Going Far: James Meek’s Pertinent Findings from a Medieval Journey
WRITTEN BY KAREN HOWLETT
‘When I met you on the road near my home, I thought me the qualm was a tale,’ said Will. ‘I ne thought me the world would end in summer, under the sun in a clear sky, with the leaves new and the birds in song and loving-Andrew in the hedgerow.’
James Meek’s new novel, To Calais, In Ordinary Time, was nine years in the planning and six in the writing: “I went far to bring this one back,” he says.
A visit to Chartres took his imagination into the Middle Ages, and then a chance find of a discarded book on the Black Death, the bubonic plague that was spreading across Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, “opened up so many doors I could walk through,” Meek says.
That some of those doors would be linguistic ones and would constitute a self-imposed challenge of a considerable order had perhaps not crossed Meek’s mind at the outset of the project, but his unique approach to the telling of his story would require a much deeper level of research than historical fiction typically involves.
To people his tale, Meek assembled a group of characters who would travel from Gloucestershire to Calais in the summer of 1348. Representing three distinct social orders, the Lady Bernadine, the clerk Thomas Pitkerro, and the ploughman Will Quate join a company of archers who are on their way to fight in France. As their journey progresses barriers are broken down, conventions ignored, and matters of status and identity become clouded and confused.
Written in three voices, the story shifts easily in short sections from Berna’s genteel French/English to the formal Latinate English of the scholar Thomas, and on to the baser Middle English of the villein Will. Rendering class and position – in the author’s words, a way of being – by this precise means required him to develop a facility across the spectrum of language of the period, reading the literature of the time (Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Roman de la Rose, for example) as sources of grammar as well as vocabulary. Chaucer was an obvious source and influence: “his language was essential,” says Meek, “although his idioms were artificial in terms of the late fourteenth century – we don’t know what the English of the common man was like.” Nevertheless, his painstaking reference to the Oxford English Dictionary, respecting dates of usage and nimbly and inventively working around words he could not justifiably put into his characters’ mouths, has produced a plausible and linguistically compelling narrative, drawing in the reader by means of its rhythm, colour, and idiomatic features.
Meek’s research became more direct and subjective when he walked the route he had his characters take, at the same time of year they made their journey, covering the 110 miles from the Cotswolds to the coast, avoiding roads and experiencing that part of the English landscape as “a green desert.” The slowness of his pace gave him a new perspective on the world through which he walked, his visits to the churches in the older villages he passed through yielding signs of the “near-apocalypse” of the period: the lists of priests showed a high turnover in 1348 as death took so many of their number.
Meek avers that much as climate change is ignored by many today, so in the Middle Ages the plague’s threat was dismissed by some as ‘a ruse to enrich priests’, their personal, immediate predicaments and preoccupations concerning them more than what they saw as an abstract, foreign threat. So in the novel the travellers fret over questions of identity, status, and power – or lack if it – as Bernadine flees an arranged marriage to an older man to follow her younger suitor, Will seeks his freedom from serfdom through his prowess as an archer, seconded to help defend English territory in France, and Thomas the proctor assumes the role of confessor to the travellers while avowing his own sins.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, a twenty-first-century sensibility informs the book as self-harm, self-determination and transgressive relationships reflect characters’ inner lives and support Meek’s thesis that the plague was in fact a liberating force. Will Quate’s childhood friend Hab the swineherd, who tags along with the travellers, represents a free existence. “Hab lives by the hour,” says his creator, “and is not bound by his assigned gender.” His cross-dressing and inability to see beyond the present moment reflect the transience of life, and the ‘make of it what you will’ attitude which ignored any hitherto expected future and grew exponentially as the epidemic spread.
This increasing freedom is also evident in the narrative distinctions Meek makes between the social orders his protagonists represent: those who work, those with power, and those whose existence is based on reflection. Thus, Will the peasant acts, Bernadine the noblewoman talks, and Thomas the cleric writes – the reader is party to his thoughts as he pens increasingly candid letters to his staff in Avignon. As the journey progresses, all the travellers pass personal points of no return, and as proximity to the pestilence breaks down barriers even further, status cedes power to those opportunistic enough to assume it, deference is fissured by misrule and anarchy, while religious observation gives way to “folk Christianity” and pagan practices aimed at appeasing the Almighty.
‘God is deaf nowadays,’ – a borrowing from Langland’s Piers Plowman – is the book’s epigraph, a line Meek reads as “subversive and heretical” and as succinct a comment of and on the times as can be found. That this view gives rise to both survivors’ guilt and self-validation is an interesting observation, leading as it does to Thomas’s comment: ‘The definition of virtue becomes their own gratification. To be is to be good.’
So plague shifts the kaleidoscope that is society, but ultimately this confident, beautifully crafted novel is about love and life, and for all that it’s set in an alien world, its perceptive depiction of that time makes it pertinent reading for today.
About the contributor: Karen Howlett writes about books at www.cornflowerbooks.co.uk.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 90 (November 2019)