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The Leper of Saint Giles

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Wikipedia article

'The Leper of Saint Giles' is a medieval mystery novel by Ellis Peters, the fifth novel in the Brother Cadfael series, set in October 1139, shortly after Empress Maud returned to England, taking Arundel Castle. It was first published in 1981.

The book includes a map of the Abbey, the town of Shrewsbury, St. Giles, the winding River Severn and its small local brooks, and places in the environs mentioned in this story and in others in the series.

It was adapted for television in 1994 by Central for ITV.

Plot summary

In October 1139, Brother Cadfael, a monk of Shrewsbury Abbey, skilled herbalist and physician, is restocking the salves and medicines at a leper colony at Saint Giles, maintained as a charity by the Abbey. Young Brother Mark has volunteered his turn to care for the lepers and enjoys caring for the sick.

A wedding between two landed families is to take place in two days at the Abbey. Cadfael believes the bride to be a descendant of a renowned knight whom he knew on the First Crusade. The arrival of these wealthy people in their fine clothes draws out townspeople and those at St. Giles to watch them pass. First the groom, Huon de Domville, and his party arrive, headed for Bishop Roger de Clinton's house across the road from the Abbey. Cadfael is surprised how old the bridegroom is. As he passes, the baron lashes out with his whip at one of the lepers, an old man called Lazarus, a recent arrival who is slow to get off the road. Next, the bride and her party arrive, aiming to stay in the Abbey guest house. Iveta de Massard is a beautiful young woman, worth the wait for all the onlookers. With her are her legal guardians, Godfrid Picard and his wife Agnes. This marriage does not have the look of a love match; rather it is a contract between families for financial and social gain.

From the Bishop's house, de Domville's three squires watch as Iveta's party passes his lodgings. Iveta secretly gives a sign to one of them, Joscelin Lucy. The other two, Simon Aguilon, de Domville's nephew and heir presumptive, and Guy Fitzjohn, know of Joscelin's hopeless love for Iveta. That night, after Vespers, Iveta absents herself to meet Joscelin in Cadfael's workshop in the Abbey grounds. They discuss how the marriage might be prevented, without much hope. Cadfael walks in to do some of his work, startling the pair. Hearing Agnes Picard approaching, he pretends that Joscelin and Iveta are seeking medicines. Civilities are preserved although Agnes is not fooled. After Agnes and Iveta depart, Joscelin tells Cadfael that he would commit murder to prevent Iveta's marriage to Huon de Domville. Cadfael scolds him for using such words lightly, when he suspects this boy (all young men are boys to Cadfael) would not act on his strong feelings so wrongly.

The next morning, Joscelin bursts into the Abbey's grounds, as he has been dismissed by de Domville not for his own errors or faults, but at Picard's urging. He challenges Godfrid Picard to a duel for this smear to his honour. As Abbot Radulfus intervenes to prevent a brawl, de Domville himself arrives with Gilbert Prestcote, the Sheriff of Shropshire and accuses Joscelin of the theft of a gold and pearl necklace, a gift intended for Iveta. Joscelin's belongings are searched by Prior Robert. The necklace is found in the last object by interference of de Domville. Cadfael suspects that it was planted there.

Joscelin is meekly led out of the Abbey by the Sheriff's men but at the bridge before the town, he breaks free of his guards and escapes by jumping into the River Severn, successfully avoiding arrows and pursuit. Simon later goes to find him in the woods, and conceals him in a shed within de Domville's lodgings at the Bishop's house.

Later that day, Radulfus summons Cadfael to discuss the Picards' complaints at his interference. Cadfael states his concern that Iveta is being coerced into marriage, but when they question Iveta alone, she states she is willing to be wed to de Domville.

Late that evening, rather than sleep, de Domville tells Simon that he fancies a night ride, and trots off towards Saint Giles. His progress and direction are noted by Lazarus, sleeping outdoors this night. Yet later that night after some sleep, Joscelin leaves his hiding place in pursuit of his ultimate goals, to stop the marriage and get Iveta to safety. He is heard by a patrol and is pursued along the same road. The leper Lazarus conceals him in a haystack. Surprising himself, Joscelin confides to Lazarus his crude plan to challenge de Domville to a duel to the death to thwart the wedding. Lazarus says that de Domville rode past Saint Giles a short while before, and must presumably come back the same way before the wedding later that morning.

