A Murderous Procession, by Ariana Franklin
Reviewed by Rima Walker
This novel concerns Adelia Aguilar, a young 12th century woman, who is a foundling raised by an enlightened interfaith couple in Palermo who send her to medical school (allowed at that time) to become a forensic pathologist (in our modern terminology). King Henry II sends her to attend his 10-year-old daughter, Joanna, who is traveling to Palermo to marry Henry’s cousin, King William II of Sicily. The entourage is enormous and includes Adelia and her faithful Arab friend Mansur who must pretend to be the doctor while Adelia acts as the assistant (because outside of Sicily no woman would be accepted as a doctor) Also, Rowley, Bishop of St, Albans, who is Adelia’s lover and father to her child, left behind in England so that Henry can be assured of her return.
But the journey is fraught with danger. Someone in the coterie wants Adelia dead, and to take his revenge for her killing his lover, the would-be murderer, he sets up a series of mishaps that lead to the deaths of people Adelia has had problems with, assuring that she would be seen as a witch. At one point she and two others are captured by the church and condemned to death as heretics. The glimpses into the mind of the madman as he fulminates on why and how he will kill her adds to the tension. As each incident builds, so does the suspense, and it isn’t until the very end of the book that we learn who the enemy is.
But this is not just an adventure story; it is richly detailed and gives us a good picture of what life in the 12th century was like for the nobility and the common people as well. The enlightened country of Sicily, where disparate groups of people and their particular faiths were not in conflict and where women had some standing and privilege in the community, as opposed to medieval England, which was a place where most people who were born into poverty remained that way. They suffered, worked hard, were kept in ignorance, were brainwashed by a Church that visited horrible cruelties on them, and they died young.
The hypocrisy of the medieval Roman church is a favorite theme of Franklin’s throughout the four Adelia novels she has written. She paints a picture of its power that is stronger even than the monarchies in many ways, not allowing differences of opinion, severely and cruelly punishing in horrible ways anyone suspected of taking another path. This, of course, culminated in the Inquisition. And, as Franklin writes in her notes at the end of the book: “Sicily [was] the most liberal, forward thinking realm in all Christendom.” She adds that the School of Medicine “disappeared in the thirteenth century, probably under pressure from the Church of Rome, which regarded the science of autopsy and women doctors as anathema.” When Adelia tries to ease the pain of a severely wounded person with an extract of poppy juice, she is told by a priest that pain is the condition inflicted upon them by God, purifying the soul so it can enter heaven, and therefore she should not administer painkillers.
The amount of research Franklin has done is what raises this book above the level of a mere adventure tale. The rich details of the lives of those who lived in that time and the conditions under which they live, are fascinating. Her full bodied characterization of Adelia as each of the four books progresses is what makes her alive to the reader so that we come to know her well. As each book depends somewhat on knowledge from the previous ones, it is best to start at the beginning with the first book, A Mistress of the Art of Death. And since this latest novel ends with something of a cliff-hanger, those who love Adelia are probably going to hear more about her.~