Krew is telling it…

I swoop round the precinct in a thundering storm. Rain pours off the tiles and the gargoyles spew like drunkards. Crouched on the parlour is a shitting devil: a torrent gushes out its arse and splatters on the flags. The drain is choked with weeds and breakers surf down the cloister, flooding the garth. In the midst of the enclosure lies a rotten vegetable patch. Nothing grows but the slugs. Black-spot covers the peas and the cabbage are gnawed to the hearts. A plague of frogs swarms through the arcades, hopping down the alleys with a croaking din; they teem with lust in the lavatorium, spawning pearls of green slime that slop out the overflow and shoot down the gulleys.

A door creaks open and prior Odo hunches into the rain; he is closely followed by a regal cleric dressed in the garb of bishop. They stride down the south alley, wincing at the frogs, then vanish in the guest house. I follow them inside and hover by the chimney…

‘Except for the abbot and his roistering whores, all hospitality has ceased here. I trust this humble dish will suffice. I am only sorry that our abbot refuses to entertain you in his lodgings.’

‘He still denies my right to visit?’

‘And curses you in Greek. If the truth be told, in the eyes of the law, he is right. As White Monks, we owe allegiance to no temporal master — and that includes you Tolus, by order of the Pope. Please, be seated.’

Tolus sits at a dish of mutton and says:

‘Such is the purblindness of our papal legate; ’tis a ridiculous notion: abbatia nullius — an abbey belonging to no one.’

‘No one but Abbot Adam, that is.’

‘Never mind. We’ll get to him later. Wine?’

‘No — but please, help yourself.’

Tolus pours himself a cup and rudely gulps it down; then he devours his meal like a wolf:

‘Travelling by carriage always gives me an appetite; the constant motion up and down aggrieves my stomach. Hmm, tasty mutton. Cut crosswise and broiled. Just how I like it. And excellent sauce. What is it?’

‘Orange, I think. Our cook prides himself on his sauces.’

‘Give him my compliments. Will you not join me prior?’

‘No thank you, I don’t eat meat.’

‘No meat at all?’

‘None.’

‘You should fatten yourself up a bit – put some flesh on those bones, or you’ll end up as food for worms. Look at you: you’re thin as a rake. I fear you might blow away in the wind…’

‘I am forbidden meat by the Rule. And as a shepherd of souls I must set an example. The flesh of four footed animals is only given to the sick.’

Tolus raises an eyebrow:

‘I see. Then you will forgive me for indulging in the sins of intemperance.’

‘Please, tuck in, your holiness.’

‘I find that meat fortifies the blood. Especially mutton. I am due a holocaust of lambs but the churls are withholding their tithes. Last week I discovered three shepherds grazing their flocks on my pastures: a whole cabane of some three hundred sheep. I was so enraged by their trespass, that I sent twelve of my agents to confiscate their flock.’

‘They have no respect for Mother Church.’

‘The old heresy still thrives in these godforsaken hills. The shepherd’s are Cathars in all but name, even though that infamous sect was dissolved many years ago. That fifty thousand heretics went up in flames only makes them more determined to increase. They live like brute beasts, grazing on roots and herbs with their sheep – goatskin philosophers, who go about without restraint, like runaway bulls tossing their horns, and spreading heretical disease… Whilst humble friars, who pluck away the thorns of sin are shunned, exiled and murdered, as if they were heretics for preaching God’s gospel.’

‘The world has gone mad.’

