Novels pass into obscurity for a variety of reasons - poor writing, low reader interest, small print runs, old age. But the reason, I suspect, that Fitzempress' Law is so hard to find has more to do with the author's excellent reputation as a medieval novelist. Aside from library editions, most copies reside in the hands of readers who won't give them up. This novel, Norman's first, has three major themes in common with her latest (Mistress of the Art of Death, 2007, written as Ariana Franklin), published 27 years later. Namely: rural life in 12th century England, as seen from the inside out; the plight of the Jews of Cambridge; and the judicial reforms of Henry II and their relevance to the modern world. I had no idea of the similarity of setting and subject when I decided to read the novels one after the other, but they make for a nicely matched pair. Their plotlines, however, are quite different.
In the present day, three 18-year-old hoodlums get thrown back in time after committing a crime against an eccentric old woman. She invokes a curse on the trio that the only way to save their souls will be through law. Now, in Henry II's England, each must find a way of using early medieval law to solve a major personal crisis. Len awakes in the body of Aluric of Tatchwerte, a village in the Hundred of Broadwater in Hertfordshire. Aluric is a swineherd who had been mute for many years, ever since the mysterious stabbing death of his older sister. He's charged with proving he was born a free man, which will allow him to fulfill his mother's dream of becoming a monk. Pete, who in his previous existence was a shy, unassertive type, enjoys his newfound status as Sir Roger of Mardleybury, a knight in service with Henry II's forces in France. Unfairly disseised of his hereditary lands, Pete must find a way of proving his right to his late father's manor. And Sal finds herself occupying the body of Hawise, a young gentlewoman whose betrothal was unfairly broken and who was forced into a nunnery against her will.
This isn't a typical time-travel novel, in that the characters spend remarkably little time exploring the differences between "then" and "now"; they're fully absorbed into the 12th century almost immediately. In fact, they find that their new circumstances, difficult and uncomfortable as they are, offer them much that their previous existence did not. Len, formerly an orphan, now has a mother and a home of his own, though Edeva practices "tough love" on her son, and their residence is a peasant's hut. As a leader of men, Pete develops self-confidence and a new sense of authority, and Sal, to her great surprise, finds serenity in the contemplative life of the cloister. If not for the fact that she must use the law to validate her betrothal, in order to break the curse, Sal as Hawise might well have taken her religious vows.
Norman's descriptions of medieval English life are breathtaking; there are so many distinctive, memorable scenes that bring the 12th century to vivid, sparkling life. One gets to experience the back-breaking but necessary task of farming the land, day in and day out, despite uncooperative soil and tired oxen. Besieging a French castle by gradually starving its residents into surrender. Surviving the harsh winters of rural Hertfordshire with only a meager fire and minimal food and shelter. Protecting the Jews of Cambridge in an era when Jewish moneylenders are despised for their wealth and their supposed uncleanness. And overshadowing everything is Fitzempress's fatal quarrel with Becket, an act for which the English can never forgive him - despite his numerous judicial reforms (which resulted in the modern jury system), his keen intelligence, and his wise counselors' general belief that Becket got what he had coming to him.
Norman presents the religious zeitgeist among the populace with delicious irony. Christianity exists side-by-side with an earthy paganism that refuses to die out completely. When another young girl is found stabbed in the forest, Tatchwerte's peasants blame the Wild Hunt, despite their knowledge that not naming a human murderer will result in their village being fined. The local cleric, Father Herve, is fortunately more forward-thinking:
Len said, "It's nonsense, this Wild Hunt business. A real person killed her. I've seen that knife before, I know I have. Where the hell was it?"Fitzempress' Law is full of these exchanges, conversations between characters that reveal who they are, what they believe, what they stand for. The initial time-travel plot device really isn't the point. Instead, I spent much of the time hoping that the trio would decide not to return to the 20th century, so much did I enjoy their experiences in their new lives - as much as I believe they themselves did. This is one of the best examples of medieval fiction I've come across. It deserves to be more widely available, but even if that won't happen, it deserves to be more widely read.
The priest just watched him.
"You don't believe it was the Wild Hunt, do you?"
"No," said Father Herve, "that's just heathenish superstition."
"Who do you think it was then?"
"The devil." (p.120)
For other reviews in the Obscure Books series, see here and here.