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Medieval mysteries

Brother Cadfael is a Welsh monk, and detective. In the 12th century. Roshen Dalal explores the popularity he enjoys today.

books Updated: Mar 06, 2004 10:17 IST

It's the twelfth century, and in England there is civil war, with the Empress Maud and King Stephen contending for the throne, and various groups allying behind them. In the midst of all this, the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter and St. Paul in the countryside of Shrewsbury, remains a tranquil oasis. Here the monks lead their peaceful lives, praying and performing various tasks, delicately painting and copying manuscripts, studying, or planting herbs in the garden.

Yet it is not as peaceful as it seems, and once in a way the monastery is disturbed by a murder, either in the premises or somewhere nearby.Then Brother Cadfael who is in charge of the herb garden, leaves his herbs for a while, and somehow solves the mystery.

Ellis Peters has written twenty books in this series, with Brother Cadfael, the sensitive and astute Welshmonk, as the detective.The historical background is authentic, and we learn about twelfth century England, the endless wars, the prevailing dogmas, the relationship with Wales and other neighbours. Each book has not only a murder, but a love story, with two young people who go through many problems before they are finally united in happiness. Fast paced and interesting, the books nevertheless retain a lyrical, peaceful quality, as no matter what happens, the monks pray and give thanks, for the blessings of another day.

Brother Cadfael has spent many years in the world before he joins the monastery at a late age, and this gives him tolerance,a philosophical view of life, and an understanding of human nature, that few other monks have. The Cadfael Chronicles, as the series is called, begins with A Morbid Taste for Bones. In this Cadfael is asked to go to Wales, and bring back the body of Saint Winifred interred there, so that the Abbey may have its own saint.

How he does this, while leaving her there at the same time, and in the process discovering a murder, forms the plot of this book. In the second volume, One Corpse Too Many, the war impinges more directly on the monastery . "If he lifted his head from digging compost into the cabbage bed he could see the sluggish plumes of smoke hanging over the abbey roofs and the town and castle beyond, and smell the acrid residue of yesterday's fires." Soon Cadfael is asked to bury a number of corpses, and finds one extra.

Fast paced and interesting, the books nevertheless retain a lyrical, peaceful quality, as no matter what happens, the monks pray and give thanks, for the blessings of another day.

Each book has a similarly intriguing story. In the twentieth volume Brother Cadfael's Penance, he leaves the monastery to help his own son. In addition to these, there are three long stories in which Cadfael is the main character. The books have been translated into many languages, and form a television series shown all over the world.



Ellis Peters' real name was Edith Pargeter. She wrote a number of other books, including mysteries set in modern times and historical novels, and won several awards. In addition she translated English classics into Czech. She died in 1995, and though there will be no more Cadfael Chronicles, Shrewsbury Abbey in Shropshire is famous because of her work. Visitors and fans from all over the world, still come there to see the remains of the Abbey, the home of the fictional Cadfael, and once one of the richest monasteries of England.

First Published: Mar 06, 2004 10:17 IST