Brenda Rickman Vantrease

"The Illuminator"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie May 7, 2005)

"As far as possible, manuscripts should be decorated so that their appearance alone will induce perusal. We know that the ancients took great care to match contents and exterior beauty. Holy Scripture is deserving of all possible adornment." Abbott Johannes Trithemius (De Laude Scriptorium, 14th Century).

"On the illuminated pages his lines and forms leaped from their narrow margins, the murky hues murkier, the brights more brilliant, the knotwork more intricate, twisting, twining, like her female mind. His gift no longer his but shared. And if he could not keep this from her, what of his secret? How long before she divined that, too? But he must keep it; must protect her from it, for she had become the source of his creative energy and the object of a love he had not felt since he laid his wife in the grave sixteen years ago."

At the end of the fourteenth century, England was riddled with plagues, wars, uprisings, and political and religious strife. King Richard II, son of Edward the Black Prince, was crowned in 1377, when he was just ten years-old. His two uncles, John of Gaunt, and Thomas of Glouster, vied for power during the Protectorate, the young King's minority. Meanwhile all Christianity was suffering through the Great Schism. Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip the Fair of France seriously quarreled, to put it mildly, about Church tithing and taxation. Finally, Boniface declared the primacy of the Church over secular authorities, the superiority of Popes over kings. Ultimately this resulted in two Popes, one in France and one in Rome. The Church, which had tremendous power in England, wanted to acquire more wealth through tithing. The monarchy wished to tax the Church's considerable property, and institute an additional poll tax on the people. As always, the poor were penalized most. Almost a century before, in 1297, a mob of villagers and serfs burned out a group of Benedictine monks who withheld spiritual services, including the Eucharist, pending offerings they could not afford. Now the peasants were ready to revolt against the latest tax approved by John of Gaunt.

In Oxford, English theologian and reformer John Wycliffe criticized the Church's abuses and false teachings. As the novel begins, he is working on an English translation of the Bible - the first European translation done in over 1,000 years. Since the printing press had not been invented yet, only the wealthy had access to the hand printed, beautifully illuminated copies of the Bible. "The Word" was written in Latin, or in Norman French, and the poor, and most women of all classes, did not study languages nor could they read. Wycliffe, backed by John of Gaunt, believed that everyone should have access to Holy Scripture - that God is not something the clergy had a right to keep for their exclusive use. These beliefs were considered heretic. As the author, Brenda Rickman Vantrease stresses, heresy was not the real issue here - the acquisition of power and wealth were. This was purely "a matter of alliances and appearances," and of mass political and spiritual oppression.

Finn, a master illuminator, works for the Church, decorating hand-written pages of scripture with gloriously painted miniature works of art. He is presently illuminating writings of the apostle John for the powerful Abbott of Broomholm. Finn is also secretly employed by Wycliffe, whom he does not charge, to illustrate his English translation. One of the Broomholm Abbey's more venal priests pressures Lady Kathryn of Blackingham Manor to give the artist and his daughter lodgings. She is afraid of the consequences if she does not agree. Recently widowed, with twin fifteen year-old sons to support, as well as her serfs and villagers, Lady Katheryn has little money left to give to the Church, let alone to feed and clothe her family, and pay taxes and tithes. Fearing for her sons' inheritance, she makes a place at her manor for Finn and his daughter. Her decision to do so will change the course of her life, and the lives of all who depend on her.

This is a richly textured novel, filled with a multitude of colorful images, sounds, smells, events, and human stories which portray the pageantry and the cruelty of English life in the Middle Ages. The narrative also homes in on one particular noble family, and its dependents, illustrating the workings of feudal life up close and personal. Ms. Vantrease explores, through her narrative, the feudal system with an emphasis on the roles of various members of medieval society and their place in the social hierarchy. She also looks at the role of religion and that of the Church, as well as man's greed for wealth and the acquisition of personal power. There are also wonderful descriptions of the illuminating process.

The Illuminator is peopled with a resplendent cast of characters and their interactions with family, friends, lovers, servants, and enemies, are revealed in the narrative. Obviously, there's Finn the Illuminator, and his lovely young Rose; Lady Katheryn; her twin sons Colin and Alfred; Half-Tom, a dwarf and a hero; Hugh Despenser, the greedy, corrupt Bishop of Norwich; Sir Guy de Montaigne, the Sheriff of Norwich, who is intent on marrying Katheryn for her land; Julian of Norwich, an anchoress filled with love and compassion, who has dedicated her life to God and to reveal Him to those who seek her out; the evil overlord Simpson; John Ball a charismatic peasant priest who preaches for "ecclesiastical poverty and social equality" for clergy; and so many others. The author really brings these individuals to life on the page, with all their foibles and complexities - she illuminates them.

This is one of the most imaginative, well written historical novels I have read in a long time. I highly recommend it.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 45 reviews


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About the Author:

author photoBrenda Rickman Vantrease was born in 1945 in White County, Tennessee. She grew up in and was educated in Middle Tennesse where she graduated with a B.A. in English from Belmont University in 1967. During the twenty-five years she served as an educator in Nashville, she earned a masters degree and a doctorate from Middle Tennessee State University. After she retired in 1991, she set out to study and practice the craft of writing. Her and her husband traveled to writers' conference and workshops from Maine to California.

The Illuminator, her first novel, is being translated into ten foreign languages.

Brenda and her husband reside in Nashville, Tennessee.

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