Medieval Historical Fiction: The Holy Sinner

The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann

Mann's novel is based on the medieval Gregorius legends. I did not look Gregorius up carefully enough beforehand, so I didn't realize that the legends are sort of what V. C. Andrews would have come up with, had she been a medieval storyteller. The legend is itself based on the story of Oedipus and is meant to show the infinite goodness and forgiveness of God. No matter how awful your sins may be, if you repent you can be forgiven--though your penance may involve living on a rock and turning into a hedgehog for a while.

Mann writes as if he is a medieval chronicler, which can be a little tiring and repetitive, but it's suited to the story. Every so often, characters fall into rhymed verse as they describe some dramatic incident.

I have never read Thomas Mann before, and always kind of meant to, so when my brother Tom suggested this title for the historical fiction category I thought I'd give it a try. Yeah, thanks a lot Tom. It was better written than most popular historical fiction, though, and I didn't have the problem where the protagonist is really a modern person who will rebel and live as she pleases while saving the ignorant masses. I plan on trying The Magic Mountain next, but I don't think I'll read this one again.


  1. The funny thing about the medieval Gregorious legends is that it isn't really clear that Gregorius has sinned at all. After all, in ancient Greece, the gods punish crime whether the human knows he has committed a crime or not. But by the 12th century the idea of the guilty mind is well established. So there is a fair amount of literature out there discussing what Gregorius did wrong.

    As I said earlier, I've only read the medieval legends; I'll probably read Mann's retelling fairly soon. Speaking of modern heroes in ancient garb, I recently read Gore Vidal's >Julian<. It wasn't bad and if you include the post-Constantine world into the Middle Ages you can count it as medieval. Gore Vidal has an ax to grind, but Julian did too, so it fits sort of.

  2. By the way: when you pick up The Magic Mountain, check to see if any of it is in French. I read it several years ago before I had learned to read some French and I still don't know what happened in those pages. I'm told that one of the English translations leaves it all in French while the other does not.

  3. True, the only thing Gregorius is actually guilty of is being so boneheaded as to not check whether the Duchess was his mother. Mann has them both confess that deep down they recognized each other--I figure that's not in the legends?


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