A review by blackoxford
A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters


Affectionate Sarcasm

This first Cadfael story is about clerical arrogance, deceit, vanity, pettiness, ambition, vengefulness, and ultimately homicide in a 12th century monastic community. It also touches on idolatry and superstition in medieval Britain. And it makes several clever swipes at clerical celibacy and misogyny, miracles, religious piety, and the efficacy of prayer. Yet for all that it cannot be judged anti-religious. It is clearly a work in which there is an underlying appreciation for the ideals of medieval Catholic culture.

Edith Pargeter’s skill in carrying off such apparently contradictory intentions is probably what makes her Cadfael series so popular. What she endorses about Christianity is unstated but understood. It is the character of Cadfael himself, who after a rather full life of adventure - sexual as well as geographical - finds monastic life and its routines to be just what he needs. It is through his eyes that all the deficiencies of the Church are observed and recorded. And yet he implicitly assures the reader that it remains a worthwhile institution.

There is more than a touch of Pre-Raphaelite sentimentality in Pargeter’s prose (captured rather well I think in the cover of my edition). Nevertheless it is impossible for me at my stage in life to disagree with Cadfael’s express motivation for adopting the lowly status of monk: “When you have done everything else, perfecting a conventual herb-garden is a fine and satisfying thing to do.” I understand entirely.

Postscript: I suspect that Pargeter’s St. Winifred is based on the legend of the 12th century St. Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford. The famous Pre-Raphaelite stained glass artist, Edward Burne-Jones, created a large window in Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral in 1858 depicting scenes from her life. The last of these has various of her devotees surrounding her deathbed (see below). In the background Burne-Jones has placed a modern porcelain flush toilet. Pargeter emulates just this sort of tongue in cheek humour in her story.
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