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Literature / Brother Cadfael

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A series of historical mysteries by Ellis Peters, comprising 20 novels and 3 short stories, published 1977-1994.

Brother Cadfael is the herbalist of a Benedictine monastery in 12th-century Shrewsbury. He is a former soldier who became a monk in later life and consequently has a more worldly outlook than many of his colleagues.

Inspired the 1990s TV series Cadfael, with Derek Jacobi in the title role. The BBC has adapted five of the books for radio, the first two with Glyn Houston as Cadfael and three more with Philip Madoc.


    Books in this series 
  • A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977)
  • One Corpse Too Many (1979)
  • Monk's Hood (1980)
  • Saint Peter's Fair (1981)
  • The Leper of Saint Giles (1981)
  • The Virgin in the Ice (1982)
  • The Sanctuary Sparrow (1983)
  • The Devil's Novice (1983)
  • Dead Man's Ransom (1984)
  • The Pilgrim of Hate (1984)
  • An Excellent Mystery (1985)
  • The Raven in the Foregate (1986)
  • The Rose Rent (1986)
  • The Hermit of Eyton Forest (1988)
  • The Confession of Brother Haluin (1988)
  • A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (1988). Short story collection. The first story takes place almost two decades prior to the original Cadfael novel.
    • A Light on the Road to Woodstock
    • The Price of Light
    • Eye Witness
  • The Heretic's Apprentice (1990)
  • The Potter's Field (1990)
  • The Summer of the Danes (1991)
  • The Holy Thief (1992)
  • Brother Cadfael's Penance (1994)

This series provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: At the end of One Corpse Too Many, Cadfael has been Out-Gambitted by Hugh Beringar, who tries to gloat as gently as possible. When it turns out that Cadfael was in fact out-gambitting him, Hugh's response is to break down in hysterical laughter over his own preening not moments ago. It helps that both men had the same goals in mind.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Cadfael
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Even Cadfael, for all that he strives to convince Lazarus to let his granddaughter know he's still alive, can offer no response to: "And is this the face that made his sisters glad?"
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  • Arranged Marriage: A frequent trope for obvious reasons. Many specific instances are listed on the trope page.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • While there's no And There Was Much Rejoicing after Father Ailnoth is found dead, no one mourns him either due to his doctrinally-correct but morally-reprehensible actions driving a young girl to suicide through his intolerance, refusing to baptize a child and then refusing to bury an unbaptized child (yes, the same one), and his habit of beating schoolchildren.
    • Downplayed with Gilbert Prescote's death: he wasn't disliked in the least, but his murder is more or less ignored by everyone to avoid stirring up a hornet's test. It helps that the murderer was genuinely repentant and willing to die to atone.
  • Badass Grandpa:
    • Cadfael is a former soldier of the Crusades, and while he renounced violence when he became a monk, he's highly intelligent, capable, and crafty, and on top of all that he's willing to confront rebels, killers, and madmen while unarmed.
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    • In the Leper of Saint Giles, there's the leper, who despite being seventy and maimed by his disease, manages to best a man in single combat, despite being unarmed while his opponent has a dagger, and then throttle the guy. Never underestimate the power of a just cause.
  • Beauty = Goodness: Justified and also often subverted: most of the troubled souls Cadfael winds up taking under his wing in their hour of need are described in extensive and glowing terms, but this is a series set in the medieval era, when this trope was in full force. Notably, the inverse is rarely played completely straight, and murderers and unpleasant characters are often very beautiful or comely.
  • Benevolent Boss: Cadfael's monastery has two abbots over the course of the series, and while Abbot Heribert is far more of a pushover than his more astute successor Abbot Radulfus, both are highly benevolent.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Many of the series' murderers, but especially Brother Columbanus of A Morbid Taste for Bones, Simon of The Leper of Saint Giles, and Evrard of The Virgin In The Ice for sheer cold-blooded audacity and viciousness. Janyn Linde of The Devil's Novice is portrayed as an actual sociopath, attempting to murder his childhood friend and only ally just to take his horse when things go sour; he's also a Karma Houdini, although the ending hints that Hugh Beringar is going to the battle at Lincoln to arrange for some Laser-Guided Karma for Linde.
