CADFAEL — DEREK JACOBI — ITV 1994–1998
This series is interesting for many reasons. First of all, it is well done in a real setting, with a real abbey church and abbey, Shrewsbury Abbey, real stone and not plywood. The costumes and the quality of life in this twelfth century England are credible. The mud and the dirt are constantly present. The medicine of the time and the agriculture of the time are also in many ways true to what it was. The Benedictines are often called the engineers of the Middle Ages, and they were. A quick look in one episode on the scriptorium is probably not enough about that intellectual and technological importance of the order. They saved the libraries and the knowledge of the Roman Empire and brought it out when needed, particularly starting in the tenth century to develop the green revolution and later on the proto-industrial revolution centered on water mills, a Roman invention that the Romans did not use since they had slaves.
The think that is missing though is the fact that this evolution was based on the religious reform of the 9th century that imposed the fifty two Sundays as days without work, plus the three religious festivities, Nativity, Passion and Assumption, altogether seventy-five days without human work. You can imagine how important it was to invent the horse collar, crop rotation, fertilizing, and these water mills that replaced so many men and women, even children, making the dream of a society centered on religion and without slaves a possible dream. We do not see these realities and these events enough.
It is interesting too because many episodes are on the background of a civil war between a king and some rebels. King Stephen reigned from 1135 to 1154. This civil war connected with Wales as for the rebels is depicted as violent, brutal and absolutely unreliable. The monks were supposed to be neutral and at the same time supporting the King. Complicated. It is surprising though that the religious status they had was too often enough to protect them against the villains on either side. But this civil war was only an event that enabled the suspense to work in the episodes.
The main interest is of course in the mysteries and crimes that happen in this context. Brother Cadfael is an ex-crusader who came back and did not hold his promise to go back to the woman he left waiting behind. Instead he joined the Benedictine order. But he developed a vast knowledge on plants and cures for many ailments and his mind was also very speculative about the motivations of people and he was often called upon to investigate this or that strange situation with one or two dead people. He is of course very innovative, and yet we know that these Benedictines were very clever as for disentangling some complicated situation. We of course think of “The Name of the Rose.”
The murders, or at times mysterious deaths, were always dealt with in a modern way and the solution is never really what we expect. The director and the author play on our nerves and let us believe we know, though at times this piece of truth is so obvious that we know they want us to think we know, and the last twist reveals that we were wrong all along, just like Cadfael actually. That makes the stories interesting just at that level and the Crime Scene Investigation is always rich and tricky.
For all these reasons I think this series should satisfy many people who want to be titillated with mystery, crime and a spiritual dimension which is at times perverse but most of the time just real. Some of the monks are real obnoxious people, selfish, self-centered, frankly racist or segregationist. But some others are full of compassion and patience and they are those who carry the day in the end.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU