The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Cadfael Mystery Novels

Recently, I’ve been reading a fair bit of fiction, generally a book a day, and for the last week and a bit it’s been the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters.

Cadfael’s a monk in southwestern England in the late 12th century. He was a crusader before he made his vows, and as the monastery’s herbalist and healer, he gets out and about a lot more than most monks. Somehow, in the tradition of non-police detective novels, he becomes involved in a murder during every novel. There is also always at least one romance, and often two.

These are definitely what is known in the trade as cozies. Some bad things may happen, but everything will be put to right by the end of the novels; indeed, not just right, but better. Sometimes the murderer, if their murder is one we can sympathize with, is even let go.

Despite being set mostly during a civil war complete with burnings of entire towns, there’s a sunlit feel to these books; Cadfael is a lovely man, his friends are good people we can admire and even feel affection for, and the books have no excessive nastiness. Although they take place in the Middle Ages, they have virtually no misogyny, misandry, or misanthropy.

The actual murder plots vary. Sometimes what’s going on is obvious, a few times I haven’t figured it out before the reveal. The writing isn’t stellar, but it’s better than the norm for these sorts of novels.

Something else I particularly like about these books is that Cadfael is a believer. He’s not a closet atheist or agnostic, he’s not a hypocrite who’s a monk who doesn’t believe. I find that in too many books about religious believers in the past, the author clearly is not a believer and projects that into the character in a rather modern and anachronistic way.

Most people did believe, and a monk who took orders as an adult who didn’t believe would be a sad fellow indeed. (This is irrespective of the fact that I don’t believe.)

At any rate, I’ve enjoyed them a great deal. They are,  indeed, cozy, and a fine way to spend a few hours with fictional friends in a world where you know that even if the big events are bad, the events close to Cadfael will work out.

If that’s your cup of tea, or the medicine you’d like right now, highly recommended.

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The Weirdness of “Coronavirus” Hacking


Open Thread


  1. Stirling S Newberry

    Derek Jacobi played him on BBC.

  2. Anonymous

    They sound like good books, I’ll check them out, thanks for the heads up.
    Not to be a bummer, but so many people these days are raging douchebags, prolly why something like that is so refreshing.

  3. nihil obstet

    It’s been several decades since I read the Caedfael mysteries. I found them more sunny than I liked at that time. I started on the Sister Fidelma mysteries set in Ireland in the 7th c., and I think I may go back to those.

  4. Dmitry Plotsynopsis

    I was in Shrewsbury a few years ago and checked out Cadfaels Abbey. which still exists, having been missed by the civil war. Ellis Peters raised money and contributed to the restoration fund.

    The altar to St. Winifred still exists. I wonder who’s inside?

  5. Zachary Smith

    I’ll certainly give the Cadfael novels a trial run. “Light” is good with me these days, for the ‘real world’ is just too depressing. I have a pile of old favorites (SF novels) by my favorite chair, and tend to grab a book and read several random pages. Every single one of them is both “light” and has a “happy ending”.

    These days I’ll buy a “light” history book if given the slightest excuse. Lately I’ve been pondering the original 13th Amendment – and have been more than a little shocked at how much the Northern politicians were willing to give away to avoid the violence of the Civil War. The shameless appeasement of the Slave South didn’t work – that part is covered pretty well in the regular history books.

    These are quite inexpensive on eBay – in some parts of the Sahara they litter the floor of the desert. A weapon/tool/gadget made – and used – non-stop for a million years isn’t likely to be in short supply. Holding a 400k year-old (minimum!) Acheulean ‘hand ax’ causes me to really focus when I’m reading a book about human origins. A small fulgarite is enough like Trinite/Alamogordo Glass to remind me nuclear conflict might not always be a fantasy. Just like the masks in my car rub my nose in the unpleasant fact I’m in the middle of a freaking pandemic. Something else I thought would remain a “history book” thing.