Tolus sucks on a bone and fat oozes down his chin. He smacks his lips then says:

‘Where will it end, I ask you? With churl at the altar and priest at the plough? [i] Believe me prior, the Cathar heresy is a bottomless abyss of profanity. They believe the holy Sacraments are of the Devil, and that our Church is a den of malignants. They do not even believe in the Trinity in the Catholic sense, for they hold the Father greater than the Son and the Holy Ghost… Each day new heresies arise against the orthodox faith. There are now more unrestrained and injurious beliefs than ever before: a vile contagion that corrupts the minds of the faithful. The Cathars, with their superstitions and false inventions are perverting the Gospels and destroying the rule of Mother Church. Ministers of diabolical error ensnare the simple and lead them to ruin and destruction. This abominable pest of heresy has gained so much ground that whole districts have become infected. Yet all who agree with it, think they are doing God’s service. Such is the subtlety of the Wicked One, who transforms himself into an angel of light… These are maleficent times, to be sure. Is it the end? I know not. But I watch, as Christ commanded. ’Tis written that in the last last days, perilous times shall come. Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, unthoughtful and unholy…[ii] Which brings me to your abbot. He continues to bring shame upon this house?’

Odo paces about, wringing his hands in anguish:

‘That knave should be put in irons! He cares naught for the fame or credit of the abbey. Abbot Adam has distinguished himself only by his despotism and unscrupulous rule. He never attends Nocturns or Matins, and he whores like a rutting stag. Amongst his concubines are married women and even two nuns.’

Nuns? Are you sure? I find that hard to believe. How did they succumb?’

‘He lured them to ruin by deception: he told them he was not a monk at all, but a rich knight, who owed his position to a royal gift. Then he furnished them with opulent gowns of satin and silk.’

‘Ah, he corrupted them. Silk is a sure sign of moral flabbiness.’

‘Indeed. Not only that, he violates the rule by sleeping in silken sheets; he wears silken shirts, and parades about in long leather boots. His extravagant attire is a disgrace to the cowl. He has laid his rapacious hands on everything. Every month he plunders our coffers to pay his masons. Bell towers are forbidden by the Rule but he still insists on building that monstrous edifice.’

‘I must admit, it looks most impressive.’

‘Impressive? Never have I seen such a monument to Cluniac excess! [iii] All our other buildings are left utterly neglected. The roof of the choir is rotten with mould. Even our beds are damp with rain.’

‘No wonder you look so tired.’

‘The shadows under my eyes? Adam keeps us up all night with his infernal chiselling: “Tap, tap, tap!” If ever there was a torture designed to break a man, that is it. Abbot Adam will ruin us all. If something is not done soon, I fear the brethren will abscond; like dogs returning to their vomit, they shall renounce their vows and relapse into idolatry.’

‘You must try and procure an election.’

‘I tried that last Easter. I confronted him with six brethren at Chapter. But Adam just protested there was a conspiracy against him. Believe me, he had no other defense worthy of consideration. Then by pampering the six at his own table, he restored their faith in him! Despite their vows, my brethren are fickle. ’Tis amazing what a little meat and wine can do. Adam is crafty and plays upon their weaknesses. And he lures them with pittances of food and drink. Anything I do or say, he undermines. All he makes are empty promises: great cry and little wool – as the devil said when he was shearing the hogs.’

‘Will you not sit down prior? How can I enjoy my food with you pacing about like a caged beast?’

Odo ignores him and stares morosely into the fire. Then the bishops asks:

‘Is it true what they say about him?’

‘What? What do they say?’

‘That he suffers with an infernal deformity. Though I am reluctant to believe it…’

‘You did not know? Infernal indeed. He has a conjoined twin on the back of his head.’

‘So it is true then. Have you seen it?’

‘Oh yes, I’ve seen it: a monstrous misshapen thing, with the face of a flatfish, and two ghastly black eyes. ’Tis a perversion of nature. The sight of it is better avoided, except by those with a strong stomach. He keeps it covered with his long hair, and stops its mouth with a wad. ’Tis the most fiendish thing I ever saw. And it has a wicked poisonous tongue.’

‘It speaks?’

‘Oh yes, ’tis even quite eloquent at times. But it cannot say much without spitting and cursing.’

‘Extraordinary. What an ungodly affliction.’

‘We are all afflicted with it…’

‘And where is the abbot now?’

