This is a medieval blog, but occasionally I will indulge myself with a post on another passion of mine, Sherlock Holmes. Serendipitously, today’s post references both Holmes and the Middle ages. Sherlockiana is the study of all things Holmes, with the conceit that Holmes was a historical figure. Many learned tomes have dealt seriously, in a scholarly fashion, with questions surrounding the world’s first consulting detective and his partner, Dr. John Watson.
A close reading of the canon, those stories written by Watson and edited by his literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, show that among his many other interests, Holmes was a scholar of diverse medieval subjects. For instance, in “The Adventure of the Three Students,” published in 1904, but taking place in 1895, we find Holmes on the campus of a great English University researching, what else?, early English (Anglo-Saxon) charters! Controversy rages over which university Holmes visited, but my guess would be Cambridge. (No, really, controversy rages.) Nevertheless, Holmes’ study produced some provocative results, though Watson never tells us what they were. “The Bruce-Partington Plan,” a case from November of 1895, just a few months after “Three Students,” opens at the tail end of Holmes’ two week intensive study of medieval music. Perhaps he was transposing medieval songs for performance on his beloved violin. This curiousity is not limited to 1895. In 1888’s “The Sign of Four,” the second novella in the canon, Holmes mentions his study of miracle plays and medieval pottery.
Holmes’ hobby is not surprising when one considers the intellectual and patriotic climate of the late nineteenth-century. The 1870’s saw the publication of the majority of Stubb’s work on English constitutional history, including a volume on A-S charters. By 1895, it was in its eighth edition. In 1895, England was gearing up for the millenial observance of the death of Alfred the Great, a fine figure with whom to celebrate Empire. This was also the era of Maitland and Harmer, and many other gentleman scholars to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. It is a shame that Holmes’ pen would leave no monograph detailing his findings like the one he wrote explaining the properties of various tobacco ashes. Ah, well, maybe, just maybe, deep in Watson’s tin dispatch box, where he kept the manuscripts of his writings, we might someday find a treatise in Holmes’ hand explaining, in rational, dispassionate prose, the answers to all those questions that vex so much today’s student of the Middle ages.