Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Gallows Curse - Karen Maitland

I have read two of Karen Maitland's historical novels Company of Liars (2008) and The Owl Killers (2009) in recent years. Both are set in medieval England and contain a mix supernatural elements and speculation on less well known historical facts. They are dark and well researched novels, showing the life of ordinary people in detail. I haven't always been too impressed with the way Maitland handled the supernatural elements in her novels but the were decent reads so when I came across The Gallows Curse in a bookstore in Maastricht last month I couldn't resist. Maitland delivered another solid novel but again, I felt some elements of the story were not handled as well as they might have been.

The year is 1210 and England is ruled by King John Lackland. A man with a lot of enemies and one of them happens to be the pope. After a row over the appointment of the bishop of Canterbury, the pope Innocentius III places England under an Interdict. No mass was allowed to be held and many priests fled the country. A situation that lead to babies left unbaptized, confessions left unheard and corpses buried in unconsecrated ground. The interdict puts Raffaele, the steward of the manor of Gastmere, in a very difficult position when his master and friend dies without having the chance to confess his greatest sin. After their experiences shared in the Holy Land, Raffeale cannot let his friend spend eternity in hell. He will have to use unconventional means to prevent it. Without her knowledge young villein Elena plays an important part in his plan and it will dramatically change the course of her life.

The pope's interdict is the historical event that drew Maitland's attention this time. Conflicts between the pope and heads of state over the appointment of bishops was common in Medieval times. Kings saw these appointments as a useful tool to reward supporters while at the same time making sure that the associated titles and lands would fall back to the crown after their death. Clergy could not have legitimate children after all. The pope of course, would rather appoint people loyal to the church and in the 11th and 12th century in particular, this lead to a series of conflicts with successive Holy Roman Emperors in which violence and excommunications were not uncommon. The whole affair became known as the investiture controversy and it was not limited to the Holy Roman Empire. The English King Henry I. ruling a century and a half before our story is set for instance, had an argument with the pope as well.

Innocentius III put England under interdict in 1208. He seems to have been fierce about protecting the church's position and this measure was one of the means he used t get his way. Apart from England, interdicts were placed on France and Norway as well during his papacy. When the interdict failed to make the king give in, John was excommunicated the following year. This didn't seem to have bothered the king in the slightest however. The general population bore the brunt of the pope's displeasure of course. In a society where the church played a pivotal role in everyday life, an interdict was a pretty extreme measure and could be a considerable burden to the population. Historians don't agree on how much of a burden it actually was. The church in those days was pretty demanding too, after all. Personally I think I could have lived with a few less masses. Then again, I don't particularly fear spending eternity in hell. The fact is that John's actions against clergy siding with Rome caused quite a disturbance and in the novel, Maitland uses this historical event in a very believable way. The interdict did not include confessions and absolutions for the dying, even if the text on the back of the book suggests otherwise, but without a priest around, who could perform such essential services?

Perhaps it is not surprising the people in the book are very sensitive to superstition. Without a church to protect them, they see evil omens and witchcraft everywhere. The supernatural part of the novel is based on a series of superstitions surrounding Mandrake root. Many strange properties have been ascribed to this plant through the ages. Maitland mentions more than a few and gives it a point of view in her novel. It plays a pivotal role in events. The Mandrake root never judges but allows people to do some pretty dreadful things. As with Maitland's other books, I feel the supernatural element is the story is more present than it really needs to be. Her characters don't really need it to provide a motivation for their actions and the acts of violence they do commit, are quite within the real of the possible without divine aid. In the end, the Mandrake root is mostly there to misdirect the readers and create an air of mystery in the story. I must admit I didn't really see the eventual twist coming but the resolution of this mystery did not really satisfy me.

Another element I didn't really think convincing is the relationship between the two main characters. Raffaele is a tormented character, castrated before puberty but never achieving the singing voice the church hoped for, he spent most of his life at his Lord's side. He carries with him the scars from events in the Holy Land as well as Gerhard's terrible secret. While this part of his history and motivations become more or less clear over the course of the novel, his obsession with Elena is presented more or less like a fact. He chooses her on the faulty assumption she is 'innocent' and spends the rest of the novel paying for that mistake I guess. Not entirely undeserved one might add, Raefaelle's use for the young girl is quite repulsive. Elena for her part, scarcely seems to care about him beyond his efforts to keep her safe, insofar her hideout could be called that. It leads to quite a lot of melodrama, especially later on in the novel, none of which feels very convincing to me.

All things considered, I liked the history and setting a lot more than the characters or stories in this novel. The Gallows Curse is a decent read, it kept me engaged and mildly curious to see how events would play out but it is not a book I'd be tempted to reread. I do feel the story fell flat in the last few chapters. By the time the fates of Raffeale and Elena became clear I didn't really care about either of these characters enough to really get caught up in the climax of the story. A shame, I feel this novel did have potential. Some readers might still enjoy this novel, as I said, it isn't a bad read, but if you are looking for an introduction into Maitland's writing I would suggest trying Company of Liars first.

Book Details
Title: The Gallows Curse
Author: Karen Maitland
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 564
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-241-95836-0
First published: 2011


  1. I own copies of all three mentioned books. And Companies of Liars is one of my current reads.

    I think it is good to recommend to read the first book first.
    I know I want to read all three books. You wrote that you liked the history and setting, then this is enough for me to give also The Gallows Curse a try.

    1. Companyof Liars is more ambitious read, pretty sure you will like that one.