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The world of Brother Cadfael.

FOR READERS OUTSIDE the realm of mystery fiction the name Ellis Peters is generally unknown. For mystery-genre aficionados, though, this author of the Brother Cadfael Chronicles is reputed to be the literary find of the last thirty years. Some people argue that P. D. James might rival her for that designation, and yet even those present-day Jacobites admit that Ellis Peters in most ways is the equal of their preferred writer.

The tapestry of the twenty books in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles is a medieval one, drawn by Ellis Peters from the twelfth-century England that she had studied and mastered thoroughly. That historical mastery and her literary artistry were two of the reasons among several that Birmingham University bestowed on her an honorary Master of Arts degree and that Queen Elizabeth II presented to her the Order of the British Empire.

Ellis Peters is the pen name of Edith Pargeter, and under her own name she wrote scores of books, some of which are The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, The Eighth Champion of Christendom, A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, and Reluctant Odyssey. Again as Ellis Peters she wrote the thirteen Detective Felse novels that combined with the Cadfael Chronicles merited her the British Crime Writers Association's Cartier Diamond Dagger Award and the highly coveted Mystery Writers of America's Edgar. She also received the Gold Medal and Ribbon from the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations for her translations of English classics into Czech. She was a prolific and formidable writer who died at the age of 82 in 1995. (1)

As impressive and meritorious as the complete Ellis Peters/ Edith Pargeter literary legacy is, it is the Cadfaelien novels that most arrest our attention, a tapestry formed from the warp of power politics some eight hundred years past but as modern as yesterday and the woof of emotions, temperaments, and ambitions of characters as human as members of one's own family. The overriding political situation throughout the chronicles is the English Civil War, a war between cousins for the succession to the throne. While Henry I of England was still king, his barons swore fealty to Empress Maud, Henry's daughter, as successor to the throne. When Henry died in 1135, however, Count Stephen, Maud's cousin whom Henry had reared and knighted, seized the throne and had himself crowned as king, even though as late as 1131 and again in 1133 he too had sworn fealty to Maud. Maud's partisans believed that she as Henry's only living child should be queen and that it was right to stand by her faithfully. They were particularly angered that the barons who had sworn fealty to Maud took Stephen's seizure of the throne meekly and forgot their oaths. On the opposing side, there were many lords, as Cadfael himself summarizes, "'who would say, better a man for overlord than a woman. And if a man, why, Stephen was as near as any to the throne. He is King William's [William the Conqueror's] grandchild, just as Maud is.'" (2) This statement is Cadfael's summarizing only, not a statement of agreement.

In addition to the outright seizure of the throne, Stephen, once king, affronted, attacked, and greatly offended the Church in the persons of certain of its bishops. Even Stephen's younger brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester and papal legate who had been Stephen's staunch adherent, began to feel sympathy for the empress Maud once she had actually arrived in England and based herself in the city of Gloucester. She had been innocently residing in Normandy. Furthermore, when in power, Stephen, although amiable in some ways, showed himself to be lethargic, having to be stung into action. Consequently, half the barons finally recollected their oaths, declared themselves for Maud, and entered her cause with bloodshed. It became a mad age with two monarchs in the field, a dozen petty "kings" taking advantage of the turmoil to try to establish their own private realms, and even people like Bishop Henry hovering among at least three loyalties. In the year 1141, for example, Bishop Henry, because of shifting fortunes of the two contenders to the throne and the pope's insistence, twice had to reverse the Church's endorsement in public statements. England thus torn in two, with a hampered divided law of the land, emboldened lawless, restless, masterless renegades to feast on the country's inviting, open wounds, as Peters's The Virgin in the Ice so hauntingly illustrates. Historically, then, this was an age rife with murders and crime that fictionally tested the detective skills of Brother Cadfael and his secular cohort, the upright Hugh Beringar, undersheriff when they first met but sheriff by the King's full appointment after the murder of former sheriff Gilbert Prescote.

