Bruce Holsinger’s new novel, The Invention of Fire, is a sequel to his 2014 work, A Burnable Book, a tale of murder and intrigue set in 1385 London during the reign of King Richard II. In A Burnable Book, spies, assassins, prostitutes, lawyers, and noblemen compete to find a stolen book—a collection of prophecies foretelling the deaths of the 13 kings of England since the Norman Conquest. Using coded rhymes, the purloined tome predicts the manner of each king’s death and prophesizes the assassination of the current king, Richard II. Because predicting the death of a monarch was a serious crime in medieval England, anyone in possession of the stolen book risked arrest for treason.
The Invention of Fire, set a year later in 1386 London, introduces a new element: the killing technology of portable gunpowder weapons, known at the time as handgonnes. Gunpowder was known in China by the 10th century (if not earlier), but it was used mainly in fireworks at first, then later in fire arrows and other incendiaries. It is not clear when the first projectile-firing weapons were developed, but in England cannons were definitely in use by the late 1330s, and the English might have employed gunpowder weapons at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. Holsinger, a medieval scholar who teaches literature at the University of Virginia, uses his new novel to explore the period when armorers and metalworkers in England began attempting to construct firearms small enough for one person to carry and use.
Both novels use three historical figures as characters: the poets John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, and the English mercenary leader Sir John Hawkwood. But who were the real men on whom these characters are based?
Chaucer, best known as the author of The Canterbury Tales, is widely regarded as the greatest English poet of his age. He was also a courtier, soldier, diplomat, and civil servant—and a secret agent for the English crown. Gower was a lawyer, poet, and storyteller who wrote in English, French, and Latin. His most famous work, “Confessio Amantis,” was written in response to a personal request from King Richard II. Gower and Chaucer were contemporaries and friends who influenced each other’s literary work but eventually had a falling-out.
In 1378, while Chaucer was on a diplomatic mission in Italy for Richard II, he met Sir John Hawkwood, leader of the famous White Company, a group of mercenaries who fought during the 14th– and 15th-century wars among the Italian city-states. Scholars have argued that Hawkwood might have been the inspiration for Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale.” Holsinger makes use of these historical connections to weave two satisfying yarns of espionage, betrayal, and murder.
Hawkwood, who plays a major role in the first novel and a background role in the second, might be the most intriguing figure. He learned his trade fighting with the English army in France during the Hundred Years’ War. Hawkwood was present at two of the greatest English victories—Crécy in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356, after which he was knighted. Following the peace treaty of Brétigny in 1360, he left English service and began working as a mercenary. By 1364, he had become the leader of the White Company, and because the typical mercenary contract lasted just three to six months, Hawkwood and his soldiers fought for many different masters, including the papacy; the antipapal league; and the city-states of Florence, Milan, Padua, and Pisa. He didn’t win every battle, but he earned a reputation for honesty (unlike many mercenary captains, who could be bribed to switch sides). After his death in 1394, Hawkwood was honored by being buried in the cathedral in Florence.
However, the key relationship in both novels is between the narrator, Gower, and his more prominent friend Chaucer. Gower’s legal background gives him an intimate knowledge of the city’s courts, prisons, coroners, bailiffs, and serjeants-at-law, which makes him an ideal guide through the seamy underside of London. He describes himself as a “trader in information, a seller of suspicion, a purveyor of foibles and the hidden things of private life.” In a word, Gower is a “fixer” who uses his knowledge of people’s vices and secrets as leverage to get information or to persuade others to do his bidding.
In real life, Chaucer thought enough of Gower’s legal abilities that when Chaucer left England in 1378 on a diplomatic mission, he named Gower and Richard Forrester as his attorneys, to act for him while he was away. In addition, Chaucer and Gower regularly critiqued each other’s literary efforts and offered encouragement. Chaucer was the more prolific writer and enjoyed more literary success, yet he dedicated his “Troilus and Criseyde” to “moral Gower.” Further, recent scholarship suggests that Gower’s writing strongly influenced Chaucer’s work, and that Chaucer dramatically changed his plan for The Canterbury Tales after reading Gower’s “Confessio Amantis.”
In Holsinger’s novels, the fictional Gower provides a street-level view of London, while Chaucer furnishes links to the royal court and the upper echelons of London society. The real Chaucer was the son of a prosperous London wine merchant, John Chaucer, who served as a royal customs official, like his father before him. As a boy, Geoffrey Chaucer became a page in the household of Edward III’s son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, before moving on to the king’s household. As a page in Edward III’s court, Chaucer was exposed to all the pageantry and chivalry of the age and would have had many chances to observe the king and queen, as well as other luminaries including knights of the Order of the Garter, high-ranking clerics, and foreign dignitaries.
Chaucer improved his political connections by marrying Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainaut. Chaucer’s literary skills became evident around this time because he began entertaining the court with songs and poetry. He also started performing diplomatic missions for the crown, at times serving as a secret agent. Chaucer carried out at least three secret missions for the English crown between 1376 and 1377, as well as several open diplomatic ones. Overall, he had an impressive record of royal preferment, receiving annuities from his brother-in-law John of Gaunt as well as three English kings in succession: Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV.
In later life, Chaucer became a civil servant and legislator. From 1374 on, he was controller of London customs, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. As part of his customs job, he traveled to France, Spain, and Italy, where he discovered the works of Boccaccio and Dante, who influenced his later writing. By 1385, he had become a justice of the peace and a member of Parliament, but he was replaced as customs controller in 1386. His wife died in 1387. These personal losses hurt Chaucer’s finances, since he lost both his salary as a customs official and his wife’s salary from her position as a lady-in-waiting. So in 1389, he became clerk of the king’s works, responsible for the upkeep of the royal castles in London.
In both novels, Chaucer’s connections help narrator Gower to unmask the people and motivations behind the murders, but not before Gower learns that he has been deceived and betrayed by people close to him. The real historical relationship between Gower and Chaucer, and their wide variety of life experiences, should provide ample fodder for Holsinger’s future books.