A Morbid Taste for Bones (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #1)

Read:  2017

Author:  Ellis Peters

Published:  1977

Genre:  Historical Fiction, Mystery

Pages:  272 (paperback)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle Tea’s Score:  Scoring Great Book

“A Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey in western England, Brother Cadfael spends much of his time tending the herbs and vegetables in the garden – but now there’s a more pressing matter.  Cadfael is to serve as translator for a group of monks heading to the town of Gwytherin in Wales.  The team’s goal is to collect the holy remains of Saint Winifred, which Prior Robert hopes will boost the abbey’s reputation, as well as his own.  But when the monks arrive in Gwytherin, the town is divided over the request.

“When the leading opponent to disturbing the grave is found shot dead with a mysterious arrow, some believe Saint Winifred herself delivered the deadly blow.  Brother Cadfael knows an earthly hand did the deed, but his plan to root out a murderer may dig up more than he can handle.”  – from the Amazon summary.

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Elle Tea’s Review

Most people turn to comfort food in the winter.  It’s a thing, everyone knows it’s a thing… But I don’t go so much for comfort food as I do turn to comfort books when the weather (finally) turns cold.  And if that’s not a thing, it should be.

It was the difference between them that Robert thought in hierarchies, and Rhisiart thought in blood-ties, high and low of one mind and in one kinship, and not a man among them aware of inferiority, only of his due place in a united family.

Jane Austen, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings are usually my go-to comfort reads, but the Cadfael stories also fall quite firmly into that category.  I’ve read this series a lot over the past couple of decades.  I mean… a lot.  They were originally published from 1977 – 1994, and I found them entirely by accident in the late ’90s; I’ve since bought the omnibus versions, as well as all of the Kindle versions, because one never knows when one might need to bust into some portable Cadfael action.  The entire series spans twenty-one novels – thirteen of which were also dramatized into an excellent ITV Central production with Derek Jacobi in the title role.  I’m clearly in a Cadfael kind of mood this winter, and as I progress through the novels over the next few weeks or so, I’ll post my reviews of each one here (though I may  not finish the series; I’ve read them all a few times already, and I’m just in the mood to re-read these right now… but once that’s sated, I may move to another series).

“In the Holy Land I’ve known Saracens I’d trust before the common run of the crusaders, men honourable, generous and courteous, who would have scorned to haggle and jostle for place and trade as some of our allies did.  Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit or robe or rags.  Some better made than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern all.”

Clearly there’s murder… but the stories themselves, while propelled forward by the clever period whodunit plots, revolve more around the lives of the people.  Each tale typically begins rather slowly, with Cadfael going about some normal chore or daily routine, lost in his own little peaceful garden world, only to be dragged into the chaos due to his experience and knowledge.  The series is historically accurate and contains a wealth of knowledge about the Middle Ages, including the spread of herbal medicinal knowledge from the Middle East (where it had become a healing science) to the West (where bleeding was still in use), life in England during the Anarchy, and the Crusades.  Real locations are used, and many big-name players from the period appear, such as the feuding cousins around whom the Anarchy unfolded, King Stephen and Empress Maud, as well as the ruthlessly ambitious Geoffrey de Mandeville, Robert de Beaumont who would later attempt to hold back the unstoppable force that would become the Angevin dynasty, and, of course, Empress Maud’s father and King Stephen’s uncle – Henry I of England.

Robert he endured, disliked, and in a fashion admired.  At Brother John’s age he would have detested him, but Cadfael was old, experienced, and grown tolerant.

The main character, Brother Cadfael, is an odd sort of hero for a variety of reasons.  He’s in his late 50s by the time we meet him, having opted for the monastic life about 20 years or so before the series begins.  He is a member of a small, unassuming abbey called the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul (a photograph of the abbey today is featured on this post), itself located in a small, unassuming town in western England.  He’s Welsh through and through, and much of his involvement in the mysteries that unfold around him begin simply as him serving as a translator for the Englishmen by whom he is surrounded.  He is not particularly attractive, often described as short and stocky, sometimes even “squat,” with a rolling gait, but he is undeniably honorable and caring.  With each novel, you learn more about his past, such as that he was once a sea captain, and before that he was a soldier in the Crusades; while he voices his disagreement with the cruelties committed in the name of those Crusades, he remains – as any Welshman of the times and former Crusader would – steadfast in his belief that the formation of a Christian kingdom in a Muslim Middle East is a worthy and honorable cause.  He was impetuous and a bit of a renegade, and in his youth he was selfish enough to leave a woman he loved hanging onto a promise of marriage while he went off to war and frolic with the exotic women of the Mediterranean and Middle East.  But he holds his former enemies in high regard and readily acknowledges that the best medicinal practices he knows, the ones that make him stand out from his superstitious contemporaries, are those he learned from Muslim healers during his time in the Crusades.

The series always has some sort of love story, typically either of the unrequited or star-crossed variety, but the matches are always proper for the times.  During the Middle Ages, one’s social status dictated pretty much everything, from where one lived to who one was expected to marry, and so it does in Brother Cadfael’s world: in A Morbid Taste for Bones, a village landowner formally accepts and marries her lover only when his social status as a foreigner improves enough to allow her to do so, while later novels show the poor remaining with the poor and the wealthy remaining with the wealthy (with the exception of the third novel of the series, which shows that the upward rise in social status of one character was too complicated a move for them to handle with grace).

Official justice does not dig deep, but regards what comes readily to the surface, and draws conclusions accordingly.

This particular selection is a bit slower than the rest, in my opinion, and my second-favorite character of the series doesn’t appear until the next book – a fact which also brings it down a bit for me.  But the story itself is entertaining and moves at a steady enough pace to allow readers to get an understanding of the dynamic within the abbey as well as Cadfael’s relationships with his peers, his logical and steady personality, and his rational, realistic approach to even the most fantastic of notions.  You also get a firm foundation of the two worlds in which Cadfael lives – a medieval abbey where saints and miracles are accepted without question, and a land in the midst of a civil war that will rewrite English history and lead to the rise of one of the most well-known English royal dynasties: the Angevins (Henry II, Richard I, and John), aka the Plantagenets (another name for the dynasty, which includes the three aforementioned kings as well as Henry II’s father, Geoffrey of Anjou, and stretches across a total of over three-hundred years on the English throne).

“It’s a kind of arrogance to be so certain you’re past redemption.”

I’d recommend this book – and this series – to anyone who loves the time period or is a fan of historical mysteries (I think this series actually started the whole “historical mystery” genre, but don’t quote me on that).  As a series headed by a medieval monk, it is impossible to avoid the subject of religion, specifically the Catholic faith, but I myself am not religious in the least and could still appreciate the rational approach Cadfael brings to the topic, as well as his worldly, open-minded opinions of acceptance, redemption, and love.

The books don’t have to be read in order – the television series has them out of order, in fact – but I would recommend that you read the novels before watching the TV show (if you’re planning to do so, at any rate).  Besides the fact that only about 60% of Cadfael’s story was translated to the small screen, there are also a few plot changes – a couple of huge ones, actually – and time constraints and ease of viewing forced some character shifts and such (for example, the fact that Cadfael is Welsh is downplayed quite a bit in the TV series, and I don’t recall him ever serving as a translator in the show, which he did quite frequently in the novels).

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this novel.

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