Any writer who can make a living by her pen can be proud of her work, but it wasn’t until 1977, when A Morbid Taste for Bones introduced Cadfael, that Pargeter made her bid for literary immortality.
The Anglophilic Anglican has alluded to this excellent series of historical mysteries – “The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael,” by Ellis Peters (nom de plume of medieval scholar, author, and Shrewsbury, England, resident Edith Pargeter) – but I have not addressed them directly. Let me make up for that omission, now!
For those who may not be aware, the Cadfael Chronicles are a long-running series of medieval mysteries comprising 21 volumes – 20 novels and a short-story collection – written between 1977 and 1994, and set in 12th-century England: specifically, in the years 1137–1145, in and around the town (city) of Shrewsbury, near the Welsh border, and its Benedictine monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul.
The protagonist, the eponymous Brother Cadfael of the aforementioned monastery, is both monk and herbalist, as well as a sort of medieval private investigator; a veteran Crusader and one-time sailor who – having seen much of the known world, in his first half-century or so – has chosen this quiet (?) harbor to live out the remainder of his earthy life.
Let’s let Levi Stahl tell it:
“An abbey like Cadfael’s Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul is removed from the world by design, but it can never wholly escape that world’s events. Peters set her series at a truly parlous moment for the kingdom, a period now known as the Anarchy, when King Stephen and his sister, the Empress Maud, spent nearly twenty years fighting back and forth across the kingdom in a largely fruitless battle for the throne.
“For Cadfael and his fellow monks, the war is presented as primarily a source of sorrow at rampant waste, human and material; for Cadfael’s friend Hugh Beringar, the Shrewsbury-based sheriff, it is a constant threat to the lives and livelihoods of the people in his charge as the highest-ranking officer of the king in the region. The larger struggle is at times the impetus, at others merely the backdrop, of the smaller human dramas that involve Cadfael….
“The research that undergirds Peters’ version of medieval Shrewsbury is largely invisible… she simply presents a world and the relationships and material that comprise it. In the course of the series we meet knights, jugglers, ladies-in-waiting, coppicers, boatmen, lords, traders, and all manner of the other people who, together, kept the economy and society of medieval England moving.
“The intricate relationship between the monastery and the town it borders offers continual interest, as through it we glimpse the relationship between church and state at a moment when neither was sure of the other’s wholehearted support.
“For all that, it’s Cadfael that is the heart of the series. His biography largely defines him: restless in his youth, he joined the Crusades, fighting for Christianity throughout the Middle East, an experience that made him appreciate the craft of the soldier while doubting the righteousness of his cause. Asked once if he’s not afraid of death, he replies, ‘I’ve brushed elbows with him before. We respect each other.'”
“His faith wasn’t shaken by the experience, but his belief that a loving God would want it spread through conquest was. He made his way slowly back to England, then chose to take the cowl in his fifties. When we meet him he is comfortably settled, in charge of an herb garden and the medical remedies it supplies. He is happy and confident in his choice, content in the quiet and certainty it offers. Yet his curiosity and taste for adventure remain liable to flare-ups, and when a body turns up… he always finagles a way to get involved.”
Indeed he does, and therein lie the tales!
And excellent tales they are: Peters (Pargeter) is not only an academically-trained medievalist and a gifted story-teller, but she was also (until her death in 1994) a life-long resident (with only a few breaks) of Shrewsbury, so she adds a wealth of local detail that would be unavailable to one less intimately familiar with the surroundings. The result are tales which are eminently believable: geographically, historically, and in human terms.
Whether your fascination is with England (as well it may be, being a reader of this blog!), the Middle Ages, mystery tales, or simply well-woven and satisfying stories, I think you will be well-pleased with the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael.
And on a personal note, I may say that these lovely stories were among the inspirations for me to return to college and complete my B.A. in medieval studies, and also encouraged my vocation to the priesthood (though my spirituality has a definite Benedictine cast to it, I do not feel called to the life of a cloistered contemplative – though I did at one time consider that possibility).
I cannot possibly recommend these highly enough!
(And yes, they were made into an ITV television series, starring the well-known British actor Derek Jacobi – Sir Derek Jacobi, I should say, since he was knighted in 1994 – ironically the very year in which Ellis Peters concluded her chronicles, and passed on. I am told he did an excellent job portraying Brother Cadfael: I have not watched the series, as I have my own mental images of the characters, and would like to keep it that way!)