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Brother Cadfael is the fictional main character in a series of historical murder mysteries written by Edith Pargeter under the name "Ellis Peters". Cadfael himself is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbeymarker during the 12th century. In all, twenty books were published between 1977 and 1994 featuring Cadfael. Many of them were subsequently adapted into both radio episodes and a television series starring Derek Jacobi.

Historical background

The stories are set between about 1135 and about 1145, during the civil war between King Stephen and The Empress Maud. Several true historical events are described or referred to in the books. For example, the translation of Saint Winifred to Shrewsbury Abbey is fictionalised in the first chronicle, A Morbid Taste for Bones, and One Corpse Too Many is inspired by the siege of Shrewsbury Castle by Stephen in 1138.

Numerous real historical people are portrayed in the series. They include:

Life and times of Cadfael

A Welsh monk in an English monastery

Cadfael is a Benedictine monk and herbalist at Shrewsbury Abbeymarker in Shrewsburymarker, the county town of the Englishmarker county of Shropshiremarker. Cadfael himself is a Welsh-speaking Welshman. When he needs a "full name" he uses patronymics in the Welsh fashion, calling himself Cadfael ap (son of) Meilyr ap Dafydd.

Born in May 1080 into a villein community in Trefriwmarker, in Gwyneddmarker, northern Walesmarker, he had at least one sibling, a younger brother. Rather than wait to inherit the right to till a section of land, he left his home at the age of fourteen as servant to a wool-trader, and thus became acquainted with Shrewsbury early in life.

In 1096, he went on the First Crusade in the force commanded by Robert II, Duke of Normandy. After the victorious end to the Crusade, he lived for several years in Syriamarker and the Holy Land, earning a living as a sailor. He returned to England around 1114 to find that Richildis Vaughan, to whom he had been unofficially engaged, had tired of waiting and had married a Shrewsbury craftsman. He then took part in the war waged by Henry I of England to secure Normandy.

He returned again to England in the company of a nobleman, Roger Mauduit, who kidnapped Prior Heribert of Shrewsbury Abbey to foil a lawsuit. Cadfael betrayed Mauduit, though not the King's justice, by freeing Heribert. Released from Mauduit's service, he laid aside his arms and returned with Heribert to Shrewsbury Abbey.

Familiarity with the secular world

Cadfael became a monk only in middle age. As a result, he is more familiar with the secular world than most of his brother monks. In addition, his personality more reflects modern attitudes and progressive ethics than his own time which often puts him in conflict with his brethren, particularly Prior Robert and Brother Jerome, on matters of justice and conscience. Among other things, Brother Cadfael disobeys his superiors (in Monk's Hood and Brother Cadfael's Penance), excuses a young couple for impulsively making love in a chapel (in The Sanctuary Sparrow) and condones euthanasia for a dying man in extreme agony (in the TV version of The Rose Rent).

Arguably, however, this very background makes him a more worthy foil and friend for the Deputy Sheriff (later Sheriff) Hugh Beringar of Maesburymarker than would have been a cloistered brother. Beringar, introduced in the second novel, One Corpse Too Many (1979), is Cadfael's main ally in the pursuit of justice. A local man who was originally a partisan of Matilda, Beringar ultimately swore loyalty to King Stephen of England. The character is first seen as an agent of King Stephen, then as Deputy Sheriff, and finally as the Sheriff of Salopmarker. At times, Beringar must choose between loyalty to the Crown's justice and Cadfael's private view of the injustices of the world.

Beringar — and Heribert and Radulfus, Cadfael's abbots — recognise his slightly unusual skills, and use him as detective, medical examiner, diplomatic envoy (to the Welsh princes), and counsel. The abbey's second-in-command Prior Robert Pennant and his clerk Brother Jerome tend to look down upon Cadfael for his casual attitude toward rules and for the privileges that are allowed him by the Abbot. But the Abbots (first Heribert and then Radulfus) value Cadfael's unique contributions to the Abbey both inside and without the abbey walls, and frequently assign Cadfael to missions in which a typical cloistered monk's naiveté about human nature and the world outside would be serious impediments. When a delegation of monks must travel a great distance or conduct a matter of sensitive diplomacy, Cadfael is usually made part of the group for precisely that reason.

Abbot Radulfus — himself a shrewd and worldly man — allows Cadfael a certain degree of independence and appreciates that there are circumstances under which the rules of the Order must be bent in order to serve a greater and more practical good. Though indulgent to a certain degree, his patience with Cadfael is not limitless; he reprimands Cadfael when he feels that his lack of monastic discipline and obedience have been excessive and unwarranted, faults for which Cadfael is sincerely remorseful.

