What a delightful book!
Robin Whiteman has made something of a career out of creating works based around the world of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels (see also Cadfael Country and The Cadfael Companion). Here Whiteman delves into Cadfael’s garden, where so many ills were treated and so many mysteries solved. First comes a first-rate introduction, the most harrowing part of which details the destruction of so many monastic herbals during Henry VIII’s Dissolution
Whole shiploads, we are told, were sent abroad to the book-binders, that vellum or parchment might be cut up in their trade.
You’d think at least a few of Henry’s New Men would have recognized the value of these priceless texts and rescued them, but noooo-oooo. But enough survived for a chapter on the monastic garden, where we learn
As the followers of the Benedictine Rule had a Christian duty to care for the sick and needy, ‘before all things and above all things’, plants were grown with special emphasis on their medicinal and healing virtues.
In Chapter 3 Whiteman makes a case for Ellis’ seasonal progress in the twenty Cadfael novels, ending with
The closing of the year and the imminent arrival of winter brings the entire sequence of Chronicles to a close. In the very last novel, Brother Cadfael’s Penance, set at the end of 1145, Cadfael is found ‘standing motionless in the middle of his small, beloved kingdom, staring rather within his own mind that at the straggling, autumnal growth about him.'”
There follows a chapter on herbs and healing
…even Prior Robert, who disapproved of the amount of freedom granted to Cadfael, considered him to be ‘the abbey’s most skilled herbalist and apothecary.'”
itself followed by an “A-Z of Medieval Plants and Herbs.” Among many delightful entries, we learn that almonds were used to make a kind of butter. Um. Like peanut butter? (You have to find a specialty store catering to Americans to find peanut butter in London, FYI.)
There follows a brief list of additional plants and then the jewel in the crown, a description (one might even call it a love letter), to the Shrewsbury Quest, a medieval heritage center in present-day Shrewsbury, just across the street from the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul. Ellis Peters’ study is there, you can work on your own illustrated manuscript, but best of all there is a twelfth-century herb garden with a replica of Cadfael’s workshop. The next time I’m in England…
Throughout there are lovely photographs, extensive quotes from the text of the Cadfael novels, and all kinds of beguiling little snippets of information about Brother Cadfael. He was born 14 years after the Norman invasion in 1066. The first chronicle is set in the spring of 1137, and Cadfael is 17 years tonsured and approaching sixty years of age. The last chronicle is set in 1145, and if you have a copy of Whiteman’s The Cadfael Companion, you will learn to your vast dismay that two years after Brother Cadfael’s Penance Abbott Radulfus dies and is succeeded in office by that despot-in-training Prior Robert. Both Radulfus and Robert were real historical characters.
I like to think Cadfael was, too. He is certainly very real to me, and this book only makes him more so.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.