TV Series Review: Cadfael

CadfaelThumbby Brad Nelson
In this decidedly high-brow series that is made for PBS geeks and Anglophiles, Derek Jacobi stars as a sort of Sherlock Holmes in 12th century Shrewsbury, England.

In the parallel universe inhabited by the people who do not think that Miley Cyrus is anything but a pimple on pop culture, Derek Jacobi is (how do you say?) the man. Perhaps known best for his portrayal of Claudius in I, Claudius, Jacobi is a talented and compelling actor, and never more so than in Cadfael.

Cadfael is one of the elder brothers (a monk) in Shrewsbury abbey. He is an herbalist (that era’s doctor, one presumes) and trusted on-call Holmesian sleuth when mysteries erupt, and they often do in the rough and often uncouth surroundings. Brother Cadfael combines his innate intelligence, and vast worldly experience (he used to be a Crusader), with his own brand of scientific method.

Brother Cadfael often rolls his eyes at Prior Robert and Brother Jerome (his foils in this series) for their more superstitious ways. But Cadfael is far from a modern. He is a man of deep faith but one who also is aware of the decidedly

Prior Robert, Cadfael, and Brother Jerome

Prior Robert, Cadfael, and Brother Jerome

human element when it comes to religion. And both Prior Robert and Brother Jerome add the spice of conflict to nearly every episode. They do not approve of this monk’s unconventional methods. He really ought to know his place.

Usually assisting Cadfael in the odd murder or disappearance is the good and brave Sheriff of Shrewsbury, Hugh Beringar (originally, and definitively for this series, played by Sean Pertwee…there were two others who later took on the role). Beringar is often at odds with Cadfael having little to no understanding of Cadfael’s more scientific methods. But he generally gives him the benefit of the doubt because Cadfael gets the results. They end up becoming good friends.

What makes this show is its particularly strong cast including Terrence Hardiman as Abbot Radulfus, a traditional man, of obvious weight and moral authority, but one who recognizes the usefulness of Cadfael, although the two are often at odds in terms of just how far afield Cadfael may wander into more secular affairs.

CadfaelSmilingAnd outside of the walls of the Abbey was not always a safe place. Twelfth century England could be violent. This show is set inside the ongoing conflict for the throne between the Empress Maude and King Stephen, both who claim title to the throne of England. Cadfael and the Brotherhood often find themselves in the middle of this conflict. And even monasteries do not have the luxury of being neutral.

My only criticism of this show is that from time to time the plots can tend to be a little thick or just don’t string together well into a coherent whole. But this is usually just an annoyance. The true delight of this show is in watching Derek Jacobi fully flesh out the singular and engaging character of this unusual and likable monk.

I highly recommend this series which consists of thirteen episodes. These are based on the novels (there were twenty-one in all) by Edith Pargeter writing under the name of Ellis Peters. I give this TV series 3.5 old bones out of 5.

CadfaelCover

At and around the Shewsberry abbey, Brother Cadfael is a monk with a difference. Given a choice, he would enjoy just being a simple gardener and herbalist for his home. However too often, events force him to use his other talent as a master sleuth in response to mysterious crimes happening in his community. While he investigates these crimes, he often finds himself at odds with the contemporary attitudes of the times with his own ahead of his time beliefs. More »