At ten o'clock, Iveta and the invited guests gather at the Abbey church for the wedding, but Huon de Domville does not appear. Searchers find him dead on a track far from his lodgings. Cadfael's careful search of the area shows rope marks on two nearby trees. De Domville had been toppled from his saddle by a rope stretched across the path, then strangled with bare hands as he lay stunned. Most assume that this is Joscelin Lucy's work. Cadfael determines from the dew under the body that de Domville died shortly after dawn. He also notes that the strangler wore a ring, the jewel of which cut into the flesh of de Domville's throat. Nobody recalls whether Joscelin wore such a ring.

At the Abbey, Picard is vehement that Joscelin Lucy must be taken and hanged, as he is most certainly the guilty man. Iveta protests that Joscelin must be innocent, as he is in prison. When the Picards reveal the truth of his escape, she collapses. The Picards grudgingly allow Cadfael to take care of her. Once safely indoors, she tells him that she agreed to marry de Domville because the Picards had threatened that Joscelin would otherwise be hanged for theft, and begs Cadfael to help Joscelin.

The Sheriff musters parties to search for Joscelin. At Saint Giles, Brother Mark is aware that from the hour of Prime, his flock has grown by one tall man, who is concealed behind a leper's veil. Because the lepers trust the newcomer, so does Brother Mark.

That evening, the searchers return empty handed. Some of Prestcote's men have searched de Domville's lodgings, finding traces that a man had been there, but has left. Simon seems strangely disconcerted by the news. With Godfrid Picard, he attends the ceremony of placing de Domville in his coffin. About the same time Cadfael's assistant, Brother Oswin, notes that de Domville's hat is missing. Cadfael finds it near where he fell, with a very rare flower, blue creeping gromwell, wound around it.

The next day, Cadfael searches the area for that rare flower. The locals tell him how to find de Domville's hunting lodge, where the flower grows in abundance. The caretakers invite him inside, where Cadfael notes a gentlewoman's perfume. As he leaves, he sees a fine horse suitable for a lady. He goes to the Bishop's House to question de Domville's servants. The servant Arnulf admits that de Domville had a favourite mistress, a former peasant girl named Avice of Thornbury, a place Cadfael knows how to find.

Joscelin has confided in Lazarus his new plan to take Iveta to sanctuary at a Cistercian convent near Brewood until the courts can properly consider her case. He has befriended Bran, a young boy at Saint Giles. From Brother Mark, Bran obtains a strip of vellum on which Joscelin writes a message to Simon, asking him to tether his horse near the Abbey grounds and tell Iveta to be in Cadfael's herb garden after Vespers. Just before dawn on the next day, Joscelin sneaks into de Domville's lodging, leaving the message in the mane of Simon's horse. Shortly afterwards, Iveta is surprised when she overhears Simon and Godfrid Picard arguing furiously. Simon is admitted briefly to her room and passes on Joscelin's message, showing her the vellum, before being shown out by Picard.

The Sheriff prepares to search for Joscelin for a third full day. He calls up every able-bodied man and horse, appearing to leave the Abbey unguarded. Towards evening, Joscelin prepares to leave Saint Giles for the last time. Before he departs, Lazarus asks him to describe Godfrid Picard.

Meanwhile, Iveta has acted on Joscelin's message. She obtains a double dose of the syrup derived from poppies which Cadfael uses as a sleeping draught from Brother Oswin, and puts it into the drink of the maidservant left to watch over her. She then meets Joscelin in the grounds. They do not get far, as some of Sheriff's men find Joscelin's horse, and then trap the two of them at the Abbey. As Joscelin tries to break free and snatches a knife from one of the Sheriff's men, the service of Vespers ends and the monks stream out. Abbot Radulfus once again intervenes to prevent Joscelin being cut down. The Sheriff and his searchers arrive one by one as darkness falls, Simon and Guy with them. The Sheriff agrees that Joscelin is on Abbey grounds, where Radulfus is in charge, and allows him to question Joscelin. As Joscelin tells his story, Brother Mark appears, wet from having forded a stream as he followed Joscelin from Saint Giles.

Cadfael enters this scene. He has traced Avice of Thornbury, who has entered the Benedictine convent at Godric's Ford nearby and has joined the order as a novice. Cadfael relates her evidence that de Domville left the hunting lodge as dawn broke on the morning he was murdered. Brother Mark confirms that at that time, Joscelin was already in cover at Saint Giles. He also states that he has been watching Joscelin all day, and can account for his every move.

Cadfael then announces that he has found the body of Godfrid Picard, strangled as Huon de Domville was, as he returned from Godric's Ford. Agnes Picard instantly turns on Simon Aguilon and accuses him of the murder of both de Domville and her husband. She tells everyone that Simon had sought Iveta's hand as de Domville's heir. Godfrid Picard realised at the coffining ceremony for de Domville, from a pale mark on Simon's finger, that Simon had worn the ring which Cadfael noted had cut into de Domville's throat, but was no longer wearing it. Picard was nevertheless prepared to accept Simon as a suitor for Iveta, provided Joscelin was pronounced guilty of the murder and hanged. Cadfael tells the Sheriff that Simon was entrusted by de Domville to escort Avice of Thornbury to the hunting lodge, and alone of the household knew the route de Domville must take. Simon angrily protests his innocence, but is surrounded and forcibly searched. The ring is found on him. Finally, one of the Sheriff's men admits that it was Simon who alerted him to search for Joscelin at de Domville's lodging, and later to intercept him in the Abbey grounds.

As Simon is dragged off to the castle, nobody questions whether he is guilty of the murder of Godfrid Picard, as well as that of his uncle. When he examines Picard's body closely, Cadfael has doubts, as whoever strangled Picard lacked several fingers.

Cadfael walks with Mark to Saint Giles, where Cadfael tells Lazarus that he knows him to be the famous knight Guimar de Massard, who was believed to have died as a prisoner of the Fatimids after being captured at the Battle of Ascalon 30 years earlier. Lazarus reveals that he had been told of his malady by Fatimid doctors, who also treated him for it. He had them announce that he died of wounds received in battle, and lived as a hermit for years until he learned that his son had died and left an orphaned child. He returned to England after a trek of many years, arriving at just the right moment. He was outraged to find Iveta being exploited by the Picards and unwillingly forced into marriage. Her "honour" of 50 manors across four counties was not thriving. As Prestcote's searchers made their way back to Shrewsbury, he had waylaid Godfrid Picard, challenged him to mortal combat, and easily disarmed and strangled him.

Cadfael urges de Massard to reveal himself to Iveta, who venerates his memory, and will also know him as Joscelin's good friend. He boldly suggests that there was another Lazarus who returned from the dead, to the joy of his family. Lazarus removes his veil to reveal features ravaged by disease and asks "And was this the face that made his sisters glad?" He assures Cadfael that all is well with him, and leaves Saint Giles that very night, never to be seen again.

Characters in 'The Leper of Saint Giles'

*Brother Cadfael: Benedictine monk of Shrewsbury Abbey, born in Wales, now manages the herbarium, preparing medicines and salves for monks and locals, 59 years old. Cadfael is the center of this series of 20 novels set in the Anarchy in the 12th Century

*Brother Mark: Young brother, very recently assistant to Cadfael, now a volunteer at the lazar house. Good friends with Cadfael.

*Brother Oswin: novice of age 19, newly assigned to help Cadfael. Very clumsy at the start, but learns even over the 4 days of the story, and proves observant. Tests Cadfael's patience and teaching skills.

*Abbot Radulfus: Head of the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter and St Paul at Shrewsbury. He is a man of noble birth, with ties to King Stephen. He is a man of great inner strength and exterior calm. In this story, he and Prior Robert are the only characters who really existed historically.

*Lazarus: A vagabond leper who appears at Saint Giles to be near the relics of St Winifrede. His status as leper prevents him from entering the Abbey chapel where they are kept. He is 70 years old, strong and quiet.

*Bran: A young boy of six, rapidly gaining his strength on the regular meals and medical treatment of Saint Giles. His mother came to Saint Giles to die of her illness. Befriended by Brother Mark, Lazarus, and Joscelin Lucy.

*Huon de Domville, Baron: Wealthy man nearing 60, widowed, childless, owner of many manors, and intended husband of the young Lady Iveta. A harsh man, and a womanizer.

*Simon Aguilon: Nephew, age 25, of Huon de Domville and squire to him. Friend to Iveta de Massard. Friend to Joscelin Lucy. Charming and ambitious.

*Joscelin Lucy: Squire of de Domville, in love with Iveta. Aspires to be a knight. His family has two manors in Herefordshire. A young man of strong passions and high standards.

*Guy Fitzjohn: Youngest of the three squires of de Domville.

*Arnulf: A longtime manservant of Huon de Domville.

*Sir Godfrid Picard: Uncle by marriage to Iveta de Massard, guardian to her since she was orphaned eight years earlier. A grasping man, whose hope of wealth arises from his role as guardian.

*Agnes Picard: Wife of Godfrid, sister of the late mother of Iveta de Massard, guardian to her since she was orphaned eight years earlier. Her wealth arises from her position as guardian. A controlling woman.

*Lady Iveta de Massard: 18 year old girl, wealthy by inheritance of her "honour" of 50 manors in four counties, granddaughter of a famed knight of the First Crusade. Despite years of harsh treatment by her aunt and uncle, she is kind. In love with Joscelin Lucy.

*Madlen: elderly maid of Picard household, firmly aligned with Agnes and not Iveta.

*Sheriff Gilbert Prestcote: Sheriff of Shrewsbury and environs, aligned with King Stephen. Honest and law abiding, but not bit by the curiosity of a natural detective like Cadfael.

*Ulgar the wheelwright: Brother of Avice of Thornbury, told Cadfael how to find her.

*Avice of Thornbury: For over 20 years, secret mistress to Huon de Domville, and shame of her family for so choosing. Practical and attractive woman of 44, she has no shame for her choices. When her lover is murdered, she sought a new life in the "cell" of the Benedictine Convent at Godric's Ford. Unashamed of her life, direct in her conversation. Cadfael expects her to succeed in convent life. A postulant when Cadfael encounters her.

Background and Setting in History

The book explores social conflicts that arose from the aristocratic society and the manorial system in the Middle Ages in England. Family life, including marriage, was structured around the importance of land, and further complicated by men leaving upon their own inspiration for the Crusades, far from England.

The story is set in a real place, Shrewsbury Abbey in the real area of England near the border with Wales known as Shropshire. The era of the Anarchy is not long after the Norman Conquest of England; most of the nobles are of Norman heritage, slowly intermarrying with the native Saxons.

Brother Cadfael, not of noble birth and that in Wales, joined the First Crusade, and claims that the Saracens were nobler and more righteous than at least some of the crusaders from Europe. He alludes to the massacre of civilians after the capture of Ascalon and Jerusalem, and the ignoble behavior of the Crusader leaders Baldwin, Bohemond, and Tancred, "squabbling over their conquests like malicious children." In this era of political anarchy, there was a code of chivalry for the men-at-arms, fighting at home or abroad. Brother Cadfael is loyal to his homelands; after killing the enemy in the First Crusade, he came to a tolerant view of the people in his world, and turned to the healing arts. Travel opened his mind.

The fictional Guimar de Massard had a strong sense of his own honour. He left large lands to his heirs at his death supposed to be from battle, when he had become ill with the feared disfiguring disease. His scheme provided for his heirs and protected his honour, but deprived his granddaughter of a strong protector when her father died. He was alive but absent from his family fearing their reaction to his appearance due to the illness, yet works out a way to protect her anonymously. In him are all the forces of the era: call to the Crusades, chivalry in battle and in love, the manor system, the importance of family, and the powerful connection to Christianity.

Joscelin Lucy is heir to two manors. It was common for a young man in his situation to be sent at the age of thirteen or fourteen as squires in equal or greater noble households, to learn knightly duties before becoming knights themselves. When dismissed by de Domville, Joscelin considers joining the King's army, as rumours grow of impending civil war.

Lazar houses, separate facilities for people with leprosy or other disfiguring diseases sprung up as the disease incidence increased in medieval England soon after the Norman Conquest. The house at Shrewsbury was one of the earlier ones built;http://www.historyfish.net/clay/clay_hospitals_four.html THE LAZAR-HOUSE Chapter Four.

