A 13-episode British series based on the Brother Cadfael murder mystery novels of Ellis Peters. It's rather unorthodox in its choice of setting: a 12th-century town somewhere near the Welsh border — a time of civil war, disease and strife, where Death is a frequent visitor. Many are those who would take advantage of this fact to conceal a murder. After all, who would notice one suspicious corpse amongst so many?Brother Cadfael... that's who.Cadfael is a middle aged monk who took up the cowl after abandoning the violent, passionate life of a soldier. It was in the Crusades that he learned how to fight with a sword, which he often wears under his robes during dangerous missions. Yes, he may have sworn off violence, but he knows enough about the world to know that his vocation alone will not protect him from dangerous men. Cadfael's keen senses, ability to communicate with people, and Encyclopaedic Knowledge of herbs and plants make him the perfect forensic expert — a fact which has not gone unnoticed by the local sheriff, Hugh Beringar, who often sends for Brother Cadfael whenever a mysterious corpse turns up in the town.Sometimes Cadfael will just stumble onto a mystery by himself, but either way, once he gets put onto the scent, there's little anyone can do to shake him off. Derek Jacobi gives an excellent portrayal of the competent and compassionate monk in what is probably his best role since I, Claudius. Fans of history and/or mystery would do well to check this series out.
Butt Monkey: Brother Oswin, Cadfael's clumsy assistant who always had some sort of trouble befall him. (It all culminates in one episode where he gets simultaneously stabbed and framed for murder. Poor guy.) Most of this is due to him being a Composite Character of several of Cadfael's assistants and other monks from the abbey who didn't appear in other books.
Cassandra Truth: Most every episode, Cadfael proves that the murderer was not who the Law thought it was. Despite his track record, though, no one believes him the next time around when he says that, yet again, they've arrested the wrong man.
Chekhov's Gun: A really blatant example in "Monk's Hood" when some monkshood oil is spilled in basil and Cadfael explains its use as a topical analgesic and toxicity if ingested. In short order, someone is murdered by it. (But we also see someone getting a massage with it, too.)
Clear My Name: A central part of each episode. Cadfael always seems to take a shine to the person with the most obvious motive for murder.
Control Freak: The prissy, toadyish busybody, Brother Jerome, who acts as Cadfael's main nemesis. Very few people in the Abbey like him, once when strangled nearly to death, even the usually polite Abbot Radulfus comments that they'll be spared his singing voice at Mass.
Borders on Badass Grandpa, especially in the episode where he judo-chops a soldier for mistreating a homeless guy.
Both Abbots arguably qualify. Watching Abbot Heribert push back an angry mob with Torches and Pitchforks with nothing but his voice is sheer awesome.
The Coroner: This is Cadfael's role at the abbey (along with being the closest thing it has to a doctor).
Corrupt Church: With a caveat, in that the church itself wasn't portrayed as any more corrupt than any other organization of that age, but many of its members did abuse their power, often doing more harm to their communities than good.
Dirty Coward: From "The Virgin In the Ice," Evrard Boterel. Early on Hugh is disdainful of his failure to protect the people on his lands from bandits. Turns out he actually fled; when Ermina left him for it, he took out his rage on poor Sister Hilaria.
Evidence Scavenger Hunt: Often of a botanical nature, as Cadfael retraces the path of a suspect or site of a murder by identifying the plant fragments found at the scene.
Inspector Lestrade: Hugh Beringar and his deputy, sheriff Gilbert Prescotte, represent both sides of the Lestrade coin. Hugh is compelled to suspect and investigate the most obvious killer, but he is always willing to listen to Cadfael and gives him leeway to investigate. Gilbert is the kind who declares a case open-and-shut, resents Cadfael, and once wounds an unrelated person after mistaking him for the suspect.
It's All My Fault: Brother Oswin loudly proclaims that he is guilty of mortal sin and "was [Sister Hilaria's] death" in "The Virgin in the Ice," leading the other monks to wonder if he was the one who raped and murdered her. What he felt guilty for was not protecting her and also being attracted to her when a blizzard forced them to huddle together.