  • Bluffing the Murderer:
    • Cadfael does this in A Morbid Taste for Bones.
    • Ermina Hugonin in The Virgin in the Ice.
  • Call to Agriculture: Zigzagged by Cadfael himself: he retired from the adventurous life of a Crusader and sea captain to tend the abbey's herb gardens and brew medicines. But that doesn't stop him for a moment from battling evil with his brain rather than a sword.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Liliwin's training as a Contortionist in The Sanctuary Sparrow, which allow him to worm his way into a narrow barn air-hatch and rescue Rannilt.
  • Cramming the Coffin: Cadfael has to resort to this trick A Morbid Taste for Bones, as well as some quick talking to explain how the dessicated bones of a saint suddenly weigh as much as a mortal man.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Hugh Beringar and Aline Siward's son is named Giles after Aline's brother.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The characters adhere to medieval values, such as unquestioning loyalty to one's lord, going on crusades, absolute chastity before marriage and ordeal by battle. Cadfael is not so resolute about many of these ideas but he doesn't protest them either. There are heroic characters who think "outside the box" such as protagonist Cadfael or Earl Ranulf and others who are very strict, imbued to the core with feudal values such as Olivier.
    • The noble, landowning characters also put an emphasis on maintaining and adding to their patrimony that may not sit well with modern readers. Even honorable characters like Hugh Beringar are sympathetic to those who switch sides in order to save their property (but not those who switch sides for personal gain) and raiding for loot or extending borders by force is accepted as a matter of course.
    • The dead man in Monk's Hood keeps the son of a freeman in legal slavery as a villein and sees nothing wrong with it as it's perfectly legal.
  • Divine Intervention: The series includes several apparently genuine miracles, with the most blatant being the curing of Rhun's disability in The Pilgrim of Hate.
  • Doomed by Canon: "Doomed" is a bit strong, but the ambitious and uptight Prior Robert, who'd been angling for the position of abbot since day one, did indeed become the fifth abbot of Shrewsbury Abbey after Abbot Radulfus.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The first novel is mostly set far from Shrewsbury and is less of a straight-up mystery than a political drama with a murder in it.
  • The Exotic Detective: Cadfael, as a cloistered monk in a time period before the development of many of the key elements of modern law and order, is not the usual sort of character to be a fictional detective.
  • Faking the Dead
  • Fix Fic: The Reveal in One Corpse too Many offers a possible explanation for a historical action (kill all ninety-four defenders of the Empress' claim to Shrewsbury) by King Stephen that was totally Out of Character for him.
  • Foreshadowing: Cadfael's relationship with the widow Mariam is first mentioned in A Morbid Taste for Bones. Their son appears several books later.
  • Friend on the Force: Sheriff Hugh Beringar is Cadfael's.
  • Giving Them the Strip:
    • At the climax of A Morbid Taste For Bones, Sioned impersonates the shroud-wrapped St. Winifred to intimidate the killer into confessing. When she comes too close and he grabs hold of the linen she's draped in, she whirls around so the cloth unwinds from around her body, not enough to free her but enough to leave her out of reach of his weapon.
    • In The Leper of St. Giles, suspected killer Jocelyn Lucy is spotted by some of Prestcote's men while sneaking around, face half-hidden in a borrowed chaperon (a medieval hood/turban). One of the patrol members gets hold of his headwear and tries to choke him unconscious with its fabric, but the cloth breaks before Jocelyn can be incapacitated.
  • Good Bad Girl:
    • Avice of Thornbury aka Sister Magdalen back in her youth. She was also something of a High-Class Call Girl, being the mistress to a lord who never took on other lovers.
    • Eluned from The Raven in the Foregate, a sweet girl who can't say no.
  • Good Is Not Dumb:
    • Brother Cadfael is a very intelligent man, quite good at medicine, reading people and bringing the most unnoticeable clues together. He is also remarkably kind and compassionate.
    • Hugh Beringar is a good and honorable person — and devious and ruthless as well.
    • Brother Mark is someone both Cadfael and Hugh would insist is a much better man than either, morally. He sees through Jocelyn Lucy's disguise and discerns the fugitive is innocent within minutes of noticing his presence among the lepers.
