The combative world of 15th-century scholarship is a hotbed of murder and intrigue in this vivid German debut, the work of a former student of medieval philosophy.
Gross’s lavish plot turns on the killing of Frederico Cassall, a Master of Liberal Arts at the recently founded University of Cologne. The despotic Cassall is known to have physically abused his young wife Sophie, an educated woman who had taken the impermissible liberty of reading her husband’s books. But Sophie is one of several suspects, along with wealthy student Domitian von Semper, his mild-mannered friend Laurien Thibold, and arrogant young Master Siger Lombardi, a “godless” nominalist mightily disapproved of by his colleagues, who are disciples of Thomas Aquinas and believers in the reality of ideal forms. Gross moves skillfully among the viewpoints of these and other characters, most notably Marius De Swerthe, the university’s stern, dwarflike Prior, and veteran Master Konrad Steiner, who undertakes to unmask Cassall’s murderer by solving the riddle contained in a mocking message left with the body. Another murder, licentious rituals performed by a heretical religious sect devoted to the “sacrum sexualae,” and Sophie’s impersonation of a male student propel Gross’s narrative along (though we never really believe Sophie’s disguise could have escaped detection). In an unusual double climax, the murderer’s dabblings in forbidden knowledge precipitate his undoing, and Sophie’s attempt to enter a sphere reserved exclusively for men leads to her trial for sorcery. Scholarium is a little too long, and suffers from redundancy (e.g., Gross hits us over the head with the relevance of the scholastic dispute between the realist acceptance of ideality and the nominalist belief that “objects alone possessed reality”). But we keep turning the pages, and they don’t disappoint.
Not quite The Name of the Rose, to which comparison is inevitable, but most entertaining and engrossing nevertheless.