    Not all entertainment schemes have been working out. For some unknown reason I avoid my extensive CD music library, and am also reluctant to watch any kind of DVD. The Kindle I bought at the start of the Lockdown has turned out to be useless. Loaded with books I bought from Mr. Bezos online store, then carried to a place without wi-fi, it’ll permit me to read them for 2-3 days before it suddenly stops allowing that. The family expert on Kindle took pity on me and re-installed 13 books earlier this week. The nine I’d paid money to Bezos to get are no longer readable – there is an error message demanding an internet connection. Only three freebies downloaded from the Internet Archive and another from the public library remain viewable. Since this has happened twice, it’s my guess Mr. Bezos is quite determined to detect and record every page I read in every book I bought from him.

    If the fellow ends his days as a homeless person under a bridge, I won’t cry. Ditto for Bill Gates. Not bloody likely, but idle daydreams are one of my more pleasant Pandemic Entertainments.

  6. Robert Mcneilly

    Yesterday 1892
    Berkman vs. Frick
    Ooo a new series of books to read.
    Best thing about electronic books is I can walk through my house.🥳

  7. Plague Species

    Sounds similar to Umberto Eco’s 1980 The Name of the Rose. An interesting time for sure. I never read Eco’s book but I did watch, some years prior, the 1986 movie starring Sean Connery. It was well done. Intriguing, but not for everyone. Enlightening in the sense it revealed the stark intellectual disparity between the crude animal-like peasants and the erudite, cloistered, sheltered monks/clergy. As though they were two different species. Sundance has a contemporary version, a series, of this starring John Turturro. I don’t know if I will ever watch it considering the length of my watch list.

  8. Keith in Modesto

    Starting about 1996 I spent about a decade doing basically data entry for the US Postal Service, first part time and eventually as a full-time career employee. As long as we were able to make our numbers (speed and accuracy) we were allowed to listen on headsets to whatever we wanted. Many of us listened to books-on-tape (and increasingly books-on-cd) and I remember browsing the BOT section at the public library downtown on my day off for more listening material, often running into fellow coworkers looking for the same. The Brother Cadfael mysteries were a popular item. I’m sure I listened to every novel they had in the collection, probably starting with The Virgin in the Ice. I enjoyed those stories a great deal.

  9. dbk

    Thanks for the reminder – I read a couple Brother Cadfael mysteries years ago, and still have them somewhere or other. Good idea for summer break reading.

    For those interested in historical mysteries, I’d also recommend the six-volume series by C.J. Sansom, which is set in the England of Henry VIII and has a clever lawyer named Matthew Shardlake as hero-detective. They’re more demanding than the Ellis Peters’ books, but the historical detail is excellent/compelling (Sansom has a PhD in history).

  10. Ian Welsh

    I read the Shardlake novels. They’re excellent historically, but goddamn are they depressing. It’s not just that Tudor England is a police state shitshow, but Shardlake is a guilt ridden depressive.

    Not saying don’t read, I read’em, but they are VERY different from the Cadfael novels. (Though they do start with the dissolution of the monasteries, which is ironic. Oddly, Shardlake was part of my process of deciding that the dissolution was a terrible crime and a mistake.)

  11. nihil obstet

    The church was a thoroughly medieval institution — it formed the society and was itself formed by the society. I’m not sure that having over a third of the land owned by an organization that answered to a foreign temporal head and whose members had immunity from secular law was tenable. It’s hard to see how a modern state could have developed. What Cromwell did was use the wealth of the monasteries to buy loyalty to the crown (wealthy men got much wealthier buying the monasteries’ assets). That gave England a leg up on a modern centralized state supported by the assent of the more powerful citizens.

    Could genuine reforms have accomplished the same goals, without privatizing resources that nominally at least could be used for the common good? Politically, I’m not sure that was possible. It didn’t happen elsewhere in Europe, where either no centralized state developed or stricter hierarchies were maintained under the aegis of the Catholic Church.

    I’m a Shardlake fan, and a fan of Wolf Hall. I haven’t gotten The Mirror and the Light yet.

  12. Hugh

    I enjoyed the Brother Cadfael mysteries. I like historical mysteries or those set in an exotic locale. So Marcus Didius Falco, SPQR, Judge Dee, Lieutenant Bak, etc.

  13. Trinity

    The church was a thoroughly medieval institution — it formed the society and was itself formed by the society. I’m not sure that having over a third of the land owned by an organization that answered to a foreign temporal head and whose members had immunity from secular law was tenable. It’s hard to see how a modern state could have developed”

    Just replace “the church” with “the corporations” and you’ve almost described most modern states. Coincidence? I think not.

