Imagine yourself projected back in time to the High Middle Ages in the west of England. The Benedictine Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul in the town of Shrewsbury, to be exact. It’s less than a century since the Norman Conquest, and the First Crusade had ended just forty years earlier. King Stephen reigns from London, but the Empress Maud has landed with one hundred forty men at arms at Bristol. The gentry are sharply divided between the two pretenders to the throne. And in this fevered atmosphere a wise Benedictine monk named Cadfael tends the herb gardens and ministers to the sick.
A former soldier and sailor in the Holy Land, Cadfael knows the ways of the world and is shrewd and perceptive to boot. When men or women turn up dead through misadventure nearby, as is often the case in these fraught times, it is he who is called on to investigate. And once again, in The Leper of St. Giles, Cadfael feels moved to pursue his private course to the truth, rejecting the hasty conclusions of the sheriff and the people of the town.
The Leper of St. Giles (Brother Cadfael #5) by Ellis Peters (1981) 224 pages ★★★★★
In this fifth book of the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, author Ellis Peters (1913-95), the pen name for Edith Pargeter, blends a mastery of the period’s history with a clever plot and an engaging cast of recurring characters. Cadfael himself, of course, hogs the spotlight. But others join him there from time to time: his gifted young assistant, Brother Mark; the commanding leader of the monastery, Abbott Radulphus (“an aristocrat and the equal of a baron”); Prior Robert, a none-too-likable Norman aristocrat; and the able Sheriff Gilbert Prestcote.
An aristocratic wedding, a leper colony, and a medieval murder mystery
It’s 1139, and all Shrewsbury, the Benedictine brothers, and even the lepers at the local leper colony are abuzz with excitement about the impending union in marriage of two local landed families. Yet shortly after the two wedding parties make their way into town in all their finery the bridegroom turns up dead. Huon de Domville is a detestable old man, his bride an eighteen-year-old orphan, Iveta de Massard, physically tiny and shy, sold to the old man by her avaricious aunt and uncle, Sir Godfrid and Agnes Picard. (Note the French-sounding names that denote Norman ancestry.) And soon it becomes clear that one of de Domville’s squires is in love with Iveta and is widely suspected of murdering the old man. Cadfael thinks otherwise. But it requires every ounce of his patience, determination, and resourcefulness to learn the truth of the man’s murder — and much else besides.
For additional reading
This is the fifth medieval murder mystery I’ve reviewed in the Brother Cadfael series. I’m gradually working my way through it from its beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (Reviewing the first book in the delightful Brother Cadfael series).
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