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters

1. A Morbid Taste for Bones (published in August 1977, set in 1137)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
2. One Corpse Too Many (July 1979, set in August 1138)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon  •  Full Episode (in 8 parts) on YouTube
3. Monk’s Hood (August 1980, set in December 1138)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
4. Saint Peter’s Fair (May 1981, set in July 1139)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
5. The Leper of Saint Giles (August 1981, set in October 1139)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
6. The Virgin in the Ice (April 1982, set in November 1139)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
7. The Sanctuary Sparrow (January 1983 set in the Spring of 1140)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
8. The Devil’s Novice (August 1983, set in September 1140)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
9. Dead Man’s Ransom (April 1984, set in February 1141)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
10. The Pilgrim of Hate (September 1984, set in May 1141)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
11. An Excellent Mystery (June 1985, set in August 1141)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
12. The Raven in the Foregate (February 1986, set in December 1141)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
13. The Rose Rent (October 1986, set in June 1142)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
14. The Hermit of Eyton Forest (June 1987, set in October 1142)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
15. The Confession of Brother Haluin (March 1988, set in December 1142)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
16. A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (September 1988, set in 1120)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
17. The Heretic’s Apprentice (February 1989, set in June 1143)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
18. The Potter’s Field (September 1989, set in August 1143)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
19. The Summer of the Danes (April 1991, set in April 1144)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
20. The Holy Thief (August 1992, set in February 1145)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
21. Brother Cadfael’s Penance (May 1994, set in November 1145)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon

Cadfael Complete Collection is available on DVD ($47.19 new, $34.95 used) or Amazon Instant Video ($7.99 per episode, $44.99 season 1). Not available for streaming on Netflix.

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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35 Responses to TV Series Review: Cadfael

  1. CCWriter CCWriter says:

    Oh, I loved this series! Have it on DVD. And read all the books too.

    When I was visiting England in the 90s, I went to Shrewsbury for the day with my sister, who was also a fan. They had at the time (I understand it’s since closed) a sort of Cadfael-abbey experience, built across the street from the church which is still standing, though the original abbey was torn down centuries ago. They had typical abbey rooms with typical furnishings and activities staffed by “monks” who are history teachers on summer break, and an outdoor area that included Cadfael’s hut where he keeps his herbs and so forth. It wasn’t hokey at all–it gave you a feel for how things were in times past.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Wow. That sounds so cool. I’d really like to visit that place…especially Cadfael’s herb hut where he prepared and kept his ointments and remedies.

  2. Glenn Fairman says:

    I will be looking for this

  3. Kung Fu Zu says:

    A sort of Father Brown with a tonsure? I wonder was he Benedictine or Dominican? I find the picture interesting because it is Franciscans who wear a brown tunic. But I don’t think the order had been founded yet.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’ll let you know about that, Mr. Kung. I started reading the first installment of the Father Brown series just last night. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the two share some traits.

      I don’t offhand remember which order that Brother Cadfael belongs to. They would seem to be Benedictines. Okay, just confirmed that with a Google search. Definitely Benedictine.

  4. Timothy Lane says:

    I haven’t seen the TV episodes, though I’ve read many of the books. Peters wrote a story on Cadfael’s decision to become a monk, and also one in which Shrewsbury is a battleground in the civil war.
    An interesting note about Derek Jacobi: he also provided a favorable introduction to one of the revisionist books I have on Shakespeare (i.e., one that considers the Earl of Oxford to have been the playwright).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think Jacobi himself is likely a libtard…going by a few things I’ve heard from him. A shame, if true.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        That may be so, but I wouldn’t call him that because he finds the Oxford theory reasonable. I have 3 books on that subject (including one by the late Joseph Sobran, a conservative who became increasingly libertarian later in life) as well as several more orthodox studies of Shakespeare (and 2 complete sets of his works). Incidentally, the particular book for which he did his foreword was Mark Anderson’s biography of Oxford, which I highly recommend.

  5. NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

    I’ve seen some of the episodes years ago, and they were certainly enjoyable enough. I’ve pretty much given up on PBS these days, and not because it’s a Progressive stronghold that needs to be defunded 30 seconds after we get control of the government (although it is) but because I find what they’re doing is so far removed from their glory days back in the 70’s when they had Poldark, Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, and perhaps the best of them all, Jacobi’s I, Claudius in 1976. When sub-standard police melodrama like Prime Suspect is presented as if it were on a par with I, Claudius, you know that as an outlet of culture, PBS is about done.

    But an interesting choice for a review, and basically a worthy one.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The last thing I recall watching on PBS a couple of years ago was a Masterpiece Classics (I believe that’s what they called it) version of The 39 Steps (which follows the actual book much better than did the superb Hitchcock version).

