Sinful Folk: A Novel of the Middle Ages, Ned Hayes (Campanile Books)
Ned Hayes’s Sinful Folk is based upon one of those small historical events—a tantalizing mention that goes unexplained, so the lack of a full record makes it the territory of the novelist, rather than the historian.
In this case, the mention was of a suspicious fire that killed five young men in 1377 and the decision by a group of folk from their village to travel over 200 miles in mid-winter to present the young men’s bodies to the King and demand justice.
For us, a journey of 200 miles may seem negligible: three or four hours in a car and there you are. In the 14th Century such a journey was a truly heroic undertaking for several reasons. First, those making the journey were peasants. Not the happy, well-fed, well-clothed, folk-dancing peasants one encounters at a present-day “medieval” fair. Real, 14th Century peasants: hungry by mid-winter, unsure whether the food they’ve stored will see them through the remaining months of cold, dressed in rags, their feet wrapped in strips of cloth with a bit of leather tied to their soles for a little more protection, illiterate all of them—except the central character, Mear—blaming witches and Jews for the misfortunes that befall them, quick to fight, accustomed to sudden injury and death. These are the people traveling 200 miles, on foot, in the snow.
In addition, at that time peasants needed sanction from their Lord or local Abbott if they wanted to undertake any sort of a journey. The villagers, as Mear reminds us partway through the narrative, “have no blessing or sanction from our Lord, Sir Peter, to be abroad upon the open road. This makes us vagabonds; any man may kill or injure us without consequence.” The territory they pass through is populated by people as poor, as hungry, and as desperate as they are. They can hope for no assistance and must constantly fear attack, theft, and murder.
The story is told in Mear’s voice, and reading it, listening to it is a genuine pleasure. Mear isn’t the 21st Century ethos in a 14th Century body that populates too much of the fiction set in this period. Mear is a man—actually woman—of the time: educated and intelligent, but with a sense of what is possible and what is right that is shaped by his—her—era and social class.
Mear, Miriam, posses as a mute man and has done so for ten years, since first arriving in the village. Over the course of the novel, we learn her life story in bits and pieces and come to understand why she’s made this choice. Mear’s story provides the primary narrative thread holding the novel together, but this novel has other narrative threads as well, including the slow process of discovering how and why the five young men died. These threads weave over and under the story of Mear’s past, creating a whole that offers both complexity and integrity.
It may sound clichéd, but I truly didn’t want this novel to end. Over and over again it provokes real thought about the characters, about human values, about the limited vision of Mear’s time and of our own. It offers immediate entertainment, but is also the sort of work that will hold up to repeated readings. I would happily spend many more hours, and many more pages, in Mear’s company.
Ned Hayes’s Sinful Folk is currently available as a Kindle download via Amazon and will be released as a paperback by Campanile Press on January 22. This is an absolutely wonderful read, so let me just note that I don’t know which is the better choice: to buy the electronic copy so you can begin it now or to wait for the print edition for the pleasure of holding a physical copy of this excellent read. I read this book as an electronic ARC, but I’m planning to pre-order it in print, so I’ll have both. And I expect I’ll be making my way through the print version more than once over the next few years.