novels of corrupt bishops and Popes, heretics, saint's bones, etc
August 26, 2014 1:52 AM   Subscribe

I was really surprised by how much I liked the parts about Catholicism in the Mongoliad series. What other fiction is there involving the medieval Church's corruption, orders of knights (or monks or whatever) who are heretics or pagans who've drawn a thin veneer of Catholicism over themselves, gnosticism and mysticism, characters who may be god-touched, mad, or both and the people who have to keep them out of trouble?

I also enjoyed The Leper's Companions, partly because it was beautiful but in particular because I love stuff involving all the kind of weird mystical stuff that had gathered around the Church in that time period, especially the stuff about people carrying around sort of "unofficial relics", AKA the body parts of random saints, and the trade in those items.

I'm not really interested in anything from a "Christian Fiction" perspective, at least not one that's really trying to convince me of anything. I want the corruption and co-option of the church, the stealing and incorporation of pagan beliefs, stories about heretics, etc.

I'm open to all genres-- historical fiction, historical fantasy, secret history, alternate history, whatever. It's the weirdness of the medieval church that I'm after, I don't really care if the book is horribly wrong or set in an alternate universe version or whatever.

Bonus points for books by and about women and/or queer people/gender and sexual minorities. No rape or explicit torture. I'll likely be doing most of these in audio form, so if the audio is particularly good, let me know (or if it's really bad and I should avoid it!).
posted by NoraReed to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum seems to fit the bill. And it's a great read.
posted by tractorfeed at 2:03 AM on August 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

Q by Luther Blisset should tick numerous boxes for style but was actually written by an Italian anarchist collective so ticks some of your other boxes too.

It's a
posted by biffa at 2:32 AM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also by Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose. Audio available here. Also available as a pretty good movie with Sean Connery and F. Murray Abraham.
posted by apparently at 3:04 AM on August 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

Pope Joan by E. Royidis has been translated to English by Lawrence Durrell. It fits your requirements pretty well, and is also hilarious (unless you are the 19th century orthodox church, that is).
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:23 AM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Holy Fools by Joanne Harris is set a bit later (17th century France) but has a huge amount of the bizarre hypocrisy of the Catholic church in it.

For pure medieval, I'd second the above suggestion of The Name of the Rose.
posted by terretu at 4:40 AM on August 26, 2014

There's also The Pillars of the World, if it isn't great literature, and Notre Dame de Paris for the classics.

Matthew Lewis' The Monk hits also similar notes, but it is more Gothic than historical fiction.
posted by sukeban at 5:43 AM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oooooh and just after posting the previous comment: the Children of the Grail series by Peter Berling, if you can find it. It was in the 90s in Europe what ASOIAF is nowadays. It's got cathars and templars and assassins and whatnot :D
posted by sukeban at 5:45 AM on August 26, 2014

Red Orm by Frans Bengtsson is a great Viking adventure tale set in the tenth century which has great fun detailing how "heathens" and Christian priests would haggle over how much they would get for their conversion, shows how pragmatic/materialistic the clergy could be about it, and how Christian structures were still pretty openly all about earthly power etc.
posted by runincircles at 6:12 AM on August 26, 2014

aldous huxley's "the devils of loudun". satanic pacts, kinky, possessed nuns and mass hysteria, based (loosely) on real events.
posted by bruce at 6:24 AM on August 26, 2014

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall might also do the trick?
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 6:26 AM on August 26, 2014

This is a bit of a reach, so forgive me if I'm throwing something out that you're not interested in, but I have a fondness for the historian Caroline Walker Bynum (and used a lot of her stuff for my thesis on St. Catherine of Siena). You might try Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, which is about about things like female mysticism and women's use of food and the body to carve out spaces of autonomy, and also Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. She is a very clear, engaging writer and while it's not fiction, I go back to them to read for fun.
posted by PussKillian at 6:28 AM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mirabilis by Susann Cokal is about a wet nurse who feeds her besieged 14th-century French village. Her reputation goes from child of a witch to saint to . . . ?
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:39 AM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always recommend "The Pope's Rhinoceros" and it fits the bill.
posted by sunslice at 6:49 AM on August 26, 2014

Nicola Griffiths' Hild is about the arrival of Catholicism in seventh-century Britain. On the religion side, there's incorporation of pagan beliefs, in-fighting between Christian sects, and nasty political tricks played on Briton kings by evangelist priests.