‘Absent, as usual. Believe me, if he knew you were here, he’d skin me alive.’

Tolus pours himself another drink:

‘You must continue to gather evidence of his vices.’

‘What more evidence do I need? I ask you, how can a church with pope, legates and bishops, all armed with corrective powers, stand helpless before such a spectacle of guilt and misrule?’

‘If I had the power, I would eject him myself. You forget, Abbot Adam is still a man of influence and holds great sway with the pope.’

‘Pah! No wonder. When last in Rome, he tipped the pontiff and all his cardinals. The abbot is a two-faced hypocrite! He cares nothing for the spiritual things in life. He lives like a base Epicurean; his only concern is bodily pleasure. Flesh. Do you understand? Flesh. The situation is altogether hopeless.’

‘Do not despair. You must inform the General Chapter of his corruption. Then you can present your evidence to the Visitor General.’

‘I have written to the Mother House on several occasions but all in vain; our cloister is too remote for the Visitor General; the ecclesiastical machinery for dealing with such matters is cumbersome and slow; not to mention the litigation, trouble and expense.’

‘Then I will inform the archbishop. I am sure he will bring a swift resolution to the matter.’

‘How long? How long, do you think?

‘Hard to say. Many places are still teeming with heresy. Mother Church is swamped in letter writing and her officials are stretched to the limit. Amid such frenzy of fear, ’tis impossible to say how long. But a year should do it.’

‘A whole year? This is madness!’

‘Save your righteous wrath. And be patient prior. Find the reason for his absence at office: there could be leverage there. Adam will trip up sooner or later. So watch him carefully. You have no idea where he goes?’

‘No. His whereabouts are a complete mystery.’

‘Follow him. But be cautious: if he knows he’s being watched, he’ll lead you on a wild-goose chase.’

‘Yes, your holiness.’

‘Meanwhile, you must try and procure another election. With you as abbot we can accomplish great things.’

Odo sits quietly at the table then says:

‘I have never been ambitious. Nor do I seek worldly gain.’

‘No, of course not. But the farms of this abbey extend over seven valleys; ’tis time you wrest back the tithes that I am due.’

‘That you are due? But why must we gather tithes on your behalf?’

‘Not for me prior – for the Lord. The tithe is the Lord’s; ’tis Holy unto the Lord.’ [iv]

‘The Rule forbids us taking tithes.’

‘O come, come: we both know that you take tithes.’

‘The abbot takes them, not I. His greed has spread dissent and hatred towards this house. There’s not a churl in the land who doesn’t despise us. We tithe a tenth already; to gather lambs on your behalf will only compound the matter. Need I remind you that Christ came in great poverty and infirmity of flesh?’

‘But He shall return in great glory and majesty. ‘Your insistence on poverty will be your undoing. ’Tis high time you ruled like other Orders. They all take tithes. What crime in prosperity when it glorifies Mother Church? Every churl must be tithed. How else shall they appease the wrath of god? ’Tis decreed by law: “Thou shalt bring the tenth part of all thy crops or first-fruits – Frugibus seu primitiis – into the house of the Lord thy God.” … But a tenth is too little if you ask me. A fifth is nearer the mark.’

‘A fifth? Oh, I think that’s a little excessive. Their own crops are scanty; they can barely feed themselves as it is. If we tithe a fifth, we’ll have a revolt on our hands.’

‘Prior, you fail to understand, that the churl, like the willow, sprouts better for being cropped…[v] Believe me, there is nothing so small that it cannot be tithed. Even a widow, from what little land she has, must pay tithes.’

‘Well, I shall keep that in mind.’

‘Make sure you do, or they’ll walk all over you. Keep your pity for the plight of Mother Church.’

‘I am not worldly like you. Shall I be like Pharaoh, who took one fifth of the Israelites’ crops? What of our Charter of Charity?’

