Today I want to talk about one of my favorite settings of a historical novel: a monastery. I’m no religious person whatsoever, but I find it really interesting to read about life in religious houses. I don’t know exactly what attracts me to this setting. I believe the fact that inhabitants are isolated from the rest of the world and limited to a certain amount of space contributes to the story, especially when a mystery is involved. The killer needs to be someone from inside—making it all the more exciting. Do you get me?
Also the role that monasteries played during the reformation and especially the dissolution by the likes of Thomas Cromwell is a topic that I have read about a few times. It gives a nice insight in why people would want to live a solitary and contemplated life. Religion was (and still is for some people) an important aspect of everyday life. Most people took their vows willingly, or went to a convent or abbey to repent for their sins, or to seek sanctuary.
Here’s my list of books that I’ve read where a monastery or religious life is involved and plays a key part in the novel.
The name of the rose by Umberto Eco
Probably the most famous novel of the list. It tells the story of Brother William of Baskerville who, together with the novice Adso, arrives at an Italian monastery for a religious debate. But a monk was murdered and William and Adso are charged to find the murderer before the delegates of the pope arrive.
I do want to include this book, but I need to say that I didn’t like reading it at all. I didn’t understand the whole religious conflict thing. The murder mystery was what kept me reading, but I was as lost in the story as William and Adso were in the monastery’s mysterious library.
I gave the story a second chance by watching the excellent Italian mini series (also named The name of the rose). I did enjoy it a lot but I didn’t recognize anything from the book :D. So, I do recommend to give this book a try, as so many love it. But I won’t reread it.
Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake #1) by S.J. Sansom
We move on to what might be my favorite story of this list. One of Thomas Cromwell’s men is murdered at the monastery of Scarnsea. Lawyer Matthew Shardlake is sent to catch the murderer.
This is the start of a historical mystery series about Shardlake during the Tudor era. I’m quite new to this genre of historical novels, but I love this series and I love Matthew. The murder mystery is quite good, although I found out halfway who the killer was, there were still a lot of elements that surprised me.
The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
Joanna Stafford is a novice in the monastery of Dartford. During the dissolution of the monasteries, she get’s involved in the quest for an ancient relic on behalf of bishop Stephen Gardiner.
What I liked about this book is the fact that you get an insight in how a monastery reacted to the dissolution by Cromwell. You feel their fears and doubts. What I didn’t like was the search for the relic, this gave the story some kind of Dan Brown vibe (and coming from me, I don’t mean that as a compliment). Also the flashback to Joanna’s previous court life didn’t contribute to the story, I would have liked to just stay between the walls of the monastery. I still don’t know if I want to read the second book in the series. Is it getting better?
Sacred hearts by Sarah Dunant
This story is set in 15th century Italy in the convent of Santa Catherina. In that time a lot of noble girls where forced to enter a convent for the sake of their family. And not all of them go willingly. We meet young novice Serafina who is such a girl. With the help of Suora Zuana, the convent’s apothecary, she starts to feel at home a bit.
This is a different story, no murder mystery, but a novel about love and friendship during challenging times. Every nun has its own story and burdens to bare. I enjoyed this book a lot and I definitely want to reread it.
The pillars of the earth by Ken Folett
Everyone will know this book and yes, it’s not only set within a monastery. It’s an epic medieval tale set during the Anarchy in England. But thanks to prior Philip, you get an insight in the workings of an abbey and how a new prior could get selected and the power that it gave him.
Also the building and funding of the new church is an important topic and convinced me to add this must-read novel on this list.
Have you read any of these? Do you know of any other good story about a monastery, convent or abbey? I’m happy to add it to my list!