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    In between Thorndyke novels I’ve been re-watching this series from the start. It’s now hard to find but worthwhile if you can.

  7. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have watched several episodes over the last couple of weeks and find the series to be quite satisfying, over all.

    A couple of the regular characters are somewhat stereotypical, but I suppose that is to be expected as Brother Cadfael needs to have a foil(s) in contrast to which his qualities shine. Prior Robert and Brother Jerome fit the bill perfectly. On the other hand, I find Cadfael’s assistant, Brother Oswin, to be something of a bore. Daft as a brush, doesn’t begin to describe him. Still, Cadfael shows patience and a loving attitude when dealing with him. He would have to strangle him if he didn’t.

    While I like good plots, I watch such period pieces more for the sets, scenery, costumes and characters, to whit for mood. This being the case, I am not overly disappointed if some of the stories seem somewhat less than completely thought out.

    Although the times during which “Cadfael” is to have taken place were very violent, and someone is murdered in each episode, there is something about the series which is…. gentle.

    Given the period in which the series takes place, it must perforce move more slowly than modern detective stories. And there is that fact that the central character is a monk and all action takes place around an abbey. Such things do not lend themselves to the hectic, some might say frenzied action one encounters in the average twenty-first century film.

    All in all, I not only find the series good, but more importantly I find it restful. It somehow soothes my soul.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      A violent time indeed. One of the books was set in a confrontation between the forces of Stephen and Matilda during that civil war.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Brother Oswin does have good parts in one or two of these. But, yeah, he’s a bit daft. But he’s an innocent, good-natured, well-meaning fellow. Quite the opposite of some of those hard-bitten old saws.

      Yes, I think that’s a good observation. There is something gentle about this series. Although Cadfael does sway a bit toward libtardism a time or two, he is not a hero of Richard Dawkins merely because Cadfael uses logic, reason, and more modern methods of deduction. But it’s never cold logic and reason. (And logic and reason are hardly foreign to the Church and are quite foreign to much of the world…including the libtards of today who believe in global warming as well as other myths).

      At the end of the day, Cadfael is a deep man of faith. And we see the variety of religious people in just that one monastery. It takes all types. His type happens to be a good one. He is a good man. And a complicated one. That’s another reason I like the show. Although perhaps Brother Jerome is a stereotype, he serves a purpose (and a time or two is at least less than Cadfael’s nemesis). Surely some men are one-note axe-grinders such as Brother Jerome. And do you recognize Prior Robert as the fellow that Darth Vader gives a battle promotion after just strangling (with the Force) his superior?

  8. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m working my way slowly through these again. A few comments. It would be interesting to hear what Mr. Kung thinks as well. I could edit his comments into this in a more organized way.

    Series 1 (1994)

    “One Corpse Too many”:

    Me: This episode seems to run on too long, although most of them are around 1 hour 15 minutes. The general setting, which will play in many episodes, is introduced: The conflict between King Stephen and the Empress Maude. The friendship and mutual professional respect between Cadfael and Sheriff Hugh Beringar is also established, although they started out more as adversaries. This is a so-so plot but, as with all things Cadfael, the strength is always in the characters.

    “The Sanctuary Sparrow”:

    Me: A fairly straightforward murder mystery. The historical drama aspects comes in as you see the Church woven in centrally to the plot. A traveling entertainer is suspected of murder. He takes refuge in the Abbey. Almost like a children’s game of tag, he does not actually gain sanctuary until touching the cloth on the altar. Cadfael’s own character is established as a particular good judge of character. He suspects there is another culprit. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is notable as a central character in this. He is so young, he is barely recognizable as such.

    “The Leper of St. Giles”:

    Me: In each episode so far there has been a reference to Cadfael’s past. He was a Crusader and can hold his own even while wearing the poor sackcloth of a brother in his Order. This aspect rises again. In perhaps the most engaging plot thus far, the Baron Huon de Domville is the corpse-of-choice in this one. He was to marry a pretty young lady who may be doing so against her will. Several motivations for the killing, combined with a possible frame job, create quite the mystery for Lord Beringar and Cadfael. And it is not the only episode where flowers come into play as vital clues.

