Chronological Order: A Rare Benedictine (New York: Mysterious Press, 1991), A Morbid Taste For Bones (New York: Mysterious Press, 1994), One Corpse Too Many (New York: Mysterious Press, 1994), Monk’s Hood (New York: Mysterious Press, 1992), Saint Peter's Fair (New York: Mysterious Press, 1992), The Leper of Saint Giles (New York: Mysterious Press, 1995), The Virgin in the Ice (New York: Mysterious Press, 1995), The Sanctuary Sparrow (New York: Mysterious Press, 1995), The Devil's Novice (New York: Mysterious Press, 1997), Dead Man's Ransom (New York: Mysterious Press, 1997), The Pilgrim of Hate (New York: Mysterious Press, 1997), An Excellent Mystery (New York: Mysterious Press, 1997), The Raven in the Foregate (New York: Mysterious Press, 1997), The Rose Rent (New York: Mysterious Press, 1997), The Hermit of Eyton Forest (New York: Mysterious Press, 1989), The Confession of Brother Haluin (New York: Mysterious Press, 1989), The Heretic's Apprentice (New York: Mysterious Press, 1991), The Potter's Field (New York: Mysterious Press, 1991), The Summer of the Danes (New York: Mysterious Press, 1992), The Holy Thief (New York: Mysterious Press, 1994), Brother Cadfael's Penance (New York: Mysterious Press, 1996). Note: All editions listed here are reprints.
Ellis Peters (a pseudonym for Edith Pargeter) tells the story of Cadfael, a Benedictine monk of Welsh extraction who is the herbalist of Shrewsbury Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shropsure during the turbulent years of the war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud. The masterfully written twenty chronicles, which properly begin with A Morbid Taste For Bones, pit the wily former crusader against various mysteries, mostly involving murder. Cadfael solves these mysteries with a mixture of cunning and common sense and usually (though not always) the culprit is caught and brought to justice.
Being a history buff, I find the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael to be a magnificent series from the fact that Ellis Peters lets history be what it is. She tries not to be revisionist in her novels, but simply describes culture, thought processes, class consciousness, faith and religion as they would have been in that time. She does seem to have something against hypocrites or against people who do not recognize the weakness of the human being, though, but still pokes at the holier-than-thou crowd very gently to the point that even her most abrasive, self-righteous characters are enjoyable and even somewhat likable.
I love these books both for their magnificent characters, such as Cadfael, Hugh and Aline Beringar, Abbot Radulfus, Sister Magdalen, and Brother Mark, as well as the philosophy and faith that Peters evidences. Being an Evangelical, I am sometimes just a bit miffed about the Roman Catholic emphasis on praying to saints, the attributing of God's miracles to saints, and such things, but I remind myself that this was part of the culture then and that even so God ends up getting the glory more often than not. One of Cadfael's favorite lines is, “God has the right to expect some help from fallible men now and again.” And in general I agree.
For those who worry that such Mediaeval stories would suffer for the lack of strong women because male and female roles were more strictly defined than they are today, I would suggest reading any of the chronicles where Sister Magdalen or Aline Beringar show up or The Rose Rent with the masterful Judith Vestier. The women here are not pushovers and more frequently than not they are the ones making the plays and at times even Brother Cadfael finds himself at a loss from the wiles of women. Not only does he respect them, he knows that there are times when he must put things into their hands to see them done, because he is unable to do so.
The only complaint I have against the series is how the books are pretty repetitive with someone being accused of murder who couldn't possibly be at fault for it and Brother Cadfael doing everything he can to find the true murderer and clear the suspect. This gets old after about the fourth book in the series, but fortunately the side characters and the romances that pepper the novels here and there make up for the repetitiveness.
The first-time reader should start the series from the beginning with Cadfael's turning from the Crusade to the cloister in A Rare Benedictine, and then continue on with A Morbid Taste for Bones in order to Brother Cadfael's Penance. Because each book builds on the previous one, you'll find that it is to your benefit to read the entire series in order at least once.
With so many books in the series, the reader will naturally pick his or her favorites. Mine are as follows:
- The Pilgrim of Hate, for its magnificent insights into the nature suffering, the fact that it can be transcended, and that God rewards those who suffer patiently in the most amazing of ways.
- An Excellent Mystery, for an unusual marriage and the affirmation of what it truly means to be married and that this goes far beyond a mere living together and procreating.
- The Rose Rent, for its beautiful love story and the fact that it is the good, upright man who triumphs at the end.
- The Confession of Brother Haluin, for its careful treatment of forgiveness and its results in the life of one man.
- Brother Cadfael's Penance, because of Cadfael's selfless and self-sacrificing quest to save his son.