A Plague on Both Your Houses

Book Review:  A Plague on Both Your Houses

Susanna Gregory, A Plague on Both Your Houses. Time Warner Paperback, London, 2003 (originally published 1996)

I bought A Plague on Both Your Houses quite some time ago at a Bring & Buy stall, put it on my bookshelf and forgot about it. While researching Cambridge in the 15th century for a talk, I was reminded that Susanna Gregory’s novels are set in 14th century Cambridge, so I finally decided to read the book. A great pity that I hadn’t done so earlier, as I had missed out on a treat.

Gregory’s novels of this series fall into the genre of medieval detective stories, a genre that I am very fond of. For me, it started with Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries, which have been joined by Margaret Frazer’s Dame Frevisse and Player Joliffe series, or on the German market by Andrea Schacht’s series set in medieval Cologne.

A Plague on Both Your Houses is the first in Susanna Gregory’s series having Matthew Bartholomew, a physician and fellow of Michaelhouse  (now part if Trinity College) in the University of Cambridge as their main character. There is a certain similarity with the Cadfael stories, both having a medieval physician as their protagonist, whose horizon is wider than that of most of his contemporaries. However, Gregory’s novel shows a more realistic portray of medieval society than Ellis Peters did.

At the beginning of A Plague on Both Your Houses, the Master of Michaelhouse is found dead in rather bizarre circumstances. Soon other deaths follow and above all looms the threat of the plague, which eventually strikes. Matthew is trying to figure out the reason behind the murders as well as trying to figure out how to prevent the plague from spreading, and how to cure his patients who have caught it. As we are in the 14th century, it comes as no surprise that he is more successful in solving the first mystery rather than the second.

Matthew’s main problem is that he does not know whom he can trust – and makes some wrong assumptions along the way. Mixed into the plot is the rivalry between the two universities – Cambridge and Oxford, human greed, the medieval perception of the plague and hints of a love story.

Susanna Gregory’s novel shows a wealth of detailed research and offers a rich picture of medieval Cambridge. At the same time, it is entertaining and has some characters with more humorous traits, like Brother Michael. However, he is not a one-dimensional character to be made fun of, but also displays a depth of learning and understanding.

A Plague on Both Your Houses is the first in the series, by now Matthew is detecting his 21st mystery, A Poisonous Plot. Since discovering this series, I have read several of the others, all of which can only be recommended.

The author’s website offers a lot of information on her novels as well as medieval Cambridge: http://www.susannagregory.com/

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