Sylvia is Bryce Courtenay‘s historical novel about that most tragic of mediaeval religious episodes: the Children’s Crusade. Sylvia is a young German mädchen, who undergoes the usual horrors an attractive young female undergoes in the beginning of a Bryce Courtenay novel. But this doesn’t break her back, instead imbuing her with resolve and steeling her will. She learns Latin, Greek and Hebrew, thoroughly confounding those who believe that peasants are barely subhuman, especially female ones. However, she is blessed with a piscine birthmark on her back, one that saves her hide over and over again, when witnessed by the extraordinarily superstitious and religious folk of the Dark Ages.
The travails of the ragtag mob that go on to form the Children’s Crusade are depicted with typical Courtenay-esque brutality and frankness. The church officials are shown as they probably were: some swinish louts interested only in lustful conquests and pecuniary cupidity, some genuinely good and believing in kindness to others. Sylvia is a constant reminder of how peasants and women were treated before the Enlightenment and arguably, until universal suffrage was granted. Read this one for a glimpse into the Dark Ages and a good laugh at the incredible credulity of the times.