The Cornerstone is not so much a historical novel as a work of fiction in which medieval men and women live. This distinction is important. What now passes for the historical novel is little more than an adventure story filled with bombast or a record of bedroom escapades in fancy dress. Zoé Oldenbourg’s book is the exception that justifies a literary form debased by most of her contemporaries. Her novel has all the qualities readers expect of a story enclosing long perspectives of time and change and the mysteries of life and death.
No small part of Oldenbourg’s effectiveness is the result of her insight into the mind and heart of medieval people. Her characters come together, talk, and go about their intimate affairs, and, in so doing, they reveal themselves and their private concerns, loyalties, superstitions, hopes of heaven, and fears of hell. Nothing seems contrived or forced; situations arise as casually as they do in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) or the stories of Giovanni Boccaccio, but everything adds up to the stir and spirit of an age. Life is harsh, disappointing, and sad. Men seize at excitement or happiness in the pageantry of a tournament, the rituals of a court of love, an illicit passion, or the violence of war.Always, above everything else, Christian faith gives meaning and purpose to experience and guides humanity’s quest for spiritual salvation. Through these matters, Oldenbourg brings to life and motion the gentry and the whole of medieval society—knights and their ladies, Crusaders, troubadours, wandering scholars, holy pilgrims, serfs, priests, merchants, clerks, and beggars—in the days when Philip Augustus reigned in Paris and Pope Innocent III summoned the chivalry of France to a new crusade against the Albigensian heretics of Provence and Toulouse.
In a novel so solid in construction, so varied in detail, certain comparisons are inevitable. There is something massive here, like the soaring bulk of a Gothic cathedral built in an age when people lived in daily intimacy with God and churches were powerful upsurges of buttressed masonry. In this connection, the title of Oldenbourg’s book is symbolic, for Christian faith was the cornerstone on which rested the whole structure of the feudal period. Again, reading...
(The entire section is 946 words.)