A Morbid Taste for Bones
A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first and many readers consider the best of Ellis Peters’ chronicles of Brother Cadfael, a Welsh monk during the Middle Ages. There were a total of twenty books in this series and with the passing of Ellis Peters in 1995, many mourn her death, not just for the sake of her family, but in the knowledge that her faithful readers will never come to the end of Brother Cadfael’s journey - A Morbid Taste for Bones introduction. Peters, who is of Welsh descent, writes her characters in that frame and includes authentic Welsh history within the context of her books. Brother Cadfael’s training as a Benedictine monk and a fighter in The Crusades is a testimony to Peter’s idea of writing a work of fiction but keeping the story in the framework or real historical events. It is an interesting combination that is not seen enough of in modern works of fiction. Peters skillfully weaves historical events into her fictional accounts.
The setting of the story is 12th Century England, a period of great turmoil. Added to the turmoil was the trouble still apparent in the social divisions between the largely Saxon population and their Norman rulers. The fall of the Saxon monarchy was only a hundred years previous and hostility still existed. The context of English oppression and The Crusades is very important in understanding the actions and motivations of Brother Cadfael and the Norman monks and the conflict that arises between the two main factions.
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One of the most intriguing and sinister of the Cadfael books, A Morbid Taste for Bones is an example of what can begin with good intentions, but end in evil. While following the general idea of the novel various supporting characters, which was played out for more humor and shock impact in the book; but still it ranks up there with the best of Cadfael as a chilling mystery. “Brother Cadfael himself found nothing strange in his wide-ranging career, and had forgotten nothing and regretted nothing. He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude.”
In A Morbid Taste for Bones, Brother Cadfael is sent with his order of monks, from the Abbey where he currently resides into Wales in order to collect the bones of the abbey’s patron saint Winifred. In a historical context, the importance or relic within Catholic doctrine can not be underestimated. Along with taking part in pilgrimages to The Holy Land and during the early Middle Ages, taking part in The Crusades, the indulgence of visiting and praying to relics was seen as an effective way in cleansing one’s sins and decreasing one’s time in purgatory. Concerning the relics of Saint Winifred, one of the young monks claims that he has a vision declaring that Winifred wants her bones to be buried at The Abby. Cadfael is chosen because he is the only monk who can speak Welsh. Cadfael is reluctant to do this and is uncomfortable with what he sees as the bullying of the Abby towards this small Welsh village with regard to their chief relic: the bones of Saint Winifred. It does not seem to occur to the Norman monks back in England that the locals in Wales may not be eager to give up the bones of their native saint.
As soon as the monks arrive in the village where Saint Winifred is buried, conflict arises Despite Cadfael’s protests (“there is no glory in digging up a girl’s bones”) Abbot Rudolf’s agrees to send a group of monks into Wales to retrieve the bones of the saint. ‘In my church,’ said Huw humbly, ‘I have never heard that the saints desired honour for themselves, but rather to honour God rightly.” There is a challenge among the Welsh people and what seems to be an excessive worship of their saint. Cadfael is expected to keep peace between the natives and Prior Robert. And so with Jerome, Robert, Columbarnus and several other chosen monks, they travel over the boarder into unfamiliar and unfriendly territory. Cadfeal, the only native Welsh among them, is welcomed more warmly than his companions but the townspeople have no desire to give up their saint. In what serves as a rush to judgment, Prior Robert attempts to bribe the leader of this protest, Lord Rhysart, into allowing them to take Saint Winifred. But this only further enrages the man who thinks ill of those who would “buy a saint,” and he promises that the monks will leave by morning’s light or face peril at the hand of his sword to stop burning passions and tempers among both his own group and those of the Welsh people, Cadfael is horrified when the following morning Rhysart is found dead. The reader finds out that he was shot with an arrow through the heart. The monks are forced to remain since the Welsh are certain one or more of them had a hand in it. But most of the blame is placed on an outcast who had a vendetta with Rhysart due to his love for the man’s daughter, Sinoed. With the boy on the run, and angry rivalries erupting all around him, Cadfael must attempt to piece together the truth and mark the true murderer before either the wrong felon is hanged, or one among his number goes too far. “He prayed as he breathed, forming no words and making no specific requests, only holding in his heart, like broken birds in cupped hands, all those people who were in stress or in grief because of this little saint, for if he suffered like this for their sake, how much more must she feel for them?”
This is an interesting aspect of the book as it talks to a greater historical fact between England and their neighbors on their island. The Norman Invasion had taken place a century before and the blending of Saxon and English culture helped to create a very powerful country; much more powerful that their neighbor to the North: Scotland, Ireland to the West and Wales, their immediate neighbor to the West. A degree of oppression would exist throughout the Middle Ages and into the Age of The Enlightment and beyond as centuries of financial and physical oppression levied upon Wales upon England took hold. It is important to place this aspect of the book within historical content in order to fully appreciate this aspect of the story.
It is not only the Welsh Christians that are challenged by the Normans but Brother Cadfael himself. He is repeatedly challenged by the Norman monks who are “fathers” a title given to members of the church that can grant absolution and give pardons for sins. Cadfael is unable to rise to that level because of his past as a soldier and the fact that he killed other men cancels out his chances to become a “father.” But Peters points out a more important impediment within the make up of Brother Cadfael and seemingly, one that Peters feels herself: the fact that Brother Cadfael is of Welsh descent. This completely cancels out his chances of rising to the rank of “father.”
In the midst of the passions that arose from the transfer of the bones, a death occurs that will serve as an impediment to his order as a monk. “Brother Cadfael himself found nothing strange in his wide-ranging career, and had forgotten nothing and regretted nothing. He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude.” In the end, Cadfael’s somber warning may come to fruition. “Have a care with visionaries; they are not always biddable.” From the murder, Cadfael will uncover hidden passions and secrets about himself which cannot help but seem foreign and serve as interior conflict within a man who is an ex-Crusader and one who is among one of the strictest orders in Christendom.
Peters’ stories of Brother Cadfael and his fellow brothers of the cloth give one a rare view into the workings of the medieval mind and a curious and often turbulent time in the history of England. She writes her characters as human, sometimes all-too-human with quirks that even the holiest of monks can display, and an interesting view of the miracles and prayers to saints that were a central part of medieval worship. One can appreciate that she writes with both a respect and reverence for the historical church, while still offering glimpses of the common foibles of human men of God. She creates characters that often highlight the dangers of ecclesiastical pride, and targets the pitfalls of those who used the blind beliefs of the uneducated as a key to amassing their own personal influence and power.
Her treatment of the Welsh passions and culture, so foreign to Cadfael’s fellow monks, showed a clear understanding of the wisdom of Welsh culture, and the reason the Welsh church avoided many of the faults of its English counterpart.
Due to the fact that A Morbid Taste for Bones is what is referred to as an historical novel, understanding the role of The Catholic Church in Medieval English culture is essential. Also, the role that the Norman Conquest within England and the England’s treatment of her immediate neighbors during that time can be seen in the book as the motivation of the Abbey monks and their complete disregard for Welsh culture and tradition as they forcefully take the bones of Wales’s most honored saint.
Peters, Ellis. A Morbid Taste for Bones. London: Mysterious Press, 1994.