Within this macrocosm of England lies the microcosm of the Benedictine Brothers' Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul at Shrewsbury. This monastic enclave is composed of the great church, an adjacent cloister, a separate and distinct abbot's lodging, a guest hall, an infirmary, various barns, stores, and stables, a cart shed, a mill, and Cadfael's freestanding workshop at the edge of his enclosed herb garden amidst extensive "pease" fields. Also within the enclave's limits are orchards, timberlands, and the large open expanses called The Gaye--the abbey's main vegetable gardens--and The Horse Fair. This last area is the site of the annual St. Peter ad Vincula, a solemn and profitable festival, although it is not without a distinct carnivalesque character. It begins on July 31 and runs for three days. Ellis Peters's fourth chronicle, St. Peter's Fair, details The Horse Fair with its layout and uses as it becomes the setting for seemingly mercenary murders that are in truth partisan killings in the King Stephen/Empress Maud conflict. In like fashion, the other enclave components figure at various times and with differing degrees of import in the plots of the twenty mystery novels.

A point of great significance at this juncture in our discussion and throughout the Cadfael Chronicles is the independent status of the abbey and the unrivaled role of the abbot. He is an aristocrat and the equal of a baron, but within the bounds of the enclave he is absolute master. He can stretch his hand over anyone on the premises, including the impertinent, the miscreant, the lawfully accused, and he or she will be protected even against kings. Such prestige and power make the position of abbot a coveted one for an ambitious man, and covetous ambitious men do exist in the abbey. Repeatedly we are reminded that the brothers are still men, men who at times raise angry voices and speak contentious words; men who though fallible fail at times to keep that fact in mind. Some brothers thoroughly dislike other brothers: old Brother Rhys in A Morbid Taste for Bones has never liked the fawning, sycophantic Brother Jerome, clerk to Prior Robert. In truth, on most occasions Brother Jerome's much noise and small effect hardly challenge notice among the other truly dedicated brothers. Brother John in the same novel scorns--albeit with a touch of envy--Prior Robert for his machinations, his overly dramatic staged conversational responses, and his show of studying for sainthood while keeping a weather eye on the secular prospects around him, all for his own glory. Brother John is not amiss in his view, for Prior Robert--of fine, frosty face, tall, patrician presence, silver hair and brows--contrives to look every inch the mitred patriarch that he yearns to be and with unbounded hubris unquestioningly assumes that he will be when Abbot Heribert is called by the legatine council at King Stephen's behest to give account of his stewardship at the abbey. Even though Abbot Heribert has left Prior Robert in charge during his absence, the pervading sense among the brothers is that Prior Robert has usurped the abbacy. As King Stephen has seized the nation's throne, Prior Robert has thought to seize the abbey's rule. When Heribert returns, he is indeed brother, not abbot, for the council has named Father Radulfus to the position. When Brother Heribert introduces Father Radulfus, he admonishes,
 Receive your new abbot and reverence him, as I ... have
 already learned to do....

 There was a profound hush, and then a great stir and sigh
 and smile that ran like a quiet wave all through the assembly
 in the great court. Brother Mark clutched Cadfael's arm
 and buried what might otherwise have been a howl of delight
 in his shoulder. Brother Jerome visibly collapsed, like
 a pricked bladder, and turned the identical wrinkled mudcolour.
 Somewhere at the rear there was a definite crow,
 like a game cock celebrating a kill, though it was instantly
 suppressed, and no one could trace its origin. It may well
 have been Brother Petrus, preparing to rush back into his
 kitchen and whip all his pots and pans into devoted service
 for the newcomer who had disjointed Prior Robert's nose in
 the moment of its most superb elevation. (3)

Here the vanity of ambition, the prideful counting of one's chickens, the slightly malicious pleasure taken in someone else's downfall, and even Brother Heribert's manner of presentation of the new abbot, calculated as a small revenge against Prior Robert, italicize that these men are brothers, yes, but saints, no.