Cadfael and Love

Cadfael's pre-monastic life has given him much more familiarity with the female sex than many of his brother monks, as well as more respect for them than many of his male contemporaries, inside or outside the abbey. His former fiancée Richildis, now a widow, briefly re-appears in his life in Monk's Hood.

In his travels, Cadfael had affairs with at least three women: a Venetian girl named Bianca, a Greek boat girl named Ariana, and a young Syrian widow, named Mariam. After he takes his vows and becomes a Benedictine Brother, he develops a strong (but strictly platonic, as befits his vows) affection for at least two young women: Sioned, the daughter of a Welsh lord, who helps Cadfael solve the murder of her father in A Morbid Taste for Bones and Godith Adeney in One Corpse Too Many (who has been disguised as a boy, a disguise Cadfael sees through almost immediately, and who is assigned to Cadfael as his apprentice) whom he helps escape Shrewsburymarker with a load of gold and jewels. He also enjoys a purely platonic relationship with the equally worldly Benedictine nun, Sister Magdalen (formerly Avice of Thornbury) of the nunnery at Godric's Ford, whom he first met in The Leper of St. Giles; she appears again in Dead Man's Ransom and The Rose Rent.

Cadfael is friendly with most of his fellow brothers, but there are certain Benedictine brothers that he has close friendships with: Brother Mark (Monk's Hood, The Leper of St. Giles and The Summer of the Danes), Prior Leonard of Bromfield Abbey (The Virgin in the Ice) and the accident-prone Brother Oswin, who becomes his assistant shortly before the events of The Leper of St. Giles. Brother Oswin, in particular, is regarded by Cadfael as a "son" -- he cares for him deeply and reveres his innocence. He is also close friends with Brother Paul, the master of the novices and schoolboys; Brother Edmund the infirmarer, who treats the sick and supervises the Abbey infirmary; and Brother Anselm the precentor, who is in charge of music and the order of the worship services. Above all, he has a special relationship with Saint Winifred, following his unique part in the expedition to fetch her bones chronicled in A Morbid Taste For Bones. He frequently talks to her in Welsh, their shared native language, invariably thinks of her as "The Girl," and (though he would reject the suggestion as sacrilegious) seems to be more than a bit in love with her.

A distinctive feature of the series is a pair of star-crossed lovers in nearly every book, who invariably get the full sympathy of Brother Cadfael (and the reader). Typically, Cadfael bends his full energy and ingenuity to the double task of solving the mystery and bringing the lovers to a happy union. In this latter, he seems the literary descendant of Shakespeare's Friar Lawrence who made great (though ultimately futile) efforts to help Romeo and Juliet. Cadfael is far more successful, with virtually all pairs of lovers in the series getting off to happy consummations, except when one of them turns out to be the wanted murderer. In one case, indeed, the lovers get their happy ending with Cadfael's help, even though one of them is the murderer.

Lovers in the Cadfael books face a whole series of obstacles, which sometimes seem insurmountable (in one book, it seems they are relatives too close to marry) but are invariably overcome. However, the problem is almost never a significant difference in social status between the two. In this series, aristocratic boys usually fall in love with aristocratic girls, artisans fall for the daughters of artisans, and a lowly wandering juggler is charmed beyond measure by a lowly kitchen maid. In St. Peter's Fair, a tradesman's daughter settles for another tradesman's son after her aristocratic first choice turns out to be a cad, calling her a "shopkeeper's girl of no account." In most cases, it seems that Pargeter's characters deliberately curtail their romantic aspirations where class conflict would undermine them. There are some exceptions to this class consciousness; in The Pilgrim of Hate an aristocratic youth marries the daughter of a tradesman, and in The Hermit of Eyton Forest a prosperous woodman's daughter marries a runaway villein.

Olivier, Cadfael's son

One interesting twist which Pargeter develops over the course of the novels is that Cadfael proves to have fathered a son by his alliance with Mariam, who lived in Antiochmarker. Cadfael meets his son only on a few, nevertheless cherished, occasions, quickly realising the truth behind the young man's origins.

Cadfael's son, Olivier de Bretagne, never knew his father, but his mother always described him in glowing terms, and it was based on this praise he decided to embrace his father's heritage and Christianity rather than his mother's Islamic faith. After Mariam died, he offered his service to a crusading noble, and quickly became his favourite squire. (Virgin in the Ice) In the civil war, his master supported the Empress Maud. Sadly, this placed him on the opposite side of Cadfael's friend, Hugh Beringar, though there was never open conflict, and the two men have met and expressed the highest respect for each other, as prescribed by the Code of Chivalry which emphasized respect for an honourable foe.

