It is no secret I consume mysteries like potato chips (or crisps if you’d rather). This found me working in and frequenting used book stores to keep the cost of the habit within reasonable limits.The habit also taught me to always look for good writers who can maintain a long series. I also especially like stories which help me travel in space and time. One such series I found long ago was that by by Ellis Peters featuring Brother Cadfael as the main character. They are among my favorite mysteries, the kind I can re-read again and again. Even though by now I know who done it, the characters are like old friends and history and herbalism are two of my loves. Ellis Peters was the pseudonym of Edith Pargeter, a linguist and scholar who wrote twenty novels in the series known as the Cadfael Chronicles. Cadfael is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, in Shrewsbury, western England, in the first half of the 12th century. The stories are very historically accurate and are set during “The Anarchy” a civil war for the throne of England between roughly 1135 and about 1145. The antagonists were King Steven, nephew of King Henry I and Maud, Henry’s daughter. Many of the plots in the novels are built around events of this conflict.
There are many things that attract me to the series beside the excellent writing. I can’t stand a “see through” plot where the villain is spotted by page ten and that is not the case in these stories. In addition, with a degree in history I really appreciate how the history of the period forms the foundation of many of those good plots, woven in so as to make the story more authentic and interesting.
It was only many years after I found the series and had made a breakthrough in the family geneaology that I could re-read them knowing I was actually related to several of the characters who appeared in the series: both Stephen, 26th great uncle, and Maude, first cousin 27 times removed; Henry I of England 37 great uncle; Robert, Earl of Gloucester, another first cousin and his son Philip; Geoffrey de Mandeville is a distant cousin and Robert of Leicester a relative by marriage. While they are not relatives (that I can find) all the abbots mentioned in the novels were real people as well.
Cadfael, while a creation of the author, has a history which is quite believable. He had been on the crusades and lived years in the Holy Land, where he learned the art of herbal medicine. He entered the cloister in his forties and his years of living out in the world gives him a wider and more pragmatic perspective than many of the brothers who have been in the cloister since early childhood. As a result the abbots call upon him as a medical examiner, detective, doctor, and diplomat, giving us a more personal view of the period beyond the sweep of the larger political history.
Like gold threads running through a fabric I follow the herbal lore through the stories as Cadfael treats illness and injuries of villagers, pilgrims and visiting dignitaries. I grow and use herbs myself and this is an extra treat in the stories, Many of the herbs and methods of preparation I use are no different than Cadfael’s and they still work.
One inescapable impact on the stories is Cadfael’s status as a Benedictine monk. His day is founded on the principles of the Rule of St Benedict that the day should have an equal share of physical work and exercise, mental stimulation and prayer and introspection. Since monastics were supposed to limit their contact with the secular world and focus on prayer and contemplation, the rule decreed the inmates should provide for themselves the necessities of life. This is why Cadfael has his herbarium and gardens within the walls and nurses the sick and wounded himself. Work in fields and orchards and tending livestock were also part of this, as performing manual labor was part of the rule.
The long and busy days were punctuated by sessions of communal prayer, to which Cadfael often arrived late, unlike the real life monks. The day is sectioned by the hours of prayer, known as the offices. While Cadfael certainly has plenty of adventure and excitement in his life, his normal daily routine revolves around gardening, medicine making, contemplation and prayer. It seems to me a rather soothing and balanced sort of life. I think it beats many of the frantic schedules modern people have. Although in many ways it was very Spartan, Cadfael didn’t treat many stress illnesses. All daily tasks, work, study, and meals needed to be fitted in around the designated prayer times. After all, the monks were supposed to be devoted to God, although both these stories and histories have shown them to be subject to ungodly thoughts and behavior on occasion.
The first call to prayer came with the first minute of the day. The night office or Matins in most monasteries began at midnight, although in some places the time varied according to the seasons of the year, from that hour till half-past two or three o’clock. Then came Lauds. In earlier days Lauds was called Matutinae Laudes, “the morning praises”, because they were supposed to be celebrated at dawn of day, but the names and times of the so called night offices changes over time. There was a short interval between Matins and Lauds, so it began somewhere about one o’clock in the morning. It would have been some time about half-past one or two in the morning before the monks found themselves once more in bed for their second sleep period.
At around six or seven o’clock, depending on the time of year, they returned to the church for Prime, a shorter office, to start the day. At the end of the work day, usually just before sunset the bell rang for Vespers. At seven o’clock in the winter, and eight in the summer, the tolling of the bell called the community to Compline. Before haft-past seven, then in winter, and an hour later than this is summer, all would have been in bed. The day was divided into twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night and there were extra offices marking some of these daytime hours. The “little hours ” were Terce at nine in the morning, Sext at noon and Nones at three in the afternoon.
With all these breaks for prayer, it would seem quite amazing everything that was required to run a substantial community in an age without mechanization ever got done. All the food raised and harvested and processed, running an infirmary and a medicinal garden and copying of books were done by the monks. I find it a reminder that there are too many distractions in modern life that divert our focus from what really matters. But I’m also glad that the fictional Brother Cadfael managed to get involved in so many un-monk-like distractions for my reading enjoyment. And, no, reading is not a distraction, it is food for the soul and very necessary.