Historical Fiction Can Be Murder with Tania Bayard's In the Shadow of the Enemy

Tania Bayard's In the Shadow of the Enemy transports readers to 14th century Paris with the return of her intrepid detective author and women's advocate Christine de Pizan.



Tania Bayard's In the Shadow of the Enemy transports readers to 14th century Paris with the return of her intrepid detective author and women's advocate Christine de Pizan.

Bayard's latest mystery was inspired by actual events in France's royal court. The book's inciting incident, which came to be known as the Bal des Ardents, occurred in 1393 when King Charles VI and five of his friends were set on fire while performing a costumed dance at a masquerade ball in the palace. 

The king's life was saved, but four of the other dancers died. Naturally, suspicion fell on the king’s brother, the Duke of Orléans. In the fictional version of the events, the king's wife, Queen Isabeau, employs author Christine de Pizan to investigate the fire and uncover the truth. 

"The plots are fictitious, but the settings are authentic, and many of the events and situations are based on historical fact," Bayard tells Library Journal.

"(These) books are for history buffs, lovers of mysteries set in the Middle Ages, and anyone interested in women throughout history who have been willing to stand up for what they believe in," says Bayard.

Bayard explains what makes her detective differ from the others with which readers might already be familiar. "There are plenty of female sleuths in mysteries set in the Middle Ages, but my novels are different: the sleuth is a real person, the noted author, and defender of women, Christine de Pizan," she says. 

Bayard became fascinated with her protagonist during her research on the medieval period. The real Christine de Pizan was born in Italy in 1364 and was raised at the court in Paris where her father was an astrologer and surgeon to King Charles V and his son, King Charles VI. 

Christine de Pizan was an outspoken voice addressing misperceptions of women in literature. As a female author, she was outraged by the way women were portrayed in The Romance of the Rose, a popular book in the late 14th century. "Christine defended women in almost everything she wrote. She was fearless, the ideal sleuth," says Bayard.

Ironically, Bayard uses fiction to correct some widely held misconceptions from the historical record. "For centuries people have believed that Queen Isabeau of Bavaria was greedy, debauched, and pathologically self-indulgent.," she says, adding, "Recent scholarship has proven this characterization to be inaccurate. I have tried to show that Isabeau was a more sympathetic figure than history has led us to believe."

Bayard's scholarship on the medieval period is rooted in art history. Her first book, A Medieval Home Companion, is a partial translation of a 14th-century housekeeping manual she referenced while working as an assistant horticulturist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Cloisters, which re-creates cloister gardens of the Middle Ages. "I have always loved the Middle Ages. As an art historian, I specialize in medieval art," she says.

With her roots in academic research, it was something of a surprise to people who knew Bayard as an art historian to learn that she was writing mysteries. "A literary friend once said to me, 'Just because you enjoy reading mystery novels doesn’t mean you can write one.' I decided to try, and these novels are the result," Bayard said.

Bayard cites her influences, which are many and varied. "To begin with, Charles Dickens and his novel Bleak House, probably the first great detective story. I love the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters and the Catherine LeVendeur novels of Sharan Newman; the superb plots, plausible characters, and convincing depictions of medieval life in these novels provide constant inspiration. I learn a great deal from the Thomas Pitt and William Monk novels of Anne Perry, who writes detective stories that the reader can’t put down. I also have endless admiration for Hilary Mantel; as examples of historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies can’t be beat."   

When brought back to her own work, Bayard cites a favorite passage from In the Shadow of the Enemy that encapsulates the challenges women were forced to overcome. 

"In the first novel, In the Presence of Evil, Christine succeeds in tracking down the murderer in spite of the fact that her friend Gilles warns her that that’s not a job for a woman. In the second novel, In the Shadow of the Enemy, Christine asks Gilles, “ ‘Do you still think I shouldn’t have pursued what I knew was right, just because I’m a woman?’ ” Gilles replies, “ ‘No, Christine, I didn’t think it was seemly at the time, and I never will.’ ” This gives the reader a good idea of what a woman, even one as strong as Christine, was up against in the Middle Ages."

While much has changed in seven hundred years, the need for outspoken female authors remains as vital today as it was during in the 14th century. 

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