Clay, Rotha Mary., The Medieval Hospitals of England, Methuen & Co., London. 1909
although one source credits King Henry II as its founder, after the time of this story (using admittedly sketchy sources for the list of lazar houses).http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29737/29737-h/29737-h.htm#Page_43 Robert Charles Hope THE

Wealth from the land and the many religious houses contributed to the support of the ill. At a lazar house, the inmates are bound by many rules: they must not approach any large town; they must use a clapper or their voice to warn the healthy of their "unclean" presence; and most wear heavy cloaks, even face cloths, to hide their disfigurements. Even when living at a house like St. Giles, where food and medicine are provided, most have a begging bowl, for the chance charity of passersby. Leprosy was frightening, as was any other disfiguring disease, and treatments were few. There are not many precise records, but at the height of the disease, there were not enough houses for all who were ill. They walked along the roads, seeking alms, seeking rest in a lazar house when they could.

These marginalized people in medieval England were viewed differently in their time, than through the lens of modern days. The germ theory of disease was not known in the 12th century, and the view of the soul and the body as manifestations of each other is quite different from our modern understanding of infectious and treatable diseases. The provision of houses, people and food to care for these sick people arose from the same world view that insisted they be settled outside of towns, especially the larger towns and cities.[http://books.google.com/books?id=M0NE9RB28esC&pg=PA307&lpg=PA307&dq=lazar+house+in+middle+ages+england&source=bl&ots=xx_hm7Ciul&sig=ekCLxw159KzU83eDVExcRd0gqz8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=93lfUIb9JLTDyAHl2IDoCw&ved=0CFUQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=lazar%20house%20in%20middle%20ages%20england&f=false Carole Rawcliffe 'Leprosy in Medieval England' Boydell Press, 2006]

Given the explicit social separation, Joscelin Lucy is a daring and clever young man in this story, to use the lazar house as one of his hiding places until his innocence can be established. The noble Guimar de Massard has become one of the marginalized people. In this novel, the lazar house becomes a part of the life of the noble characters of the plot, where in most of the books of this series, it is a part only of the lives of the monks and lay helpers at the monastery.

Cadfael's "syrup of poppies" is perhaps an early reintroduction of the medicinal use of poppies to England. He presumably learned its use and effects in the Holy Land, quite possibly from the Saracens. It is useful to Cadfael throughout the series of books, for dulling pain and calming those in distress, and to other characters for stupefying guards, witnesses and rivals.

Cadfael's final conversation with Guimar de Massard alludes to the raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, as recounted in Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John.

Avice of Thornbury, admitted to the Benedictine convent, plays a role in several subsequent novels in the Cadfael series.


This and one other novel by Ellis Peters were tied for #42 in the 1990 list of the top 100 crime novels of all time by the Crime Writers Association. (The other novel is 'A Morbid Taste for Bones'.) In the UK this was published as 'Hatchards Crime Companion', edited by Susan Moody.

One editorial review is also positive Kirkus Reviews

Complete with a dramatic public confrontation and a final bit of Cadfael deduction: another Peters delight, featuring vital characters, a beautifully organized puzzle, and history made real.

Publishers Weekly reviewed a 1991 audio book of this and the prior novel in the series in one article, liking the historical setting more than the plots:

Murder abounds in these early chronicles of Brother Cadfael, medieval herbalist and sleuth. ... Listeners are likely to solve these mysteries long before the insightful Benedictine monk, but predictable plotting is amply compensated for by the author's wonderful re-creation of the period and actor Stephen Thorne's excellent narration. Sister M. Anna Falbo CSSF, Villa Maria Coll. Lib. Buffalo, NY December 15, 1991http://cthulhu.oppl.org:2067/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=99ed3be9-17e6-4ec4-bde9-a8c6c00432a0%40sessionmgr10&vid=9&hid=15

Television adaptation

The book was the third Cadfael book to be adapted for television, as 'The Leper of St. Giles', by Carlton Media for distribution world wide, in 1994. It was slightly out of sequence as two earlier books in the series were filmed as later episodes.

The "Cadfael" series eventually extended to thirteen episodes, all of which starred Sir Derek Jacobi as the sleuthing monk. The series was filmed mostly in Hungary.

The adaptation for 'The Leper of St. Giles' stuck fairly closely to the original novel. The part of Joscelin Lucy was played by Jonathan Firth, brother of Colin Firth. Iveta de Massard was played by Tara FitzGerald, Sarah Badel played Avice of Thornbury, Jamie Glover played Simon and John Bennett played Lazarus.


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