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According to Dorothy Sayers' fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey “In detective stories, virtue is always triumphant. They're the purest literature we have.” The rise of the historical detective novel — particularly the detective novel set in the medieval period — both complements and complicates Wimsey's claim. Certainly, virtue triumphs, but what counts as virtue in the fictional Middle Ages, and what counts as its triumph? To answer these questions, we must turn to ethics. The ethical questions raised by medievalist detective novels fall into two categories: first, questions about the ethics of the novelistic endeavor and its representation of the medieval world and, second, questions about representations of ethical life in the ictional world that the novel generates. Questions about the novelistic endeavor touch on the ethics of medievalism as a whole as we test the possibility of honestly representing life in past centuries, from the simple avoidance of anachronism to the possibility of accessing mental attitudes from periods so different from our own. Questions about ethical life within the novel point us toward explorations of both the reasons why we derive pleasure from crime stories set in the distant past and the similarities and differences between medieval characters and ourselves. Because they frequently deal with pressing ethical issues such as justice, revenge, desert, moral obligation, and so on, detective novels provide a fruitful source of inquiry for these questions.
This article will focus on the ethical attitudes depicted in Margaret Frazer's Dame Frevisse series.
Ethics in post-medieval responses to the Middle Ages form the main focus of this volume. The six opening essays tackle such issues as the legitimacy of reinventing medieval customs and ideas, at what point the production and enjoyment of caricaturizing the Middle Ages become inappropriate, how medievalists treat disadvantaged communities, and the tension between political action and ethics in medievalism. The eight subsequent articles then build on this foundation as they concentrate on capitalist motives for melding superficially incompatible narratives in medievalist video games, Dan Brown's use of Dante's Inferno to promote a positivist, transhumanist agenda, disjunctures from medieval literature to medievalist film in portrayals of human sacrifice, the influence of Beowulf on horror films and vice versa, portrayals of war in Beowulf films, socialism in William Morris's translation of Beowulf, bias in Charles Alfred Stothard's Monumental Effigies of Great Britain, and a medieval source for death in the Harry Potter novels. The volume as a whole invites and informs a much larger discussion on such vital issues as the ethical choices medievalists make, the implications of those choices for their makers, and the impact of those choices on the world around us. Karl Fugelso is Professor of Art History at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. Contributors: Mary R. Bowman, Harry Brown, Louise D'Arcens, Alison Gulley, Nickolas Haydock, Lisa Hicks, Lesley E. Jacobs, Michael R. Kightley, Phillip Lindley, Pascal J. Massie, Lauryn S. Mayer, Brent Moberley, Kevin Moberley, Daniel-Raymond Nadon, Jason Pitruzello, Nancy M. Resh, Carol L. Robinson, Christopher Roman, M.J. Toswell.