If you get off the London Underground at Farringdon Road and walk north between the concrete wall which hides the railway lines and the office buildings on the far side of the road, you will find yourself in Clerkenwell Green. It is no longer anything like a traditional village green. There is a paved area surrounded by grimy buildings, a public lavatory in the middle, and a few benches where the City's cycling couriers sit for a while between jobs. Look, now, along the base of the buildings in the far north-western corner and you will find a thick glass panel behind which are steps that (according to the sign) lead down to the ancient Clerks' Well which gave this area its name. In the narrow streets on the other side of the "green" you might miss seeing the small cryptic sign commemorating Thomas Britton, "the musical small-coals man," but you will easily find the great, castellated St John's Gate, which looks completely out-of-place in the modern-day London street.
St John's Gate marks the old main entrance to the Priory of Clerkenwell, which was founded in 1140 and was the British headquarters of the Order of Saint John, whose Knights Hospitallers fought alongside the Knights Templar in the Crusades. The Priory disappeared long ago, and apart from this gate there is little else about Clerkenwell now to suggest the "visionary" and "enchanted" place which Peter Ackroyd, in London: The Biography [p. 461], claimed might be seen by those few who "know how to see it." Yet, in The Clerkenwell Tales, Ackroyd manages to vividly re-create this part of London as it was at the end of the fourteenth century. Then, the centuries-old Mystery plays were performed by the City of London's Clerks on the green beside the well. Then, crowds attending those plays posed a threat to the wheat which grew in the fields that belonged to the Convent of St Mary. And then, a broad expanse of the River Fleet's waters flowed close by and grain-mills stood on its banks.
Not everything about Ackroyd's evocation of ancient Clerkenwell and its inhabitants, however, is enchanting. Already in the fourteenth century, noisome, narrow and dangerous lanes were packed against the City walls and these were often inhabited by individuals whose business was in the City but who chose to live outside, where no gates barred quick escape into the open countryside. Religious dissenters (always, and ever afterwards, it seems) gravitated to the Clerkenwell area, along with the usual assortment of greedy, devious, licentious and murderous villains which any big city attracts. Brothels and Inns were common, frowned on by the nuns from the Convent House of Mary and the brothers Hospitallers of Saint John, but catering for everyone—ordinary more-or-less honest citizens, merchants, churchmen, lawyers, doctors and travellers.
The Clerkenwell Tales is set in about 1399-1400, and Ackroyd's people, like those in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, are a cross-section of the normal population of London. His selection of characters, too, is borrowed from Chaucer. There is a Prioress, a nun's priest, a summoner, a merchant, a miller and even a Wife of Bath, but none of them are pilgrims. Their tales are acted out rather than told by them, and each chapter focuses on a particular individual who may, or may not, know the others. All, however, are linked together by dramatic events that touch each of them in different, often random, ways.
The London these people inhabit is both familiar and strange to us, and the meaning of these events in Ackroyd's story only gradually unfolds. It is, however, deeply rooted in the history of the time. In 1399, King Richard II was being challenged for the throne by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. Factions and plots were rife, especially in London. Nobody could be sure of the political allegiances of their neighbours, or even of their friends. Added to this, the established Catholic Church was being threatened by the anti-authoritarian humanism which followed Wycliff's translation of the Bible into English in 1395. Lollards, dissenters, free-thinkers, radical proselytisers and members of various sects were particularly drawn to the Clerkenwell area.
All of this, of course, would make a rich and inviting background for any historical novelist, but it is Ackroyd's deep empathy with London and its people, his detailed knowledge of London's history, and his feeling that parts of London are palpably alive and can tell their own stories that makes this book exceptional. In London: The Biography, Ackroyd described a story by Arthur Machan in which an enchanted landscape in Stoke Newington sometimes appeared to visionary people. And he wrote of his belief that there are places in London (Clerkenwell Green, for example) where similar visionary landscapes might be visited. Strange and over-imaginative as this idea might seem, he does seem to have been able to step back into the past of this area and, clearly, The Clerkenwell Tales is his attempt to take us there, too. Clearly, too, readers will have their own opinion as to how well he succeeds.
Ackroyd's style is fashionably poised between truth and fiction. Often his writing is poetic and full of rich and compelling images to which he adds historically accurate and fascinating detail. There were times, however, when I felt the historical detail was intrusive, "school-masterish" and unnecessary. And there were also times when I would have found a glossary helpful, because Ackroyd assumed knowledge of customs and words which I, at least, do not have and which the context did not provide.
Generally, however, history in The Clerkenwell Tales is unobtrusively woven into an absorbing and lively sequence of events and there is much to enjoy. I particularly enjoyed following the fortunes of Sister Clarice, the prophetic (or mad) nun of Clerkenwell, and I was as unsure of her true nature as any of the characters in the book. I was a fascinated spectator at the Corpus Christi Mystery plays, and loved the bawdiness and vulgarity of Noah and his wife, the rough verse and the improvised staging. And I found Roger of Wade's raw humour and the atmosphere of his coquina, where his cooks sweated away in their under-linen, almost too vivid for comfort. Other scenes—of murder, guile and treachery—were equally vivid. And the doctor's art, with his knowledge of herbs and astrology, made him a person I would have liked to know better. Add to this, the easy movement of Ackroyd's characters in and around the City of London, the vision of ancient churches, markets, rivers, graveyards, and the horrors of conspiracy, murders, gunpowder plots and general havoc into which he draws his readers, and you have some idea of the scope of The Clerkenwell Tales.
It helps (but it is certainly not essential) to have read the Clerkenwell chapter ('Where is the well of Clerkenwell?') of Ackroyd's London: The Biography, and to have a general familiarity with British history or with Shakespeare's Richard II. But, in the end, The Clerkenwell Tales is a mystery story and the reader's puzzlement and partial knowledge is not only necessary to its plot, it is also the normal pattern of life in whatever century you happen to be living.