A village in Picardy. 12 kalends May (April 20), 1147; Easter Sunday; 9 Iyyar 4907.
Quae enim lues tam pestifera quis morbus tam lethalis, qui sic faciat hominem immemorem suae salutis, ridentem ac male securum appropinquare usque ad portas mortis?
Is there a plague so pestilent, an illness so deadly, that would lead a man, mindless of his health, laughing and untroubled by evil, right up to the gates of death?
—Guerric of Igny
Sermon for Pentecost
t wasn’t much of a fief, just a village and a keep on the edge of a marshy wood. It was one of the many new towns that had been created on recently drained lands or hacked from the forest. It had a church and even a priest now and then, little more. It wasn’t on a major road, nor did it have any strategic importance. Therefore, it had largely been ignored by the great nobles and thus allowed to prosper in unobtrusive isolation. The peasants were well fed and had a bit left over after taxes and tithes. The lord of the keep, Osto, a jovial knight in his early forties, had been blessed with ambition that ended at the boundaries of his own land. His wife and only child shared his unusual complacence. But recently a summons had come from his lord that would change Osto’s life forever.
This Easter afternoon everyone in the village, from the oldest inhabitant down to the newborn, whose mother could testify to the persuasive theology of the last wandering preacher, were gathered in the bailey of the keep to bid farewell to the first of their inhabitants ever to set out for the Holy Land.
“You have the hose I knitted?” Osto’s wife asked worriedly. “You know how easily you get the ague when your feet are cold.”
“You put them in the pack yourself, Edwina.” Osto patted her cheek. “But Saint Vaast will watch out for us. And we have all of your prayers to keep us safe.”
He included the whole village in his glance.
There were sentimental sniffs from some of the crowd. Lord Osto was much loved. Looking at all their familiar faces, Osto broke the
gloom with a honking sneeze that startled everyone and proved that he was as much affected by the parting as any.
“Come, Bertulf!” he said loudly. “It’s time we started. Remember we go in a holy cause. I know that Bertulf will distinguish himself so greatly that it will finally convince Lord Jordan to give his consent.”
All eyes turned to Bertulf’s son, Lambert, standing with Lord Osto’s daughter, Clemence. The couple quickly moved away from each other, blushing.
Bertulf, Osto’s friend and ostler as well as miller for the town, beamed with pride at his eldest, who had won both the heart of Osto’s daughter and the approval of her parents. Lambert and Clemence had loved each other from childhood, and Bertulf’s growing wealth from his skill at horse breeding had made him almost the equal of the knight in property.
But even a free peasant needed the permission of the local lord to marry a knight’s daughter. Bertulf was determined to win that for his son by giving himself to the Knights of the Temple and fighting in the army of the faithful to wrest the holy places of the faith from the infidel Saracens. His sacrifice should prove his worth to Lord Jordon and, by extension, that of his son.
Lord Osto was also taking the cross, fulfilling his vow to join the army of King Louis of France on the coming expedition. He was proud of Bertulf’s choice but had no desire to bind himself for life to a military order. His only wish was to distinguish himself without getting killed and then return home to his family.
They were taking only one servant with them, Godfrey, who had been with Osto most of his life. Having no family, Godfrey had begged to accompany his master. He stood a little way from the others, clasping his stout pilgrim’s staff.
Before everyone began to cry again, Osto and Bertulf kissed their families and mounted their palfreys. Behind them on a lead was Osto’s stallion, Vrieit. The horse was the pride of the town. His father had been bought at great expense at the fair in Champagne from a Jewish trader who had brought him from Spain. The Spanish stallion had
then been given the best mares for three years running. The result was Vrieit, trained by Bertulf, and raised on the best local oats and marsh grass. He was larger than the palfreys by four hands’ spread and rivaled any destrier in Christendom.
Everyone cheered or tried to through their tears as the three men set forth, sunlight gleaming on their untarnished mail and shields.
The great adventure had begun.
Paris. Thursday, The kalends May (May 1), 1147; 30 Iyyar, 4907. The feast of Saint Philip, apostle, who had four daughters, all prophetesses.