Olivier is presented as the ideal knight and paladin – skilled and brave in battle, endlessly resourceful and resilient no matter what his predicament, generous and chivalrous, even to a fault – in one novel, he risks his life to save an enemy who had been keeping him imprisoned in a dungeon. Not by chance is he named for the companion of Roland, hero of the greatest of the Medieval heroic epics. Pargeter's ability to depict such a paragon and still make him a believable, three-dimensional character can count as a significant literary success.

Olivier comes closer than any other character in the series to fulfilling the ideals of the French-Norman culture – perhaps precisely because it is not his native culture, but one which he chose deliberately after growing up.

The Aristocracy

A passage in The Confession of Brother Haluin introduces a nobleman whom the reader (and Cadfael) had not met before:
"Here he came, Audemar de Clary, on a tall chestnut horse, a big man in dark, plain, workmanlike riding clothes, without ornament, and needing none to mark him as having authority here. (...) Not a man to be crossed lightly, but no one feared him. They approached him cheerfully and spoke with him boldly. His anger, when justified, might be withering, even perilous – but it would be just."

This is fairly typical of most members of the aristocracy depicted in the series, who are described as fair-minded and just to their underlings, within the context of the hierarchal feudal social system and ideology.

The books do present some manifestly unjust, tyrannical and or outrightly cruel members of the aristocracy, though they are definitely in the minority. Faced with such, peasants can and do resort to the "safety-valve" built within the feudal system itself – i.e., escaping from their lord to a chartered borough where after a stay of one year and one day they become free. On several occasions, Cadfael facilitates and helps such escapes.

Also, cruel and unjust landowners may end up as the victims of the murder which Cadfael needs to solve – in which case the reader is curious to know the solution of the mystery, but is not particularly eager to see the perpetrator punished.

The Civil War

The civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud is a constant background to the series. Despite the lack of newspapers and other mass news media, the inhabitants of Shrewsbury - a major centre of commerce, constantly getting visitors from all over the country - are kept well informed of the latest developments.

In One Corpse Too Many, the second book in the series, Shrewsbury itself is a battlefield, and the wholesale execution of the defeated garrison by order of King Stephen forms the gruesome background to the book's murder mystery.

Further on, however, Shrewsbury is an island of calm in the raging storm. Refugees as well as spies and conspirators constantly come in, considerably impacting life in the town and setting up the plot for many of the books. Characters occasionally set out to the battlefields, either to take direct part in the fighting or (as in the case of Cadfael himself) to offer some needed aid or rescue. Stories of woe and disaster come in from other locations, such as Worcestermarker (The Virgin in the Ice) or Winchestermarker (An Excellent Mystery). Moreover, Shrewsbury is in close proximity to the border of Wales, which has its own troubles and wars - distinct from, though often interconnected with, those of England.

For all that, for most of the series the war happens elsewhere. Hugh Beringar, though in effect assuming the functions of a military governor and civil administrator as well as head of the police, always finds the time and energy to personally work with Cadfael on solving a new mystery. Though living in a war-torn country, Cadfael is often seen sitting contented in his garden and reflecting on the harmonic turn of the year's seasons. ("September was again September, mellowed and fruitful after the summer heat and drought. After every extreme the seasons righted themselves, and won back the half at least of what was lost" is how An Excellent Mystery concludes.)

In general, the war is seen as mainly the concern of the aristocracy. Some of its members take up a staunch and unwavering loyalty to one side or the other, and opposing partisans treat each other with utmost respect, as prescribed by the code of chivalry. Other aristocrats are utterly opportunistic and seek only to make use of the situation for personal profit and advancement - and are regarded with contempt by the more principled characters (and seemingly by the writer as well).

The lower classes, burghers and peasants, in general have little interest in who would win the war (anyway, in the feudal system they have no share in political power) as long as the death and destruction end, either by one of the contenders winning or by their reaching some kind of compromise (the latter is what the Church is shown as trying to achieve, with little success).

The burghers of Shrewsbury are concerned to repair the damage caused to their city during fighting in which they had little interest (the question who would pay for it is an undercurrent in Saint Peter's Fair). Thereafter, the traders and artisans of the city are well-content to live under the reasonably efficient and honest administration offered on behalf of King Stephen by Prestcote and later by Beringar. Clearly, however, they would have been equally content to live under the Empress Maud, provided only that her local representatives offer them the same possibility of developing undisturbed their trade and commerce.

