It’s probably hard for even the most devout modern American or British Catholic to comprehend the importance that medieval worshipers placed on saints’ relics – let alone for an unregenerate Protestant such as me. But Ellis Peters’ first Brother Cadfael novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, centered on the acquisition of the bones of St. Winifred for the abbey of Shrewsbury. In The Holy Thief (1998) , the first of two Brother Cadfael episodes I watched recently, St. Winifred’s bones are again at issue. Another abbey has been burned down in the civil war between the forces of Stephen and Matilda, and its abbot has come to Shrewsbury with a novice who has had a vision – a vision that seems to require Shrewsbury to give up its most prized possession to aid in the rebuilding of the other abbey. Shrewsbury doesn’t want to let St. Winifred go, but its abbot is a truly holy man who tries to believe the best of others. But there are some monks who will stop at nothing to keep or gain possession of St. Winifred’s relics. When a death and a kidnapping occur, Cadfael must sort out truth from falsehood.
In The Pilgrim of Hate (also 1998), Cadfael encounters a young man who is on a barefoot pilgrimage to Wales, shepherded by his judgmental brother. Cadfael is himself Welsh, and invites the young pilgrim to the abbey so that he can treat his bleeding feet. The abbey is full of pilgrims come to receive blessings from St. Winifred’s relics, and when the body of an old man is found stuffed in a bag among the pilgrims’ luggage, Cadfael must investigate. He discovers that the young pilgrim’s brother, who is preaching a harsh doctrine of sin and repentance through mortification of the flesh, is not all he seems to be.
Both these stories had in common not only the relics but the concept of doing penance by punishing one’s body. The novice in The Holy Thief, it is suggested in one scene, receives altogether too much flogging from his covetous abbot, and in one of the tales Cadfael’s own apprentice is shown flagellating himself because he has confessed some slight wrongdoing. Cadfael doesn’t seem to think much of such activity, not surprising for a healer. I can’t recall whether the books made so much of this theme, but I’ll be looking for it in other episodes I watch.