Cover image of "The Devil's Novice," a cleve medieval mystery

Reading the Cadfael Chronicles is one of the best ways I’ve found to open a window on life in medieval Europe. Set on the English-Welsh border in the middle of the twelfth century, these clever little mysteries illuminate life within a Benedictine monastery, in the surrounding town, and in the country at large during its first major civil war. Collectively, the books represent a tour de force of historical fiction. Brother Cadfael is both detective and physician in the context of his time. How he goes about his duties conveys an accurate picture of forensic science as well as prevailing practices in medicine in England’s Middle Ages. At the same time, in background information solidly grounded on historical fact, author Ellis Peters introduces us to the brutal realities of the civil war known as The Anarchy which dominated that period. The Devil’s Novice, the eighth book in this medieval mystery series, brilliantly accomplishes all these ends.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

About that civil war the English tend to forget

The Anarchy—Britain’s first (unacknowledged) civil war—was barely two years old in 1140 when The Devil’s Novice opens. Less than a century earlier, Duke William of Normandy—known to us as William the Conqueror but to many of his contemporaries as William the Bastard—had conquered the country at the Battle of Hastings. On his death, rule passed to one after another of his sons. His fourth, who ruled as Henry I, had died in 1135 without a male heir. He named as his successor his daughter Maud (or Matilda), widow of the Holy Roman Emperor and known as Empress Maud. But a cousin, Stephen of Blois, claimed the throne. Beginning in 1138, the two claimants battled on and off for sixteen years until Stephen’s death in 1154. Ironically, the crown then passed to Maud’s son, who became King Henry II of England and Normandy, establishing the Plantagenet Dynasty. With his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, he also controlled half of present-day France.

The Devil’s Novice (Brother Cadfael #8) by Ellis Peters (1983) 273 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of Derek Jacobi who starred as Brother Cadfael in the PBS series that aired from 1994 to 1998, based on the medieval mystery series
Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael in the PBS Mystery! series that aired in the United States from 1994 to 1998. Image: Television Heaven

A young novice in the monastery leads Cadfael to a murderer

The eponymous character in The Devil’s Novice is the younger son of a minor local lord. At age nineteen, Meriet Aspley arrives to join the Benedictine brotherhood at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, the principal town in Shropshire. Meriet soon proves to be a disruptive force. He frightens the young boys in the abbey’s school and interrupts the brothers’ sleep with loud cries and shouts at night. Most of the brothers want him severely punished for succumbing to the will of the Devil, but Cadfael rejects their superstition. He suspects something real and terrible has occasioned the young man’s nightmares. Abbot Radulphus supports him.

Like Brother Cadfael, we do not see it as a coincidence that a high-ranking envoy of one of the realm’s most powerful bishops had gone missing within hours of leaving Meriet’s father’s domain. Meriet had arrived at the monastery very shortly afterward. And when it becomes clear that the envoy has been murdered, Cadfael is convinced the young novitiate knows who killed the man—or even did the deed himself. But Meriet’s older brother seems the likelier suspect. Teaming up with Hugh Beringar, Shropshire’s Deputy Sheriff, Cadfael plays a leading role in the ensuing investigation. At length the case leads to a shocking conclusion. And, in the process, we gain insight into just how messy and violent was the Anarchy swirling throughout England.

About the author

Photo of Ellis Peters, author of this medieval mystery
Ellis Peters in 1993, two years before her death at the age of 82. Image: Shropshire Star

Ellis Peters was the pen name of Edith Pargeter (1913-95), who was best known as the author of the Cadfael Chronicles, which are set in her native Shropshire. She wrote the 21 novels in that series from 1977 to 1994. But she also wrote numerous other novels under several names as well as many books of short stories. Her first novel was published in 1938 when she was 25. During World War II, she served in the Women’s Royal Navy Service.

For more reading

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