The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book I
In 1977, forty years ago, Edith Pargeter published the first book in her Cadfael series, which combined her talents as historical novelist (under her real name) and mystery writer (under the nom de plume Ellis Peters). Set in her native Shropshire, the story features the eponymous worldly-wise monk, whose adventurous youth has given way to a comfortable middle age at Shrewsbury Abbey. Here he finds himself solving a series of crimes in and around his foundation. Those who grew up in the 1990s, like me, will remember the cuddly Sunday-night ITV adaptation with Derek Jacobi as the sleuthing monk. Cadfael was almost certainly my introduction to murder mysteries and I know that I read some of the books as a teenager, though I don’t remember them now. I was delighted to find the first seven novels in the series during a recent tip to the Book Barn, and decided it was time to refamiliarise myself with them.
Brother Cadfael cares more for his garden and his herbs than for the potential power of the monastic hierarchy. He watches with a tolerant but ironic eye as the ambitious Prior Robert seeks to gain worldly glory for Shrewsbury Abbey, spurred on by the desire to compete with other nearby monasteries. What Shrewsbury really needs is to attract more pilgrims, who will bring money and influence to the Abbey. How to get pilgrims? Why, they need a saint! It’s too bad that there is no native saint at the Abbey. Fortunately, Providence is on Robert’s side. His friend Brother Jerome is vouchsafed a vision, in which he is visited by the virgin saint Winifred. She is fed up of the indifference shown towards her bones by the people of Gwytherin, where she lies buried, and wishes to be translated to a more devout home. To prove her goodwill towards the Abbey, she has even cured the young would-be mystic, Brother Columbanus, of his falling fits. It is a sign! (A most convenient sign, notes Cadfael.) With the abbot’s permission, Robert gathers an entourage to set off into Wales to bring their new saint home.
There are issues, of course. Going into Wales means stumbling into a delicate web of rivalries and potential diplomatic embarrassments. England and Wales have a difficult relationship at the best of times, without a gang of arrogant English monks turning up and trying to liberate Welsh saints’ relics. Cadfael (born a Welshman) has managed to get himself taken along as translator, and watches in despair as Robert and the unctuous Jerome try to impose their will on the villagers of Gwytherin and their well-meaning but flustered priest Huw. As the peace of the village is shattered by the interlopers, the observant Cadfael begins to see that Gwytherin has other problems too, largely centred on the tensions caused by the suitors flocking around the pretty Sioned. And when the village is further shaken by a murder, Cadfael must use all his wits and diplomacy to find the murderer before an innocent man is convicted of the crime.
Under her real name (Pargeter), Peters had already written two series about medieval Wales (The Heaven Seed trilogy and The Brothers of Gwynned quartet). Cadfael’s story takes place in a strong, solidly-described political context, full of tiny details which aren’t laboured at all but which help to give us a picture of Welsh life at this period – the travelling bard who earns his bread by singing at lords’ halls; the villages which straggle among forests, rather than clustering together in nuclei as in England; the struggle to plough the stony ground. Moreover, Peters’s novel is based on real historical events, at least as concerns the translation of Winifred’s relics to Shrewsbury. She was brought out of Wales in 1138 and her shrine was founded in the Abbey, where it attracted floods of pilgrims (Prior Robert must have been delighted), until it was destroyed in 1540 during Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries. So it looks as though, in rereading this series, I shall be learning an awful lot about medieval monasticism as well.
If you haven’t read these books, don’t take the last paragraph to mean that this is dense historical fiction. It’s light, character-driven and very moreish. Cadfael himself is a warm and empathetic character, ready to pierce pomposity and right wrongs, and well worth spending time with (in my imagination, incidentally, book-Cadfael doesn’t look anything like Derek Jacobi). I’m already itching to read the next one and to find out more about life within Shrewsbury Abbey walls.