by Jeremiah Pearson
Incunabula Press, 2013, 510 pgs.
Part of the Villeins Trilogy.
Brethren is an historical novel that tells the story of a small group of religious radicals from the village of Kunvald who risk their lives to promote literacy and peace in the midst of the violence of the early 1500s.
The Brethren are members of the Unitas Fratrum, which today is commonly called the Moravian Church. The Unitas Fratrum was the first “peace church” and pioneers in education for commoners. It is appropriate that one of the central figures of the book is a woman who is named for Christ (Kristina) since women played such an important role in the Unitas Fratrum.
Intersecting the story of Katrina and her motley band of idealists are the stories of villeins (similar to serfs) from the German estate of Giebel who are led into war against the Muslims. They are led by an illiterate, scarred and cynical man named Lud whose heart is touched by the grace-filled devotion and sacrifice of Katrina as well as the genuine love of his liege lord, Sir Dietrich.
This is a well-written and often compelling novel. Moravians will enjoy Pearson’s description of the original Brethren, but he paints the Kunvald Brethren too much like later Swiss Anabaptists. By the time of the events in the novel, the Moravian Brethren were baptizing infants, for example.
Moravians should also be aware that this is not a typical “Christian novel.” While there is no graphic sex, there are numerous references to rape and abuse. Pearson is unsparing in his depiction of the violence of the age, including torture and mutilation. This makes the loving care and courage of the Brethren stand out, but it can make for difficult reading.
The only historical quibble I have with the book is that the Brethren from Kunvald all seem to speak German as their native tongue rather than Czech. They also seem to have a printing much earlier than was actually the case.
However, such minor points should not distract from Pearson’s success in depicting the life of the villeins and the true nature of the “heresies” of the late Middle Ages. One of the most pleasing aspects of this book is that Pearson’s characters are not stereotypes. Each is complex, nuanced and evocative of the time period.
The Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood is director of the Center for Moravian Studies and a professor at Moravian Theological Seminary
From the April 2014 Moravian Magazine