‘Prior Odo, the spiritual goods that we administer are infinitely more precious than the worldly things we receive.vi The churl has a craving for grain which comes from the pit of insatiable greed.vii If a churl withholds tithes, pays tardily or only in part, punish him severely. Do not stand for any malicious miscalculation. Let it be known that all ill-tithers shall go to hell, and stay there for eternity. If they doubt your word, let them ponder on the tale of how one of their class was punished. Tell of the reluctant churl, who went by candle-light to winnow his ill-detained corn; the candle fell into the wheat; then God, in his wrath, burned down barn, corn, man and all.[viii] Oh, there are many such tales you can devise. Put the fear of God into them. Then those cunning, double-tongued, backbiters will give Mother Church her dues. You’ll see…’

‘I fear it won’t be so easy. They resent us enough already. At every opportunity they express their vile hatred and trespass against our abbey. They have burrowed under our precinct like moles; they poach fish from our ponds and pluck fruit from our trees. And they grow more ruthless each year.’

‘Show no pity; give no quarter; insist on your pound of flesh. Strip offenders to the waist and have them flogged ’till their backs are bloody.’ He bangs the table: ‘Crop them, crop them, crop them! Their arrogance is inborn; their wickedness ingrained. But if pruned from their pagan sin, they can be brought back to the fold of Mother Church. That is how we train them to humility and servitude.[ix] So be like Pharaoh and tithe a fifth…’ He grins then adds: ‘But let them have their soule [football]. ’Tis an unlawful game, I grant you; and it results in great affrays and homicides. But it keeps the malefactors content.’ He sniggers. ‘Last moon I caught one of my own priests at it. The goals were a mile apart with a river between.[x] Can you imagine? Two vills, fighting like pagan tribes over a pigs bladder! Of course, I turned a blind eye. Now my priest is the hero of those vulgar rustics; and churls from the opposing vill hold tithes from their priest and pay mine instead!’

Tolus wheezes with laughter, stamping his foot. But Odo is not amused:

‘Your Holiness, I still think a fifth is too much. They are simple and roughly fed. I couldn’t—’

‘Prior Odo, all churls are simple and roughly fed. They go from poverty to destitution but that is not why they perish. No, they perish because they commit diverse evil.[xi] Amongst their ranks are the greatest liars, perjurers, fraudsters, murderous and heretics that ever were. Their seed is impure, their stock corrupt. As ’twas in the days of Noah, so ’twill be at the coming of the Son of Man.[xii] We are surrounded on all sides by corruption. Amid so many schisms and heresies, ’tis hard to recognise the true church. Our fortunes tremble in the balance. We know little of the plots that Satan and his hosts are forming against us. We must not falter. We must show Christ we are worthy of His promises. Now is the time to summon our strength, remain firm, quell anarchy, and restore authority. Either that, or face certain Apocalypse.’

There follows a long pause as Tolus slurps his wine. A haunting wind moans down the chimney; the fire splutters and shadows leap. At length, Odo says:

‘’Tis not the abbacy I seek.’

‘Of course not. But you have spent forty years in cloister. Why let the reckless rule of a

godless man undo all your work?’

‘Quite so.’

‘The whole of Christendom flounders on the brink of an abyss. Mother Church needs the steadfast and strong to steer her flock away. Men of faith, like you. Come, a toast —’

Tolus fills another cup but Odo protests:

‘No, no, please, I don’t drink wine.’

‘Nonsense. Knock some down. It’ll give you strength.’

They raise their goblets:

‘To Mother Church,’ says Tolus.

‘Yes, to Mother Church…’ grins Odo. He swallows and coughs: ‘Oh! That’s stronger than I expected. I gave strict instructions for this wine to be watered down.’

‘Watered down? I’ve never heard such rot. Strong wine makes the body glow; ’tis just what’s needed on these cold autumn nights. Besides, I have a long journey ahead, and wine helps me sleep. I must confess, I do not much like travelling these desolate hills: the mists are full of apparitions.’

Apparitions? Whatever do you mean?’

