Finding myself abroad last week, but having fallen and badly sprained my ankle so forced into inactivity, I picked up a copy of the Brother Cadfael Omnibus volume two which my host owned. I chose this because I have the Cadfael stories in their individual volumes at home so if I didn’t finish a book then I could do so on my return. Omnibus volume two consists of books four to six of the series i.e. Saint Peters Fair, The Leper of Saint Giles and The Virgin in the Ice and I finished the first two and got most of the way through The Virgin in the Ice which I have now completed. I have read all twenty one of the books in the series several times so knew I was in for a fun time even though I could remember most of the plots.
For those people unfamiliar with the stories Brother Cadfael (the name is Welsh and pronounced Kad-vile) is a monk at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Shropshire and the books are almost all set from 1137 to 1145 during the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin Empress Maud for control of the English crown. The one exception is A Rare Benedictine which is actually a collection of three short stories exploring Cadfael’s life before the first book going back as far as 1120 when he was a crusader. This book is also not included in the standard numbering of the series, it should be number sixteen but is skipped in the sequence by most publishers and when the omnibus editions were put together it was assigned the final place in volume seven further emphasising that it is not really part of the story arc. Apart from that the books follow on from each other so this is one series where it really does pay to read them in order. The character is a herbalist within the monastery and is seen by his superiors as a useful link to the secular powers such as the sheriff and especially his deputy Hugh Beringer due to the long time he spent in the world before withdrawing to the monastic life. His knowledge of herbs and remedies is also very useful both within the abbey and to the town and the surrounding area and this leads him to be involved in poisonings and murders as the basis of a lot of the plots.
I would be very surprised if the Estonian medieval detective tales of Apothecary Melchior tales by Indrek Hargla were not heavily influenced by the Cadfael stories as although they are set a couple of hundred years later the two characters are very similar in skills and ways of approaching crime.
Ellis Peters was one of the pseudonyms used by Edith Pargeter for her in excess of seventy five books along with dozens of short stories written between 1936 and her death in 1995. She lived almost her entire life within 5 miles of where I now reside being born in the small village of Horsehay and dying just 3½ miles from there in the town of Madeley at the age of eighty two, so she was very much a local celebrity round here. There is even a window dedicated to her memory in Shrewsbury abbey (about fifteen miles from here) and the Cadfael trails around Shrewsbury are still a popular tourist draw to the town. As well as a novelist she was a historian and translator and it is her historical interests that adds so much character to the books. Numerous real people are mentioned including the two abbots and the prior of the abbey who were indeed there when she says they were
The covers I have included are from my own copies, there are numerous sets of covers that you can get the books in, I particularly like this version although it is mildly annoying as you cannot get all the books in exactly the same format as the publishers (Futura) decided to change it to include the book number on the cover near the end of the series which messed up the design. However the ‘parchment’ background with decorated lettering I think is very satisfying for books set in a medieval monastery. The books have fallen out of popularity since Pargeter’s death and the TV series which ran in the late 1990’s but they are well worth a read and you will also learn quite a but about ‘The Anarchy’, a period of English history that also doesn’t seem to be known about in modern times.