Brother Cadfael came before fingerprinting and DNA testing, before security cameras and GPS phone tracking, back when detectives had their work cut out for them when it came to solving murders. Barring a confession or finding the bloody dagger on a suspect, it was difficult to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone was truly guilty.
Which makes Ellis Peters' medieval sleuth all the more impressive: armed only with his own instincts and varied life experiences, he winkled out a number of miscreants in the course of twenty novels and thirteen television adaptations. By finding just a spring of a plant on the victim, he could determine where the man died and why.
When first we meet him, this singular hero is a sixty-something monk at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, a town not far from the border between England and Wales. It's been several years since the Welsh Cadfael took up his Benedictine habit and became the herbalist of the Abbey.
But prior to taking orders, he had a most adventurous life. As a young man, he sailed away to the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. After the battle of Jerusalem he became a sailor, only returning to England after forty years had passed.
Along the way he accrued extensive knowledge of plants, poisons, and all the ways men die — knowledge that proves most useful as he continually finds himself embroiled in Shrewsbury's mysteries.
The 12th century England the sleuthing monk calls home is struggling through a turbulent time. A civil war rages between King Stephen and his cousin Empress Maude, and the conflict often intrudes on the quiet fields of Shrewsbury. Spies and soldiers loyal to either side find themselves turning to Cadfael, who can't help but sympathize with both parties and sometimes finds himself hard-pressed to remain impartial.
But Cadfael doesn't sleuth alone; he has a number of allies in his search for truth and justice. Hugh Beringar, the sheriff's deputy, on first introduction seems suspicious but he quickly becomes the monk's staunchest friend and supporter, a pseudo son always willing to share a cup of “medicinal” wine while examining the evidence.
Brother Oswin, an awkward and klutzy novice, is taken under the worldly, wiser herbalist's wing and proves vital in several mysteries. Madog of the Dead Boat, a fellow Welshman, makes his living by dragging the drowned (and murdered) from the Wyle River. Father Abbot Radulfus is of indispensable help, supporting Cadfael's “extracurricular” work outside of the abbey walls and speaking up for him when the naysayers are loudest.
Because not even a humble man of the cloth lives without enemies. Throughout the series, he of course gains several during his investigations, while there are pettier, more annoying stumbling blocks within the abbey itself. Chiefly in the forms of Prior Robert (a noble, stuck-up sourpuss with great personal ambitions) and the Prior's lackey, Brother Jerome (a weasel in a monk's robe; this asinine little idiot delights in thwarting Cadfael and tattling about his rule-breaking to his superiors).
One of the series' greatest strengths is how Peters manages to balance the religious with the secular. Cadfael is, of course, very devout in his beliefs. But while he can be philosophical, he never comes across as preachy or holier-than-thou.
His wide experience out in the world prior to his cloistered retirement means he has a full perspective of the scope of humanity. He never condemns people for actions his fellow brothers may look askance at, so long as the actions were done with proper sentiment.
Take, for instance, one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite stories, The Sanctuary Sparrow. Cadfael is talking with a young minstrel who has sought sanctuary for crimes he did not commit; when the man confesses that he had sex with a maid behind one of the altars, the good Brother barely bats an eyelid.
“Do you love this girl?” he asks, and when the minstrel says yes, he adds, “When mutual love is involved, I can think of no holier place to hold it.” For a twelfth century monk, he's got a refreshingly modern, earthy mindset about free love.
In fact, he's quite the matchmaker. While the primary plot of every Cadfael story is the mystery, the murders and thefts and political unrest, there's always a B plot involving some thwarted young lovers who need the monk's help to achieve their happily ever after. It's a lovely dose of light sweetness amidst the death and depravity.
Ellis Peters (the penname used by Edith Pargeter) was, before anything else, a historian. Her greatest interest lay in this period of English history, which has been largely overlooked by other writers and dramatists. In recent years Ken Follett touched upon it with his Pillars of the Earth, but it still hasn't gotten quite the attention that the Tudor dynasty and the War of the Roses enjoys.
More Sleuthing Clergy:
This means the series' setting is mostly unfamiliar territory for audiences — I know Cadfael was my first real exposure to this period. Peters' extensive research comes to play with descriptions that are so vivid the reader feels as if they're actually there. She never spared any of the grittier details of medieval life, yet her prose is downright poetic.
For several years now, I've always done a Cadfael re-read once autumn weather sets in. It's the sort of warm comfort series that feels best with a sweater to snuggle in and a cup of hot tea at hand. And since the novels are almost all under two hundred pages, it's easy to breeze through all twenty in a couple of weeks.
In the mid-90s, ITV did a fine series of adaptations starring Sir Derek Jacobi, who received the approval of Peters herself prior to her death. In thirteen episodes they went through three Hugh Beringars, though my fave remains the first, the roguish Sean Pertwee, and the guest star list is impressive: Toby Jones, Jonny Lee Miller, Anna Friel, Stephen Moyer, Tara Fitzgerald, Julian Glover, and Hugh Bonneville among others.
The idea of a medieval monk-cum-detective may be pure fiction, but a lot of Cadfael still rings true today. These are stories rife with musings on human nature, the motivations for crime, and all the ways church and state can intersect and differ. With its brilliant characters, dynamic prose, and singular hero, it's definitely a series that deserves more recognition.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.