The main character is based on Saint Hilda of Whitby, and the novel covers her childhood and teen years. Women are central to the story, and female friendships are particularly important. Nicola Griffiths is a queer woman.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:50 AM on August 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf? It is quite, quite filthy though (may be a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view).
posted by gnimmel at 7:21 AM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Declare, by Tim Powers. A secret history about spies in WW2, Lawrence of Arabia and Mount Ararat.
posted by bonehead at 7:35 AM on August 26, 2014

CS Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy has a Church of Human Unification in it that's pretty clearly based off of the Catholic church. Also, fun fact: we used part of the last book in my confirmation class when talking about spiritual sacrifice.
posted by spunweb at 7:50 AM on August 26, 2014

The Deryni series of books by Katherine Kurtz might be interesting to you.

In the books set earlier chronologically, the Christian characters explore the pagan roots of their traditions.
posted by Fukiyama at 7:50 AM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

A couple of sci-fi options, though strictly speaking these are outside the medieval period (one is too late and the other too early):

Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson is historical fiction about Galileo's struggles with the church, combined with a far-future sci-fi tale. Includes lots of details of Vatican politics, including references to actual church documents from Galileo's trials.

Pax Romana is a 4-issue comic book miniseries by Jonathan Hickman, in which the church, faced with a desperate future, sends a small group of clergy and soldiers back in time to change history by influencing Constantine the Great. Warning: Fairly violent.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:01 AM on August 26, 2014

I wasn't able to get through Foucoult's Pendulum last time I tried but Eco's the Name of the Rose is wonderful, readable, and should be right on point.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:21 AM on August 26, 2014

I can't be the first person to mention A Canticle for Leibowitz?

I haven't read Valente's Dirge for Prester John series but it seems like it's in the area and her writing is quite distinctive.
posted by selfnoise at 8:51 AM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy The Sword and the Miracle, by Melvyn Bragg. It was originally published under the name Credo in the UK.

It is a fictionalized account of the life of St. Bega.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:29 AM on August 26, 2014

There's an Eco echo in the here but for Christian relics you might also like Baudolino.

Hild hits several of your bonus points and is a fictionalized account of St. Hilda of Whitby, but has more to do with early Christian influence in Britain from an political/outsider's perspective. I still suspect you'd like it.

Another slightly-askew book with a lot of elements you might like is the nonfiction book Out of the Flames. It's properly Renaissance era but it's got heresy and rare manuscripts and a lot of stuff about how the church fought back against Protestantism, and how Protestantism used a lot of the structure of Catholicism as soon as it had the power to do so, and as such is full of a lot of the stuff you're looking for.

Lastly, Canterbury Tales and the Decameron contain plenty of contemporary stories of naughty monks and people right on the edges of the church's reach.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:08 AM on August 26, 2014

ok so, this is a liiiiitle off from what you asked but you might still like it.

The podcast The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps covers the history of philosophy (including religions), focusing primarily on the key philosophers/religious icons, and their disagreements with one another. How were the skeptics different from the gnostics, and why did one faction give way to another? These are the types of questions answered in this most excellent podcast.
posted by rebent at 12:55 PM on August 26, 2014

Stephenson's Baroque Cycle doesn't necessarily play to the Catholic side but it does explore Isaac Newton's infatuation with alchemy and his unique relationship with God. It also plays in the friction between the birth of the Enlightenment and British Protestantism as reactions to Scholasticism and Catholicism. There are also forays into the advent of modern economics. This last storyline features a strong/clever female character.

Along the way you'll run into other, swashbuckling-like story lines which may not be what you're looking for. It definitely suffers from the typical Stephenson reach for a grand narrative theory of unification. I say this not because I found it distasteful but because many of the reviews I've read find these things annoying. Plus, if you've read the Mongoliad series and are looking for similar, chances are you find many of Stephenson's quirks enjoyable.
posted by Fezboy! at 1:35 PM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have a look at The Swerve.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:10 AM on August 27, 2014

Try Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series; well-written realistic historical fiction about a English warrior who stumbles onto holy artifacts and the Church's pursuit of them. Lots of history here, and Cornwell's brilliant at staging battle scenes, but you'll find lots of great Catholic veneer to the proceedings.
posted by sirvinegar at 9:01 AM on August 27, 2014

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