The year is 1321. In the isolated village of Ulewic, the people are ruled by the Owl Masters and the church. When a group of women set up a beguinage on the edge of the village, they are viewed with suspicion but tolerated for their charity. As crops struggle in bad weather and disease strikes livestock and the villagers, they begin to doubt the purpose of the outlander women. Have they been cursed?
The Owl Killers, at the very least, will make you feel grateful for living in the 21st century. Not only was daily life a struggle to survive, but they lived under the oppression of the Catholic church who took their money and dictated what they must believe in or risk punishment. The church is shown as corrupt and hypocritical although the priest, at times, seems like he wants to show compassion but is constrained by those above him. Ulewic has the added tyranny of the Owl Masters, a pagan group of men who rule with fear and enact their own brand of justice. To receive a dead owl on your doorstep is a death sentence.
For the time, beguines were impressive women. They wished to be neither wives nor nuns and set up what we might think of as communes today. Whilst a fictional account, some of the actions of the women are based on historical records, such as giving mass after being excommunicated by the church. They believed in God as that was tantamount to the law but they didn’t believe that faith was something that an entity could control.
The novel is narrated in first person by five different characters which makes it difficult to get into the story at first. However this does give differing viewpoints and shows that both religions had good and bad sides. The cunning woman, often thought as of a witch, did her best to aide the women of the village yet the Owl Masters used superstitions to maintain power. Greed was at the centre of the church’s concerns yet the beguines helped tend to the sick and feed the poor. However even within the beguines there is prejudice and judgement.
The text is also historically interesting, from how everyday people lived their lives to the superstitions that shaped their lives. Things such as a small cut could mean death in those times, with no real medicines or understanding of sickness. It is sad to think that those with leprosy are still shunned in some countries to this day, even though it is easily treated with modern antibiotics. As it is set before the Gregorian calendar was in use, the passing of time is told with the relevant saint’s day or festival and includes some fascinating tidbits.
Devil’s Nutting Day: Those who gather nuts on this day will be gathered straight to hell or driven mad. Any unwed maiden who gathers nuts this day will reap a crop of bastards.
A slow start, but persevere and it picks up. I enjoyed it more for the history than for the plot or charactisation though and, as is often the case with books over 500 pages, felt it could have been pruned a little. I do understand why setting the scene took so long due to the different narrators.
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