As one could rightly anticipate, Brother Cadfael is the most compelling individual in the widely diverse cast of characters Ellis Peters has assembled. When we first meet him in A Morbid Taste for Bones, he is a man fifty-seven years of age who has been a monk for seventeen of those years. Prior to entering the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, he had a wide ranging career as an adventurer, soldier, and seaman. Notably, he was with Godfrey de Bouillon at Antioch when the Saracens surrendered it, Godfrey being the historical figure who was particularly distinguished among the Crusaders for his piety and simplicity and whose deeds were glorified in the Chanson de Geste. (4) Cadfael took to the seas as captain when the King of Jerusalem ruled all the coast of the Holy Land, serving valiantly against the corsairs for ten years. Brother Cadfael, with his characteristic straightforwardness says that he learned from his experiences in the Crusades that the heathen were frequently kinder than the Christians. As a soldier he obeyed orders that often forced him to do things he "would be glad now to think [he] had not done. That's one reason [he] accepted in the end another discipline." (5) In these early years he was turbulent, insubordinate, and incorrigibly rash, qualities that even after he selected a life of quietude surface sufficiently to make him "prickle to the sting of battle." Furthermore, even as he recalls the look, the stench, the desolation of gutted towns that he had experienced as a soldier, he has to admit that at least a tinge of "the old enthusiasm" still burns forth at the scent of action. These occasions arise when Hugh Beringar, with the Abbot's blessing, enlists Cadfael's assistance in certain phases of murder cases that are inextricably connected to the civil war.

As the youthful brothers contemplate Cadfael with curiosity because he had come late in life to his vocation, they also speculate about the women he must have encountered in his premonastic years. At different times throughout the chronicles Cadfael recalls the women he had known between east and west, none of whom, he believes, had ever felt wronged when he departed. Some he remembers by name: Arianna, Bianca, and Miriam, but in the third chronicle he accidentally meets Rachel Vaughn, who some forty years prior had been his affianced, a fact that none but the two of them knew. At seventeen years of age, "he had taken the Cross and sailed for the Holy Land, and for all his vows to return to claim her, with his honours thick upon him, he had forgotten everything in the fever and glamour and peril of a life divided impartially between soldier and sailor, and delayed his coming far too long; and she, for all her pledges to wait for him, had tired at last and succumbed to her parents' urgings and married a more stable character, and small blame to her." (6) For one brief moment when he meets Rachel again and admires her young son, he questions what it might have been like for him to have had such a son. Then several years later, again by accident or force of fate, he discovers that he does indeed have a son from those venturesome years, and in the final chronicle of the series, Brother Cadfael temporarily exiles himself from the order to aid that son, imprisoned and certain to die if he is not freed.

Because the sequence of novels proceeds steadily in a progressive tension, those works do not allow Ellis Peters to explain how and why Cadfael accepted the tonsure. But knowing that her readers want to know that how and why, she answers in a short story titled "A Light on the Road to Woodstock." In her "Introduction" to A Rare Benedictine, the volume that contains the story in question as well as two others, she says:
 So here he is, not a convert, for this is not a conversion. In
 an age of relatively uncomplicated faith, not yet obsessed and
 tormented by cantankerous schism, sects and politicians,
 Cadfael has always been an unquestioning believer. What
 happens to him on the road to Woodstock is simply the acceptance
 of a revelation from within that the life he has lived
 to date, active, mobile and often violent, has reached its
 natural end, and he is confronted by a new need and a different
 challenge. (7)

In the short story, Alard, who had been a monk of Evesham but left when he could no longer endure living his life in one place, is returning to the monastery. As Cadfael observes his eagerness to return, he muses, "There must indeed be something desirable and lovely to cause a man to look towards it with that look on his face." (8) Alard has helped Cadfael's "revelation from within." Then, because Cadfael's service to Roger Mauduit is concluded by agreement, because a child moves Cadfael to unbuckle his sword in a parish church and lay it on the lowest step under the altar, where it looks strangely appropriate and at peace, and because Prior Heribert whom Cadfael had fortuitously assisted is returning to the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, Cadfael asks to be taken along--and is.

