A Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael
by Ellis Peters
Mysterious Press, 1994
A great way to handle the stress of the end of the semester is with a nice, short, light, comforting book like one of the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters (pseudonym for Edith Pargeter). Relaxing with some light reading is a great way to cleanse the mind without deadening it, such as zoning out in front the TV tends to do. It’s like eating sherbet to cleanse the palette between courses in a gourmet meal. To prepare for my exams in my undergraduate days, I would insert reading Sherlock Holmes short stories between studying and taking the tests.
Brother Cadfael is in many ways like Sherlock Holmes. He uses forensics coupled with a little psychology to solve crimes. But his forensics is based on clear observation of the natural world around him for during his medieval era there was more suspicion than science when dealing with murder. As the herbalist of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael has a vast knowledge of area flora and fauna as well as rare plants and medicinal practices he brought back from the East. As a former soldier in the Crusades who entered the monastery when he was forty, he also has a vast knowledge of human nature and its passions.
The Brother Cadfael stories are set during the civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Maud in the twelfth century. The Normans only relatively recently occupied England in 1066, and there are a lot of interesting cultural observations of the mixing of the Normans, the Saxons and the Welsh. Cadfael himself is Welsh but can also speak in English (and one presumes in French since he has many conversations with the Norman nobility). Peters not only develops the historical ambience of the period, she also re-creates the world of a medieval monastery, and there is much reference to the daily life of the monks including singing the daily Office, offering hospitality to strangers, confessing before the abbot, etc. She also addresses the political relationship between the monastery and the town which mirrors the relationship between the larger church and the secular government.
Despite these historical and cultural details, Brother Cadfael himself has a modern sensibility. Cadfael was a soldier of the Crusades, and he does not regret it, but much emphasis in the stories are on the waste and repetitiveness of war, particularly civil war. Cadfael also takes a mild view of sexual indiscretions, and although he calls those he counsels to a stricter form of living, it is for their psychological and spiritual health that he is concerned rather than their potential destination in the afterlife.
Cadfael also takes a modern, somewhat skeptical, view of the accouterments of Catholic spirituality. In the first book of the series, A Morbid Taste for Bones, Cadfael joins in a pilgrimage to Wales to gather the relics of one Saint Winifred who was martyred there. Cadfael is asked on the journey because he speaks Welsh, which the Norman Prior Robert does not, not because he has any interest in bones of a young girl. Prior Robert wants the relics because having them at Shrewsbury Abbey will turn it into a pilgrimage destination with all the fame and money that would entail. The final major member of the journey is Brother Columbanus, a delicate young monk susceptible to visions and catatonic fits. The members of the Welsh village do not want to give up their beloved Saint Winifred, but these English monks cannot understand their reluctance. Soon the leading figure of the opposition to monks winds up dead. Brother Cadfael eventually brings peace to all concerned, and Saint Winifred becomes his life long patroness even though he cares not at all where her physical bones may actually lie. To Cadfael, she is always with him, and he returns in prayer for her help many times throughout the series.
Although the twenty one Cadfael books are developed chronologically, there is no need to read them in any particular order. Any necessary details from previous stories are seamlessly reintroduced when needed. Cadfael paperbacks are short, small, easy to carry and available almost anywhere such as area public libraries and used bookstores.
The entry on Cadfael in Wikipedia lists the publication dates as well as the dates of action of the books.
This site developed by devoted fan Steve C. gives a good deal of background to the books.