A Plague on Both Your Houses


Susanna Gregory


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

November 4, 2022

nother medieval mystery series based in England. A Plague on Both Your Houses is the first book in a series featuring Matthew Bartholomew (the book that I got from the library states on the cover that it is the third chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, but it is clearly the first one in the series that currently has 25 titles. A Plague on Both Your Houses begins in Cambridge, in the year of 1348, during the reign of King Edward III. The Owen Archer series is also set in this same era - perhaps the two detectives can meet in a literary "crossover" event.

Bartholomew is the Master of Medicine at Michaelhouse, a college at the recently formed Cambridge. He practices as a physician, and he has some decidedly modern ideas about medicine - wash your hands, reading the stars is foolish, leeches and bleeding are not effective - Bartholomew came to believe these from an Arab teacher - but how did his teacher learn these things? England was rife with superstition and fears of witchcraft during this time, yet somehow Bartholomew is oddly immune to local beliefs. It might have been more believable if Bartholomew trusted some of the established wisdom of his times, perhaps Bartholomew could have followed the teachings of Hippocrates that your health is determined by your four humors - blood (sanguine), yellow bile (choleric), black bile (melancholic), and phlegm (phlegmatic). Cambridge College has received funds from the King, who is interested in building up colleges because his kingdom needs scholars and physicians. But there are rumors that the well establish Oxford resents Cambridge's patron, and so is meddling in the happenings there. And perhaps doing more than just scheming...

The novel begins with the death of Sir John Babington, the master of Michaelhouse College, and a friend and mentor of Bartholomew. Sir John's body is found trapped in the great paddlewheel of the local mill, his corpse endlessly spinning around in a great cycle in and out of the water. The death is ruled a suicide, even though Sir John had exhibited no despondency in the days leading up to his death.

Sir John's death leads to the promotion of the disreputable Wilson to the head Master of Michaelhouse. A celebration is ordered to celebrate Wilson's advancement - food and wine flow freely. In the midst of the feasting, Bartholomew checks upon Augustus, an elderly monk with a tenuous grasp on reality. Bartholomew finds Augustus dead, his eyes wide open, and an expression of abject terror frozen on his face. More mysteries follow - a monk set to watch the body of Augustus is knocked senseless, and Bartholomew himself is knocked backwards by a cloaked figure wielding a knife. And then the body of Augustus vanishes...

There are more unnatural deaths. And then things get really grim, because the Bubonic Plague reaches Cambridge in all of it fearsome lethality. In the beginning of this novel, I was a bit confused by the many characters (Gregory seems to have a liking for character names that begin with the letter A: Augustus, Agatha, Aelfrith, Abigny, Alcote, Alexander, and Atkin) but once the plague arrives, the dramatis persona thins out considerably.

Unlike the Brother Cadfael novels, which make England in the Middle Ages seem almost comfortable, the picture Gregory paints of fourteenth century England is a stew of stench, filth, mud, disease, and superstition. Even before the plague arrives, there is a green sheen on the meat, there is human waste on the streets, scum on the water and seemingly endless wet, cold weather that freezes the unlucky inhabitants of Cambridge. Rats are frequently mentioned (though not a word about fleas, which the modern reader knows was the transmission vector for the plague). Soon the grim townscape is much worse, as plague victims lie unburied in the streets, huge pits are dug for mass graves, and bandits are embolden to loot the homes of the dead and the dying.

Eventually the multiple mysteries and murders are sorted out, though it takes several pages of explanation for the motivations and the sequence of events to all become clear. The hardback edition of A Plague on Both Your Houses runs 406 pages, so it is longer than books in the other medieval mystery series, but that is because this one has multiple story arcs. I will probably read the second book, to see if the plotting and story telling becomes more straightforward.