In all my years of viewing British films and television shows, I somehow missed Cadfael (1994-1998) with the brilliant Derek Jacobi in the eponymous role. My boyfriend, being somewhat of a history buff and an equally keen viewer of British productions, sang the show's praises and I was intrigued. The show is based on a series of twenty detective novels penned by English writer Edith Pargeter (1913-1995), published under her nom de plume Ellis Peters. Set during the Anarchy (a civil war in England in the 12th century), Pargeter's character Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who helps solve murder mysteries. Pargeter/Peters was well versed in history, having written historical and historical fiction works throughout her career. She also wrote short stories and translated Czech classical literature into English. In many ways, she reminds me of a female J.R.R. Tolkien, writing with incredible historical detail and accuracy, possessing a talent for languages and proving adept at research and scholarship.
The show, filmed in four series for ITV Central in the UK, is perhaps not as exciting or well produced as some of the modern British productions such as Sherlock or Downton Abbey, but it certainly has its own merits and provides fascinating insight into life in 12th-century England. What particularly struck me about the show, and serves as my main motivation for writing this article, is the gentle, perhaps even censured nature of the storytelling. Despite war, leprosy, fights over inheritance and religious crusades, violence takes on a subtle role. I pointedly refused to watch Games of Thrones for its depiction of violence for violence's sake, especially when it comes to violence against women. Cadfael, in particular the episode entitled "The Virgin in the Ice", depicts rape in the best way: it doesn't.
Cadfael finds the body of a young and beautiful nun frozen under the ice in a lake. After examining her body, he merely states that the woman was "defiled" and murdered. Thus this violent act commands literally no screen time. And that is exactly how much screen time violence toward women is necessary: none. Women, especially during the time in which the novels and show are set, were often subject to gross mistreatment. While in many parts of the world women are still treated like property, it is safe to say that women have much more freedom and far more rights than they did 1,000 years ago. However, knowing the effect the media has on us and its ability to seriously prejudice us, even against ourselves, there is simply no place for rape scenes or any place for violence toward women on screen. The imbalance in power for millennia, the long-standing patriarchy that still forms the basis of almost all corners of society, has been punishment enough, causing excessive damage toward women.
Over the past few years, there has been an active push by various filmmakers in putting an end to rape culture and demanding the respect and representation of all peoples. Two such works within recent memory are Maybe if it were a nice room (2016) by Alicia K. Harris (read FemFilmFans' interview with her here) and Jane (2019) directed by and starring Jessica Michael Davis. Both works depict rape like Cadfael, choosing not to depict it at all.
Maybe if it were a nice room features shots of various rooms devoid of people. There is a simple yet poetic voice over, removing the anger and violence one normally associates with such a terrible act. The short film is thus an ode to survivors, giving it a different kind of metaphorical pain and power. Jane quite literally places the pain and power into the hands of a badass hitwoman who kills rapists, yet at no point do we witness any violence toward women. This removal of the act itself, this withholding of violence, displaces the power from those who traditionally hold it (i.e. cis white men) to those traditionally subjected to it (i.e. everyone else, but in the examples outlined above, women). I am not naively suggesting this will stop rape altogether but it shows survivors (myself included) true compassion and suggests alternate versions of reality that do not continue to keep women down, cowering from the men that cause them a lifetime of harm. While Jane flips the violence, gunning down rapists at point blank range (which I feel is a much needed addition to the media landscape), all three productions still refuse to portray women as victims. It seems so simple but this is where series like Cadfael and short films like Maybe if it were a nice room and Jane get it right.