It has been a while I haven’t written anything about books, but this doesn’t mean that I have not been reading. On the contrary, I have emerged myself in the 12th century England. In the past months I read a number of books from the Cadfael Chronicles I hadn’t read before.
The Cadfael Chronicles is a series of historical murder mysteries. It consists of twenty books written by Ellis Peters, which is the a pseudonym of Edith Pargeter (1913 – 1995).
The main character is Cadfael, a Welsh in origin middle-aged Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury, England, in the first half of the 12th century. Before becoming a monk he was a Crusader in the Middle East and there he learnt a lot of things about the healing abilities of plants and herbs and the modern therapeutic knowledge of the Arabs, so once he became a monk, he was able to put his knowledge in practice and he served as the herbalist of the Abbey. In addition, he was a skilled observer and had a really strong own sense of justice. As a result, he served as a detective of his time and a medical examiner, as well!
Each book includes a self-sustained mystery. Brother Cadfael is involved in all of them, some times because the crime took place in the Abbey, some times because the local sheriff Hugh Beringar had learnt to trust Cadfael’s observations and abilities and some times just because Cadfael was present in the discovery of a crime and he was by nature too curious and inquisitive.
Besides the crime, in each book there is also a small side-story of a couple in love. Brother Cadfael always supported these lovers-to-be, thus provoking the sympathy of the reader! This side-story binds harmonically into the main story-line and it doesn’t attract the attention away from the mystery.
Ellis Peters’ mysteries are brilliant! The stories are so accurately adjusted to the era they refer, when there was anarchy in England and a civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud. They include historical elements and several of the characters that appear in the books really lived at that time, but the books are totally fictional. The murders are not pompous, but more what it would fit in the 12th century. It is clear from them that Ellis Peters had done a profound search and knew well the period she decided that Cadfael lived.
It is advisable to read the books in the correct order. As I mentioned earlier the mysteries are self-standing in each book, but it is better to follow the order of the books for the surrounding details: the life of brother Cadfael and Hugh Berignar or the rest of the monks, the historical background and the characters that recur in later books.
I started the first book in 2014 and slowly slowly read half of the series until earlier this year. I did not try to read all of the series in one go. I was really enjoying the short books of Ellis Peters and, for me, Brother Cadfael was a refuge whenever I was bored of other books. Of course in a series of twenty books not all of them are equally interesting. Some are more and some are less. In April this year I felt tired of reading disappointing books, so I decided that I have waited enough with finishing the series and it is time to continue with the rest of the Cadfael books.
I would totally recommend this series to anybody who enjoys historical mysteries. As I mentioned earlier, there are no pompous murders or huge conspiracies in them. There are problems that would occur in medieval England and around an Abbey. I enjoyed the English language in the books too. I read a couple of books translated in Greek, my own mother tongue, but I did not enjoy them. The translation had resulted in losing a bit of the medieval atmosphere the story had in the original language.
This year I read the following books of the Cadfael Chronicles:
- The Pilgrim Of Hate, nr. 10 of the series
I have already commented this book in my previous post of The books I read in May.
- An Excellent Mystery, nr. 11 of the series
Also included in The books I read in May.
- The Raven In The Foregate, nr. 12 of the series
In this book Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar solve the mysterious death of the pastor of the local church, who didn’t last but a few weeks in this position. This book has all the whit and the mystery that I like about Brother Cadfael, contrary to the previous book where the solution was obvious. So many suspects, but none clearly guilty. I couldn’t figure out the solution till the last pages! And of course, the solution is such, so that it doesn’t insult or create problems for anybody that doesn’t deserve it.
- The Rose Rent, nr. 13 of the series
Another book, where I did not manage to figure out the culprit but a few pages before the end! Besides Brother Cadfael, the main heroine of this book is the young widow Perle. She has donated her house to the abbey with the only condition to be provided of a rose from the bush in front of it on the day of the celebration of Saint Winifred. But she is still young and rich and strange things start happening in her life. Suitors, people interested in money and in the middle of this a young woman who doesn’t want to get married and a rose bush.
- The Hermit Of Eyton Forest, nr. 14 of the series
The main theme of this one is the effort of a powerful dame to manipulate her grandson so as to gain more lands and influence. But life is not simple, so two side stories are getting mixed up in the whole scene: a fugitive worker from a lord and a lost treasure from Empress Maud.
