Brother of invention

A series of historical fiction novels have stood the test of time, Robert Willson writes.

Cutting ... Derek Jacobi in <i>Cadfael</i>.
Cutting ... Derek Jacobi in Cadfael

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Edith Pargeter on September 28, 1913. Who was Edith Pargeter? Fans of the Brother Cadfael books and films for television, will know her better as Ellis Peters, one of Britain's most notable writers of crime fiction, who wrote stories with both modern and medieval settings. Indeed, it has been claimed that she pioneered the writing of detective stories in historical settings.

Such an enterprise requires detailed knowledge of the period and Edith Pargeter has rarely been faulted for her background research. Her stories feature the Welsh Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael, who lived in the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul at Shrewsbury in Shropshire in the decade roughly between 1135 and 1145. Shropshire is on the Welsh border. While Cadfael is fictitious, named after a single reference in the Welsh records, some of the characters in the stories are historically documented. The author's setting is the period of English history known as "The Anarchy", a bloody struggle for the English crown between the Empress Maud and King Stephen, and this protracted civil war provides many openings for fiction writing.

<i>Monk's Hood</i> is a medieval mystery novel by Ellis Peters.
Monk's Hood is a medieval mystery novel by Ellis Peters. 

Brother Cadfael is portrayed as having served in the Crusades in the Holy Land and had become a skilled herbalist. In the age long before modern medical science, this skill made him a very useful member of the Benedictine community and gave him an opportunity to investigate mysterious illnesses and death. Abbots of the monastery naturally turned to him for advice and were prepared to grant him freedom of movement not normally allowed to monks. This sometimes causes tension with other monks.

Cadfael had served as a soldier and as a sailor in the wars and had fathered a son, Olivier de Bretagne, who appears in one of the stories many years after Cadfael entered the cloisters. Cadfael has been summed up as a man of the world turned man of the cloth. He has common sense and worldly wisdom and looks at issues of right and wrong from what we could call "situation ethics", and the pragmatic views of the 21st century. He constantly professes obedience to the Benedictine Rule but cheerfully breaks the letter of it for the Christian good.

The popularity of the novels and the television series, with Derek Jacobi as Cadfael, has led to a steady stream of tourists to Shrewsbury. My wife and I arrived on the train and after walking through the town and seeing the castle we visited a reconstruction of "Brother Cadfael's Herb Garden" and his workshop. Across the way is the beautiful St Peter and St Paul's Abbey, now the Parish Church but once the monastic foundation, much of which was destroyed by Henry VIII. All the 21 Cadfael books are on sale in the Abbey and there is a beautiful memorial window to the author. Edith Pargeter was herself Anglican and had a deep knowledge of the medieval heritage of the Church.

This fact may cause difficulties for some modern readers, especially those not familiar with the old Catholic tradition of the monastic life, the Latin chants, and the veneration of saints and their relics, by the pilgrimages of the faithful. But if our ancestors came from any part of Europe, such a life would once have been part of their natural world. These books will be sure to stir curiosity in that world. I find that sometimes the plots are excessively complex and the issues seem remote, but the beautiful writing style of the author and the remarkable acting of Derek Jacobi, brings that world into sharp focus. The character and attitudes of Cadfael himself reminds me of William of Baskerville, the central character of The Name of the Rose, who also has a very scientific and rational mind in a time of deep superstition.

Edith Pargeter was a quiet and retiring woman who spent most of her life in her native county of Shropshire. She served in the Women's Royal Naval Service in Liverpool during the Second World War. After the war she visited Czechoslovakia, and fell in love with the Czech culture. She managed to teach herself the language using old vinyl records, and went on to publish translations of Czech classics into English. A self-taught scholar and writer, she never went to university. However, Birmingham University gave her an honorary masters degree. Writing became her life-long passion, not only The Cadfael Chronicles, but many other books. Like all good writers, Edith Pargeter reflects her own personality and spiritual outlook in her writings. She died in 1995 at the age of 82. Her final book was Brother Cadfael's Penance.