    Next up:

    “Monk’s Hood”:

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I watched the above a couple of weeks back. Once I finish the series, I will go back and watch them again.

      I just finished watching “The Rose Rent.”

      The monks bury a wealthy weaver who left behind a good sized establishment with many people in his employ. For those who are not familiar with English history, it was woolen cloth which was exported across Europe which created enormous wealth for the country and this was to the advantage of the Crown. Many believe it was the first large scale industry in Europe.

      In any case, even as the monks are putting the husband into the ground, several men at the funeral are already imagining themselves as the widow’s next husband. They begin pressing the widow immediately and she spurns them all.

      The widow cannot bear living in the same house that she had shared with her deceased husband so she gifts it to the Abbey in lieu of an annual rent of one white rose per from the bush in the house’s garden. The widow moves into another home and the rent is delivered to her by the young monk who tends the garden. He feels a certain warmth for the widow and believes this sin is what causes the rose bush to start wilting.

      Of course, the poor young man ends up dead, lying beneath the rose bush, stabbed through the heart. Thus starts Brother Cadfael’s pursuit of the murderer.

      The reader will have to watch the rest of the episode in order to find out how things progress.

      In some ways I find this the most pleasing episode so far. OK, I admit it, I found Mistress Perle, aka Kitty Aldridge, quite attractive. She is not only a good looking woman, but she played the part of the demure guilt driven widow very well. I am beginning to understand how those spurned suitors felt.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        A true English beauty. I’m glad you’re enjoying those episodes. I think you’ll agree they’re somewhat a mixed bag. But compared to the backdrop of all the utter crap on TV, it’s a breath of fresh air.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Compared to the rubbish one sees on TV today, this series is the Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            The service we provide his is not to endlessly sift through The Daily Drama outrages in some kind of shamanistic fashion whereby we suppose our offense will somehow manifest itself in a changed world. We do not believe that if we only ball up our anger enough it will send waves through the world like the righteous exploding of a supernova.

            Sure, we do monitor what’s happening out there. (As noted: George “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy” Takei has been added to the list of offenders. Huzzah!) But our job here, such as it is, is to provide content, guidance, and resources for operating outside of and above The Daily Drama. And the times we do delve into The Daily Drama, it is mostly to ridicule the ridiculousness of it all.

            And certainly “Cadfael” is a better drama to watch than most of the stuff out there, whether cinematic or political.

  9. Timothy Lane says:

    I think I read the book, but that was years ago, and of course they’re no longer available to me. Note that the wool trade, a couple of centuries later, would be the basis of the initial fortune of William de la Pole, whose family would eventually become Dukes of Suffolk (one was a notorious corrupt leader and fierce enemy of York, who was exiled and taken from his boat by angry raiders from Kent; later the family would switch its loyalty to York, and at least one member would be a Yorkist pretender).

  10. Timothy Lane says:

    Note that Ellis Peters has also written books as Edith Pargeter. Much of her work is contemporary mystery, and much consists of historical novels. One, The Bloody Field, is set at the 1406 battle of Shrewsbury and the events leading up to it — also the setting of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth Part One. Her interpretation of the relationships between Henry IV, his son (later Henry V), and Hotspur is very different from Shakespeare’s; in particular, Hotspur comes off much better, though without any such famous line as his response in the play to Glendower’s claim to “summon demons from the vasty deep”: “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call them?” I highly recommend it if you can find a copy.

  11. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Last night I watched “St. Peter’s Fair”, one of the third season's episodes.

    The annual three day fair is to start and the locals are miffed as they must close their shops for three days, i.e. they don't get any of the pickings. They go as a group to the Abbot and demand 10% of the Abbey's take of fair proceeds. Of course, the locals are rebuffed and the cobbler's son makes threats about the monks getting what's due them.

