Thursday, July 24, 2008
Review: The Holy Thief - The 19th Chronicle of Brother Cadfael
Cadfael is a sleuthing monk, a Holmes of the Bendectine Order, but more than a brother also a herbalist, man of medicine, and a former soldier and Crusader. This was my first reading trip through 12th century Shrewsbury Abbey and it was great fun.
In this chronicle, Cadfael tackles a theft and a murder alongside his friend Hugh Beringar, the reeve of the shire. The theft of the celebrated relic of Shrewsbury leads to a fascinating thread through the tapestry of local politics, authorities , and medieval Catholicism-very devout but deeply confused. This is a world of powerful and rigid authorities both sacred and secular, of saints and relics, of place and position-a world far from the modern or "post-modern". I'm no historian of the Middle Ages but this seems like a worthy immersion into the medieval mindset.
Most interesting is the tangled process of determining the will of a dead saint concerning the saint's own relic. The culmination of the process is application of sortes biblicae, the use of the Bible for divination. This is performed by the seeker taking a copy of the Gospels in hand and letting it open randomly and placing a finger somewhere on the open pages. The portion by the placed finger is read aloud and then applied to the decision at hand. This is truly foreign territory but one must remember that this was an age when most truly believed every event to be the evidence of the will of God.
Furthermore, it's just a good tale! Imagine murder and mayhem among monks! Sin among those totally dedicated and separated to holiness. The many different characters-the monks, peasants, sheriffs, lords, and troubadors-and the interplay between them are well drawn. If you need exhilarating racing action this is not for you, but if you enjoy a good story woven together then pick it up and spend a few afternoons in its pages, it won't disappoint.