Forget 21st-century collegiate football rivalries. The 14th century offers conflicts between Cambridge University and its older rival, Oxford, violent tensions between town and gown in both cities and a bizarre series of murders, all without benefit of televised sports.
Oxford scholar Roger de Chesterfelde’s visit to Cambridge ended when he apparently bled to death as his fellow scholars and merchants slept. It’s clearly a job for Cambridge’s Corpse Examiner, Matthew Bartholomew (The Hand of Justice, 2004, etc.). Ostensibly investigating possible fraud at an Oxford-owned property in Cambridge, the scholars have also been escaping Oxford’s papal interdict, the ecclesiastical punishment for a deadly riot between town and gown, started in part by Chesterfelde himself. In addition, the merchants plan to avenge the murder of another Oxford merchant, Gonerby, supposedly committed by a Cambridge scholar under cover of the same riot. The University contingent includes Polmorva, who hates Matthew for exposing the medical dangers of a profitable set of metal false teeth Polmorva used to rent out to dentally challenged clients. Speaking of teeth, Matthew’s covert patient, Doctor Rougham, claims that Brother Clippesby, a harmless medieval Dr. Doolittle, bit him. Clippesby says it was a human wolf.
Enough subplots to fill several tapestries provide alternately tedious and entertaining glimpses of the side effects of far-from-sterile medieval personal hygiene, as well as more perennial problems like thwarted ambition and love.