Tuesday, 25 August 1998

Michael Jecks: A Moorland Hanging (1996)

Edition: Headline, 1996
Review number: 109

A Moorland Hanging is the third of Jecks' Devonshire novels featuring Simon Puttock and Sir Baldwin Furnshil. Like P.C. Doherty, Simon Jecks is an author who really knows something about the medieval period. He is perhaps more interested in institutions than Doherty, and this combines with the country setting to naturally remove some of the unpleasantness of the medieval world (to a modern reader) which comes to the fore in Doherty's series of the seamier side of London life.

The novel has as its central theme the clash between forest law and common law which was an important part of the medieval English scene, where much of the land was designated "royal forest", to be the private hunting ground of the king and his friends. Although open land rather than woodland, Dartmoor was a forest, and this led to clashes between the tin miners who worked on the moor (who paid a special tax to the king, and were able to run their own affairs with their own courts in return) and local landowners. The miners were able to prevent the use of particular pieces of land for farming by marking them out as places where tin was mined; this privilege could be (and was) used to terrorise the landowners, who were unable to retaliate against the miners because they had the king's protection.

The particular dispute around which the plot turns concerns the escape of a villein, Peter Bruther, from the Beauscyr family demesne. By declaring himself a miner, he puts himself beyond the landowners' normal methods for forcing a serf to return and causes a confrontation between the Beauscyrs and the miners' leader, Thomas Smyth. When Bruther is discovered hanged on a tree on the moor, as though killed judicially, the confrontation threatens to escalate into a major incident; hence the involvement of Simon Puttock, the king's bailiff, and his friend Sir Baldwin Furnshill.

A Moorland Hanging is a fascinating novel, particularly in the way it makes the frequently obscure workings of the medieval legal system not only clear but interesting. The characters do tend rather to the two dimensional, especially those - paradoxically - that you would expect to be best fleshed out, the series characters Puttock and Furnshill.

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