- The Confession Of Brother Haluin, nr. 15 of the series
Another strong dame in this book, as in the previous of the series. In this one a sad love story led a young and promising man to the cloister. Eighteen years later and after a close-to-death experience, brother Haluin decides he needs to face his old demons and find the grave of his old love. He goes on this quest escorted by brother Cadfael, as he is a cripple now. But destiny brings it that he discovers that his love story ended differently than he was told. The girl’s mother has manipulated the lives of several people but the truth comes out before the story is repeated in the next generation. Not my personal favourite of the Cadfael series…
- The Heretic’s Apprentice, nr. 16 of the series
One of the best books of the series for me! Usually Peters avoids direct conflicts with the church, although brother Cadfael has more open views on his practice of the Benedictine order he belongs to. After all he comes in trouble with Prior Robert and brother Jerome quite often. But this book is different: it deals with the compulsory orthodoxy and what is heresy.
A young guy has been travelling to the rest of Europe and to Jerusalem with his master and returns to England to deliver his master’s body for burial to the Abbey and a present for the adopted girl of the family as her dowry. As with everybody that lives for a while abroad, he finds the family he used to work for changed with the years. The two nephews of his master have taken over three business and run it smoothly, the adopted girl has grown to a beautiful young woman and the rest of the staff have grown used to his absence. He himself is also mature and his horizons have opened with all the new things he learnt in the journey. As a result he uses his mind to understand life and the religion, something that is considered a sin to the closed-minded old clerk and shepherd of the family. As the latter two feel menaced by the young man’s presence, the first one for his position and the second one for the girl, they use what he told them in a moment of loose tongues about the way he understands religion, to accuse him for heresy. By chance there is a higher cleric present in the Abbey, who follows strict orthodoxy and the case escalates tremendously. Especially when the old clerk is found stabbed in the back!
- The Potter’s Field, nr. 17 of the series
This mystery I found a bit tricky! The abbey gets to exchange a field with another monastery and while they start ploughing it, they discover the skeleton of a female. To whom does it belong? The family, which donated the field to begin with, gets involved and especially the younger son, who had become a Benedictine novice but changed his mind towards the end of his trial period. I really enjoyed it!
- The Summer Of The Danes, nr. 18 of the series
This was one of the longest books of the series. It takes place in Wales and not in the Abbey and brother Cadfael finds himself travelling in his homeland and talking his mother tongue, as a translator for Deacon Mark, the ambassador of the Catholic Church of England to Wales. There they are involved in the internal troubles of the prince of Wales, Owain Gwynedd. Cadwaladr, Owain’s brother, plans to regain his lands by inviting Danes from Dublin to threaten Gwynedd. In this book Cadfael becomes a hostage by the Danes!
I found this book a bit tiring with all the different things that are happening at the same time.
- The Holy Thief, nr. 19 of the series
The holy relics of Saint Winifred disappear in the fuss of a possible flood and a young guy, who knew who had taken her, is found dead. The most interesting part was when the fortune of Saint Winifred is decided, using the sortes Biblicae, placing the book of gospels on Saint Winifred’s reliquary and opening the book randomly, thus choosing a verse. Another book where Cadfael does not agree with the strict practices of other members of the Benedictine order.
- Brother Cadfael’s Penance, nr. 20 of the series
In the last book, Brother Cadfael reveals one of the biggest secrets of his life: that a character that we met in an older book, Olivier de Bretagne, is really his son. He comes in direct conflict with his vows as a monk and he leaves the Abbey on a quest to find his son, who was captured in a battle and he is missing. The story takes place mostly in Greenhamsted, England. Cadfael following his internal sense of justice and fair-play, manages to influence the whole history of England, by avoiding a conflict between Empress Maud and Robert of Gloucester, her half brother and most loyal and useful supporter. A really nice way to finish the series!
In parallel with the books I started watching the series based on this series. I should note that they are only based on the books of Ellis Peters, as a result there are a lot of deviations from them. I did not enjoy the series so much. They did not manage to transfer the atmosphere of 12th century England to me, the way the books did. And having read the books, I found disturbing the changes of characters to their more evil version.
Have you read this series? Have you watched the tv-series? I would love to hear your comments on any of them!