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The Heretic's Apprentice by Ellis Peters
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Apr 08, 2009

I own a copy

One of the charms of the Brother Cadfael series is the feel for routine experiences, craft methods, etc.

This book deals with a poisonous atmosphere of compulsory orthodoxy. It also gives a fairly good description of the art of making vellum.

I should say that there's one aspect of the books that has always disturbed me: the apparent authorial complicity in the pervasive societal discrimination against the nocturnal. This isn't unique to this series, but it's the more disturbing in well-written books that often question other forms of discrimination.

This volume, as several others do, begins shortly before the date (June 22, remember?) of St Winifred's 'translation'--in 1143, this time. The return of a pair of pilgrims (one coffined, since he died at about 80 on his way home in France) might have been very simple, except that the return reignites stresses that had been in abeyance while the younger pilgrim Elave (who returns alive) was absent. Elave, for example, was always a more talented clerk than the older clerk of the house, Aldwin.

There are other things that place this book more concretely in this precise time. Elave and his master, William of Lythwood, spent some time in a Cluniac monastery while William was ill. One of the other residents was Peter Abelard (yes, THAT Abelard). The canon Gerbert who has come more or less by chance to Shrewsbury Abbey is opposed to Cluniacs because he is an Augustinian, and because he has political opponents who are Cluniacs. And he also personally despises Abelard. Not very good reasons to try to destroy a young man's life. But not substantially worse than those of others, come to that.

Aldwin is a depressive type who can't really accept that people do truly love and value him, no matter how personally inadequate he may be. Fortunata says of him at one point that if justice is to be denied to the inadequate, grudging, and sad, to whom then is it due? Conan (the shepherd) sees Elave (rather more accurately) as a rival for Fortunata's hand, after Elave himself brings home a fairly substantial dowry for the lass. It never seems to occur to him that Elave had only to keep the box, which, after all, only he and William knew about. And as to whether Conan ever had a chance with Fortunata...well, it seems unlikely on the face of it.

Peters had a tendency to try to end her books with a felicity--a miracle, a wonder, a revelation. This one's a doozy. The McGuffin in the book is truly wondrous, and the description is lovingly detailed. It's worth staying around for, even if you find the resolution of the mystery more than a little harrowing (I did. Accidental or not, it was horrific).

On the other hand, I wouldn't advise just skipping on to the decorated capital at the end. If we tend to think of the dogmatic disputations in the book as something of a tempest in a teapot, and not worth ruining people's lives, or even killing them, we're right. The disputations weren't that serious, and the idea of dictatorially enforcing dogmas, and forbidding dissent, is rightly reviled. But that doesn't mean they were unimportant. The social history becomes relevant, as well. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Europe was becoming overcrowded, and people too crammed in together tend to inflate any dispute into a tinderbox. Ironically, these problems became less significant because of two changes--the plagues of the fourteenth century and later, and the explorations of the fifteenth century, which made it clear that the world was a lot bigger than the medieval theorists had supposed. But those leavening factors were not really available at the time of these books.

Hugh is probably wise to keep his son Giles out of the fever-prone cities, especially in the summer, which even Cadfael, who misses his godson when Giles is absent, really realizes.

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