The Sempster's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mysteries) Mass Market Paperback – 2 Jan 2007
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'15th-century London is vividly brought to life in this book. The
characters are fully three-dimensional, and the identity of the killer is a
well-guarded secret until the final chapters.'
-- The Historical Novels Review, Issue 40, May 2007 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Margaret Frazer was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Original Paperback for The Servant's Tale and The Prioress' Tale. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Master Greene has a mission to transport a shipment of gold on behalf of his late murdered master the Duke of Suffolk back into England. Dame Frevisse of the St Frideswide's nunnery is in London to obtain vestments for her cousin, Lady Alice, Her Grace of Sussex. Under cover of providing material and a tailor for the vestments, Master Greene enlists the aid of Dame Frevisse in delivering the gold to Lady Alice. Although she is suspicious of its origins, Master Greene convinces Frevisse that Lady Alice is in dire need of the money and that the conveyers of the gold are foreign merchants only allowed into the country for a limited time, so she reluctantly agrees for her cousin's sake she will help.
Whilst taking the opportunity of some shopping in London they hear news of the Kentish rebels being as close as Blackheath, not ten miles away and vow to cut short their visit and head back to the nunnery. Then a high ranking churchman is murdered, which creates considerable unrest, particularly against the King.
Much of the story is centred around the persecution of Jews, and the love Anne Blackwell has for her lover Daved. Dame Fevisse is a calming voice in a volatile story.Read more ›
Dame Frevisse has murders to solve without the aid of any modern techniques - only her ability to ask questions, to observe and to reason. The sheer variety of her experiences is hugely entertaining, and never far-fetched. That said, this is not the best of the books: though the characters are sharply-observed, and very real, other stories have a wider scope which touches on a wider landscape. But if you enjoy these books you will want to read this one straight through without stopping ... just like all the others!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The editorial reviews and other reviewers have outlined the plot, so I won't repeat that; let me instead mention a few things I enjoyed in particular about this book, that made it more than just an OK continuation of a series.
First, the Author's Note at the end of the book, which explains such details as why this is "The Sempster's Tale" rather than "The Seamstress's Tale." Other bits of information about the state of the English language at the time are also included. The period of time in the mid-15th century was seeing the Middle English of Chaucer (Dame Frevisse's great-uncle) slowly but surely change into the Early Modern English that would become Shakespeare, and I enjoy knowing some of the details of the evolution of words.
Then, there's the way that during the story, we learn about the differences between friars and monks - something that in our own time, we think of as being the same thing; in fact, they weren't. We also learn more about a priest's duties, and the curious fact, from our modern point of view, that priests are in some ways considered inferior to friars. The Inquisition is being powered by friars and monks more than by priests. In our own time, we thing of the various orders of priests such as Jesuits as being the religious who are really learned and sharp, so it is something of a shock to find that in Frevisse's era, the friars were the really learned ones, and priests who just stayed in one place to celebrate Masses for lay people were far less powerful or respected.
We also find out some details about Frevisse's childhood, that help us understand her strength of mind and her adaptability to travel, more than most women in a convent.
For many history buffs, the larger action of the rebels in London will be the most interesting part; for me, that was just background, and I think that other than providing a reason for people to be either holed up in their houses or leaving London, the fighting and the reasons for the rebellion are just background, not as interesting as the many details of daily life that we get, as we do in every novel in this series. From how servants are treated to how money is exchanged internationally, I continue to be fascinated by the working lives of every character in these books. The introduction of new characters - particularly, in this volume, secret Jews and various different levels of converts from Judaism to Christianity - is one of the things I look forward to in each volume. Even the rather repellent characters, such as Brother Michael the friar, are interesting and have information about them that I enjoy learning.
It is the summer of 1450, and England seems to be completely fed up with it's ineffectual King (Henry VI) and the greedy and power-hungry noblemen he surrounds himself with. It is ground ripe for a rebellion against the King, and commoner William Cade is quick to use this discontent to mount a popular uprising and to make for London. And the burning question that Londoners now face is whether or not they should open the city gates to Cade and his men now that the King and his favourites have abandoned them to their own fate. Caught up in all this turmoil is Dame Fervisse, who has left her peaceful convent in Oxfordshire in order to do her cousin, the Duchess of Suffolk, a favour: to arrange the funeral vestments for her murdered husband, and more secretly, to convey a sum of gold that the Duke had sent out of London back to her. And while Dame Fervisse is quite incensed that her cousin has involved her in this underhanded affair, she nonetheless agrees to help the Duchess out. The last thing that she expected though was to be left stranded in a city anxiously facing a rebellious mob, or to be caught up in yet another murder investigation -- and one that would make her question some of her religious beliefs...