    In need of a break from the insanity, I recently read Call of the Wild for the first time ever. Perfect antidote for what ailed me. I tend toward low brow, modern detective stories, but am slowly working my way (and buying paper versions) through the classics … just finished The Maltese Falcon … what a story! I flirted with Kindle when I got my first tablet, but … I prefer paper and pencil, and marking passages or notes. I’ve also been revisiting my collection of Tony Hillerman mysteries about the Navajo.

  14. Ian Welsh

    The breaking of the monasteries was sold as “they don’t help the common man”, but their breaking up was used, indeed, to enrich the already rich and support for the poor decreased massively.

    I’m less concerned about “modern”, as far as I can tell the Renaissance was worse for most people in England than much of the Medieval.

    But anyway, Shardlake: depression fiction. 🙂

  15. Thanks for the interesting review and recommendation. I became interested.

  16. dbk

    Ian, I’d never thought about the breakup of the monasteries that way, but now that you mention it, I’d agree that it simply served to further enrich the crown. Very astute.

    For those looking for summer mystery reading somewhere between the Father Cadfael mysteries and the Shardlake ones – which, as Ian noted, are for depression – perhaps Louise Penny’s Three Pines series might do. I’m currently working my way through “The Beautiful Mystery,” which is, appropriately enough, set in a monastery.

  17. nihil obstet

    I haven’t done the research on this, but I don’t think life was better for most of the English in the Medieval period than in the Renaissance. The break-up of the monasteries was indeed sold on the premise that the proceeds would help the poor. A big item in the falling out between Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn was that Anne fought him on the sale of the monasteries because she wanted the money used for the poor. Cromwell was sincere in what became identified as Protestant beliefs, and wanted to make it politically impossible for the Roman Catholic church to be reinstated with its wealth and power. Thus, the cheap sale of the assets to those who would subsequently resist their clawback.

    Poverty became more of an issue as the Renaissance came on, because with the agricultural revolution, most people could get through the year without long periods of hunger. Now it was the poor, dependent on what was becoming more of a monetary economy who suffered rather routinely from hunger, not the majority of the population. The monks and nuns were significantly better off than the majority of the laity, which made them a target of envy in the more economically vibrant midlands and south of England.

    Indirectly, I’m still arguing here that the society and the economy were changing, and changes between the church and state were inevitable. Other options might have been better or worse.

  18. Ian Welsh

    The monasteries were often corrupt (the abbeys less so), but they and the Catholic Church did do more charity for the poor than the protestant churches that replaced them.

    No doubt changes were inevitable, just not sure that what was done to the Catholic church in England was a good change.

    Though it’s hard to deny that those countries that went Protestant tended to do better going forward.

    Still, could it have been done a better way?

  19. nihil obstet

    If you and I had been monastery czars, we’d have done it a better way. Given the situation as it existed in the early 1530s, I don’t think it was politically possible to do it well. The changes in society made changes in the church inevitable. There was going to be a reformation. The question was, would it be a Catholic Reformation or a Protestant one. That is, would the Catholic Church address the issues in a way that did not drive large groups of members out? They didn’t. Instead they doubled down on the aspects that maintained hierarchical power, virtually all of which were matters of church discipline rather than theology. Theologically, they mostly agreed, both sides accepting the Nicene Creed. And that has nothing to do with church song or decoration, with language of worship, with number of sacraments, with saints as intermediaries with God, with clergy celibacy, with the sale of indulgences, in short, with most of the public face of the church that ended up as hard line separations between Catholics and Protestants.

    Meanwhile, there was a highly politicized papacy, unwilling to accept the secular powers that it had kept in line during the Middle Ages with excommunication. It tried excommunication before it figured out that that was counterproductive, and went to striking power deals with monarchs. That enabled it to do, not a Catholic Reformation, but a Catholic Counter Reformation. It seems to me that the result was bad for ordinary people going forward.

  20. marku52

    I’ve enjoyed the “Gordianus the Finder” series by Saylor, set in Rome just pre common era. Very good descriptions of the religion and customs of the era, and of course our hero meets and works for many famous names.—chronological

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