Tuesday, 29 June 1999

Jill Paton Walsh: Knowledge of Angels (1994)

Edition: Green Bay, 1994
Review number: 278

Knowledge of Angels is not exactly a historical novel; though the island of Grandinsula is based on medieval Mallorca, it really exists only in the imagination of Walsh; there is no such country as Aclar. Yet the medieval atmosphere is pervasive; perhaps that is to be expected in a novel whose theme is the conflict between the modern and medieval worldviews.

Medieval Christendom was a society which was very inward looking, where foreigners were generally strange, hardly human creatures (as in the continental superstition that Englishmen had tails). Such outsiders as were permitted - and it was rare to find a large town without a Jewish community, for example - were carefully segregated, kept apart from the local population. The sense of community was incredibly strong, but a xenophobic distrust of foreigners was the heavy price paid for this.

Knowledge of Angels is about the simultaneous appearance of two outsiders on the island. Neither fits into the understood list of types of foreigners, and so both cause distinct problems. Amara is a wolfchild, one of those periodically attested children brought up by wolves when abandoned or lost by their true parents. The other is Palinor, who swam ashore after falling overboard from a ship of his home country of Aclar, a very different place from a medieval European state (in fact, an eruption of twentieth century society into the medieval world).

The problem with these two outsiders is that neither of them has a clearly defined relationship with the Catholic Church. Amara has, of course, had no opportunity to be educated in the Christian (or, indeed, any) faith. Palinor has exercised the right of religious freedom in Aclar to become a convinced atheist. The churchmen on the island can hardly conceive of such a position. Heresy, paganism, Islam and Judaism; all these have well defined responses to be made to them, but the idea that it is possible to reject the idea of God completely and with knowledge of what you are doing is completely alien.

The charming and intelligent Palinor fascinates Severo, who combines the roles of highest secular and spiritual authority on the island. So he suggests an experiment to determine how he should be treated which will last several years. Severo asks the monk Beneditx, a close friend of his who is considered the most learned man on the island, to abandon his work on the difference between the morning and evening knowledge possessed by angels (based on a phrase in an authoritative writer). He is to undertake the spiritual education of Palinor, to attempt to convince him that God exists, something that seems an obvious fact to him and the other churchmen. Meanwhile, Amara is to be taught how to live in a civilised manner at a remote convent, where she is not to have God mentioned in her presence. The idea of this is to question her once she has learned to talk, to find out whether knowledge of God is innate. (The authorities of the Christian church are not in accord on the issue.) If it is, then Palinor must have deliberately rejected it, so he would be a heretic; otherwise, he is lacking in education and cannot be held culpable himself.

The most glaring non-medievalism in the book is this experiment. Only a small number of thinkers (such as Roger Bacon) took an interest in experimentation as a means to determine the truth; most medieval thinkers preferred to use minutely detailed logical argument based on fundamental principles which were derived from ancient authorities. Severo is rather more a Renaissance prince, like the real life abbot who passed an electric shock along a row of his monks to see what the effect would be. But the experiment is important in terms of how the book works, since it makes apparent to the reader other parts of the difference between our culture and that of the Middle Ages.

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