  • Good Shepherd: Many characters in the books, but special mention goes to Brother Mark, who despite his youth and hard upbringing freely administers to lepers and criminals, and in Cadfael's opinion has the makings of a saint. Both Abbots Heribert and Radulfus, Brother Paul who takes care of the novices, and the late Father Adam all show strong shades of this, and of course Cadfael himself works hard to bring in lambs led astray, in his own slightly unorthodox way. Even Oswin shows signs of becoming this once he matures out of his carelessness and switches from being Cadfael's helper to manning the hospital.
  • The High Middle Ages: Set in the mid 12th century during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maude.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many of the secondary characters in the Cadfael novels were based on real persons, including both the abbots, Prior Robert Pennant, King Stephen and Empress Maude, all of the princes and earls mentioned, and even some of the Shrewsbury residents.
  • Historical Fiction: The Cadfael series has been cited in books of Medieval Life for the excellence of its period detail.
  • Horny Vikings: While the Danes hired by Cadwaladr plunder isolated farms and take hostages, they're a far cry from the usual bloodthirsty Rape, Pillage, and Burn types (being Chritians from the Dane-Irish kingdom of Dublin, and having mostly been hired to look scary rather than actually invade). The only blood shed is due to a naive idiot big on Honor Before Reason.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Father and son William and Edward Rede in the short story "Eye Witness," who quarrel and bicker but ferociously defend each other against outsiders' criticism. The man who robs and attempts to murder William makes the mistake of assuming Eddi genuinely wanted him dead, and offers him a cut of the loot for his complicity.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: How Cadfael decides that the prime suspect (the victim's stepson) in Monk's Hood is innocent; Cadfael implies that the murder was a stabbing rather than a poisoning, and the boy doesn't spot the deliberate mistake.
  • Ironic Echo: In One Corpse Too Many, Hugh Beringar and Brother Cadfael are competing to find stolen treasure. When Beringar thinks he's won, he offers to toast Cadfael's success "against all opponents but Hugh Beringar." A few paragraphs later, when it's clear how comprehensively Cadfael outwitted him, Cadfael hands him a beaker of wine, and toasts his success — against all opponents but Cadfael.
  • Karmic Death: Often, and also subverted, but played especially straight with Father Ailnoth of "Raven in the Foregate" and also with Godfrid Picard.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Inverted with Abbot Heribert, who is demoted to choir monk and could not be happier about it. It helps that the replacement abbot is a Reasonable Authority Figure rather than the severe and overambitious Prior Robert.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Played across the whole spectrum. Knights are people, after all, and they vary as much as any other people. The straightest example, however, is probably Olivier de Bretagne.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: In One Corpse Too Many, Beringar is introduced as a possible antagonist, not to mention one of the people Cadfael suspects of the murder. Anyone who's read one of the later books will know he's not guilty.
  • Literary Allusion Title: An Excellent Mystery (from the Book of Common Prayer).
  • Locked Out of the Loop: Everyone in The Potter's Field goes out of their way to conceal what's going on from Donata, not wanting to burden her when she's so ill. This turns out to be the worst course of action they could take, as she's the only one alive who knew the truth about the buried woman's death and could exonerate all the suspects in one go.
  • Luke, You Are My Father: In the Cadfael novel The Virgin in the Ice, Olivier de Bretagne turns out to be Cadfael's son by a woman he loved in his young roving days. This has ramifications later in the series, particularly in the final novel.
  • Mal Mariée: French for "badly married", this trope refers to a young woman unhappily married to a jealous older man who often falls in love and cheats on him with a young lover. In "The Rose Rent", the wife of a wealthy and aged wool merchant takes lovers while her oblivious husband is away on business. But when one of said lovers tries to use her as an alibi (he's innocent of that particular crime, but was engaging in other illegal activity nearby), she laughs in his face and makes it clear she has no intention of giving up the position and money her marriage gives her for him, moving her further from the usually sympathetic portrayal of this subtrope of Sympathetic Adulterer.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • The many potential interventions of Saint Winifred, whom Cadfael helped discover in the first novel.
    • Did God actually aim the Karmic Laser at Father Ailnoth for his hypocritical, self-righteous cruelty that ruined lives and drove a young girl to suicide? Cynric the verger certainly seems to think so.