    That night, the tradesmen of Shrewsbury riot and attack some of the traveling tradesmen who have come to town for the fair. The wine merchant, who has a beautiful niece with him, knows how to defend himself and gives the cobbler's son a good wack with a stout wooden staff, ala Little John of Robin Hood fame.

    The next day, the wine merchant is found floating in the water with a knife would in his back.

    Thus is the stage set for Brother Cadfael to work his wonders of detection.

    I found the reasons behind the murder/s in case this very believable, which I cannot say for every episode I have seen.

    One of the pleasures of such a British series is that familiar faces keep popping up. Some guy's mug comes on screen and I think to myself, "I know that man", but I can't exactly place where I have seen him before. In "St. Peter's Fair", the guy was the cobbler. He looked very familiar, but not famous. It took a while, but I finally recalled he had played Lol Ferris, the country bumpkin in "As Time Goes By."

    As with all the Cadfael episodes, this one is in no rush to get to the end. Some might find that a negative, but I don't. I am happy to take a ride on the ox-cart which brings us to our destination just as surely and the latest McLaren speedster.

  12. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have finally finished the series. I found the fourth season to be fairly weak. Nevertheless, I can say that “Cadfael” is worth watching, especially if one is interested in period pieces from the U.K.

    This is not a series for those with ADHD. Non-stop action is not part of the formula. Things take place at a leisurely pace and thank God there are no bombs, plane crashes or car chases. In any case, after Bullitt, all other car chases are second-rate.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think that’s a pretty good and fair description of the Cadfael series, Mr. Kung. The content is spotty. I’d say of the 13 episodes that 4 of them are particularly good, 5 are fair, and 4 are not particularly good (although the still likely contain some good parts).

      I’m still working my way through this again. I gave it up for a while and will have to get back to it. But I have watched most of these at least 3 or 4 times already.

      My favorite remains “A Morbid Taste for Bones.” You just get all angles of Cadfael’s life. He rolls his eyes at some of this religious stuff and yet his faith is rock solid. Somehow he successfully can distinguish between God’s works and man’s eccentricities. Cadfael shows himself to be a good and wise man in a world where clear and clean responses to man’s doings are often a challenge…even for this distinguished monk.

      If memory serves, “The Virgin in the Ice” is perhaps the worst of the stories. I know there are a couple that just never come together as stories. I have the impression that they had taken double the amount of footage to properly tell the story and hacked off 50% and pasted various bits together into an almost incoherent mess.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        As it happens, the first Cadfael book I read was A Morbid Taste for Bones. As I recall, he was sent to pick up a set of saint’s bones at an abbey in Wales, but found a lot of local resistance. He managed to “find” a second set of supposed saint’s bones, and brought them back to Shrewsbury in the guise of the bones he was supposed to get.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          That’s very much the plot line, Timothy. It’s easy to munge bits and pieces of various episodes together – so many of the plots share similarities, But if memory serves, a young novice has had a “vision” that St. Winifred desires to be moved from her homeland (a remote location in Wales) to Shewsbury Abbey.

          At the time, the abbey’s roof is in desperate need of repair so this is a very convenient vision for Cadfael’s monastery. Also, it occurs to me there’s another episode wherein a neighboring abbey has been damaged because of the war between Maude and Stephen. The abbot of that abbey comes to Shrewsbury to collect relics to be on loan until the monastery is rebuilt or repaired, but Prior Robert and others are not at all confident that they’ll get the bones and other relics back again.

          Anyway, jus shows you that I need to watch these again to set my memory straight. But I do think there is a novice having quite convenient visions. The impression is that he’s faking it. Well (spoiler alert for those who haven’t watched it yet), I do believe Cadfael finds out he’s faking it…or at least is not entirely trustworthy.

          And (more spoilers) the wonderful twist at the end is that this novice is killed. Cadfael then makes a deal with the head of the Welsh village to switch bones. I don’t remember if they put the novice’s body in the box supposedly containing St. Winifred or if they just put any old bones in the box and buried the novice in an unmarked grave. But the end result is the Winifred stays in Wales.

