[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=0316224510]The medieval night was a time of danger, writes Eric Jager. After the curfew hour, the medieval city closed down, houses and businesses shuttering their windows and doors, becoming a foreboding place of darkness and danger hard to imagine today. Part of this danger was supernatural: angels, daemons, ghosts and goblins were just as real to the medieval mind as human criminals for whom the night offered opportunities for mischief. Those who had to venture out into the streets after dark traveled in groups and carried whatever weapons they could muster. Swords were the purview of the elite and most ordinary citizens opted for knives, hammers and even sticks—whatever they had handy that could serve in self-defense. On a particular night that would write itself in French history, one such night traveler was the Duke of Orleans and the regent of France. Despite an armed guard, however, he fell victim to the night’s predictions, his bloody death sending shock waves through Paris and France that would eventually lead to civil war and English invasion. All this trouble would reverberate from a simple enough thing, an investigation into the identity of the assailants conducted by the chief law man of Paris, Provost Guillaume de Tignonville.
More remarkable than Jager’s meticulous reconstruction of medieval Paris and France’s politics of the era is the skill of de Tignonville as he peels back layers of mystery, unearthing a conspiracy of shocking proportions. Although we might imagine that detectives are a modern phenomena, reaching perhaps no farther through historical record than the nineteenth century, there were crime fighters as early as the fifteenth, and perhaps even earlier. The dark ages were not so dark as the Provost of Paris demonstrates. Here was a man of reason and learning engaging in a strikingly modern process of investigation.
Within a short time after the brutal murder in a dark Parisian street, Guillaume de Tignonville is able to muster the entire machinery of criminal justice in Paris, dispatching his sergeants to locate witnesses and collect evidence to develop a theory of the crime. But as he eliminates suspects, Guillaume de Tignonville develops a theory of the case that puts him in a most dangerous position. Some crimes are simply too dangerous to investigate. Danger becomes personal and yet Guillaume has no choice, not only is this his job, but he is also a man of principle.
Once the killer is revealed, however, making the crime stick proves harder than it might seem, for the murderer turns the process of justice that de Tignonville has presided over countless times as provost into a mockery. Free to continue his plots, the killer turns his sights on Guillaume de Tignonville, targeting him for revenge by skilfully playing a case of university students whom the provost had recently hanged. By then, the provost has lost not only his patron the Duke of Orleans but the protection of the lords who had only recently charged him with finding the killer. When the king issues a writ in support of the university, the provost lost his protection as well. And the Parisians turn on him, quickly forgetting the law and order he created.
Guillaume’s story gives way to the story of France’s political conflicts, ultimately ending in a civil war and English intervention but the medieval detective’s plight stays with the reader, because, perhaps more than anything else in the book, it is so emblematic of that time when justice, as well as many other matters of public policy, was subject to the whims of a handful of the powerful.