Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Morbid Taste For Bones by Ellis Peters

Source of Book: I own this.

I’ve been meaning to read some Ellis Peters for some time, and finally got around to doing so.

In some ways, this is an interesting contrast to Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, which also involves monks and murder. While Dissolution is set in the days of Henry VIII, and the dismantling of the monasteries in the wake of the English Reformation, this book is set during the heyday of the English monasteries, the 12th Century.

Ellis Peters is the nom de plume of Edith Pargeter, who also wrote under her own name. This book is the first of her most famous works, the Cadfael Chronicles, written between 1977 and 1995, when the author was in her 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Many in the series are based in part on historical events, although obviously the connection is tenuous, given the limited records from that time. In this book, the relocation of the bones of Saint Winifred from a graveyard in Wales to the Shrewsbury Abbey. (You can read the story of Saint Winifred here if you like.

 St. Winifred. 1934 Stained Glass at Saint Non’s Chapel.

I grew up as a Protestant, and my ancestors were Mennonites, so the whole saint thing was not at all part of my upbringing. Thus, I had no idea that Saint Winifred was apparently a significant character, making an appearance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and in a fragmentary poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her shrine in Wales was popular, but the one at Shrewsbury was legendary until its destruction in the Dissolution under Henry VIII. (Weird how stuff connects in my reading sometimes.)

In Peters’ story, the current prior seeks to add to the prestige of the abbey - and to his own glory and ambition - by obtaining a relic for the monastery. Prior Robert appears to be based on a real person, who eventually realizes his ambition to become abbot of Shrewsbury. 

The remaining portion of the original Abbey at Shrewsbury

In order to obtain these bones, a group of monks travels to Gwytherin, Wales, to secure the relics. They are met with some resistance from the locals, who aren’t too keen on letting the English - or Normans in particular - obtain their local saint. Then, the chief objector, a local squire, turns up dead. Brother Cadfael, who is Welsh himself, sets himself to solving the mystery.

Cadfael is an interesting character. He has entered the priesthood late in life. (Well, at around age 40, which was pretty darn late in those days.) He once fought in the Crusades, and has been around the block in more ways than one. He has a knowledge of the medicine - herbology - of the time, and is the monastery’s gardener. It is also strongly implied that he has had quite a number of flings with women, some more serious than others, in his younger and wilder past. Cadfael is also the voice of modernity into a Medieval world. He has a bit of a feminist streak, and a leaning toward a future understanding of social egalitarianism and human rights. Which makes him quite subversive of the established social order. Although Peters does make sure to keep the romances which occur strictly within class lines. This is definitely more realistic in that sense, I suppose, as a true cross-class romance (as opposed to the more usual predatory sexual relationship) would have been rare indeed.

Cadfael also falls into the long tradition of English mysteries, wherein the sleuth relies on a combination of psychological insight and careful attention to the details. One might see an echo of Father Brown (written by G. K. Chesterton) who fell later in time, although he was written nearly a century earlier.

This was an enjoyable mystery, with good plotting, and careful and consistent clues. I intend to read the rest of the series as well.

I should mention one really good line. One of the Welsh characters opined that a priest could not be the murderer because “Holy men do not murder.”

Cadfael responds as follows:

[T]here are as holy persons outside orders as ever there are in, and not to trifle with truth, as good men outside of the Christian church as most I’ve met within it. In the Holy Land I’ve known Saracens I’d trust before the common run of the crusaders, men honorable, generous and courteous, who would have scorned to haggle and jostle for place and trade, as some of our allies did. Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit or robe or rags. Some better than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern all.

I cannot agree more.

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