October 16, 2002

A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters

Deb English mentioned Ellis Peters a few days ago, and it got me thinking. I read one Brother Cadfael mystery quite a few years ago; I don't recall disliking it, and yet I'd never bothered to read any more about the Welsh monk. The series is perenially in print, and I decided it was time to investigate. Suiting deed to thought, I picked up a couple of Cadfael titles; this one (the earliest) and one written many years later.

For those who are unfamiliar with Brother Cadfael, he's a Benedictine monk; he resides at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, England. Born in Wales, he had an adventurous youth before settling down as a monk. He was a crusader on the First Crusade, and was with Godfrey of Bouillon when Antioch was taken. After the Crusade, he became a sea captain, and roved over all the Mediterranean world. Finally desiring a little rest he joined the Benedictines and settled down to grow herbs.

The present book concerns the efforts of the ambitious Prior Robert to acquire a saint's relics for the Abbey. Relics (that is, bones) were a big deal then; one gathers that there was something of an (I apologize in advance) arms race among the various cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries to see who could get the best relics. Prior Robert has set his sights on the bones of St. Winifred, a little-know Welsh saint. As a native speaker of Welsh, Cadfael goes along on the trip to get them.

There's so much here that Peters gets right. Cadfael and the other monks, and the people they meet, are all believers, as they would have been. Some are more susceptible to superstition than others (many believe that a corpse will bleed if the murderer touches it); others are quite willing to invent signs, wonders, and visions to advance their cause. But in Cadfael, Peters makes it clear that she understands the distinction between the reality of God and the mockery we all-too-often make of Him in our scheming. It's a fine line to walk, treating the Christian faith with respect while recognizing the frailty of individual Christians, but Peters makes it look easy.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 16, 2002 04:40 PM