Reading Group Center

Heretic, Writer, Scientist: The Real Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno, the hero of S. J. Parris’ Heresy, is a refreshing, unexpected sort of detective. First, he’s not exactly a detective—he’s an Italian monk and a scientist who flees to England during the Inquisition. Second, he’s based on an actual historical figure: a monk named Giordano Bruno, who fled Italy after his controversial beliefs angered the Catholic church. But how much does the fictional Bruno have in common with his real-life counterpart?

The fictional Bruno arrives in London in 1583, the same time the real life Bruno is said to have entered the country. Almost immediately, our fictional Bruno meets with Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster. Walsingham recruits Bruno to investigate a potential plot to overthrow the Queen. Some historians (like John Bossy) believe that Bruno was indeed an informer who worked for Walsingham during his stay in England. The fictional Bruno does his sleuthing while at Oxford; the real-life Bruno also went to Oxford, and lectured there. It is much less likely that he solved any murders during his stay in England, but, then again…there’s no record that he didn’t!

Throughout his life, the real Giordano Bruno frequently published about his beliefs, even when those beliefs were thought to be eccentric or controversial. He supported the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system and believed that the popular conception of the universe as finite was flawed. He also developed and wrote about memory-enhancement techniques, including mnemonic devices, tricks that may seem commonplace now but at the time were thought to be magic. He wandered Europe for years after leaving Italy, but in 1592 was arrested and placed on trial in Rome for his beliefs. After an eight-year trial, he was declared a heretic and burned at the stake.

The events of Heresy take place seventeen years before the real Bruno’s death, and so, we don’t yet know the final fate of S. J. Parris’ Bruno. We do know that he is just as stubbornly rebellious as the real one, a quality that serves him well when faced with the murders at Oxford and the mysterious Sofia Underhill. Prophecy, the sequel to Heresy, will be available in hardcover this spring. Do you think that as the series continues, Parris will lead her Bruno down the same path that the real life Bruno took? When reading historical fiction, how important is it to you for an author to stick close to historical fact? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Click here to read an excerpt of Heresy, and click here to download a reading group guide.