Everything old is new again: UVA Professor Bruce Holsinger makes a splash writing historical thrillers

UVA professor Bruce Holsinger’s The Invention of Fire is his second historical novel about a medieval sleuth facing uncanny parallels to our own modern lives. Publicity photo UVA professor Bruce Holsinger’s The Invention of Fire is his second historical novel about a medieval sleuth facing uncanny parallels to our own modern lives. Publicity photo

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Walking through the University grounds toward a meeting with English department professor and author Bruce Holsinger, I found myself thinking of the ways that a university is like a medieval town. First of all, the place is scaled for walking and almost everyone is on foot—a colorful, surging, bustling crowd. The streetscape is divvied up by fields and disciplines as it was in medieval times—here’s where they do the sciences, over there is commerce and the law. You could almost imagine rounding a corner to find a street full of weavers or a neighborhood of scribes. And then there is the patchwork of administrative divisions and jurisdictions—academic schools and departments, a student-administered honor system, an office of student life, a University police force, a faculty senate, a board and a president. The place is a nesting doll of bailiwicks.

That political jigsaw puzzle was particularly on my mind since reading Holsinger’s two very compelling historical novels: the political/literary thriller A Burnable Book (published last year to strong reviews, and already in paperback), and the political/historical/technology whodunit The Invention of Fire (just released last week and slated to become an Amazon best book of the month). Both books are set in London in the 1380s, and one of their great pleasures is to follow the hero, poet/sleuth/political fixer John Gower, as he prowls and manipulates his way through the welter of petty functionaries, ecclesiastical officers, barons and earls and dukes with their retainers and feudal militias, and the court of the young and increasingly erratic King Richard II with its factions and backstabbers and viper’s nests.

The Middle Ages are (forgive me) enjoying a bit of a Renaissance these days. As a professor of medieval literature, Holsinger is particularly attuned to the ways that the world of 700 years ago is ringing through the zeitgeist. “There’s a great hunger for historical fiction,” he told me. “Especially the medieval stuff is very big right now—Game of Thrones, you could see Wolf Hall as more late-medieval than Renaissance, really, and the elements of medieval fantasy that you see in things like Harry Potter.”

There’s a long tradition, and George R.R. Martin is only the tip of that iceberg, of using medievalism as a shorthand for brutality. But Holsinger sees a good deal more than that operating in our fascination with things medieval. He believes that one of the reasons the Middle Ages rings so compellingly right now is that there are elements in the contemporary world—some of its more jarring and bewildering ones—that echo the shadowy complexity that Holsinger’s hero has to unpack: “There’s a whole branch of international relations theory called ‘neo-medievalism’ that’s about non-state actors and things like large international terrorist organizations, drug cartels, but also multi-national corporations, NGOs, etc…. that are not defined necessarily by the nation,” said Holsinger.

Holsinger’s eye for the political terrain, and his feel for the resonant facts and ideas of 700 years ago, give his novels a very contemporary edge. The Invention of Fire finds Gower investigating a mass killing. Sixteen bodies turn up in a stream that’s used as a public sewer. They have been killed by a strange new hand-held weapon that throws small balls of shot through the bodies of its victims. The “handgonnes,” as they are called, are tools to defend the realm. But they are also instruments of terror.

“This is the historical moment,” Holsinger said, “when gunpowder weapons go from artillery to hand-held. And that, I think, is a really important moment in the history of technology. It’s a scary moment, and people back then were acknowledging that.”

In the passage that gives the book its title, Gower weighs what he has learned about the guns and what he can foresee about the new technology and its disruptive implications—for warfare, for political stability, for the ever-expanding scale on which mayhem can be accomplished: “The garrison’s guns had thrilled me with their terrible potency, their muscular allure. I was both smitten and repulsed, seduced by the simple power of the guns, yet troubled by the new modes of violence they threatened. I thought of Prometheus, stealing the first flaming brand from the gods and bringing it triumphantly to man. The invention of fire gave us warmth, even as it cursed us with myriad new ways to suffer and die.”

Leaving my conversation with Holsinger I found myself thinking that there’s a reason the University is like a medieval village—because it is one. It is the long echo of a way of structuring education that is fully 1,000 years old. The past is very much with us in ways we rarely acknowledge. But it’s not just that some of its structures persist. As Holsinger’s books show, it’s also that the past has already processed and experienced some of what we think of as our characteristically contemporary concerns: the disorientation and disruption of technological change, the feeling of swimming in a sea of shadowy forces that are too big, too obscurely powerful, for the individual to ever grapple with successfully. To paraphrase the satirical cartoonist Walt Kelly (who was himself paraphrasing the naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry) “we have met the past, and it is us.”