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I recently discovered that Amazon Prime has the 1990s tv series Cadfael, which is based on the Cadfael Chronicles of Ellis Peters, the pen name of English author Edith Pargeter, who produced a total of 20 well-received murder mysteries from the 1970s to the 1990s featuring a 12th century English monk, Brother Cadfael (Derek Jacobi in the show), as her detective. None of the episodes really gives me enough for a blog post, so I figured I would just review the show as a whole.


Pargeter was a self-trained scholar with somewhat idiosyncratic interests. She was deeply interested in the history of Shropshire (where she was born and lived much of her life) and Wales (she had Welsh ancestry), and generally did an excellent job of researching the medieval background of her stories. She also worked for a period as a pharmacist’s assistant, which introduced her to traditional herbal remedies, which comes through in Cadfael, who has a deep knowledge of botany and plant-based medicine. She also taught herself Czech and translated Czech poetry into English.

As a result of this, the Cadfael Chronicles are generally quite well-researched and Pargeter was at pains to make them as historically accurate as possible. Although Cadfael is fictional, his life story (left Wales to participate in the First Crusade, lived in the Holy Land for several years where he learned herbalism, and then spent years as a sailor before feeling the call to become a monk in England) is basically possible from an historical standpoint, if perhaps a bit unlikely. (Incidentally, the Cadfael Chronicles are often credited with popularizing the genre of the historical murder mystery, although the first such work seems to be Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As the End, which is set in Middle Kingdom Egypt.)

In general, the episodes stick reasonably close to the plot of the novels, although in some cases the ending is tweaked for cinematic purposes or the killer is changed. The big exception is the last episode, The Pilgrim of Hate, which bares only a superficial resemblance to the novel.

The production quality of series, however, varies from season to season. The first season generally had decent costuming but sets that really feel like studio sets. The second season has better sets but much poorer costumes (in The Virgin in the Ice, Ermina is dressed in an atrocious velour dress with a floral print bib that looks like it was borrowed from a late Victorian spinster). The fourth season generally had much better sets, with the abbey scenes feeling like they might have been filmed in an actual monastery. But the layout of Brother Cadfael’s pharmacy keeps changing (its two doors keep moving around and the stove magically moves from one end of the building to the other. At one point, a character flees from the pharmacy by jumping up on a counter and kicking out a window despite the fact that there should be an unlocked door less than five feet to his right.


You can’t get a very clear look at it, but that dress is really atrocious


The Civil War

A major feature of the series is the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda. In 1135 King Henry I of England died leaving only a single legitimate child, his daughter Matilda (although he fathered a staggering 24 illegitimate ones). Although Henry had worked for more than a decade to ensure that his barons would accept Matilda as queen regnant, as soon as he died, his nephew Stephen usurped the English throne, triggering a civil war that would last in one form or another for two decades, ending only when Stephen agreed to disinherit his son in favor of Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet, who became Henry II.


Sean Pertwee, season 1’s Hugh Beringar, with Jacobi’s Cadfael

Claims that the civil war triggered two decades of anarchy are wildly exaggerated. Henry II had a vested interest in playing up the lawlessness of Stephen’s reign because it gave him an excuse to extend royal power in new ways, and most of the sources that describe the ‘anarchy’ date from his reign. But the Civil War created a situation where political loyalties were divided, and all royal officials and grants of privilege could be challenged by supporters of the other side. Some political figures, including the English bishops and the government of London, switched sides on multiple occasions.

Pargeter’s depiction of the violence and instability is broadly in keeping with mid-20th century historical understanding of the Civil War and the ‘anarchy’, and she used the complexities of the Civil War effectively, with her novels all set in the period of greatest instability, from 1138 to 1145. Shrewsbury was always under Stephen’s authority, and Hugh Berengar, who as under-sheriff and later sheriff of Shropshire represents his authority, is always loyal to Stephen, But the possibility of political intrigue and side-switching lurks under the surface at Shrewsbury and features in a couple of the stories (St Peter’s Fair, The Raven in the Foregate), and the civil war comes to Shrewsbury in One Corpse Too Many, which opens during the Siege of Shrewsbury in 1138. Stephen really did order the hanging of the garrison of the castle after capturing it, and Pargeter skillfully inserts a murder mystery into the story when someone disposes of a murder victim among the 94 executed men.

