Review of “The Novice’s Tale” by Margaret Frazer

I was fortunate to have the first book in the Sister Frevisse medieval mystery. These books revolve around the sisters of St. Frideswide in Oxfordshire, near Oxford and London starting in 1431. The novice in question is Thomasine, who at the age of 17, after waiting 9 years, is soon to take her final vows. She is deeply religious and looking forward to this date.

Enter Lady Ermentrude, Thomasine’s great-aunt by marriage, and her huge entourage including a monkey. Lady Ermentrude has decided, for unknown reasons, Thomasine will marry but not as a nun. Then as abruptly as she arrived, she leaves to see Thomasine’s sister and brother-in-law, leaving some of her people and the monkey behind, only to come hurrying back with the sister and brother-in-law close behind. Lady Ermentrude soon dies and Sister Frevisse must find the answers.

I enjoyed this book. I am always fascinated with how people lived in historical times. Here we have a convent of Benedictine nuns living a life of silence and prayer, each day divided into time of prayer and the work needed to support the religious community. Sister Frevisse is the hosteler, the person who takes in visitors to the priory, as part of the mission of these large religious communities is to offer lodging to anyone who needs it. So Sister Frevisse is a sister who has to interact with the public; although the nuns are cloistered, they are not completely cut off from the outside world. The priory employs locals to work in the kitchen, the farm, the stables, etc.

The nuns pray 8 times a day starting with Matins at midnight, then Lauds at 3 am, Prime at 6 am, Terce and High Mass at 9 am, Sext at noon, then lunch, None at 3 pm, Vespers at 6 pm and finally Compline at 9 pm. Allowances are made for missing prayer for work around the priory, such as Sister Frevisse does with visitors. Between prayer the nuns eat, have private time for private contemplation, sleep, work and relax.

This life is not for everyone but Thomasine is determined to be a nun and having her great-aunt saying she wants to take her out of the convent and marry her off is very disturbing. And when Lady Ermentrude dies under mysterious circumstances, it looks bad for Thomasine.

I also liked the references to politics and such at the time. Joan of Arc is referred as the witch-girl by these good English folks. Henry VI became the heir about a year after his birth and has just recently become King on reaching his majority. His mother Catherine is mentioned in the story as well. I find interesting the things that seem so important to people at the time, things that are not so important now, such as arranged marriages for various advantageous reasons, either money or power.

I could go on about the cycle of each day, each month, each year, following the seasons of nature, the festivals of the church, the divisions of the day even among the non-religious that set the pattern of life in the middle ages. But I can recommend this book.

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