          Cadfael, who has been under the critical eye of Prior Robert and/or Jerome while assisting in the negotiating for St. Winifred, stages it so that it looks like the young prophetic novice has ascended right to heaven. He had been standing watch over St. Winifred alone in a hut or tent. Cadfael lays his cloths out (sans body) surrounded by the petals of a particular flower known to be a sign of St. Winifred.

          The basic essence behind the story is the marketability of saintly relics. The trade is a bit grotesque. The practice inundated with superstition. But who’s to say for sure? Cadfael is somewhat of an unbeliever in relics, per se, but not God and the various beliefs of the Church. He’s hardly a reformer. As a viewer, Cadfael is somewhat of a stand-in for us as we view this stuff and also roll our eyes. I’ll have to watch that again tonight or tomorrow if I get a chance. It would be skipping ahead a bit in the current cycle of episodes, but what the heck.

          I watched this episode last night before retiring. There was no roof to be repaired in “A Morbid Taste for Bones.” It starts off with Brother Columbanus (an introduced character, and a novice, I think) suddenly having a beatific vision while in the sanctuary at Shrewsbury. Brother Jerome, with some scheme in mind already for the bones of St. Winifred, steers Columbanus toward the idea that his vision is of Sister Winifred.

          Columbanus is likely sincere in his brief diversions from reality that occur throughout the episode. Whether he is suffering for epilepsy or some other malady is unclear, but it does seem to be something. Despite the apparently sincerity of these “visions,” he seems to self-consciously love the idea of being the center of attention. There is the clear idea that he is elaborating.

          And at the end, Cadfael apparently puts the body of Brother Columbanus in the decorated box meant to hold the bones of St. Winifred. Brother Jerome notices at the end while helping to life the box into a wagon that mere bones could weigh so much.

          I hope that is a lead-line, air-tight box or Cadfael’s deception would be quickly noticed.

  13. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m still working my way through another viewing of the Cadfael episodes. To recap:

    1) Once Corpse Too Many — 2 stars out of 5
    2) The Sanctuary Sparrow — 3 stars out of 5
    3) The Leper of St. Giles — 3-3/4 stars out of 5
    4) Monk’s Hood — 3-1/2 stars out of 5
    5) The Virgin in the Ice — 4 stars out of 5
    6) The Devil’s Novice — 4 stars out of 5
    7) A Morbid Taste for Bones – 5 stars out of 5
    8) The Rose Rent — 2 stars out of 5

    One thing I noticed is that “The Virgin in the Ice” rose much higher in my estimation upon viewing it again after a couple years. Conversely, “The Rose Rent” I find to be a bit of a bore. I’m going to guess this is a botched screenplay. The book can’t make this little sense. Judith Perle, the damsel in distress (if only from being over-pursued by suitors), decides to give her estate to Shrewsbury Abbey after the death of her husband.

    This is potentially a good character. But she is a contrary character. She’s supposed to be the woman taking charge of her life and yet she keeps making stupid decision after stupid decision just to move the plot along and put herself in danger. Once, maybe twice, it works. But after that it’s annoying.

    And what there is of the plot makes little sense. Okay, Judith (for some McGuffin reason) makes terms with the abbey to pay her one white rose per year from her old garden as rent. Someone poisons the rosebush and murders the monk who was taking care of it. Why? Well, it makes no sense. Supposedly to get Judith to reconsider her gift and reconsider leaving the world for a convent. She’s treated like a piece of prime beef by all the villager men who just assume she must marry again.

    And that would be okay except for her waffling, misdirected, and conflicted character. She’s supposed to be both vulnerable yet totally in control of her life. She’s supposed to be smart enough to make her own way and yet time after time she’d doing stupid things. And the gadget ending is that one of her suitors is a little crazy in the head for her. Why? She’s pretty but not that pretty. And she’s not all that young. And she’s not all that well off. If she were the last woman on earth after some kind of plaque, this plot would make sense. As it is, it does not.

