Christmas Stories: The Truce of God

December 22, 2009

So, it should come as no surprise that I think Mary Roberts Rinehart is awesome. And part of the reason for that is that she’s always at least a little bit surprising. I had no idea what to expect from The Truce of God, her Christmas story, and I’m not altogether sure what I think of it now, but I’m definitely impressed.

First of all, the Truce of God is a pretty cool thing to write about. During the eleventh century, the European nobility  were referred to as “those who fight” (as opposed to “those who work” and “those who pray”), because basically they spent most of their time fighting private wars against their neighbors (or their overlords’ neighbors). The church dealt with this in a few different ways. One was the Crusades. Another was the Truce of God. Basically, the Church said, “Hey, no one is allowed to fight on weekends anymore. Or Thursdays. Or Lent, etc.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia has a little more detail, if you’re interested (in general, it’s a good basic resource for medieval religious history).

Rinehart’s story is set in an 11th century town ruled by a guy named Charles. Charles is, of course, fighting a private war with a neighbor — one who also happens to be his cousin. Philip comes after Charles in the succession, which is the primary reason Charles hates Philip so much.

Actually, Charles is kind of obsessed. He’s gone so far as to kick his wife out of the castle because she hasn’t provided him with a son. She’s taken refuge with Philip, which makes Charles furious, and left their daughter behind, which sort of seems to make the whole thing worse. The daughter, Clotilde, misses her mother but also sort of hero-worships her father.

Anyway, it’s Christmas, and Charles isn’t allowed to attack Philip’s castle or he’ll be excommunicated, so he spends his excess energy lusting after Joan, a beautiful girl from the town, who is already involved with Guillem, one of Charles’ guards. Both with their relationship  and Charles’ estrangement from his wife, there’s something very modern about the romance in The Truce of God. These are definitely 1920s people in medieval clothing, but in a good way. I mean, modern sensibilities make for a better middle ages than lots of stilted and self-consciously medieval language, right? Whatever the reason, it sort of works.

Anyway, all the characters get their problems sorted out, pretty much, although it’s unclear at the end whether Philip is or isn’t kind of an asshole. I sort of wish Rinehart had done a little more with the Truce of God, though. I mean, she does use to to good effect — it sort of serves to make Christmas more Christmassy — but she doesn’t effectively contrast the truce with the regular state of affairs, so it doesn’t seem as significant as it might otherwise.

Also, there are illustrations, which are nice, if self-consciously medieval — you know what I mean: everyone looks like they’ve escaped from a copy of Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood.

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