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Literature / Sister Fidelma

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“Find out, though the seas rise to engulf us, or the sky falls to crush us; only the truth is sacred.”

Series of historical mysteries by British historian Peter Beresford Ellis under the pen name of Peter Tremayne. Sister Fidelma of Cashel is a 7th-century Irish religiuse, educated at the abbey of Kildare. Also sister to King Colgu of Muman (modern Munster), and a trained dalaigh, or lawyer, Fidelma travels Dark Age Europe with her friend, later husband the Saxon Brother Eadulf, former gerefa (magistrate) of Seaxmund's Ham (modern Saxmundham, Suffolk).

Ellis uses Fidelma and Eadulf to expound to the reader on the society of Ireland during this period, and on the complex web of cultures, places, religions and rivalries. Irish society was surprisingly Fair for Its Day, compared with its neighbors. The stories often focus on specific points of law, or on comparison between societies and religions. Ellis brings up the following points particularly often:

  • Position was not strictly hereditary; kings and chiefs were elected by their families, and could be removed from their posts.
  • Up until the 9th century or so, many religious houses were co-ed; priests, monks and nuns could marry, and women could be priests and even bishops. At the time of the series, what we now call Catholicism was starting to gain ascendancy over Celtic Christianity, but it was not yet all-powerful.
  • Women's rights were relatively progressive. Women could take significant social roles such as warriors, rulers, and lawyers; they could own their own property and have child custody and alimony; they could choose their husbands and divorce them freely.
  • There were many laws for the safety of citizens and communities. Trials were a right; innkeepers were required to keep clean establishments and lit lanterns; workers in dangerous professions were required to safeguard their workplaces. There were also many types of legal agreements, for example nine kinds of marriage.

There are 33 novels, two novellas, and two anthologies of short stories. The first stories were published in 1993, and the first novel, Absolution by Murder, in 1994.

This series provides examples of:

  • Always Murder: At least three in every novel.
  • Artifact Title: Sister Fidelma quits the religious life about halfway through the series.
  • As You Know: Constant, both in-dialogue and out.
  • Asskicking Leads to Leadership: Irish chieftains were required to be of sound body, and stepped down when physically unfit. In one book, Colgu is attacked but the assassins don't even try to kill him, just injure and disqualify him for the kingship.
  • Busman's Holiday: Fidelma can't go anywhere without finding a mystery to solve, much to Eadulf's chagrin.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Averted every which way; while what will become Catholicism is recognizable, there are undercurrents of conflict both within it (even the Pope, while disapproving, didn't technically outlaw co-ed houses at the time) and between it and Celtic Christianity (different methods of crossing oneself, different tonsures, different official attitudes towards women). Other, more exotic varieties of Christianity also appear, such as Ethiopian.
  • Cliffhanger: A lot of the books ended with these after the main mystery was resolved, usually with a large hint as to the plot of the next book. Book 2 ended with Fidelma leaving Rome, with her believing she would never see Eadulf again. Another ends with her finding an abandoned, blood-stained ship with Eadulf's satchel (which Fidelma recognises because it contains a distinctive book she gave to him) on it. One ends with Fidelma announcing her pregnancy (to the reader, anyway. Opinion differs whether Eadulf knew and they just didn't mention it aloud). Another ends with Fidelma and Eadulf being handed an urgent letter saying their baby son has been kidnapped.
  • Elective Monarchy: The Irish system of tanistry comes up frequently.
  • Exotic Detective: Both to the reader (as a way to introduce a little known time and culture) and within the story; while Fidelma is well-known and accepted within Ireland, her Saxon friend Eadulf is less welcome, and this reverses itself outside Ireland where women are not expected to be so forthright, or to have such education. Or for a princess of Munster to concern herself with the doings of commoners who aren't even Irish.
  • Eye Colour Change: Fidelma's eyes flicker between green and blue when her mood changes.
  • Fiery Redhead: Fidelma has red hair, and acknowledges her quick temper can be a weakness.
  • Footnote Fever: averted. things other authors might bung in as explanatory footnotes often end up in the main text. See Shown Their Work below.
  • Foregone Conclusion: When a tanaiste (heir-apparent) is present, it's possible to look up whether they really did go on to succeed as king. If not, they're likely either to be a victim or exposed as the criminal.
  • Gaslighting: In a few stories, focusing on the status of mer or the insane.
  • Historical Domain Character: King Colgu, High King Sechnussach, and several other secular and religious leaders of the period. Novels are set at the Synod of Whitby and Council of Autun.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Della, one of Fidelma's closest friends, is a former be-taide, or prostitute.
  • Informed Attribute: Fidelma is regularly described as quirky and with a joy in life, but when she is on a case (pretty much 95% of when we see her), this disappears and she is irascible and frustrated with her often clueless companions.
  • The Low Middle Ages: Set in 7th century Ireland.
  • Modest Royalty: Fidelma, who as a religiuse just wears a habit. Occasionally averted for cause, such as putting arrogant nobles in their place. After she resigns from being a religiuse she dresses in civvies, but still much plainer than you'd expect from royalty, except for special occasions or when she's being official on Colgu's behalf.
  • Politically-Active Princess: Many of the murders have political implications for Colgu and his kingdom of Muman, so Fidelma often has to be diplomatic. It gets to the point where Colgu officially makes her a member of an elite noble fraternity so that she'll have the power to speak for him in certain situations, including legal matters.
  • Pretty Princess Powerhouse: Unarmed Irish religious were trained in an obscure martial art to protect them during their travels. More than once Fidelma uses this art to subdue armed attackers with her bare hands.
  • Shown Their Work: Tremayne's lengthy expositions often read like a university-level dissertation in all aspects of Irish language and culture in the tenth century. He is at pains to explain obscure points of language or law in the text where other authors might employ footnotes.
  • Significant Green-Eyed Redhead: Fidelma.
  • Succession Crisis: Many of the stories and novels, though as often focused on the death or selection of an heir, or tanaiste, as on a king or chieftain. Others are about attempts to overthrow kingdoms or ruling families. Kingship could pass between different septs of the same clan.
  • Summation Gathering: Almost every time. Often justified by Fidelma either presenting the solution before a judge as part of a legal case, or having to explain things to someone official or in authority who needs the whole story. Sometimes done so civilians involved in the case don't spend their whole lives wondering what the heck happened, or aren't Convicted by Public Opinion.
  • Taking the Veil: Played with; religious houses even before Christianity were closer to schools than places of worship. Fidelma becomes a religiuse primarily because of the educational opportunities it offers, and gradually withdraws from the religious life.
  • The Watson: Eadulf. Also, as a foreigner to Ireland, he has constant exposition spouted at him for the readers' benefit.
  • Time Skip: Despite a normal rate of mystery-solving up to four novels in an in-universe year, there are no volumes between the revelation of Fidelma's pregnancy at the end of one book and sometime after her son's birth over nine months later in the next. Fidelma seems to have solved no mysteries while pregnant, even in the short stories.
  • Will They or Won't They?: for the first half-dozen or so books, it's all but spelled out that Fidelma and Eadulf are made for each other, but they never seem to do anything about it. But eventually they become a couple, become parents and formally marry.
  • Would Hurt a Child: In Suffer Little Children an orphanage is burned down as part of a complicated plot to murder the heirs to the throne.