The first Cadfael omnibus
(Ellis Peters, 1980)

I've rather belatedly started reading these historical crime stories written by the late Ellis Peters, whose hero is Brother Cadfael of Shrewsbury Abbey in the early 12th century, in the contested reign of King Stephen.

This volume contains the first three novels: A morbid taste for bones, One corpse too many, and Monk's-hood.

Cadfael is noted to be 57 years old at the beginning of the first novel, and became a monk after an adventurous youth fighting in the crusades and captaining a ship; this background distinguishing him from his less adventurous fellow monks.

His business is to maintain the abbey's herb garden and doctor the sick, but his hobby is to take an interest in any crimes committed in the vicinity.

These are good, entertaining stories with plausible descriptions and engaging characters of both sexes. I particularly liked the second one, although it contains more corpses than the others.

However, in at least a couple of respects I think the author is rose-tinting the picture for us.

The stories begin about 50 years after the Norman Conquest, a time one would be expect to be rather unsettled in any case. Furthermore, King Stephen's crown is contested by Matilda (or Maud), who has at least an equal hereditary right to it, and a significant number of supporters. For that reason, throughout the reign civil war is either simmering or boiling, and the period is known as The Anarchy, or the time when Christ and his saints slept.

How strange, then, to find Peters describing an apparently happy, secure, law-abiding society in which the average person seems to be honourable and trustworthy, and crimes are exceptional events. This makes for pleasant reading, but I doubt that it's a true picture of the state of society at this time.

I have another much smaller niggle: Cadfael is 57 and getting older with each story. He must already have lost his close-up vision, and spectacles had not been invented. Trying to cope with life when everything blurred as he approached it would have been a significant problem for him, although common to everyone of his age; but it goes unmentioned in the text.

I don't think these niggles should spoil anyone's enjoyment of the stories, but they seem worth mentioning.

Written in January 2009