Karma Houdini: Prior Herluin is never punished by either human authority or the narrative for constantly impeding Cadfael.
Mystery of the Week: Shrewsbury is a Mystery Magnet as well, naturally. It makes a bit more sense than some examples, though: Shrewsbury is located very near the Welsh border, so new people are often passing through, and medieval attitudes towards death and killing makes it easier for aspiring murderers to justify themselves.
Mysterious Past: More alluded to than secret; Cadfael is a former crusader with prodigious fighting skills. It's certainly not a secret in the Abbey and Cadfael is not shy from telling people his past. More often then not it makes the bullies back down and impresses anyone of a more militaristic mind.
Nightmare Face: This is why the legendary knight Guimar de Massard travels with the lepers as "Lazarus" even though the disease is no longer active in him. He briefly lifts his mask to Cadfael to show why he doesn't want to return to his family.
Not Quite Dead: Rumors of Julian Cruce's death are greatly exaggerated.
Old Cop, Young Cop: Cadfael isn't a cop per se, but he is a detective (for all intents and purposes) and Hugh Berringar definitely qualifies as the Young Cop part of the duo.
The Other Darrin: The actors for a few of the main characters were swapped out from season to season — Sheriff Hugh Beringar was most swapped of all, as a different actor portrayed him in each of the three seasons.
Paper-Thin Disguise: Godith as a male novice. Cadfael does see through it immediately, but it takes an armsman accidentally grabbing her chest for anyone else to figure it out.
Cadfael's view of the world is not anachronistic but neo-Aristotelian. Neo-Aristotelianism was a school of thought that arose in the Arabic-speaking world in the late 11th century; it stressed the use of logic and reasoning as opposed to the blind acceptance of authority demanded by orthodox Augustinianism. Anyone who spent years in the Middle East studying medicine as Cadfael did would have been exposed to the new belief system and might have adopted it.
People tend to seem cleaner in the show than we would assume. This is sometimes politically correct history, especially in episodes where the poor are seen wearing sharply tailored clothing and with perfect straight white teeth. The rich, however, are generally portrayed accurately - even if the immersion bath was uncommon (and known to be dangerous!) in Real Life, the rich did wash themselves every day.
Though it should be noted that the only sweetener available to common people of the time was honey, which was too expensive to be used in large quantities (and at any rate preferably used for the nobler purpose of mead production). Sugar existed, but was even more exotically rare than pepper, and scantily available even to royalty. Dental caries only exploded on the European population with the mass production of sugarcane in the New World.
Very few children die in early childhood in the show. This is insanely anachronistic, possibly the most anachronistic thing about the show, but it comes from the books themselves.
Some critics have pointed out that most lovers in the show (and in the books) marry in their early 20s, which is supposedly very late by pre-modern standards. This is utter rot. The average age at marriage has not changed in England for centuries.
Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Sister Hilaria's case in "The Virgin in the Ice." Boterel raped and suffocated her while pursuing Ermina, who stabbed him when he tried to attack her for leaving him.
Secret Test of Character: Cadfael offers aconite as a refreshing drink to the first murder suspect in "Monk's Hood." When the man displays his ignorance by putting it to his lips, Cadfael snatches the cup away and says that he just proved his innocence to the poisoning.
That Old Time Prescription: Cadfael is the abbey's apothecary and there are many scenes in his workroom where he prepares or distributes medicine which may or may not become relevant to the plot.
Trial by Combat: An acceptable and legal recourse. Hugh Beringar gets his job this way. In "The Monk's Hood," Cadfael and Hugh decide that Lazarus—aka Guimar de Massard—can go uncharged for Picard's death.
Tyrant Takes the Helm: When the Abbot leaves for a church council in "Monk's Hood" he leaves the Prior in charge, who immediately starts interfering in Cadfael's attempt to solve the latest murder and even attempts to have him removed from the abbey.