A Watch in the Night is an historical novel of the Middle Ages, with Jacopone da Todi, the Franciscan who waged the battle of the “”Spirituals”” against the more worldly minded members of the order, as the central figure. A vigorous story, beautifully told, animated by a strong religious spirit, a vivid and moving picture of the period, and an extraordinary interpretation of the soul which swayed the Franciscans in the stormy years following their founder’s death.
Like most of the books on this blog that I hadn’t heard of before I began reading my way through them, I had no idea what this novel was about when I started it. The opening action caught me off guard because I found the novel was set in the Middle Ages in Europe, as a nobleman observed the final preparations for a joust and tournament. With the exception of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, of which I knew the general plot, this was the first book I’d read in this project that was not only set outside the United States, but was set before the United States had even been founded (The Bridge of San Luis Rey just barely fit this category, being set in 1714). A Watch in the Night, however, is set in the early Thirteenth Century, before the Americas had even been discovered by Europe, and centuries before the United States were founded.
Adding to this initial surprise in setting was the abrupt change enacted in the first chapters of the novel. After setting up the tournament and the noble characters, the main character, Jacopone da Todi, experiences a disaster at the tournament, driving him to sell all his property and join the Franciscan order in poverty, in the decades following the death of its founder, Francis of Assisi. While Jacopone’s noble past, connections, and education, eventually play a role in the novel, as he works to preserve a section of the Franciscan Order following a strict view of poverty established by Saint Francis, much of the novel explores Jacopone trying to distance himself from his past and everything associated with it.
A Watch in the Night is very much a spiritual and Christian novel, and the author, Helen C. White, in addition to being a professor of English, was a practicing Roman Catholic her entire life. So it is no surprise that the novel not only draws from the history of the Catholic Church, but also from the doctrine and theology of the church. The life and Order of Saint Francis, and the way it interacts with Jacopone’s life, as he struggles to understand and reconcile it, as well as protect it, provide the central action of the novel. The novel does turn toward political intrigue in the second half, as Jacopone travels to Rome, petitions cardinals and the pope, and uses his previous knowledge as a lawyer to argue the case of the “Spiritual” sect of the Franciscan order, who are threatened by a larger group of Franciscans more concerned with creating status within society and conforming to the ways other monastic ways interact with the communities, instead of applying a strict rule of poverty and discipline in their lives. However, even in the midst of this political intrigue, the central action and thematic structure of the novel work to set up the spirituality against the more worldly political power, even that power inherent in the church.
Ultimately, the progression of Jacopone as a character forces him to not only give up his wealth and title and status, which he does so easily and gladly early on, but to give up his old identity, to rediscover himself, through a series of trials, missteps, and misjudgments. Following the religious theme, his redemption can only be enacted if he is able to submit the whole of himself into the service of the order, laying aside his ambitions of single-handedly saving the Franciscan Order, and focusing instead on poverty and the individual people in need of help.
Helen C. White does a fantastic job of immersing the reader in the world of Thirteenth Century Italy, and though she plays it a little fast and loose with some of the historical details, the historical characters and conflicts are all very closely based on reality. Though she primarily taught courses on the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century, she captures this earlier time period well, and she presents the religious arguments, doctrines, and struggles from a position of understanding and immersion. The characters and the prose are well-crafted and engrossing, and it is not difficult to see why this novel was recommend for the Pulitzer Prize by the novel jury.
There is something in every sudden death that comes home to the consciousness of friend and stranger alike. It lifts for a moment the curtain from the one certainty of life, that ultimate over which decency and sanity alike draw the veil, which society tacitly conspires to forget, locking the spectre in the deepest closet of all. And lo, he who was alive with us yesterday is dead, and the door of the closet wide open, and for a moment we are face to face with what we had trusted we would forget. And yet nothing so gives one, especially when he is young, the sensation of being alive, as to reflect that he who was as mortal yesterday as today as his friend is alive today while that other is dead. But when the dead was young and beautiful, moreover, then the issues of life and death come sharply into the open, and for a moment one realizes the brittleness of all life, and the breath-taking imminence of death.
Why you should read it:
While there is some interesting Middle Ages history and settings, and an element of political intrigue, this book is at it’s root religious. That religious message is powerfully presented and well written, but the book should not be approached as merely a historical or political novel. But if you approach it with that religious context in mind, there is a plethora of interesting characters and ecclesiastical history to entertain and move you.
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