Oxford Medieval Mysteries by Ann Swinfen

I only discovered the Oxford Medieval Mysteries by Ann Swinfen sometime last year. There are six books and I devoured the series. I found the mystery tales centered around a Medieval book seller wonderfully evocative. Of course what they evoke is only a picture of what it might have been like after the Black Death. The six books comprising the Oxford Medieval Mysteries, are set in the fourteenth century and recount the tales of bookseller (and book producer) Nicholas Elyot in the days before printing. He is a young widower with two small children, and is faced by murder and dastardly deeds in the troubled world around Oxford University traumatized by the Black Death. I found the detailed picture of everyday life very well researched and remarkably convincing. Ann Swinfen was a mathematician, a historian and an author. Perhaps it was that combination which makes her tales so believable.

I was eagerly looking forward  to there being a seventh in the series but have just found out that Ann Swinfen died 2 years ago. 

A strange sense of disappointment and of great loss.

Dr. Ann Swinfen (b. 1937 – d. 2018) 

Ann Swinfen spent her childhood partly in England and partly on the east coast of America. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Classics and Mathematics and married a fellow undergraduate, the historian David Swinfen. While bringing up their five children and studying for a postgraduate MSc in Mathematics and a BA and PhD in English Literature, she had a variety of jobs, including university lecturer, translator, freelance journalist and software designer. She served for nine years on the governing council of the Open University and for five years worked as a manager and editor in the technical author division of an international computer company, but gave up her full-time job to concentrate on her writing, while continuing part-time university teaching in English Literature. In 1995 she founded Dundee Book Events, a voluntary organisation promoting books and authors to the general public, which ran for fifteen years. ….. 

Her blog now seems to have been discontinued but from the parts that I have seen, her research into medieval life seems meticulous. This is an extract from a post she wrote just a month before she died.

Medieval Books

Until Nicholas Elyot, bookseller in fourteenth century Oxford, walked into my life, I had no more than a hazy knowledge of medieval books. The general impression I had gained, like most other people (I would guess), was that medieval books were limited in number, restricted as to contents, and confined to religious institutions and a very few royal and aristocratic houses.

Part of the problem lies in the terminology. ‘Medieval’ is a loosely defined term at the best of times, equivalent to ‘pertaining to the Middle Ages’, which can be extended to cover all the centuries from the end of the Roman Empire to the dawn of early modern Europe, another imprecise date. However, for our purposes, let us take it as beginning in England with the Norman Conquest and petering out in the Tudor period. As the new technology of printing was introduced toward the end of this period, in the late fifteenth century, I am interested in looking at medieval books before printing, the kind of books Nicholas sold and, increasingly, produced. 

It is clear from the sheer numbers of exquisite medieval books which still survive in libraries, museums, and private collections that this is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg. If we take into account the destruction wreaked by time, mice, damp, insects, and the savage attacks by zealots like Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in England and Savonarola in Italy, the original number of medieval books must have been much, much greater than those which survive. The number was not so limited after all. Accustomed as we are to modern printing, it is difficult for us to grasp that every one of these books was handwritten, but a monastic scribe or a secular scrivener, working day after day, could produce a remarkable amount of work. 

The content of medieval books covered a very wide range. In the first place, we can easily divide them into two main groups – those intended as practical and business records and those intended for scholarly or leisure reading. The former group includes all those manorial records which are full of fascinating details about the buying and selling of land, rents, the employment of servants, crops, game, household expenses (three yards of silk for a christening gown, twenty hogsheads of canary wine…) and the like. It also includes the chartularies of the monastic houses which may cover similar details but more particularly the gifts of benefactors and the rights and privileges of the institution. The surviving records of government run to thousands and thousands. As time passed and the merchant class expanded and grew rich, their businesses required detailed record keeping as well. Many of these are not ‘books’ as we would recognise them, for they were more conveniently kept as scrolls, so that additional pieces could be sewn on as required. …….. 

I am trying to retrieve more of her posts but that will have to wait for another day.



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