to make a dent in both churches’ notion of the conhospitae, ie, where religieux (as monks and nuns are called as they are not really monks and nuns as such at this period) can marry and have children, and indeed cohabit in “double-houses” where they can raise their families in God’s service.
The Ionian way of life comes off a lot more appealing, especially from a female perspective, than the Northumbrian one; punishment in Ireland is more about compensation and less about barbaric practices like stoning. Various characters like Bishop Colmán drive this point home by being sniffy at the Northumbrian Christians, feeling like they are pretty inferior given they have only recently acquired Christianity and are barely literate. Irish astronomy and learning also look pretty good compared to the ways of the Northumbrians. In a sense, it’s a shame all the characters in Absolution by Murder can’t speak the languages they are speaking in, as it would be an amazing mixture of Latin, Greek, Irish, and Northumbrian. Still, Fidelma has something to learn from Brother Eadulf, a Roman brother who has studied in Ireland as well as Rome. They become co-sleuths investigating the death of Abbess Étain, a gifted orator for the Columban church. Having recognized that the unsolved murder will fan the flames of the different factions at the Synod, Fidelma and Eadulf try to work past their differences.
There are some very interesting characters at Whitby Abbey on this occasion, from the sensualist Abbess Abbe to the effeminate Brother Seaxwulf to the elderly Sister Athelswith and members of King Oswy’s royal (plotting) family. That said, I had figured out the culprit (though not quite the motive), which is extremely rare for me; I’m usually a dunce when it comes to mysteries. I’m not entirely happy with the conclusion, though I can’t really discuss it without giving it away. Let me just say that it smacks of sensationalism as the easy way out.
Much as I find this world and Fidelma’s part in it irresistible, Tremayne is not the world’s best novelist. I’m told the writing improves as the books progress, and given that Peter Berresford Ellis is a world authority on Celtic history, I guess we can forgive some occasional clunky writing. Furthermore, when the Synod reaches its conclusion, that the Roman church will be observed in Northumbria (it’s not a spoiler, you can look it up!), I can’t help wondering what the world would have been like had the Celtic church won over. Somehow I can’t shake the feeling the world would have been a lot better.