So the show gets a solid A rating in terms of its fidelity to the political background, although in season 1, Shrewsbury has only a wood wall around it (note the picture above), when it probably would have had a stone wall.


Shrewsbury Abbey

Another facet of the show that is basically accurate is the depiction of the monastery at the heart of the story. It was a real place and the two abbots who govern it, Abbot Heribert (Peter Copley) and Abbot Radulphus (Terrence Hardiman), were real historical people, although Pargeter invented their personalities. The rather sour Prior Robert (Michael Culver), who is one of the thorns in Cadfael’s side throughout the series, eventually succeeded Radulphus as abbot in 1148.


The late medieval nave is the only part of Shrewsbury Abbey to survive the 16th Dissolution of the Monasteries


Virtually every episode shows the monks singing in the choir during various canonical hours (the daily cycle of the liturgy), and in some episodes there are visitors attending the services, which is plausible. But characters come and go during the service, particularly Cadfael and Brother Oswin (Mark Charnock) and never seem to be reprimanded for it. Skipping the liturgy was a big no-no, since it was central to the Benedictine conception of monasticism as ora et labora, “prayer and labor”.

The Devil’s Novice shows the monks sleeping collectively in a dormitory, which is very much in line with what the Benedictine Rule requires, and the novice’s nightmares understandably disrupt all the other brothers. When Brother Jerome discovers that the novice has kept a small memento of his secular life in violation of the Rule’s prohibition on owning private property, Jerome rightly confiscates it and, a bit maliciously, burns it.

Despite that, the cinematic Shrewsbury Abbey stands out as being rather lax in its observance of the Rule of St Benedict, because Cadfael comes and goes almost at will, as does Oswin, and female visitors to the abbey wander in and out and interact with various monks, particularly Cadfael, without any chaperoning. The 12th century saw a growing sense of the sexual threat women posed to monks, so such free movement would have been highly irregular. Although Prior Robert is depicted in a negative light, his objections to Cadfael’s running around are in fact probably close to how would the abbots and prior would have responded to Cadfael’s inability to keep his vow of stability (staying in one place and not leaving the abbey). A common monastic saying in the period was “a monk out of his abbey is like a fish out of water”. Had Cadfael been a real person, he would certainly have been much more cautious about being alone with women.

In one episode, there’s a very nice scene where the monks are barbering each other. That’s exactly the way it was done. The monks would sit down in a line and half of them would barber the other and then they would switch places.

The Edith Pargeter window at Shrewsbury Abbey Church


St Winifred

The first novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones (which is the seventh episode of the series) deals with the translation of St Winifred’s body from Gwytherin in North Wales. This is a solidly historical event, and Prior Robert wrote an account of the translation of the saint’s body to Shrewsbury Abbey. St Winifred became an important English saint (despite actually being Welsh) as a result of Shrewsbury Abbey’s efforts to promote her cult.


The seal of the fraternity of Shrewsbury Abbey, depicting the beheading of St Winifred

The episode somewhat distorts the facts. Winifred was already revered at Gwytherin and therefore would have had a shrine that included her body in it, whereas in the show, she is buried in an unmarked grave and the monks cannot dig her up until the locals agree to show her where the grave is. (As a side note, A Morbid Taste for Bones is an excellent murder mystery, frequently ranked among the best ever written. If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, you should definitely read it.)