The series ends with the Civil War still raging and an effort to bring about a peaceful resolution ending in nought. But for the writer's death, the format of the series - chronologically consecutive, with several books per year - might have left room for several dozen additional volumes before the end of the war was reached.

Crusades in the background

The Crusades form an important part of the backdrop to the books. There are Cadfael's own memories of his crusading life, which occur in virtually every one of the books, and the circumstances of Olivier's early life. In addition, most of Cadfael's knowledge of herbs and medicine was learned in the East, from more sophisticated sources than he would have found in England. (In the TV version of Virgin in the Ice, when Cadfael is treating a gravely wounded brother, the best remedy another brother can suggest is bleeding, which Cadfael scorns).

Also, several of the books feature returning crusaders who have central roles in the plot, while in others there are characters who depart England on the way eastwards. All of these crusading characters are depicted as sterling, model knights, brave and chivalrous, and the crusading enterprise itself is invariably regarded by all characters as a most noble and worthy cause.

There is occasional mention of acts of cruelty committed in the course of the Crusades. In conversation with a fellow crusader, Cadfael remarks, "After the killing that was done in Jerusalem, of so many who held by the Prophet, I say they deserved better luck against us than they had." In adding that his companion was never accused of brutality, he implicitly passes judgment on the Crusades as a whole (The Leper of Saint Giles). While on various occasions Cadfael makes remarks showing him not pleased with such brutalities, the references are rarely specific. Cadfael (as all other characters) never casts any doubt on the morality of carving out a Christian kingdom in the Muslim East and maintaining it by force; indeed, it would have been anachronistic to have him express such doubts.

However, his experience of the Crusades didn't lead to bigotry. Cadfael remembers Mariam, a Muslim woman as "well worth the loving," and had many other profitable friendships with Arabs and Muslims. His companion from The Leper of Saint Giles, who spent many years as a captive of the Fatimid Egyptians, agrees, saying he always found his hosts "chivalrous and courteous," who gave him medical help and supported him in his convalescence.

Cadfael’s faith

Cadfael was not always a monk, but he was always an unquestioning Christian. His faith, as natural and unobtrusive as breathing, forms the unspoken background of all the stories. His understanding of Christianity is simple, tolerant and forgiving – never stern or preachy. Sometimes Shrewsbury is visited by a rigid, Inquisition-style orthodoxy (The Heretic’s Apprentice) or a harshly punitive version of Christianity (The Raven in the Foregate), but positive, tolerant faith always wins out in the end.

Getting along with everybody

Cadfael is remarkably capable of getting along well with all kinds of people. He is at home with everybody: with Normans as well as Saxons (a distinction very central to England at the time) and Welsh, with freemen and villeins, with rich and poor burghers, with members of the low and high aristocracy, even with King Stephen and the Prince of Gwyneddmarker.

One may surmise this started already in his earlier days – as a crusader living with a Muslim woman and as a sailor on a ship touching on numerous Mediterranean ports with their varying cultures and ethnicities. His ability to fit everywhere might be at least partly due to the fact he does not completely belong anywhere – being originally from Wales, a society which, as depicted in several of the books, is to a great degree more tribal than feudal. It may also be due to his determination to live according to the vows he has taken as a brother in a monastery, and to emulate the life of the Christian messiah. In Monk's Hood, when a villein addresses him as "Master," Cadfael promptly corrects him: "No man's master, every man's brother, if you will."

He is completely non-political, refusing to take sides in the civil war between the Empress Maud and King Stephen for control of England. His abjuration of politics may have been influenced by his holy vows as a monastic brother, and renunciation of the secular world. Here, too, he is on good terms with people on both sides of the conflict – his best friend Hugh is a staunch supporter of King Stephen, his beloved son Olivier just as much committed to the Empress Maud. Even when he goes to the front line itself, in the last book of the series, and enters a besieged castle (initially as an uninvited interloper) he quickly manages to gain the respect and confidence of combatants on both sides.

Cadfael has good contacts with the other Welsh living in Shrewsbury, such as the boatman Madog who has an important role in several books. He likes to speak his mother tongue, and is positively exuberant when getting an opportunity to go back into Wales. He is clearly of the opinion (which he discreetly keeps to himself) that many Welsh ways of doing things are better than the Anglo-Norman ones: for example, letting all of a man's acknowledged children – whether born in or out of wedlock – share in the inheritance, or recognizing degrees of crime, even homicide, which allows leniency to killers under certain circumstances, rather than the inflexibly mandatory capital punishment of Norman Law, administered reluctantly by Hugh Beringar and rigidly by his superior, Sheriff Gilbert Prestcote.

