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A Mortal Bane

by Roberta Gellis

Gellis’ delightful atypical character, Magdalene la Bartarde, is the widowed madam of a brothel located in the region of London’s historic Southwark stews. When a messenger fresh from a visit to her establishment is killed on the steps of the next-door priory, she and her women are accused of committing the crime by the misogynist and slightly unstable priory sacristan. To protect her livelihood, Magdalene is forced to help find the murderer. First she must win the trust of Sir Bellamy of Itchen, knight to the Bishop of Winchester, to whom Magdalene pays rent, who also has an interest in uncovering the culprit. Simmering in the background is the rivalry between rebellious Queen Maud and King Stephen, and conflicting church disputes involving Winchester and Archbishop Theobald of Bec.

Gellis vividly describes twelfth century London daily life and some of its memorable characters, from Magdalene’s clients and five working women to members of the bishopric and priory households. Hints of a potential romance between the beautiful Magdalene and Sir Bellamy brighten the story as well. Needed, however, is a page of historical background, or perhaps a glossary of the numerous personalities referred to. A period map of London would help as well.

This is the first in the Magdalene la Bartarde medieval mystery series.


A word on medieval prostitution: The medieval church’s harsh stance against prostitutes (called whores) reflected commonly held antifemale sentiments. Monastic traditions in particular reviled what they saw as women’s excessive and uncontrolled sexual appetites. As daughters of Eve, women were seen as man’s enemy and as potential seducers. Images of the female as sinful and as seducer are found throughout medieval writings, as well as on carvings on church surfaces. Prostitutes naturally embodied this belief. They also represented heresies, which church fathers identified with sexual activity. Nonetheless, as A Mortal Bane reveals, churchmen could hold differing views. Some viewed prostitution as “the devil’s gateway,” some saw it as a necessary social evil, some, relinquishing their vows of chastity, regularly visited brothels. At times the Church advocated for the prostitute’s reform, as did Pope Innocent III who in 1198 declared that wedding a whore in order to reform her was “a work of charity.”

Organized brothels like Magdalene’s, although not common in England at this time, did appear in urban centers. Throughout Europe prostitutes were beset with many restrictions, including laws regulating their clothing, residence, comings and goings, and taxes. It is understandable that Magdalene, living a tenuous life outside society, had to cultivate protectors, in this case the powerful Lord William of Ypres and the bishop of Winchester.

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