A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first of the Brother Cadfael novels by Edith Pargeter, writing under the pen name of Ellis Peters. In this book, we see the protagonist, Brother Cadfael, show his dedication to God and his lack of subservience or obedience to earthly authority that is, in his mind, opposed to what God would want.
The book begins in Shrewsbury Abbey, England in the year 1137. Brother Cadfael is a 57 year-old monk of Welsh descent who only became a monk at age 40 after having been a Crusader. He is the abbey’s herbalist, growing herbs and making medicines from them. He has two assistants, Brother John and Brother Columbanus. Cadfael doubts if John really has a vocation. Columbanus apparently has epilepsy, but Cadfael doubts that too as Columbanus seems to be eager to bring attention to himself. Columbanus tends to overdo his expressions of piety and is very ambitious.
Columbanus goes to Wales on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Winifred in an attempt to be cured of his ailment. Upon returning, Columbanus claims that he has had a vision in which the saint told him that she was being neglected in Wales and should be brought to Shrewsbury. Prior Robert, second in command of the abbey, wants to bring Winifred’s remains to Shrewsbury in accordance with the vision. Robert is very ambitious and it is implied that he wants the remains so that more pilgrims will come to Shrewsbury, making the abbey more prestigious and wealthier.
Prior Robert, and Brothers Cadfael, Columbanus, and John (among others) go to Wales to get the remains. The local priest objects and a meeting of the local people is called. The largest landowner, Rhisiart, also objects and the meeting breaks up. Rhisiart is soon found dead and his death is taken as a sign that Winifred does indeed want to be moved to Shrewsbury.
Cadfael does some detective work and determines that Rhisiart was actually killed by Columbanus. He tricks Columbanus into confessing while Columbanus is keeping vigil alone at the shrine. Columbanus realizes he has been tricked and tries to run away but is tackled by one of Cadfael’s companions and dies of an accidentally broken neck. Cadfael has a plan to prevent scandal while still leaving Winifred in Wales where he believes she belongs. He strips Columbanus’s robe and sandals and leaves them in front of the casket with flowers that are symbols of St. Winifred strewn about them. This convinces people that Columbanus has been taken bodily into Heaven as a reward for his devotion. Cadfael puts Columbanus’s body in the coffin, leaving Winifred’s remains in Wales. By doing these things, Cadfael shows that he puts his own sense as to what God wants above earthly authority and ambition. He is willing to break rules and defy authority to do what he thinks is right. This theme will persist throughout the rest of the books in this series.