Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Cadfael

After a gap of many years, I've started to read all the Cadfael books again. I bought them all in the mid to late 1990s. This followed the TV series starring David Jacobi as Cadfael, but I hadn't seen very much of that. I simply picked up the second Cadfael book written by the author Edith Pargeter (writing as Ellis Peters), began reading, and became hooked. Watching the TV version mostly came after the books, not the other way round.

Cadfael is a Benedictine monk, who takes his vows late in life, in his mid-fifties, after a varied and wordly - but not wicked - life at home and abroad, chiefly as a seaman and soldier. His background is very different from most of the brethren at Shrewsbury Abbey, as are his personal skills - among them medicinal knowledge, which enables him to move amphibiously between cloister and town without constantly asking leave. But of course he must attend the fixed-time prayers at the Abbey just as any member of his Order. He doesn't mind; it was the very regularity of the Benedictine life that drew him in, that and coming to rest in one spot, after a life spent roving.

The date is around 1140. The Norman hold on England is complete and vice-like, and feudalism is rigidly enforced. But Wales is still free and proud, not yet the object of conquest; Cadfael is Welsh and knows the language and the people; he's welcome there. Shrewsbury is a border town looking west to Wales as much as east to the rest of England. The English political atmosphere is tense, with some loyal to Stephen, some to Matilda, in a struggle for the throne. The Church is already accumulating land and wealth, but for now remains idealistic and uncorrupted, at least in places distant from London. It is an organisation as yet untroubled by the doctrinal schisms to come; still single-mindedly serving the spiritual and corporeal needs of the local people, high and low.

The Cadfael books are strong on mediaeval history and social conditions - definitely part of their appeal for me. But the main reasons for liking them are the character of Cadfael himself, and the mysteries - mostly killings - he steps in to unravel. He is not at all modelled on Sherlock Holmes or any 'modern' detective; he remains credibly of his time, and completely within the limitations of his time - so he knows which plants are poisonous; what a knife blade or arrow can do to a body; and he has access to local experts; but no modern scientific theory or knowledge. And behind it all, and very much in his mind, is a belief in the will of God and the agency of God in ordinary affairs.

That total belief in an omniscient deity - absolutely required for a credible mediaeval monk of course - is not so stressed that it puts me off. Cadfael knows that people of flesh and blood normally commit crimes, not a supernatural being. But that being might nevertheless be nudging events or be showing some sign; and he seems to assume common-sense, goodwill, and a forgiving understanding of the all-too-fallible human heart in the actions of the God he has made his vows to, and trusts. Which, broadly, is the type of reasonable entity that, if I believed, I would also place my trust in. So the pervading religious background to these books doesn't jar on me.

You can infer - correctly - that a stiff, unbending, rule-minded, easily-annoyed, angry, vengeful heavenly authority wouldn't command my allegiance, even if I were looking to give it. Nor, come to that, an arbitrary spiteful deity subject to mood swings, petulance and double-dealing, whose favour might be won or lost in an instant - as typified by the Greek or Norse gods.

Back to the books. I've finished the first, A Morbid Taste For Bones, and the mid-series prequel, A Rare Benedictine (which recounts how Cadfael gave up adventuring to become a monk), and I'm about to start One Corpse Too Many. If I stay with him, it'll be months before I get to the end of the series. I wonder if I'll have the perseverance?

4 comments:

  1. I am just back from my holiday which took in some French sites from around that time. Best of all was Guedelon in Burgundy where a group of 70 are building a NEW castle based on plans from the 1200's, some parts are up to roof height, you would have a field day... At times it was like walking through the Cadfael sets...

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  2. I've seen that cadtle-building project on TV within the last few months - very authentic. The participants must have mentally transferred to the time. I dare say they like the experience too.

    Lucy

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  3. I loved the books and read all of them in my teens as my mum had them all. She still does and I might start the series again! My Latin teacher was also a fan and we would discuss them often.

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  4. I've seen the series (and Derek Jacobi was PERFECTLY cast, in my opinion), but I've not read the books. I am definitely going to have to seek them out and put them near the top of my to-read list.

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