  • Meaningful Name: Surnames being relatively new at that point in history, a lot of characters have surnames that still match their family's profession: Edric Flesher is a butcher, Turstan Fowler is a falconer, and so on.
  • Moustache de Plume
  • Murder by Inaction: In Raven In The Foregate, it turns out that the victim wasn't murdered (by being hit on the head and thrown in the river) at all. The man who witnesses his death, never previously a suspect, when it looks like another will be punished for the deed, comes forward and confesses that he simply didn't help the victim when he slipped on some ice, hit a tree stump and slid down the riverbank unconscious. Specifically, the victim slipped while he was was beating an elderly woman with his stave for begging for her nurseling's life when he overbalanced; she fled the scene as he fell and never saw what happened to him.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong:
    • Olivier to Empress Maude. He is presented as pure and noble for it instead of gray.
    • Gwion to Cadwaladr in The Summer of Danes. Here it's shown as bad because it leads to several entirely unnecessary deaths, all the more so because Cadwaladr has a bad case of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder that Gwion can't get his mind around. Gwion even murders a fellow underling of Cadwaladr's for seeing the writing on the wall and refusing his lord the help owed.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles
  • Never Suicide: Or at least never acknowledge that it is suicide - a mortal sin that would deprive the victim of Christian burial.
  • New Old Flame: Richildis, in the Cadfael novel Monk's-Hood is the girl he was affianced to before he set out on crusade.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: In One Corpse Too Many, Aline's assurances to Adam Courcelle that he couldn't have been expected to save her brother Giles and wasn't responsible for his death, when after Shrewsbury was captured he encouraged King Stephen to kill all its defenders, Giles among them. Also, it turns out he directly betrayed Giles when the latter attempted to change sides.
  • One Steve Limit:
    • Resolved in the case of two Historical Domain Characters by referring to them by different forms of the same name — hence, Empress Maude and Queen Matilda.
    • Two characters haring a name (Rhun) are even commented on by Cadfael, though they never meet.
  • Origins Episode: The short story "A Light on the Road to Woodstock", for Brother Cadfael.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Prior Robert Pennant. In Monk's Hood when the abbot is demoted it looks like we're going to see a Tyrant Takes the Helm story, but he is crushed when another man is chosen to be the new abbot at the story's end.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: The truth behind The Potter's Field.
  • Police are Useless:
    • Justified. This is medieval England, and lawmen like Hugh Beringar, who actually care about using patient detective work to see justice done rather than just grabbing the nearest, most powerless scapegoat and hanging them on circumstantial evidence, are thin on the ground. Illustrated in Monk's Hood when Hugh's sergeant Will Warden is in charge of investigating the murder of Gervais Bonel, and not only leaps straight to the wrong conclusion, but smugly ignores or brushes aside all evidence against his chosen suspect's guilt and is a huge Jerkass about the whole thing. He gets to keep his job: his approach is so normal to law enforcement of the era that Cadfael just accepts this is how it will go and has to work around it.
    • This trope can however, come in handy, as seen in A Morbid Taste for Bones. Griffith ap Rhys, the prince's bailiff, has very little interest in punishing Brother John for the minor crime of helping a most likely innocent man evade arrest, and none at all in overriding the locals' wishes and pursuing him when he himself "escapes" from a (very comfortable) confinement. The bailiff explains that it's common enough for petty criminals to flee their native lands and settle down to quiet and respectable lives in distant localities, or even return home years later once the heat has subsided, which is how Engelard, a Saxon, came to live in a Welsh village like Gwytherin. Brother John himself settles there in the end for the same reason; he and Shrewsbury abbey are mostly content to be rid of each other.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Abbot Radulfus. Saint Peter's Fair shows him both maintaining the traditional rights of the abbey and making accommodations for war-damaged Shrewsbury.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: The response of Rhisiart in A Morbid Taste For Bones, when Prior Robert offers him money for his support in exhuming St Winifred's body.note 
  • Seeking Sanctuary: The Sanctuary Sparrow.
  • Smug Snake: Cadwaladr is a self-centered backstabber who switches alliances as he sees fit with no regard to the consequences for other people (or indeed the consequences to himself any further than in the short term).
