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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 25 novels and two anthologies of short stories. The first, Absolution by Murder, was published 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.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: 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.
  • As You Know: Constant, both in-dialogue and out.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Politically Active Princess: Many of the murders have political implications for Colgu and his kingdom of Muman, so Fidelma often has to be diplomatic.
  • Pretty Princess Powerhouse: Unarmed 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.
  • Summation Gathering: Almost every time.
  • 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.
  • 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.


Example of: