The Hermit of Eyton Forest(and others in the Brother Cadfael series) by Ellis Peters

If you haven’t yet encountered the chronicles of Brother Cadfael, of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Shrewsbury, you have a huge treat in store for you! The twenty-book series follows the medieval monk’s adventures inside and outside the cloister as it traces the course of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maude in 12thcentury England. The tide of war ebbs and flows throughout the series, sometimes even intruding on the orderly life of the Benedictine brothers at the Abbey.

One quick note: In a way, I’m cheating by picking just oneof the Brother Cadfael (pronounced Cad-file) books that happens to be set in autumn. I’m really giving you twenty books(!) set in all four seasons. For maximum enjoyment, you should read the series in order, starting with A Morbid Taste in Bones and ending with Brother Cadfael’s Penance, to fully appreciate the nuances and development of all the characters in this richly-imagined world. But if you need a quick seasonal hit, I’ll understand!

One of the things I love most about this series is that each book begins by situating the reader in a particular month and year: “It was on the eighteenth day of October of that year 1142 that Richard Ludel, hereditary tenant of the manor of Eaton, died of a debilitating weakness, left after wounds received at the battle of Lincoln, in the service of King Stephen.” Both because of the war and because of the sheer brutality of living conditions in the Middle Ages, there’s always the sense that the orderliness and predictability of life can be overturned in an instant by the chaotic forces outside the walls—and sometimes they are.

Brother Cadfael is the Abbey’s herbalist. He concocts his herbal tinctures and “physics” from plants he’s grown in his walled garden, a reminder that since plants were the first medicines, herbalists were actually the first physicians. This role gives him plenty of opportunities to indulge his curiosity about the mysteries of human nature, both within and without the Abbey walls. The cozy descriptions of his herbarium, with its potions simmering away on his brazier, are always enchanting: “It was deep dusk, but not yet dark. The late roses in the garden loomed spikily on overgrown stems, half their leaves shed, ghostly floating pallors in the dimness. Within the walls of the herb garden, high and sheltering, warmth lingered. . . . Rafe . . . came into the hut and looked about him with interest at the array of jars and flasks, the scales and mortars, and the rustling bunches of herbs overhead, stirring headily in the draught from the doorway.”

As a gardener, Cadfael lives deeply within each season, and Peters’ evocative descriptions are always closely observed: “And indeed, as the soft October days slid away tranquilly one after another, in dim, misty dawns, noon-days bright but veiled, and moist green twilights magically still, it seemed that there was to be no further combat over young Richard . . .”

Don’t you want to live in that world? I do! When the pandemic lockdowns hit, one of the things that helped keep me sane was immersing myself again in Brother Cadfael’s domain—with its reminders that though human life has never been easy or safe, there can still be transcendent moments of beauty and grace within it.

Let me leave you with this lovely autumnal description of Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar, sheriff of Shropshire, riding back to the Abbey after investigating mysterious events:

“They rode home together in the deepening dusk, as they had so often ridden together since first they encountered in wary contention, wit against wit, and came to a gratifying stand at the end of the match, fast friends. The night was still and mild, the morning would be misty again, the lush valley fields a translucent blue sea. The forest smelled of autumn, ripe, moist earth, bursting fungus, the sweet, rich rot of leaves.”

If that doesn’t make you want to reach for a cup of hot spiced cider, I don’t know what would!

Next time, continuing with the autumnal theme, I’ll share with you the bittersweet story of my obsession with damson plums. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about the things—books, food, people—that bring you joy in the fall!