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
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