I enjoy reading historical mysteries very much, and Margaret Frazer's Dame Fervisse mystery series is defintiely one of my favourites. This was not always the case; but over the years, I have become a fan of the series and have come to appreciate the author's clever and insightful plots, her well realised and careful character portrayals and brilliant manner in which she brings the period to life with all that wonderful historical detail. And once again the author captured my attention and beguiled with this wonderfully poignant mystery novel that revolved around ambition, greed, a forbidden romance and murder. Some may be a little put off at some of the modern sensibilities that Dame Fervisse and a few other characters display; I however thought that it was well done. The only complaint I had, and this is a small one, is that because the book was so full of what was happening in London that summer of 1450, the mystery who committed the two murder and why, became a bit of an afterthought and was only really solved because of an offhand remark that one of the character's makes in Dame Fervisse's hearing. On the whole, though, "The Sempster's Tale" made for wonderfully engrossing reading, and is well worth the expensive hardcover price.
For one thing, the historical context gives a ring of reality to the work. I remember when the author--so many years ago--showed me a notebook with day by day events of the period in England. This historical verisimilitude produces an atmosphere in these Dame Frevisse novels that "rings true." The author's homework has richly paid off. I think that this in itself sets the Dame Frevisse series apart from other works.
This book focuses on events in the 15th century. The King, not a very effectual figure, has fled the city of London as William Cade and his commoners try to assert themselves. In this turbulent situation, Dame Frevisse must get "vestments"--and gold--for her cousin, Lady Alice, whose husband has recently died. The seamstress (or sempster, as the term was used at the time), Anne, was engaged in an affair with a Jewish merchant, Daved, when Jews had been expelled from England. She works with Dame Frevisse to carry out the mission. Two murders ensue, the first suggesting that Jews were the perpetrators. The second implicates Daved. Dame Frevisse, with the assistance of Daved, works the mystery through to determine who was guilty.
All in all, the novel is very much worth reading. The atmosphere has a ring of reality; the characters are well drawn; the pace moves along nicely. For those interested in this period of English history, the book provides a sense of the era. That itself is reason enough to read this volume. Add to this the characters and the plot and these render the novel even more estimable.
As for the historical acuracy, Frazer has proven herself to be very good at giving us glimpses into the world of 15th century England. She does so again, in general, but does have a few points that could be questioned in her address of the Jewish theme of the book. Another reviewer has already noted the possibility of error on Frazer's use of "Challah" to describe the sabbath bread and the shape used, and I do not profess to be a scholar of Jewish food, so I will not comment on the accuracy of this one, although I was disturbed that Frazer responded so negatively without citing her sources. At least the review did so, even if he or she was incorrect. However, I AM a scholar of medieval Iberia and I was disturbed by one small fact that Frazer used in giving the background of Brother Michael at the beginning of Chapter 11. She has the character say that he was born in "Antwerp. Where my parents went after being forced from Portugal." Frazer also goes on to have him discuss conversos, those Jews who converted to Christianity, being sought by the Inquisition in Spain. First of all, Jews were not expelled from Spain until 1492 and from Portugal until 1497, more than 40 years after the story takes place, and probably a great deal more after the character's parents would have left Portugal. It is true that Jews faced anti-semitism in medieval Iberia (Jews in Portugal did have to wear special garments and obey a curfew in the first few decades of the 15th century) but during the early 15th century it was not necessarily any worse in Portugal than in the rest of Europe. After all, Frazer herself points out that the Jews had been expelled from England long before the story. As for the Spanish Inquisition, it did not start actively persecuting the Spanish Conversos until around 1480 or so. The Inquisition actually began with a concern more for Christian heretics than for Jews, and when it did begin to address Jews, many of the first cases are found in France, not Spain.
All of this is not meant to show that Frazer is a bad writer OR researcher, just a request that if she receives criticism from someone like the reviewer mentioning challah or myself, and if she would like to respond, that she give some of her sources or reasons for using the disputed information. Perhaps she knew that the Jews were expelled from Portugal later and that the Spanish Inquisition had not started its terrible reign in Spain in the earliest part of the 15th century, but wanted to use those points as plot devises anyway. And the use of challah bread was fascinating in the story whether or not someone like Frevisse could have known it by that name in Enland before 1450.
I am still a huge fan of Frazers writing and mysteries and will continue to read her work.