In The Clerkenwell Tales, a collection of twenty-three “tales” featuring thirty-seven principal characters, author Peter Ackroyd imaginatively recreates the Clerkenwell district of Geoffrey Chaucer’s London in the spring and summer of 1399 and weaves the stories of “The Franklin’s Tale,” “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” “The Reeve’s Tale,” “The Pardoner’s Tale,” and others into a highly wrought political mystery saga. Many of the characters come straight out of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400) but emerge with backgrounds, personalities, interests and objectives Ackroyd endows them with in his fast-paced blend of history and historical imagination that is true to everything known about the period.
The era, rich in the contradictions of every age, is an earthy and spiritual one in which the Predestined Men (a Lollard sect) plot the overthrow of the Roman Church in London by explosions and fire and are, themselves, used by another level of secret society, the Dominus group. The former unwittingly carry out the machinations of the latter, some of whom are the important clerics and legal minds of London. In a story full of surprises, some of the most unlikely allies turn out to be in league not only for the short term but also far into the future as they plot to survive the unholy man they have helped place upon the throne of England.
While Chaucer had clearly identified the relationship of one pilgrim to another in his “General Prologue,” Ackroyd uses great craft in gradually making clear whose path crosses others’ journeys, who spies on whom and, in the final tales, drawing all together to complete his Clerkenwell cycle.