By Robyn Cadwallader
Harper Collins, 2018
Imagine a world without printed or digital book. Imagine a world where books were rare and
precious things, commissioned one by one by the nobility, like works of art. In these books the
story, usually a religious one, becomes intimately connected with the illuminated pictures that
surround the letters on the page.
Imagine being the artist who illustrated these books.
By the beginning of the fourteenth century, as Robyn Cadwallader shows us in this novel, the art
of illuminating manuscripts was moving beyond the monasteries and into the secular world. In
small workshops, closely associated with scribes and stationers who provided the pages of text,
young men apprenticed under master craftsmen. Like all creative businesses, the work was
dependent on commissions, and in this war-torn, famine-riven century in England, the book trade
was not one to make a practitioner wealthy.
The atelier of John Dancaster, a master limner, or illuminator, is the setting for this fascinating
story. Dancaster is assisted by his wife, Gemma, their son, Nick, who is learning to mix paints,
Ben, an apprentice who is about to graduate to become a journeyman, and Will, who arrives in
London looking for work. Will has mysteriously left his own apprenticeship with a master
craftsman in Cambridge just short of producing his “master piece,” which would have enabled
his graduation to skilled artisan. A fine master piece from a student of a famous limner would be
the ticket to employment. Will must now prove his worth in a strange city and workshop.
There are three point of view characters in this story – Will, Gemma, and Mathilda, the widow of
a nobleman who has just died fighting King Edward II. She’s commissioned a book from the
Dancaster workshop as a symbol of the family’s status. But her husband’s death fighting a rebel
cause makes him a traitor and her fate unclear.
Through the characters and the changing relationships between them, Cadwallader explores class
and gender. Through Gemma’s eyes, resentment burns at how women, who might be as skilled
as their husbands and fathers in the trade, were not acknowledged. They were allowed to
supervise the apprentices, and Gemma is writing a book called The Art of Illumination. This
book within a book is fascinating. It describes how to make an illuminated manuscript. These
excerpts, and the entire novel, capture the joy and the frustration of creative work; the absolute
need to do it, to be original, to express something new within a set of traditions, and to strive for
the highest quality.
Robyn Cadwallader’s first novel was The Anchoress, a story of a religious hermit. Also set in
medieval times, that book questions what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated religious
and secular world. This second novel expands that thought through a sympathetic rendering of
male characters as well, and contrasts the ideals of renunciation and acceptance vs. action
involving danger and change. This is riveting history with characters whose traits register today.