The show in general does a good job of showing the historical importance of the Cult of the Saints (the collection of religious practices around religious figures like St Winifred). In Morbid Taste, the show nicely depicts two competing claims to Winifred’s remains; the villages of Gwytherin view her as ‘their saint’ and resent the idea that the English monks want to take her away, while the monks claim that because Brother Columbanus had a vision in which she appeared to him, Winifred has demonstrated that she wants to be moved to Shrewsbury. The unctuous Brother Jerome (Julian Firth) is depicted as manipulating Columbanus into thinking that Winifred is appearing to him. Jerome’s motives are not stated very clearly, but medieval monks craved the prestige of having a saint buried at their house. It attracted pilgrims and donations, both of which were desirable.

St Winifred’s cult is featured in two other episodes, both of which also capture facets of medieval religious life. In The Pilgrim of Hate, pilgrims have come to Shrewsbury for ‘Cripple Day’, which appears to be an annual festival in which St Winifred sometimes heals cripples. While this is invented, so far as I can tell, it’s generally plausible. Many shrines had particular dates when pilgrimages were performed, and some saints ‘specialized’ in curing specific ailments. Winifred’s cult doesn’t seem to have had a specialty, although the saint was famous for causing healing springs to appear. But the show captures something of the way in which pilgrims would throng to a shrine and the monks would organize a line of pilgrims to touch the shrine while hoping for a cure.


Part of the Prologue to Prior Robert’s Life of St Winifred

A particular theme of that episode is fraudulent miracles. One pilgrim fakes being crippled and then is miraculously ‘cured’; he uses the ‘miracle’ in an attempt to bilk other pilgrims into giving him money. Another character is peddling what are pretty clearly fabricated relics for money. Both of these frauds were real phenomena, although they were probably less common than popular imagination would have it. (In general, though, the storyline of Pilgrim is the weakest in the show because it departs quite far from the novel and relies on cliched ideas about religious fanaticism that don’t make much sense.)

In The Holy Thief, the locals flock to the abbey to pray for protection from flooding, and are again shown lining up to access the box in which Winifred’s bones are kept, and paying for the privilege. More importantly, someone steals the reliquary and a three-sided dispute breaks out about who truly owns the body of St. Winifred: the monks of Shrewsbury Abbey, the monks of Ramsey Abbey who claim that one of their brothers has had a vision of Winifred beckoning to him the way she beckoned to Columbanus in Morbid Taste, or the nobleman who owns the land where the wagon carrying the reliquary broke down (who claims that Winifred indicated her preference for him by causing the wagon to break down on his land).

The murder happens when the monks of Ramsey, feeling stymied, resort to outright theft. Such things definitely happened. Monks might be convinced that a saint genuinely desired the relocation of their relics and thus felt that such furta sacra (“holy theft”) was justified, sometimes even claiming miracles were happening to assist the crime. (The episode changes the murderer, however.)

The dispute over the reliquary is resolved using bibliomancy. The claimants take turns opening a copy of the Gospels to random passages and using the resulting verses as a statement of who ought to own it. While bibliomancy was used during the Middle Ages, the Church generally condemned it, so it’s unlikely that the abbot would have resorted to it (although, given that the abbots in this series are generally quite lax about the Benedictine Rule, it’s not unreasonable to suppose they were also lax about this sort of practice.

A Few Other Details

In some places, however, the show gets things wrong. Nearly every episode has someone use the term ‘murder’ in the modern sense of an unlawful killing. But in this period, murdrum has a much more specific set of meanings. The Danes introduced the concept of murdrum, which was a killing in secret, legally distinct from an openly-known killing and much more serious. Since the whole series is built around secret killings, that might seen reasonable. But in English law between the 1060s and the 1270s, murdrum was not a crime committed by an individual but more of a fine imposed on a community.

In the absence of a police force in the modern sense, English law in this period relied on collective responsibility. All adult men were expected to be members of a tithing, a group of roughly ten men, all of whom were responsible for the legal offenses of any of their members. So if one member of the tithing committed a crime and failed to show up in court for it, all the members of his tithing would be fined for the offense. This in theory helped ensure that criminals would be made to show up to court. To discourage the killing of the new Norman elites that ruled England, if any unknown man were killed in a community, the victim was assumed to be a Norman and a murdrum fine would be imposed on the whole community. It might also be imposed on someone who killed in self-defense. In some of the episodes, the scenario might reasonably involve murdrum, but the characters almost never mean it the way the word was being used at the time.

