(1995), a medieval detective novel by English author Barry Unsworth, takes place during the 1300s in an anonymous village north of the Humber estuary in Northern England. It follows a priest who runs away from his diocese and joins a traveling acting troupe on its way to perform for a liege lord. Lacking the funds needed to complete their journey, they raise money by staging performances at a village along the way. The group’s entrepreneurial leader, Martin Bell, tries to give the villagers fresh content by creating a play based on a boy named Thomas Wells who was murdered in their village. Initially, the play is written to match the public consensus about who carried out the murder, and how. However, Martin and his players discover that the woman convicted of Wells’s murder did not do it. The novel offers a new portrayal of the English mystery play, inserting the actors themselves into the roles of the detectives and bridging the gap between art and life.
The novel is told from the point of view of the runaway priest, Nicolas Barber. He discovers the players in a meadow along a path in the country and stops to give spiritual care to a dying actor named Brendan. When Brendan passes, Barber decides to join the troupe in his place, violating his diocese’s belief that performance is a sin. Traveling with Brendan’s body in tow, the group soon realizes that they cannot delay in burying him. While looking for a burial site, they find a town embroiled in a murder mystery. They fish for context and learn that a boy has been killed, and a woman accused of his murder. Martin decides to put on a play based on the story, with the private aim of bolstering his own repute as a great actor. Using sly language, he convinces the other actors to join him.
To gather material for their plot, the players go around the village interviewing its residents. Barber reveals the clues as to the nature and perpetrator of the murder as they dawn on the actors. Gradually, they construct a picture that looks unlike the one the village formed in the wake of the murder. They find that the convicted woman did not kill Thomas, identifying, instead, the feudal lord Richard de Guise who lives in the town’s castle. Richard holds dominion over the entire town and exerts control over its people, throwing the players’ roles as investigators into precarity. Nevertheless, he is ultimately condemned for murder and prescribed punishment by his inferiors.
In parallel to its murder mystery, the novel gives the backstory of Barber’s inner struggle to be a righteous person. His initial flight from the diocese is equivalent to a crime against the Holy Order. Before he even meets Martin and the other actors, he gambles away all of his property and has sex with a woman. He constantly questions the morality of his actions while remaining skeptical of the church. Ultimately, he finds his own path to goodness.Morality Play
uses a genre invented much later than the Middle Ages to interrogate the moral assumptions that enabled its political inequality, particularly the corruption of the upper class. Unsworth’s actors form a reasoned democratic consensus that challenges the village’s political order, unveiling its feudal lord’s fraudulent behavior, and condemning the abuses of power that led to the tragic loss of lives during the medieval era.