In the novels themselves the question of why people enter orders is frequently raised, but it surfaces in terms of others, not Cadfael. In Confession of Brother Haluin, Helisende's mother was widowed and, as the custom was, she began to be "talked about and bargained about" and pressured to marry again. For her, entering the convent was "one way to escape." Brother Elyas in The Virqin in the Ice entered the cloister after his wife died to escape the loneliness, but that which was hard to bear alone was no easier among many brothers. Here and elsewhere, we see that those choosing the cowl for escape rarely find peace. Brother Paul in The Devil's Novice provides another cause for receiving the tonsure. "'With lands to keep together, and one or two stout sons already, it's a [father's] way of disposing profitably of the third.'" (9) That third son might be either a babe in arms or an adult, but the difference when the son is grown is that he enters with his own full consent. "'The cloister can be a promising career, too. But the babes in arms no, that way is too easily abused.'" (10) In the course of several narratives we learn that the person entering as a child often loses family love and warmth and never really recovers from the separation. Further distress arises from severing the children from the "very sight and sound of women, half the creation stolen out of their world." So, halfway through the chronicles, Abbot Radulfus, recognizing that "we wrong women and we wrong these boys, to send them unprepared into maturity, whole men, defenseless against the first pricking of the flesh," (11) rules that the abbey will take no more oblates--babes or children--only those of "manhood's years." The ideal situation, though, as is the case with Brother Mark in Monk's Hood, even though first he came unwillingly to the abbey, is when "vocations strike from heaven like the random arrows of God." (12) This was so for Cadfael, and for him taking orders was in no way second best.

As a brother, Cadfael shows himself to be an ordinary, decent, fallible man who chose the cowl with both eyes open. He repeatedly confesses himself "a great sinner" but constantly demonstrates that for him the cowl is both fitting and becoming. He wants for nothing that is needful and hankers for nothing beyond his needs. As fitting as the habit is, however, Cadfael's wearing it in no way suggests that he accepts unquestioningly every doctrine, practice, or position of the Order and the Church. He repeatedly petitions St. Winifred, patron saint of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, and believes in the efficacy of those petitions. And yet, even as he reverences her he questions the practice of acquiring relics, the "wanting to fondle" a saint's bones. He is instrumental in the Shrewsbury abbey's acquiring the reliquary of St. Winifred, but it is he who almost single-handedly accomplished the hoax of Brother Columbanus's translation out of his body up to heaven and St. Winifred's reburial in her Welsh grave. He tolerantly recognizes the great rivalry among abbeys for relics like St. Eadburga's finger bone in The Virgin in the Ice but in The Holy Thief questions what kinds of bones certain professed relics really are. He is dubious about stones from Calvary and the Mount of Olives, "a drop of the Virgin's milk, a shred of her robe, a little flask of sweat of St. John the Baptist, a tress from the red hair of Saint Mary Magdalene." (13) Furthermore, Cadfael generally honors the Church Fathers but not every one of them all the time. He takes exception, for example, to some of St. Augustine's writings, for Cadfael was "never going to surrender his private reservations about any reputed saint who could describe humankind as a mass of corruption and sin proceeding inevitably towards death, or one who could look upon the world, for all its imperfections, and find it irredeemably evil." (14) No, Augustine had a certain unbending rigidity, Cadfael thought, that offers little if any compassion to anyone with whom he disagrees. That is not Cadfael.