Another problem with the series is that Cadfael basically invents forensic pathology about 700 years too early. In some cases, his observations can be passed off as simply the work of a very observant man. In Morbid Taste, it’s not unreasonable that he can deduce that the dead man was stabbed in the back with a knife and then after he was lying on the ground dead he was stabbed in the belly with an arrow, because the downward angle of the arrow would be impossible if the man had been standing. But in One Corpse he is able to figure out that the victim was strangled with a waxed cord. In Pilgrim, he boils a corpse down so he can examine the bones, deduces that the man was knocked out from a blow to the head, and then reassembles the body osteologically. Given that dissection of corpses was quite rare, it’s highly unlikely that Cadfael could have figured out the order in which the vertibre should go. (This doesn’t occur in the novel; Pargeter would almost certainly not have invented such an implausible detail.)

The practice of boiling corpses down, as done in Pilgrim, was historical. It was a way for nobles who died abroad, to be transported home for burial without the problem of rotting on the way. And the show does correctly term it the Mos Teutonicus, the ‘German custom’. But it wasn’t invented until a few years after the end of the series; as the name suggests it was a German practice originally, so Cadfael doesn’t have any plausible way to know about it. Prior Robert correctly objects that this was a practice reserved for nobles who were being transported for burial, not for purposes of figuring out how someone was killed.


Brother Jerome (Julian Firth) and Prior Robert (Michel Culver) outside the abbey church

Another small problem is the idea of inns, which feature somewhat in St Peter’s Fair. In that episode, inns are treated as taverns and presented as common enough that a character plans to just buy one. That character is depicted as performing in inns, and Shrewsbury is shown as having at least two. In reality, inns were distinct from taverns. A tavern, or public house, was a private residence where the housewife would sell home-brewed ale or later beer; it was essentially an outgrowth of domestic ale production. Taverns and ale-houses certainly existed in this period.

But inns were something different. An inn was more like a hotel, a place not primarily for drinking, but for lodging (although they certainly did act like taverns). They only really emerged in the 14th century as the economy of medieval Europe was becoming more sophisticated and long-range trade was becoming a regular rather than a seasonal activity as it was in the 12th century. Inns provided shelter as people traveled between towns, and as such they were primarily a rural rather than an urban phenomenon. So it’s highly unlikely that a smaller town like Shrewsbury would have had inns in it in Cadfael’s day, both because it was a town and because inns weren’t really a thing then. 12th century travelers would have had to make do with a combination of staying at monasteries (which had a duty to provide hospitality to travelers), persuading people to take them in for the night, and just camping on the road.

In The Raven in the Foregate, the Norman priest Father Ailnoth despises his Anglo-Saxon parishioners, which is odd because his name is Anglo-Saxon, strongly suggesting that he was himself not Norman but Anglo-Saxon. In the novel, he’s a dick, but not over ethnic issues, and Pargeter probably intended him to be Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman.

One final issue. Cadfael’s name ought, according to Welsh pronunciation, to be pronounced ‘KAD-vel’, with the F being sounded like a V. But Pargeter never explained that in her novels, something she regretted, and as a result throughout the series his name is pronounced ‘KAD-file’. We might write it off as English people not being able to get the Welsh right, except that the Welsh characters get it wrong too. (In general, the series is pretty loose about Welsh accents. Some of the Welsh characters have them but others don’t.)

Want to Know More? 

Cadfael is available on Amazon. If you like murder mysteries, you really should read A Morbid Taste for Bones or some of the other books in the series.

If you’re interested in the phenomenon of relic-stealing, the basic work on the subject is Patrick Geary’s Furta Sacra.