Saturday, August 27, 2005


I think I’ll start with Edith Pargeter who wrote the Brother Cadfael mysteries under the pen name of Ellis Peters. I will say up front that I am not a fan of mystery stories just because they’re mysteries. If it’s a good story with marvelous characters and fantastic writing that just happens to have a mystery attached, don’t call me I’ll call you.

The twenty novels and three short stories are set in the monastery attached to the church of Saints Peter and Paul in the Shrewsbury of mid-12th century England.  The monastery was established in the early 1090?s and flourished until it was suppressed in 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII.

You don’t have to read the books in order, but it helps. One mystery often leads to another, characters pop up again and the common background thread to all the books is the on again off again civil war between two of William the Conquerors grand children over who has to right to plant their royal posterior on the English throne.

Williams’ youngest son Henry had outlived one brother (rumor had him helping big brother into the afterlife) and out fought the other to finally claim both England and Normandy. He had several illegitimate sons who were granted titles and estates but when both his legitimate heir William and his other son Richard were lost in a shipwreck he named his daughter Matilda (aka Maud) as his heir and convinced most of his nobles to swear to recognize her claim to the throne and swear oaths of allegiance.

When Henry died in 1135 his nephew, Stephen moved first. With lands in both England and Normandy, Stephen was the wealthiest of the Anglo Norman nobles. With the support of his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen used his status as the son of the Conquerors’ daughter Adela to seize the throne. Matilda had the claim of being Henrys’ daughter and her oaths of allegiance. Stephen had the right gender, a claim through his mother and more oaths of allegiance. The nearly twenty-year struggle over the throne dragged England into civil war.

The back and forth feuding, skirmishing, pillaging and general mayhem form the backdrop for Cadfael born in Wales, former crusader, sometime Mediterranean boat captain, and now a brother in the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul to practice both his talents for herb gardening and mystery solving.

Now in his sixties, Brother Cadfael has found a safe harbor in the religious life. But, if he has to choose between the spirit and the letter of the rules of the abbery he’s likely to obey the spirit and tidy up the letter of the law later. As the monastary herbalist he overseas the herb garden that provides varous remedies as well as seasonings. For many of the poorer members of the community, he’s the closest thing to a doctor available.

Peters paints vivid word pictures that bring the characters to life. The following short excerpt is from a short story, The Price of Light from the volume A Rare Benedictine. The story takes place before the individual stories in the novels.

Hamo FtizHamon of Lidyate held two fat manors in the northeastern corner of the county, towards the border of Cheshire. Though a gross feeder, a heavy drinker, a self-indulgent lecher, a harsh ladlord and a brutal master, he had reached the age of sixty in the best of health, and it came as a salutary shock to him when he was at last taken with a mild seizure, and for the first time in his life saw the next world yawning before him, and woke to the unesy consciousness that it might see fit to treat him somewhat more austerely than this world had done. Though he repented none of them, he was aware of a whole registeer of acts in his past which heaven might construe as heavy sins. It began to seem to him a prudent precaution to acquire merit for his soul as quickly as possible. Also as cheaply, for he was a grasping and possessive man. A judicius gift to some holy house should secure the welfare of his soul. There was no need to go so far as endowing an abbey, or a new church of his own. The Benedictine abbey of Shresbury could put up up a powerful assault of prayers on his behalf in return for a much more modest gift. ……….there follows a paragraph discussing his bestowing ot the rent from one of his properties to support the cost of candles for the Lady alter in the church and the gift of a pair of silver candle sticks to be presented at Christmas (very publically presented) and then……….

Abbot Heribert, who after a long life of repeated disillusionments still contrived to think the best of everybody, was moved to tears by this penitential generosity. Prior Robert, himself an aristocrat, refrained out of Norman solidarity, from casting doubt upon Hamos’ motive, but he elevated his eyebrows, all the same. Brother Cadfael, who knew only the public reputation of the donor and was sceptical enough to suspend judgement until he encountered the source, said nothing and waited to observe anddecide for himself. Not that he expected much; he had been in the world fifty-five years, and learned to temper all his expectations, bad or good.

I’ve taken the time to set the background for the stories because I believe that time and place are important to how the characters act. In the case of the short story that follows the exerpt. the candle sticks end up stolen (of course). They had been made by one of Hamos’ serfs, a silversmith, with the promise of permision to marry and freedom. Hamo, of course, hadn’t kept his end of the bargain and a little “intervention” divine or otherwise was required.

The characters come alive. They make mistakes. They learn, they grow, they fail, and they make wrong choices.  Sometimes the results are disastrous. Sometimes the outcome is something wonderful.  They’re just as real as the neighbor down the street. (Brother Jerome, the Priors’ clerk and general monastery busy body, doesn’t seem to learn anything new, but there are people like that.)

I suspect that our Neocon super individualism would be as incomprehensible to the people of Cadfaels' day as his world would be to us. A world that travelled only as fast horse, wind or feet could carry you. Where most folks seldom traveled more than a days’ journey from where they were born.

1 comment:

krobbie67 said...

Hmmm...this sounds like something that would definitely interest me. Thanks for the review, I probably wouldn't have heard of the author otherwise. :-) ---Robbe