Book Recommendations: The Brother Cadfael Chronicles

Since Pleiades expressed interest in what I've been reading, I decided to post about it for the interest of all. This may also become a regular part of my 50 Books Challenge, a review/recommendation for certain books or series.

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles is a series written by British author Edith Pargeter under the pen name Ellis Peters. It was publish from 1977 to 1994, completed just before Peters' death in 1995.

A combination of whodunnit and medival historical, the series is set from 1135 to 1145, a time of civil war in England known as "The Anarchy" when King Stephen and his cousin Empress Maud clashed over the throne. Events are mostly set in the real life town of Shrewsbury in the west of England, near the border with Wales.

The series centers around the character of Brother Cadfael, a Welshman who spent much of his life in the world as a soldier, fighting in the First Crusade in the Holy Land. But once in middle age and called to a more noble calling, he laid down his arms and joined the monks in Shrewsbury Abbey.

A knowledgeable and talented herbalist, skills learned in his time spent abroad, he holds an important place in both the Abbey and the town as the go-to man to treat the sick and wounded. His forty years spent living in the world have also given him a great understanding about human nature, and because of this he can almost be considered a CSI of his time, studying evidence and ferreting out clues when murder is visited upon someone. He also has close tie to the law, being a friend of Shrewsbury's sheriff, Hugh Beringar.

Of course, Cadfael's innate sense of compassionate justice and his rebellious nature often put him in conflict, both with the feudal laws of his time as well as the more orthodox brothers in the abbey who look down upon him for his occasional disregard for their rules, even if it serves a higher purpose.

The books present an accurate and detailed view of medieval life, from the lordly to the low of society, as well as the destruction of war. Although there is more than a healthy dose of romance to the series as well; Cadfael almost always ends up assisting some star-crossed couple caught up in events, and often these couples come to fall madly in love with each other in a very short time, love at first sight, something I don't have much experience with, so I can only assume that this element is a little embellished in the style of courtly romances of the time.

The dichotomy of the secular versus the religious also has its part to play, at times. This was a time when belief in God was pretty universal, and church and state were one and the same. Even if you professed belief in God, you could still face excommunication or even death if you were bold enough to question any doctrine, such as the character of Elave in The Heretic's Apprentice, who questions certain articles of faith at the time, such purgatory for children who die unbaptized, original sin, or the idea that only a select few are predestined for heaven.

The prose of the books also reflect the time of their setting. The way they talked back in the 12 century is in some ways quite different to our modern times, almost more lyrical and descriptive. While it lends to the authenticity, it can also be a hindrance for some. When I first attempted to read these books in my teens, the thick language and slower, more deliberate pace put me off, though now I find myself enjoying them much more.

So if you like classic murder mysteries or medieval fantasy or history, you could do yourself a favor checking out this series. Other authors have since followed in Peters' footsteps with their own medieval mysteries - Peter Tremayne, Maragaret Frazer, Michael Jecks, among others - but to my mind, Peters, while maybe not the first, is certainly among the best and inspired others.

A Morbid Taste for Bones
One Corpse Too Many
Monk's Hood
St. Peter's Fair
The Leper of St. Giles
The Virgin in the Ice
The Sanctuary Sparrow
The Devil's Novice
Dead Man's Ransom
The Pilgrim of Hate
An Excellent Mystery
The Raven in the Foregate
The Rose Rent
The Hermit of Eyton Forest
The Confession of Brother Haluin
The Heretic's Apprentice
The Potter's Field
The Summer of the Danes
The Holy Thief
Brother Cadfael's Penance
A Rare Benedictine