    I had always thought “The Virgin in the Ice” dragged on too long. But, for a Cadfael episodes, I think the story is solid, especially the subplot of Brother Oswin being unsure whether he had been naughty or not.

  14. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Last night I finished rewatching all the episodes of “Cadfael.” The series finishes fairly strongly. The series 4 episode, “The Holy Thief” could easily be watched back-to-back as a double feature with “A Morbid Taste for Bones.” Both are about claims to the bones of Saint Winifred.

    The second to the last episode in the entire series, “The Potter’s Field,” is a good tale about a young married man who hears the calling of God to join the brothers in Shrewsbury. His shrew-life wife’s reaction to his decision (although understandable to some extent) perhaps tells you why this fellow might indeed have heard a calling in the first place.

    But he seems utterly genuine. The strange thing about this series is that it’s ultimately not about bashing monasteries or the Catholic Church, although certainly it does not blanch from criticism of some of the elements (such as the reliance on old bones and superstition as a vital source of income). You do have plenty of these genuinely pious character, including Cadfael himself who is played by the completely left wing and atheistic Derek Jacobi.

    But for every genuine convert there is the obviously bad-spirited church official such as the ghastly Father Ailnoth in The Raven in the Foregate. The plot of this one is a little silly and convoluted but Peter Guinness is 100% electric as the nasty Father Ailnoth.

    Monastic life is no refuge from the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maude. Shrewsbury abbey is not sacked, but others are. This was the factor that brought the Ailnoth-like Sub-Prior Herluin (“The Holy Thief”) from the ransacked Ramsey Abbey, burned to the ground in the civil war. With him is his somewhat odd, but likable, protege Tutilo who (quite conveniently) has visions of Saint Winifred helping to rebuild Ramsey Abbey.

    Brother Oswin goes missing from the last three episodes. In the last episode, “The Pilgrim of Hate,” he’s replaced by the even more naive (and far less sympathetic and personable) Brother Adam. As annoying as Oswin’s awkwardness could be, he was a good-natured young monk who always wanted to please. Brother Adam is just an odd fish with no positive personality traits.

    Perhaps strangest of all are the three Hugh Beringars in the series. The first (played by Sean Pertwee in the first four episodes) is excellent. I’m not sure why he quit the series. He’s replaced by a serviceable, if far less grand, Eoin McCarthy as Hugh Beringar 2.0. But by the time we get to series four we have the awfully dull and stupid Anthony Green version of Beringar. When you contrast the first and the last, there really is no comparison.

    But Prior Robert and Brother Jerome remain consistent adversaries of Cadfael. One never really knows what they object to in him. It’s just become a habit. I’m supposing the books flesh out these relationships with more detail. In the series they simply snarl at Cadfael about every chance they get. There’s not much depth there.

    But Terrence Hardiman as Abbot Radulfus does play a mature, wise, and fair-minded Abbot who balances the factions quite well. All in all, monastic life doesn’t look all that bad, especially compared to the dirty and brutish life lived by common villagers outside of the abbey walls. And in the time of the civil war, there were roving bands of marauders who were ostensibly fighting on one side or the other but who, in practice, where simply murderous vandals.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The life of common villagers is made worse by being serfs, of course. It would be harsh even without that, but serfdom makes it utterly intolerable — but they still had no real choice but to tolerate it. The practice continued into the 14th century but was dealt an ultimately fatal blow by the Black Death. (In Michael Jecks’s series about a local bailiff and an ex-Templar solving crimes, mostly in the vicinity of Exeter, the first is still a serf.)

      I don’t remember which book it was, but the struggle between Stephen and Matilda reaches Shrewsbury in one of them. I don’t think it was the main armies, and was more a confrontation than a battle. It may have been a siege, though not (at least during the book) as bad as many.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The life of common villagers is made worse by being serfs, of course. It would be harsh even without that, but serfdom makes it utterly intolerable — but they still had no real choice but to tolerate it.

