"A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael"

A Rare Benedictine (Brother Cadfael Mysteries)


Book: A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael

Author: Edith Mary Pargenter (aka Ellis Peters)

Illustrator: Clifford Harper

Publisher: Mysterious Press, republished 1991

ISBN-13: 978-0892963973

ISBN-10: 0892963973

Language level: 1 (nothing objectionable)

Reading level: Ages 13 and up

Rating: 5 stars (EXCELLENT)

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

For more information e-mail homeschoolbookreview@gmail.com

     Pargenter, Edith Mary (aka Peters, Ellis).  A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (published in 1988 by Headline Book Publishing PLC; republished in 1991 by The Mysterious Press Books, a division of Warner Books Inc., 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY  10020, a Time Warner Company).   Pargenter (1913-1995) was a prolific author of works in many categories, especially history and historical fiction, and was also honored for her translations of Czech classics; she is probably best known for her murder mysteries, both historical and modern. Born in the village of Horsehay, Shropshire, England, she had Welsh ancestry, and many of her short stories and books, both fictional and non-fictional, were set in Wales and its borderlands, and/or have Welsh protagonists.  During World War II, she worked in an administrative role in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and received the British Empire Medal.  Pargenter wrote using a number of pseudonyms; it was under the name “Ellis Peters” that she wrote the highly popular Brother Cadfael mysteries, many of which were made into films for television starring Derek Jacobi.  Cadfael, a fictional medieval detective, is a Benedictine monk and herbalist at Sts. Peter and Paul Abbey in Shrewsbury, the county town of the English county of Shropshire. Cadfael himself is a Welshman; his full name is Cadfael ap (son of) Meilyr ap Dafydd and he was born in May, 1080, to a villein (serf) family at Trefriw, in Gwynedd, northern Wales. 

     The stories are set between about 1135 and about 1145, during the civil war between the forces of King Stephen and Empress Maud (also known as Queen or Empress Matilda). Several true historical events are described or referred to in the books. For example, the translation of Saint Winifred to Shrewsbury Abbey is fictionalized in the first chronicle, A Morbid Taste for Bones, and the siege of Shrewsbury by Stephen in 1138 forms the setting for One Corpse Too Many.  Here is a complete list of the novels:

1. A Morbid Taste for Bones (written in 1977, set in 1137)

2. One Corpse Too Many (1979, set in August, 1138)

3. Monk’s Hood (1980, set in December, 1138)

4. Saint Peter’s Fair (1981, set in July, 1139)

5. The Leper of Saint Giles (1981, set in October, 1139)

6. The Virgin in the Ice (1982, set in November, 1139)

7. The Sanctuary Sparrow (1983, set in the Spring of 1140)

8. The Devil’s Novice (1983, set in September, 1140)

9. Dead Man’s Ransom (1984, set in February, 1141)

10. The Pilgrim of Hate (1984, set in May, 1141)

11. An Excellent Mystery (1985, set in August, 1141)

12. The Raven in the Foregate (1986, set in December, 1141)

13. The Rose Rent (1986, set in June, 1142)

14. The Hermit of Eyton Forest (1988, set in October ,1142)

15. The Confession of Brother Haluin (1988, set in December, 1142)

16. The Heretic’s Apprentice (1990, set in June, 1143)

17. The Potter’s Field (1990, set in August, 1143)

18. The Summer of the Danes (1991, set in April, 1144)

19. The Holy Thief (1992, set in August, 1144)

20. Brother Cadfael’s Penance (1994, set in November, 1145)

We watched all of the Brother Cadfael television mysteries that were shown in this country on PBS and really enjoyed them. 

     Brother Cadfael, in either book or film, has been recommended by some classical education resources as “historical fiction” to accompany a study of the Middle Ages for older students.  A Rare Benedictine is actually a collection of three short stories, originally written in 1979, 1981, and 1985, and set prior to the first novel, about the earlier days of Brother Cadfael, who sprang to life suddenly and unexpectedly in A Morbid Taste for Bones when he was already approaching sixty, mature, experienced, fully armed, and tonsured for seventeen years.  “A Light on the Road to Woodstock,” dated 1120, tells of his return to England from the Norman Wars in which he was a soldier during the time of King Henry and his solving the mystery of the disappearance of Prior Heribert who had come from the abbey in Shrewsbury to Woodstock to press the abbey’s case against Cadfael’s master Roger Mauduit, which led to his becoming a monk.  “The Price of Light,” dated fifteen years later, has now Brother Cadfael investigating the theft of two silver candlesticks donated to the abbey by Hamo FitzHamon of Lidyate.  And in “Eye Witness,” which may have taken place about the same time as the previous story, Brother Cadfael tries to find out who robbed and attempted to murder the chief steward Master William Rede, who collects the abbey rents.  Reading this book has left me with a desire to delve further into Brother Cadfael.

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