Earlier we noted that the cloister could provide a promising career, and that is certainly so for Brother Cadfael, who for more than fifty years had developed no skills apart from those he needed for crusading and adventuring. Once retired from those pursuits, he discovers an innate devotion to life and growth and finds his career among the gardens and the herbarium of St. Peter and St. Paul. The herbarium with its workshop is Cadfael's pride, for growing herbs, drying them, making remedies for all the ills that visit humankind, and physicing those within the abbey as well as a great number of souls without is an atoning career. "'To heal men,'" he says, "'after years of injuring them? What could be more fitting?'" (15)

Brother Cadfael, whose native tongue is Welsh, is literate in English and learned Latin with great effort in his maturity. He did master Latin, to be sure, but it remained a foreign tongue never to be read easily. Nonetheless, he studies Aelfric's list of herbs and trees from England of the previous century and a half. No doubt Cadfael learned his Latin from Aelfric's grammar, glossary, and colloquy that were long the standard texts for Latin study in the English monasteries. However that may be, Cadfael's diligent and ongoing study of the list of herbs and trees helps make him the medicinal expert whom even practitioners in other houses consult. Furthermore, the care with which Cadfael grows and cures herbs makes him the source of several kitchens' required flavorings. Even further, Cadfael's inquisitive nature leads him to experiment with various combinations of aromatic flowers and herbs to create perfumes. These efforts would at best have been frowned on had they been meant for scents for women's vanity, but Cadfael engages in them as an act of worship, providing aromatic oils for the lamp on St. Winifred's altar. Thus, producing these perfumes is not only permissible but also praiseworthy.

The fullness, the authenticity, and the artistry with which Ellis Peters creates the manners, mores, customs, characters, and monastic practice of twelfth-century England are so superb that one might well read the Cadfael Chronicles for those dimensions alone and be more than satisfied. But all of that is in truth the context for intriguing mysteries--intricately plotted, ingenious puzzles. The central incidents range in part from the Welsh opposition to relocating St. Winifred's remains to the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, through the attempted theft of St. Winifred's bones; the disappearance of a fleeing brother and sister and their accompanying nun; the hanging of the ninety-four defenders of Shrewsbury Castle in the raging civil war; the disappearance of a disliked, rigid, letter-of-the-law, inhumane parish priest; the scheduled May-December wedding contracted by greedy guardians; and finally to Brother Cadfael's leaving the abbey temporarily to rescue his son.

Whatever the scenario, however, the major crime is murder, or murders. Both Brother Cadfael and Sheriff Hugh Beringar use every skill at their command to discover the murderer and his or her motive for taking another person's life, and the brother, the sheriff, and at times even some princes purpose to have justice done. "Justice," however, does not have an agreed upon meaning, largely because murder is differently viewed. In Dead Man's Ransom, for instance, Hugh Beringar sees Eliud's murder of Gilbert Prestcote as just that--pure and simple. As a man of law he declares that Eliud will have his trial and he, Hugh, will do what he has to do. Brother Cadfael, on the other hand, argues that he as a Welshman recognizes degrees, distinguishes between homicide and murder, and holds that "'even the worst may sometimes be compounded for a lesser price than hanging.'" (16) Repeatedly different and varied voices assert that death avenged by a second death amends nothing. Consequently, the murderer's flight to regions beyond the legal jurisdiction of Sheriff Beringar is the most prevalent conclusion to killings. Even in the discussion of St. Augustine's writings mentioned earlier, Eliud notes that Augustine went through many changes of mind over the years and then asks, "'Cadfael, did you ever think what a waste it would be if you burned a man for what he believed at twenty, when what he might believe and write at forty would be hailed as the most blessed of holy writ?'" (17) Cadfael answers, "'That is the kind of argument to which most of men never listen ... otherwise they would balk at taking any life.'" Ellis Peters balks so that not once in the twenty chronicles is it even considered that a murder should be avenged by lawfully taking the murderer's life. Strong opposition to capital punishment is a major article of the gospel according to Ellis Peters. Incidentally, that gospel is also filled with many pithy axioms, a few of which are, "Where there's no sense there's no feeling"; "There is no need to despise the gifts of the world when they come honestly"; "Where mutual love is ... it [is] hard to consider any place too holy to house it" (a response to two young people having made love in the church); "If you ask for nothing you deserve nothing"; "What is done matters, but what is yet to do matters more"; and "Truth should never be feared as harm."

Throughout the Peters corpus we are dazzled by insistent virtuosity: history made live and immediate; characters as vivid as oil paintings but infused with the realities of hopes, fears, hatreds, tears, ambitions, disappointments, abilities, and disabilities; landscapes, manners, and customs that enchant and involve. But halfway through the collection in The Pilgrim of Hate--novel ten of the twenty--Ellis Peters steps away from the this-worldly for a few paragraphs to give us the opportunity to be in the presence of the divine. The day is the festival of St. Winifred, the reenactment of the arrival of her reliquary in Shrewsbury four years earlier. As the throngs reach the great abbey church, the clamor of the festival fades to the great silence of worship. Every inch of space in the nave is filled with humanity, but all are as still as "the candle flames on the altar. Even the reflected gleams in the silver chacings of the casket [are] fixed and motionless as jewels.'" (18) As the sobering solemnity of the Mass proceeds, it is impossible for those present "to withdraw their eyes for an instant from the act of worship on which it [is] centered or the mind from the words of the office." (19) Individuals are unaware of a single face in that multitude, only aware of the presence of humankind that absorbs one's own identity. When the Mass ends, those with petitions to make go forth on their knees to touch and kiss the reliquary, and at the end of the long line of petitioners comes Rhun, on crutches because of a badly withered leg and twisted foot. Upon reaching the three steps to the altar where St. Winifred's casket lies, he drops his crutches and moves forward, "as a child learning to walk ventures across perilous distances to reach its mother's open arms and coaxing, praising blandishments that wooed it to the deed." (20) When he arrived at the altar his leg smoothed into shapeliness and his foot straightened. Throughout his hesitant ascent, every soul in the abbey church holds his or her breath, stirs not a finger, and utters not a sound. We as readers respond in like fashion, for as Tim O'Brien, winner of the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato, has said somewhere: "With good writing the most profound response is finally holy silence."

In these few pages in question there is no disputation about the Church Fathers, no hint of the abbey's suspect orthodoxy, no cynicism, no imposition of human pride, will, or ambition. The pages present the grace and mercy of the Faith and the simple unassumingness of a lad's private faith. The Faith and faith, the centrality of Brother Cadfael's life, are placed in the chronicles centrally and explicitly only this one time. For anyone personally attuned to the blessings of belief, the response of holy silence to these pages might possibly be more than a response to good writing.

At the close, Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael novels, which can be said to have everything, captivate the mind and ensnare the heart. They are indeed the works of a virtuoso but also the achievement of a poet.


(1.) Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 4 (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981) and Ellis Peters, The Summer of the Danes (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1992), end paper.

(2.) Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1994), 5.

(3.) Ellis Peters, Monk's Hood (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1992), 203.

(4.) Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1994), 2.

(5.) Peters, One Corpse Too Many, 45.

(6.) Peters, Monk's Hood, 32.

(7.) Ellis Peters, A Rare Benedictine (London: Headline Book Publishing PLC, 1990), 7.

(8.) Ibid., 29.

(9.) Ellis Peters, The Devil's Novice (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1997), 8.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Peters, Monk's Hood, 64-65.

(12.) Ellis Peters, The Rose Rent (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1997), 27.

(13.) Ellis Peters, The Holy Thief (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1994), 23.

(14.) Ellis Peters, The Heretic's Apprentice (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1991), 17.

(15.) Ellis Peters, The Devil's Novice, 32.

(16.) Ellis Peters, Dead Man's Ransom (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1997), 257.

(17.) Peters, The Heretic's Apprentice, 209.

(18.) Ellis Peters, The Pilgrim of Hate (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1997),145.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Ibid., 147.
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Author:Howard, H. Wendell
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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