        I don’t doubt you are right, Brother Timothy. And I remember reading about how The Black Death put an end to feudalism. Labor was in such demand, the laborers could bargain from a much better position.

        What one learns (or should learn) from viewing historical dramas such as “Cadfael” is that Asian university students giving speeches in their underwear because of “oppression” look very silly indeed…and not just because of the underwear.

        And as harsh as Prior Robert and Brother Jerome could be, I have much sympathy for them because they were trying to keep order (physical and moral) within a morass of peasant debauchery and filth. Yes, they often went overboard and were overly harsh and lacked compassion. And yet these were monks living according to a strict rule which included discipline, work, more discipline, and even more work.

        Feudalism aside, it’s arguable that (certainly in our own world) other than the truly lame, what the peasantry needed to do was mimic the virtues of the monastery, not those found in a tavern or whorehouse. This is still true today. I very much lament that being a bum, vagrant, or junkie has been glorified by the sanitizing word “homeless.”

        Seeing our country turned into a third-world country in places because of illegal immigrants, it gives me newfound respect for that most familiar of things (or so it had always been): The Protestant work ethic. Whatever our situation in life, we can live reasonable neat, clean, and ordered lives. We can work to whatever our physical and mental capacities allow us.

        This is the true rot of socialism as it glorifies bums, vagrants, law-breakers, excuse-makers, and the lazy. God grant us the wisdom to appreciate what our Protestant forebears clearly understood: idle hands are the devil’s playground.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Robert Heinlein in one of his books (it may have been Sixth Column, in which an Asian conquest of America is reversed by a handful of people with what amounts to a magic weapon) differentiates between a hobo (a homeless wanderer who nevertheless works for a living) and a tramp or bum (who lives on handouts, and maybe occasional thefts). Roger MIller’s “King of the Road” is sort of a combination of the two, which is probably quite realistic.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            The idea of traveling the country and working as you go is a romantic notion. Some people just don’t want to settle down. America wouldn’t be what it is if this were not so.

            I’ll take the distinction between hobo and bum. I suspect most these days are bums. An entire public/private infrastructure has grown up to support a moocher class.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I might just pull out my Cadfael CD’s and have another look. Although they varied from episode to episode, I think they were pretty good, on balance.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Two of them that I really just don’t care for, Mr. Kung, are the very first episode, “One Corpse Too Many,” and the first episode of season two, “The Rose Rent.” Other than that, I find them to be generally pretty good. Let’s just say there isn’t much else out there like it.

        I find myself drawn, if only from the safety of idealized distance, the idea of monastic life. Who couldn’t benefit from simplifying one’s life? Who wouldn’t gain from a steady routine unconnected to video games, television, or Twitter? Who’s soul wouldn’t be enhanced by making central The Big Issues rather than getting lost in time-wasting trivialities?

        What one loses, of course, is freedom. This is a regimented lifestyle with some Orders being more stringent than others, but all are far from a glorified country club with hoods. I wouldn’t mind the rules, per se, if I thought they were being enforced fairly and consistently. But something tells me that once you get a lot of people involved you run into all the same old problems. Thus a central virtue to monastic life, perhaps more than any other, is obedience. One can make a virtue out of obedience even if the orders are somewhat arbitrary or even malicious. You likely must do so.

        Cadfael admits that obedience is what he struggles with most. With the fair-minded Abbot Radulfus, I think it would be relatively easy. But what if Prior Robert had succeeded Abbott Heribert (who is called away and replaced in the fourth episode)? I would find it nearly impossible to grin and bare it, especially with his sniveling second, Brother Jerome.

        Although there is probably no substitute for physically living in a like-minded community, I think many can, and do, live a somewhat monastic life outside the walls of a monastery — at least some of the time. Given how left wing the Jesuits are (and I’m guessing some of the other Orders aren’t far behind), it’s refreshing to know that the real and traditional ideas, principles, and practices can exist outside the walls as surely as they are often extinguished inside them. The walls we erect may be intangible, but they are still as real — for instance, making an effort to exist outside The Daily Drama.

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