Sunday, September 10, 2006

Collecting Cadfael on DVD and Video

Review by Garnet Brooks

I got out my collection of the Cadfael series, looking at them and comparing the DVDs to the video episodes. The series is one I like a great deal. It may be that viewers could catch some of the episodes on educational TV but I am not sure any are being broadcast now.

There are about twenty of these in book form written by Ellis Peters. They are set in Medieval England in the middle twelfth century. Historically this was an interesting time. There was a civil war which was devastating for the county. The two factions fighting were the Empress Maud and King Stephen. Peters has her own slant on the conflict. It does not entirely jibe with the perspective I get from history books. The setting itself is probably quite historically accurate in its day to day details. The film versions are a great way to painlessly learn about medieval life.

The series is set in a monastery in Shrewsbury. It is actually a detective series and the detective in this case is a Benedictine monk named Brother Cadfael who is an expert with herbs and remedies. This makes him a good sleuth. Cadfael is Welsh and the first book in the series is a journey back to Wales to get the bones of St. Winifred and house them in the English monastery. This first one I have on DVD. These are made by Acorn Media and usually run about an hour and a half. The disc has held up to repeated viewing. It is clear and sharp. Since some of the dialogue is in Latin it is good to be able to turn on the captions just to see what they are saying. The disadvantage to the DVD is that it has few extras. The commentaries by Derek Jacobi, the actor who plays Cadfael, are quite brief. By the time they started making the series the author Ellis Peters was not available. She is deceased and not able to make that commentary track that people like to have with their DVDs.

I have the DVD copy of "The Leper of St. Giles." One gets to see how lepers were treated and cared for in the twelfth century. The episode contains a good deal of backstory about Cadfael and his participation in the Crusade. Before becoming a brother Cadfael had been a soldier and had gone to the Holy Land. He had briefly lived in Antioch and fought in Jerusalem. Another character in this story was also a Crusader and had contracted leprosy there. This episode as well as others fill in the history of Cadfael. He had met an Arabic woman there and fathered a child without knowing anything about him till the child was an adult. Peters wrote a volume of short stories about Cadfael's life before he took orders. It is called A Rare Benedictine and it was never filmed.

I wound up collecting about twice as many videos as DVDs partly because at the time I did not know the DVDs were available. There is a definite price differential now that was not as stark as when I bought mine. People less frequently buy new videos particularly new boxed sets and the Cadfaels do come in boxed sets. Of the videos the one I have watched most is "St. Peter's Fair." This is a particularly good stand alone episode. It is set in Shrewsbury while an annual fair is going on. Not only does it give a good idea of what life was like in a monastery at the time but it also has numerous scenes set in the nearby village. In an era where shopping was an extremely rare thing one gets to see how manufacture and trade worked. The plot of the episode itself is about a merchant who comes to the town for the fair and is murdered. Cadfael investigates it along with the town's sheriff Hugh Berringer. The sheriff is probably more modern in his thinking than was typical for the era but he is an engaging and well-drawn character. The plot turns around conflict between the two battling factions in the civil war. The video is slightly less clear than a DVD would be but it is a good quality print. The real advantage here is that you could buy one of these used for only a fraction of what it would cost new.

Another particularly good video in this series is "The Raven in the Foregate." This episode contains a great deal of information about how the church worked and what the distinctions between the brethren were. For example, Cadfael was a brother not a priest. He could not hear confession. The small town near the Abbey of Shrewsbury is a separate entity and they have their own priest. The old priest dies and a new man, a zealot and supporter of King Stephen, is sent to replace him. This man is harsh and unforgiving and quickly sets off a storm of conflict. In addition to reflecting the century's views on the clergy it portrays attitudes toward sexuality and sin.

My favorite Cadfael book is the last one. It is called Brother Cadfael's Penance and involves Cadfael's attempts to rescue the son he had before he took holy orders. This too has plot elements related to the civil war and this time to the siege of a castle. Unfortunately, it is not available in the media series.

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