‘Last week when crossing the river, I saw three aerial bodies.’

‘Aerial bodies?’

‘They flew over the cliffs and vanished in the woods. Great orbs of fire.’

‘Orbs? What do you suppose they were?’

‘Genii, spirits, devils… These hills are infested with evil. They say such spirits can assume any shape they please; but oft they appear like the moon or sun. They are swift of motion and can travel many leagues in the blink of an eye. They shine with such a sinister light: it makes the blood run cold. Their appearance was not without consequence. Two horses bolted and three of my company fled. I fear they met their doom in the gorge. Needless to say, I spent the rest of my journey reciting the Paternoster.’

‘They say the woods are full of witchery.’

‘Indeed. No doubt these orbs were the products of sorcery: the demonic consorts of witches and warlocks. Their secrets of flight are depraved and diabolic…’

‘Do you mean to say, that you know how they fly?’

‘A salve.’

‘Salve?’

‘An unction; a balm; a lenitive. Witches boil the flesh of new born babes, and make from it a loathsome soup. With what is left in the pot, they concoct a magical salve from menstrual blood and the bones of exhumed corpses; and by rubbing this foul ointment on their genitals, they are borne aloft in the air.[xiii] As shape-shifters, witches can take many forms: crows, toads, owls — even cats, they say. But they mostly live as hares.’

Odo sniggers:

‘Hares? Oh come, come bishop. Do you really expect me to believe that? Hares? Why hares?’

‘Who knows? We can only imagine the depths of their heretical depravity.’ He downs more wine. ‘Why do you laugh? Do you doubt me? Surely you have heard strange tales?’

‘Well, now you come to mention it, I did hear one, long ago, when I was just a boy…’

‘Then drink and tell me.’

‘It concerns a bishop who was lost in the hills. His retinue had drowned in a great black bog. He was left alone, without steed or sword, at the mercy of wolves. Night fell swiftly and the mists rolled in. Cold and afraid, he knelt to pray. Whereupon three witches appeared in the guise of monks…’

Tolus gasps.

‘– They lured him to an abbey where a magnificent feast was laid. There was mutton in bear, and pigeon in wine; there was chicken with orange, and trenchers of spinach tart; wherever he looked, herb and flower salads covered the table; not to mention pitchers of perry and ale. But the bishop was forewarned by God, and before he partook, he signed the Cross over the food. Whereupon he saw the food for what it really was: the diverse excrements of swine and other beasts of the field…’ [xiv]

Tolus gasps again.

‘– All at once, his wine turned to urine and the abbey into a gloomy cavern. Then the witches cast off their habits and fled, screaming into the bowels of the earth…’

An anxious silence. Tolus ponders, biting on his lips. Then Odo grins from ear to ear. Tolus bursts out laughing:

‘Ah yes! Yes! Very good prior! Very good! You had me there for a moment! But there’s no shit on my trencher, I trust!’ He mocks and signs the cross over his food: ‘And no piss in my drink, I pray!’

Odo jests, pinching his nose:

‘Drawn fresh from the latrine, just before you arrived!’

‘Ah! Yes!’ cries Tolus, sniffing his cup. ‘It does have musky low note! Witches disguised as monks! Ha! That’s a good one! Eh? I must pass it on to my clergy…’ Then his face darkens and he adds: ‘But let us not mock the possibility of such diabolical sorcery. As servants of Satan, all manner of illusion is within the witch’s power…’

A desolate wind moans down the chimney. Tolus downs his drink and rises from the table:

‘Well, forgive me prior, but I must take my leave. The way back is treacherous and mired in mud; my retinue struggled to get here. I should go before darkness falls.’

‘Very well,’ says Odo. ‘Allow me to accompany you to the gate.’ He stands and reels: ‘Oh! that wine has gone straight to my head.’

The bishop dons his coat and says:

‘There is no need to see me off, prior. But keep me informed of what goes on here. Write to me when you can.’

