The Potter’s Field, by Ellis Peters
This, the 18th novel in the Brother Cadfael series of mystery novels, has some intriguing and dark scriptural parallels. For one, there is the name of the novel itself, which harkens back to the biblical potter’s field purchased with the wages of Judas’ suicide. In this case, a man who left his wife because of a supposed call from God is first thought guilty of a murder, and then matters become considerably more complicated. It is the story of a mysterious death found when the abbey trades land with a neighboring abbey and decides to start ploughing the land, only to come up with the body of a dead woman buried unlawfully, with the assumption of murder. It would be impolitic to reveal the twist, but the death ends up being more complicated than first thought, implicating a young man with a dark and sensitive nature to first abandon his family for the cloth, and then when war finds him to abandon the cloth before he is confirmed, and who is determined that no innocent person should suffer, except perhaps himself.
More than most of the novels in the series, the tying together of the plot is filled with loose ends and messiness, with ground that is innocent but marred by the behavior of men and women. At the heart of the novel are a series of unhappy families. There is a marriage broken when a man leaves his wife and goes into monkhood, leaving his wife bound and abandoned. Another marriage is cold and lifeless with a wife unable to fulfill her obligations as a result of a long and painful degenerative illness that leaves her a living corpse. A couple fights as a man seeks ill-gotten gains while his woman wishes to become a wife. A beautiful young woman from a manor house with too few resources for a dowry seeks to use her warm personality and friendliness and attractiveness to find herself a suitable partner without dowry. All of this pain and all of this longing end up connected to a very small area, namely an abandoned potter’s cottage and two neighboring manors. Not only is a great deal of skill required to even imagine the truth in the midst of such bitterness and unhappiness, but judgement because an incredibly difficult matter as well.
At its heart, this is a novel about the pull of life and death. Over and over again we see people pulled towards death because of the bitterness of their hearts, their broken relationships, their frustrated longings, and their difficulties in conceiving a better future. People seek either literal or figurative death, either a life of abnegation or renunciation in a monastery or a glorious death in battle, or the rigidity from a draught of hemlock-poisoned wine. Whatever form of death is sought, it is easy to see a single point of release, a destination that seems safe and final. In contrast, our lives are uncertain and we often simply do not know what we are doing. To choose life requires us to have some degree of hope that things will turn out for the better, and better than we deserve. Whether in life or in fiction, this is not an easy task.