Calling for Cadfael!
In recent years, I’ve really enjoyed a number of mystery series (many of which I’ve extolled as favorite things on this page). Among others, there’s the Julia Spencer-Fleming stories (next month’s MFT), the Robert Carey mysteries, Dick Francis’s marvelous books, Elizabeth Peters’s immortal Amelia Peabody series, and the Daisy Dalrymple series.But over the last year or so, I’ve fallen in love with an older mystery series and the series that as far as I can gather created the vogue for historical mysteries, something for which I’m eternally grateful. As you can gather, I like a bit of old stuff with my bloody corpses.
When I was in high school, I read and loved Edith Pargeter’s wonderful series about building a medieval cathedral, The Heaven Tree, The Green Branch and The Scarlet Seed (definitely due for a re-read). As a result, I must have picked up a couple of her Cadfael books, written as Ellis Peters. Then I remember enjoying the TV series with Derek Jacobi back in the 1990s. Fast forward to me getting my house ready to sell. In the clean-out, I came across these books that had been gathering dust unread since the 1980s. I decided to read them before I sent them off to charity – and as a result, I found out just what I’ve been missing.
Since then, I’ve read 12 of these books – I’m taking my time to savor them. Sadly, Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters died in 1995 so once I get to the end of the series, there are no more.
So I thought today, I’d talk about some of the Cadfael stories, because right now, they’re definitely among my favorite things.
Brother Cadfael, the central character, is a middle-aged Benedictine monk at rich and powerful Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century when England was rent by civil war as King Stephen and the Empress Maud fought for the throne. One of the major joys of this series is the seamless way Peters incorporates historical detail. She clearly knows this period so well, it reads as naturally on the page as a duck floats on the water. A very painless way to learn some history!
Cadfael is an unusual Benedictine. Prior to taking his vows, this Welshman led an adventurous life as a Crusader and sea captain, and he had a number of romantic relationships. So let’s say he’s a very worldly monk. Now he’s a valued member of the abbey’s community where he works as the herbalist, creating concoctions for the relief of the brothers. He remains incorrigibly curious about people, and the abbey’s role at the center of Shrewsbury’s life (and England’s political struggles) means that he’s in a position to see lots of suspicious behavior. He’s also incurably romantic – one of the lovely things about this series is that you usually get at least one and usually more romances. Cadfael’s middle name should be Cupid.
Book 1 in the series is A Morbid Taste for Bones. Cadfael joins a party of monks who travel across the border into the wilds of Wales to claim (basically steal) the bones of St. Winifred and bring them back to the abbey. As you can imagine, the locals aren’t nearly so keen on the idea as the monks are, despite an apparently visionary dream that inspired the journey. This story is, in many ways, unusual for the series. It’s set away from the abbey and Cadfael is still waiting to meet his companion in investigation, Hugh Berengar, the Deputy Sheriff of Shrewsbury. On the other hand, many elements will become familiar. Cadfael’s willingness to follow the moral, if not the legal path. Young love. The mixture of superstition and faith and daily common sense that formed medieval life. The interplay of personalities, both good and bad, in a closed community.
Book 2, One Corpse Too Many, introduces Cadfael’s fascinating and charismatic offsider, Hugh Berengar, who could be either a goodie or a baddie in this story. When King Stephen orders the execution of the defenders who kept Shrewsbury from him, there’s one dead man too many. Legal murder is permissible. Illegal murder is a slight to king and law. Stephen charges his legal representatives in the city to solve the mystery and bring the murderer to justice. There’s an obvious culprit (something else that pops up quite often in this series), but Cadfael isn’t convinced of his guilt. Cue a fascinating cat and mouse game between the monk and the deputy sheriff – and a lovely romance between Hugh and the woman he eventually marries. This one sets the pattern for the other stories in the series. They’re set around Shrewsbury and play off town and abbey as sometimes cooperative, sometimes hostile entities. Hugh is out and about in the real world, not to mention he has legal jurisdiction, to do the kind of investigating that is outside Cadfael’s remit. While Cadfael, as trusted medical man and religious, has an access to people’s private lives that Hugh lacks.
Now for a couple of favorites in the series that just happen to follow each other as numbers five, six and seven. Clearly Ellis P. was taking her vitamins when she was writing these! They’re fantastic. There’s a depth to these three that I absolutely adore – the books aren’t long (generally around the 250-280 page mark), but these seem to encompass the whole range of medieval life and offer up unforgettable characters.
The Leper of Saint Giles is a strong example of another ongoing theme in these books – fathers and their children. What do each owe the other? What role does love play? How does a father’s role change when the child falls in love? A mysterious leper at the hospice of Saint Giles turns out to be more than he seems and he (and Cadfael) take a hand in securing a happy ending for aristocratic but Cinderella-like Iveta de Massard. But the path to that happy ending involves danger, passion, murder, deceit and revelations that need all Cadfael’s ingenuity to unravel.
The Virgin in the Ice is another father/child exploration and one of the best stories in the series. Again there are issues of hidden identities, young love, murder, deceit and Cadfael and Hugh working together to achieve justice and a happy ending. And there’s a wonderful new character in Olivier de Bretagne who harbors secrets that will change Cadfael’s life.
The last of my three picks is The Sanctuary Sparrow which has a really emotive thread about an unmarried woman’s position and rights in medieval England. When Susanna Aurifaber’s brother marries, she must relinquish her position of authority in the household to the new bride. This sets off a tragic series of events that draw in a wandering minstrel (a lovely character), a naive maidservant, and a host of fascinating Shrewsbury characters with links to the goldsmith’s house and trade.
I could go on and on. So far, there isn’t a book in this series I haven’t enjoyed. But I’d particularly like to mention The Rose Rent and St. Peter’s Fair along with the ones I’ve listed here. If you haven’t read them, give them a go. They’re wonderful reads!