Tuesday, March 13, 2012

St. Winifred's bones

The Holy Thief, Ellis Peters

I was home sick yesterday and I just wanted a good comfortable book.  Ever since I read Abelard and Heloise's letters, I've been thinking about the medieval mysteries of Sharan Newman and Ellis Peters, since both series begin in monasteries in the 1130s.  Luckily I still had The Holy Thief on the TBR pile.  Set in 1144, this is the 19th book in the "Chronicles of Brother Cadfael."  I had a vague idea that the later books don't quite stand up to the earlier ones, but this one is as good as any in the series, in my opinion.

The story opens with the arrival of two monks at the Abbey of Sts. Peter & Paul in Shrewsbury.  They are from the Abbey of Ramsey, which was seized and despoiled by the Earl of Essex, her monks scattered.  On his death-bed, the excommunicated but repentant Earl returned Ramsey to the Church.  The brothers have come to beg alms and assistance in rebuilding their foundation.  Shrewsbury is generous, even in the midst of heavy rains that bring floodwaters into the Abbey church itself, forcing the monks to move their goods and treasures to higher ground.  Their greatest treasure is a silver-chased reliquary housing the bones of the Welsh St. Winifred.  It is only after the Ramsey monks have departed with their alms and donated supplies that the Shrewsbury community realizes their saint is missing.  They immediately suspect that she was smuggled out in the wagon-load of goods headed to Ramsey.  The reliquary will fall into other hands before it returns to Shrewsbury, and murder will follow theft.  As usual, Cadfael and his friend Hugh Beringar, the Sheriff of Shropshire, must work together with Abbot Ranulfus to defend the innocent and bring the guilty to justice. 

They are assisted this time by another earl, Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.  Leicester rescues the reliquary at one point, which he feels gives him a claim to it.  The Ramsey monks are anxious in their turn to claim it for their house, since the presence of such a saint's relics will draw pilgrims and gifts to honor the saint, and not incidentally to rebuild the abbey.  Both Leicester and Ramsey argue it was no accident that took St. Winifred from Shrewsbury; clearly she was choosing a new home.  The polite tug of war over her is typical of the medieval period, with its fervent devotion to saints and their relics.  The theft of major relics was not unknown, nor was the outright fabrication of them.  St. Winifred's relics also tie this story back to the very first Cadfael book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, where he joins a group from the Abbey setting off for Wales, in search of this very saint.  But (spoiler alert) the reliquary they bring back will have a very different body inside.  No one but Cadfael (and the reader) knows this, and since through the saint's intercession miracles occur around the reliquary, no one suspects.  But what if the secret is revealed?  What if St. Winifred chooses to honor Ramsey with her reliquary, instead of Shrewsbury?  I think Peters really captures the medieval belief in saints and their relics, as alien or superstitious as it may seem to 21st century readers.  But there are also moments of supernatural presence, and action, which make me wonder just what Ellis Peters herself believed.


  1. I have a good friend who loves this series and has recently re-read all of them. I'll have to ask her what she thinks about this title!
    It sounds like Peters really delves into the way people in this time period thought and didn't project modern beliefs onto the characters. I find it hard to understand the business of saints, myself, but think it is an engrossing subject.

  2. Oh, and I meant to say I hope you are feeling better!

  3. Much better, thank you :)

    I've read comments that Ellis Peters wasn't completely accurate in the details of the medieval world, but I don't know enough about it to know what if anything she got wrong. I do enjoy the stories!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!