The Rose Rent, by Ellis Peters

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters (Edith Mary Pargeter OBE BEM). The Rose Rent is a classic. It is a medieval mystery novel set in the summer of 1142, as the battle between King Stephen and Empress Maud rages on. This is the thirteenth novel in The Cadfael Chronicles, first published in 1986. It charts a wealthy young widow who donates a house to the Abbey for a symbolic rent of a single white rose a year.

Themes and Suitors in The Rose Rent

The main themes of the novel are desire, sexuality, greed and class. Judith Perle, the widow in question, is a ordinary looking but capable woman. She lost her ‘comely’ husband to sickness and miscarried their child a few weeks later. She ably runs a successful clothier business with the assistance of her cousin and is pursued by several suitors. These suitors are an interesting snapshot of medieval class structures.

One is Godfrey, a wealthy older fuller (wool merchant) who is seeking a practical alliance for business purposes. One is a charming young rake named Vivian, about to be cut off by his sheep farming father, who wants to ally their business’ and find a new source of funds. Then there is the local saddler, and separately, one of Ms. Perle’s weavers, Bertred, who hopes his looks might catch his mistress’ eye. There is also Niall, the calm, gentle, bronze smith who rents her cottage, and has a young child.

These men all occupy the same social strata; successful members of the new craft guilds – effectively an emergent rural middle class composed of skilled craftsmen and business people.

The Mystery

White Rose
Photo by Ged Lawson on Unsplash

The person assigned deliver the white rose is a young oblate monk, Brother Eluric. Oblates were given to the monastery as children. This was a practice that was eventually discontinued, and in the novel, Abbot Radulfus ponders the morality of taking children dedicated in such a way. He begs to be excused from his duty after falling in love with Judith Perle; the mystery begins when he turns up dead.

The mystery of the novel begins as Brother Eluric’s body is discovered by the white rose bush that the ‘rent’ comes from. The rose bush has been hacked up, and the monk has patently been murdered, although staged as a suicide. If the rose cannot be delivered, the rent cannot be paid, and the house will revert to the Perle estate. Her suitors are seen as the most obvious suspects, as Judith’s wealth would be far higher if the cottage were part of her patrimony. Cadfael takes a wax cast of a boot imprint, thought to be the killer’s.

The tragedy exacerbates Judith’s grief and depression, and pushes her to consider entering a nunnery, with her interfering aunt’s encouragement. She meets with a kind, if rather practical nun – a former courtesan – called Sister Magdalene, who discourages her from taking the veil, while also offering her protection, and a holiday in the sanctuary of the cloister.

“If you ever need a place to hide… come to Godric’s Ford… and you shall find a refuge for as long as you need, with no vows taken, never unless you come to it with a whole heart. And I will keep the door against the world until you see fit to go forth again.” – p61

Abduction and Raptus

Soon after this meeting, Judith Perle is abducted by the river.

In the novel, Judith is in an unique position as a widow and orphan; she has unusual freedom to choose her own husband, but is also in danger from opportunistic criminals, which contextualises her interest in becoming a nun. Young, unwed women were at tremendous risk of abduction and rape, treated under law as synonymous, under ‘raptus’ legislation. A woman abducted was assumed to be ‘despoiled’. Sometimes this was a polite fiction to cover elopements and love matches – sometimes it was a horrific crime and scandal. Occasionally a virtuous woman would marry her attacker – or be required to – in order to save her reputation. As a virgin or nun a woman had greater protections under law – as a widow, Judith has fewer.

When she is abducted by one of her suitors, who foolishly believes she will fall in love with him, she cleverly circumvents the problem. Her solution is that her abductor take her to the nunnery; she will claim she had sought sanctuary there for several days, and thereby preserve her reputation, and her abductor’s life. On the way, she is viciously attacked by an unknown assailant, and rescued by Niall. However her ruse is successful, and she is able to return to Shrewsbury with her honour intact.

In the End

The finale is thrilling and surprising, and the book itself is as charming and comforting as the other Cadfael books. It explores the social mores of the time, including the opportunities and dangers facing a widow in those times. The mystery is solved through a stray boot print, but most of all by Cadfael’s compassionate yet insightful understanding of human nature. Another must read, perfect for a quiet Sunday afternoon.

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