For all that, Cadfael had voluntarily chosen to join an English monastery rather than a Welsh one, and make his home in England – although in the part of England nearest to Wales. It would seem that traveling the world so much has made him a bit too cosmopolitan to completely fit in his own homeland, either. As a Welshman in England, and in concord with his vows, he remains in the world, yet not of it.

Name origin and pronunciation

There is popular disagreement on how to pronounce Cadfael. As a Welsh name — a rare alternative for Saint CadocEllis Peters intended the "f" to be pronounced as an English "v", and suggests it be pronounced "CAD-vel". Normal Welsh pronunciation would be (close to "CAD-vile"), however. Nevertheless, the name is commonly pronounced "CAD-file" in English, and Peters once remarked that she should have included a guide for this and other names in the series that have uncommon pronunciations.


BBC Radio 4 adaptations

Starring Glyn Houston as Cadfael
1 – A Morbid Taste for Bones
2 – One Corpse Too Many with Geoffrey Whitehead as "Adam Courcelles"

Produced by Bert Coules and starring Philip Madoc as Cadfael and Timothy Bateson.
3 – Monk's Hood, with Sir Michael Hordern as "The Narrator" and Geoffrey Whitehead as "Prior Robert"
6 – The Virgin in the Ice (1993) with Sir Michael Hordern as "The Narrator" and Douglas Hodge as "Hugh Beringar"
9 – Dead Man's Ransom (1995) with Michael Kitchen as "The Narrator"

Television dramas

Produced in Britain by Central for ITV, 75 minutes per episode. Filmed on location in Hungarymarker and starring Sir Derek Jacobi. All thirteen episodes have been released on DVD.

Series I (1994):
  • One Corpse Too Many (Episode 101 – Book 2)
  • The Sanctuary Sparrow (Episode 102 – Book 7)
  • The Leper of Saint Giles (Episode 103 – Book 5)
  • Monk's Hood (Episode 104 – Book 3)

(Acorn Media released audio versions of the above episodes with dialogue and music taken from the actual audio tracks and with linking narration)

Series II (1995-1996):
  • The Virgin in the Ice (Episode 201 – Book 6)
  • The Devil's Novice (Episode 202 – Book 8)
  • Saint Peter's Fair (Episode 203 – Book 4)

Series III (1997):
  • The Rose Rent (Episode 301 – Book 13)
  • The Raven in the Foregate (Episode 302 – Book 12)
  • A Morbid Taste for Bones (Episode 303 – Book 1)

Series IV (1998):
  • The Holy Thief (Episode 401 – Book 19)
  • The Potter's Field (Episode 402 – Book 17)
  • The Pilgrim of Hate (Episode 403 – Book 10)

Differences between books and films

Thirteen of the books were adapted for a series of television movies starring Sir Derek Jacobi although the sequence of the television episodes differs from the sequence of the novels. Within the individual screenplays, with one major exception, most are reasonably faithful to the books, being modified primarily to minimise the size of the speaking cast, the running time of the script, or the need for extravagant special effects. Only in the books, Cadfael speaks Welsh and translates for several non-English-speaking Welshmen.

The character of Hugh Beringar is markedly different in the movies. He and Aline Siward are both introduced in One Corpse Too Many, and she does not appear again in the movies. In the books, Hugh marries Aline and they have a son, Giles, named for Aline's dead brother. In Saint Peter's Fair, Aline helps Hugh and Cadfael guard a witness, and even when she does not appear in the books, Hugh speaks of her constantly and fondly. Another major difference in Hugh's treatment in the movies is his relationship with Cadfael. In the movies, Hugh is the sheriff who sometimes helps, sometimes hinders Cadfael, but does not appear to be on close terms with him. In the books, despite the more than thirty years difference in their ages, Hugh and Cadfael are best friends. Cadfael is the godfather of Hugh's son, and also confides in Hugh that Olivier de Bretagne is his son from a woman Cadfael knew in the Holy Land.

One episode, The Pilgrim of Hate, bears almost no resemblance to the eponymous book save the presence of a few characters sharing the names (but not the actions) of the characters in the book. Furthermore, in The Holy Thief, one of the characters is turned into a villain, whereas in the novel, he is not. In A Morbid Taste For Bones the climax sequence is altered, giving Cadfael more of a speaking role. In the episode Monk's Hood, Hugh has a somewhat larger role than in the book, following Cadfael to the court and suffering a stab wound when he walks in unexpectedly on Cadfael's accusation of the true criminal.


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