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Review: To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek
Canongate, 2019. 400 pp. $27

The summer of 1348, the quiet Cotswold village of Outen Green simmers with unexpected happenings. Lady Bernadine (Berna) Corbet, daughter of the manor, is due to wed a much older man she detests, while the groom’s own daughter will wed Sir Guy Corbet, Berna’s father. A loathsome arrangement, to be sure, but Sir Guy’s word is law. Berna hoped that her preferred suitor, Laurence Haket, would spirit her away — according to the chivalric Romance of the Rose, which she adores, he should have — but Laurence seems to love his dignity more than he does Berna.

Will Quate, a plowman and archer bonded to Sir Guy, has been recruited to join a troop of bowmen raised by Laurence to accompany him to Calais, where Laurence has a fiefdom. Will’s betrothed pleads with Will to stay and doesn’t understand why he refuses. She assumes that it’s because she had a stillborn child by another man, but that’s not why. Sir Guy has promised to release Will from his bond if he serves one year, and Will, no fool, has dared demand that promise in writing, even though he can’t read.

Unlettered though he is, however, he can imagine what freedom means, and not just in the sense that leaving Sir Guy’s lands without permission is a hanging offense. An unusual, fascinating character in historical fiction of the medieval era, Will dares hope for an as-yet undefined future, what his neighbors would never dream of—though when he hears the word possibility, he has to ask what it means, which is telling.

You sense that Will and Berna will drive parallel narratives, and that the nature of love will be a significant theme. As one wise character says, “Love is whatever remains once one has made an accommodation with fate.” Since the description of the plague rumored to have afflicted France (what the characters call “the qualm”) recalls the Black Death, which also fits the timing, you can guess that how people behave during a pandemic will matter here too. The novel, published last year, isn’t prescient, though it may seem so; rather, it’s that pandemics share certain qualities. But the similarities are striking and instructive, nonetheless.

The Battle of Calais, 1350, as it appeared in Jean Froissart’s chronicles, 1410 (courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons)

With that as background, Meek’s folk hash out good and evil; the nature of gender; sin and redemption; the fear of, and violence toward, women; desire and obstacles to satisfaction; what knowledge and truth mean. Throw in sidelines like anti-Semitism and whether the English archers who destroyed the French nobility at the Battle of Crécy betrayed the social order, and you begin to see how rich and complex this novel is.

I love Meek’s characters; major or minor, they come through in full. One favorite is Thomas, a scholar who joins the expedition to Calais nominally as a churchman, though he has no power to perform the sacraments, which becomes an issue. But he serves admirably as a mediator amid the constant squabbles and moral dilemmas that arise, and he unsettles his companions — especially the archers, a rough lot — by defining and clarifying issues rather than offering solutions or justifying the behavior he’s been asked to judge. He’s a moral relativist, in other words, frightening to fourteenth-century minds. A later generation might think of him also as a therapist.

Except for the educated characters’ narration, Meek tells his story in archaic English, which he apparently culled from the OED, and which appears in unfamiliar rhythms. That takes getting used to, until the usages begin to make sense: for example, neb for nose, steven for voice, lolled for hanged. Consequently, Meek creates a language barrier between high-born and low, part of his exploration of social class. But it’s also beautiful prose poetry:

The priest said man’s lot wasn’t to choose his dreams, nor win of them, and dreams fell upon us, like wild deer in darkness, while we slept. Yet there were some folk who warded their dreams, as shepherds warded sheep, and kept them as easy by day as by night, and won of them, as of their herd shepherds won wool. These folk, he said were called writers, and they were close to the Fiend.

The cheeky humor typifies To Calais, which has its uproarious, bawdy moments. But if you’re thinking Chaucer, as I did at first, this narrative only partly resembles “The Miller’s Tale.” A great deal of casual violence occurs, and the circumstances of a gang-rape, which happened in the past, figure heavily in the narrative.

At times, I find Thomas the scholar’s moral reasoning too modern, satisfying though it is. There’s also a deathbed epiphany that strikes me as implausible. But To Calais, in Ordinary Time offers so many pleasures that flaws like these don’t get in the way. I highly recommend this novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book to the public library.