‘I will your holiness. And thank you for coming in our hour of need. God willing, the abbot’s days are numbered.’

Tolus offers his hand. Odo bows,  kisses the episcopal ring, then says:

Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur. [A friend in need is a friend in deed].

‘Indeed, grins Tolus. ‘Well, we shall be great friends, you and me. Great friends indeed. Do not forget my tithes, prior. After all, you know what they say: In terra summus rex est hoc tempore nummus. [In this world, money is the supreme king]. I will return in spring, when my newborn lambs are bleating in the hills. Meanwhile, I commend myself to your loving prayers.’

And with that, the bishop turns and leaves.

Odo stands alone, his cowl hanging off his bones like a used rag. He surveys the empty platter, the gnawed bones and greasy goblets. Then he falls to his knees and weeps:

‘Why do you try me Lord! For I am cursed with want, and now you afflict me with tithes and first-fruits! When shall you open the floodgates of heaven and pour out your blessings in abundance?’ [xv]

I float from the chimney and place a loving hand upon his crown. He cannot sense me and his grieving heart is all alone.

‘Do not despair,’ I whisper. ‘Your virtue is not in vain. For this winter I shall send a novitiate who will work great miracles…’

My ghostly words pass through him like a mist, unheard except by the inner workings of his soul. He collapses on the tiles and cries in anguish:

‘Thy will be done! Prove me, O Lord, and try me; burn up my reins and heart!’ [xvi]

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2002 – 2016

[i] The prophetic words “Churl at The Altar, Priest at The Plough” are from the title page to Joseph Grünbeck’s ‘Mirror of Natural, Heavenly and Prophetic Visions of all Troubles and Fear and Anguish that will shortly come to pass upon the Estates of People.’ Nuremberg, 1508. However, it echoes a much earlier hope for social reform written in 1438 entitled ‘Reformation of Kaiser Sigismund’ (printed in 1476). The Medieval Village, G.G. Coulton. Chapter XXIV [The Rebellion of the Poor].

[ii] 2 Timothy, 3:2.

[iii] The Cistercians thought bell towers as examples of Cluniac excess and forbade their construction, preferring instead a simple crossing tower over the apse. However this rule was often flouted (eg Fountains). Tobin, Stephen, Cistercians, The (Monks and Monasteries of Europe), The Herbert Press, London, 1995.

[iv] Leviticus, 27:30.

[v] Medieval proverb.

[vi] XVIII Church Estimates of The Peasant, The Medieval Village, by G. G. Coulton.

[vii] As writes Ralph of Shrewsbury, whilst condemning the dishonesty of workfolk. Appendixes: 31, Peasant Civilization. The Medieval Village, by G. G. Coulton.

[viii] Appendixes: 36, Priests and People. The Medieval Village, by G. G. Coulton.

[ix] As writes Felix Hemmerlin in his dialogue on Nobility (ch. xxxii, f. 124 a; Reber, p. 248). Appendixes: 31, Peasant Civilization. The Medieval Village, by G. G. Coulton.

[x] Mr G. R. Pateman speaking of football played on Shrove Tuesday, Feb 13th, 1923. Many medieval records have similar accounts. Appendixes: 19, Games. The Medieval Village, by G. G. Coulton. The best known French name was ‘soule’ (but not always spelt that way, with variations including ‘choule’, ‘seault’ or ‘cholle’), while other names included ‘savate’, ‘mellat’ and ‘barrette’.

[xi] Bernard on the Rustic, XVIII Church Estimates of The Peasant, The Medieval Village, by G. G. Coulton.

[xii] Matthew, 24:37.

[xiii] Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, by Jeffrey Burton Russell.

[xiv] A similar story is told in 1160 by Alberic of Trois Fontaines in his Chronica MGH SS, XXIII, 845. Notes, Chapter 5, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, by Jeffrey Burton Russell.

[xv] Malachias, 3:8-10.

[xvi] Psalms, 25:2.