The Heretic’s Apprentice – Ellis Peters

Brother Cadfael mysteries are the best.  I have yet to read all of them and there are only reference copies in the library but I came across one recently in a box of books and happily devoured it. The Heretic’s Apprentice sets the rigid Roman Catholic clerics of the Middle Ages–power-mad, dour and unyielding–against the humane monks and bishops who respect the marvel of divine mystery and the frailty of the humans who try to apprehend it.  A young man returns to Shrewsbury after seven years on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his master. The master has died on the return trip and Elave, the apprentice and travel companion, brings his body to the abbey to bury and his bequest to his ward as a dowry. The dowry is a locked carved box, exquisitely beautiful, and the ward, Fortunata, is more taken with Elave than with the gift he brings.

The box is set aside for the return of the present master of the house, who is away on trade, and a lively discussion among Elave and the members of his former household ends with him expressing some original and thoughtful views about Church teachings. And the next day, one of the participants in the contentious chat denounces Elave as a heretic to a visiting bishop at the abbey–one of the dour and self-righteous ones–and a murderous plot is set in motion.

Cadfael is his usual observant and worldy-wise self, mixing potions for headache and ague, tending his herb garden, silently assessing motive and means at every turn in the tale. He welcomes visits from his friend, the congenial and brilliant Sheriff Hugh Beringer, uncovers untimely corpse and alibi, and eventually pieces together a trail of events gone horribly wrong. There is every danger that he understands what he is dealing with too late and that tragedy will follow. And all the while, a reader is treated to rich details of life in a twelfth-century Benedictine monastery on the Welsh border, the healing properties of herbs, the devotion of the faithful to their saints and relics, the maneuvering of political clergy and a love story unfolding.

Pay attention and you will learn about Vespers, illuminated manuscripts, the many uses of sheep skins and the currents of rivers. Catch a glimpse into Cadfael’s mind as he prays to St. Winifred and pieces together the puzzle of a homicide. Revel in the well-drawn characters and a portrait of medieval life as cinematic as a movie. Ellis Peters was a genius, I wish I had the entire collection of her Brother Cadfael books.

Heretic’s Apprentice (Brother Cadfael Mysteries)   Ellis Peters | The Mysterious Press   1990

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