  • Stealth Pun: The title of The Rose Rent ostensibly refers to the annual rent of a single white rose paid by the Abbey to the owner of a house. However, it could equally refer to the climactic moment in which the bush from which the roses are taken is deliberately damaged (i.e. "rent") and its defender pays with his life.
  • Stigmatic Pregnancy Euphemism
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Averted in Summer of the Dane, where Heledd goes freely with the Danes who'd been holding her hostage, seeing as they'd never mistreated her and her options in England were to take the veil or marry a man she'd never met and become his obedient wife.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver:
    • 'Godric' in One Corpse Too Many.
    • Brother Fidelis in An Excellent Mystery. With some Sweet on Polly Oliver, as Brother Urien attempts Sexual Extortion when he sees something that implicates "him" in a disappearance.
  • Taking the Heat:
    • In The Devil's Novice, this almost gets a double treatment. A lord's second son and The Unfavorite stumbles across his beloved elder brother trying to hide a dead man. He immediately assumes that his brother is the killer, and tells him to get away and establish his alibi. The lord then catches the second son with the corpse and assumes in turn that he is the killer. The young man agrees to become a cloistered monk to spare the family name—but neither the heir nor the second son is the actual murderer. This would be a full-on double example except that the elder son had never had any intention of Taking the Heat himself—he was just trying to dispose of the body after his co-conspirator and friend committed the murder.
    • In The Potter's Field, a young man tries to take the blame for a murder he believes his father committed—to protect the family name. As it happens, his mother knows the truth and it's not what anybody expects.
  • Taking the Veil:
    • Avice of Thornbury in The Leper of St Giles has been a noble's mistress for years. She becomes a nun after his murder as a career not a vocation. Cadfael reflects that with her energy and ability she's likely to end up an Abbess or even a saint. She returns later in the series as Sister Magdalena, and is very much a Distaff Counterpart to Cadfael.
    • Judith from The Rose Rent seriously considers doing this, as much to get away from gold-digging suitors as because she feels like she's not really needed. Subverted when both Cadfael and Sister Magdalena caution her that Taking the Veil should be a calling-to, not an escape-from, and when she finds new love with Niall, who genuinely cares for her and doesn't give a damn about her wealth.
    • In Monk's Hood, Cadfael's New Old Flame Richildis thinks that she's the cause of a gender-flipped version—that Cadfael took the cowl because she married another man. Cadfael doesn't disabuse her of the notion.
    • Also gender-flipped in A Morbid Taste For Bones — Cadfael's sidekick became a monk because his young lady turned him down. It doesn't last.
  • That Old-Time Prescription: Brother Cadfael is the abbey's herbalist and apothecary, and the remedies he uses are both familiar via this trope and surprisingly accurate.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: Rhun in The Pilgrim of Hate is confirmed to be physically lame early in the novel, but during the festival of St. Winifred he drops his crutches and walks up the steps to her reliquary. He becomes a recurring character in the series, and retains the ability to walk whenever he appears.
  • Trail Of Breadcrumbs: In The Virgin In The Ice, Yves secretly punctures a large wineskin among the brigands' booty, causing his captors to unwittingly leave a trail of red wine-drops behind them in the snow.
  • Trial by Combat: Used in One Corpse Too Many. If the murderer was tried normally, evidence distressing to Beringar's love interest would be exposed. In order to keep it secret, Beringar demands the case be settled by combat instead.
  • Underling with an F in PR: In "The Rose Rent", Miles' mother starts boasting about her son's generosity in front of the sheriff, going on about how he gave a pair of his old boots away to a man (who was later found dead). Miles desperately tries to stop her, but by then it's too late: Cadfael and Hugh were wondering why the dead man (and presumed culprit) owned boots that didn't fit and whose distinctive prints were found at the site of the first murder, identifying Miles as the story's culprit.
  • Uriah Gambit
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: In The Heretic's Apprentice Canon Gerbert has a Freudian Excuse for his heretic-hunting in that he's seen some truly horrific cults during his travels.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Cadfael and Hugh become lifelong friends because they interacted this way in One Corpse Too Many, in this case in a battle of wits rather than steel.
    • Implied to be why the Fatimids treated Lazarus so well after he was captured and diagnosed with leprosy.


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