Primo hoc ipsum quod cum plurimi judices viri in IsraeL fuisse referantur, de nullo illorum dicitur, quia propheta fuerit, nisi de Debbora muliere.
First of all, of the many male judges in Israel who are referred to, it is said of none of them that they were prophets, only of the woman Deborah.
Commentary on the Book of Judges
t came as a shock to Catherine that the children had forgotten what their house looked like.
“Is it that one, Mama?” James pointed at every gate as they made their way through the twisty streets of Paris, toward the Grève, on the north bank of the Seine.
“No, James.” Catherine patted her son’s tousled curls. “Ours has the brass dragon that your father made. Remember? You lift its nose to sound the bell.”
“Oh, of course,” James said, his face wrinkled with the effort of imagining it.
“We’ve been gone over a year, Catherine,” Edgar reminded his wife. “After all that time in Trier, we’re lucky James and Edana can even remember how to speak French.”
“We stayed too long.” Catherine sighed.
She buried her face in James’s hair as she fought to keep the tears from starting again. They had planned to come back in spring as soon as the roads were cleared of winter debris and the new baby was strong enough to travel. But the winter winds had carried a fever that took the month-old child between one dawn and the next.
Catherine had been sick, as well, and her grief at the death of little Heloisa had made her recovery slow. For weeks she had refused to consider returning to Paris and leaving the tiny grave alone in a foreign land. It had taken the scorn of her sister, Agnes, now married to a German lord, to recall her to the duty she owed her remaining family.
Catherine had thought that the rift between Agnes and herself
had been mended when the family had come to save Agnes from being tried for murder, but marriage and security had brought back some of her sister’s more unpleasant traits, among them an intolerance for emotional displays.
“You think that you’re the only woman who ever lost a child?” she had told Catherine. “You have two healthy ones left. Be grateful for that and stop this moping. James and Edana need you more than the baby does. She’s in Heaven now, after all.”
“What do you know?” Catherine had snapped back. “You’ve never had children.”
“I’ve never studied theology either, but I know it’s a sin to grieve immoderately, and that’s what you’re doing,” Agnes had replied firmly.
The fight that ensued had shaken Catherine out of her deep pain more than all the kindness of her friends could. Fury at her sister’s coldness pulled her from melancholia at last. Agnes’s scorn made her realize that it was time to return to life.
It was fortunate that Catherine didn’t see Agnes’s expression as she stormed from the room, or catch Edgar hugging Agnes in thanks. Instead, she went back to their house in town determined to prove to her sister that she wasn’t being excessive in her grief.
So they had decided to come home.
Edgar was walking beside his horse, leading the way. His sister, Margaret, was riding and doing her best to keep three-year-old Edana from tumbling off in her excitement.
Catherine watched them as closely as she could while trying to keep James from jumping from his spot in front of her on the horse. She was more worried about Margaret than her own children. Edana had proven many times that she could survive a fall. Margaret was much more frail, and the trip to Germany had been hard on her in many ways. Catherine sometimes wondered if they had been wise in bringing Edgar’s sister from her home in Scotland to live with them. If her life there would have been without affection, it would also have been safer.
“Almost there!” Edgar called out. “Now, James, watch for the dragon!”
“I see it!” James cried. “There! Is that it?”
The last words were in tones of doubt that Catherine echoed.
“What’s happened here?” she said. “The gate is overgrown with vines. The windows are still shuttered. It looks as if no one has been here since we left. Where’s Samonie? Solomon was supposed to tell her to open the house for us.”
Catherine regretted the words immediately.
“Do you think something has happened to Solomon?” Margaret asked, her voice rising in fear.
“Of course not,” Catherine answered too sharply. “Solomon has been to Samarkand and back and spent most of his life wandering through pagan lands. What could happen to him between Trier and Paris?”
She tried not to think of the pilgrims and soldiers who saw no difference between killing Saracens in the Holy Land and attacking the Jews living in France. Catherine wished again that her cousin would accept baptism but knew that only a miracle could change his heart. She fell back on her reassurance to Margaret. Solomon knew how to protect himself.
“But he should be here,” Margaret said. “He said he’d wait for us. What could have happened?”
“We won’t find out by standing outside,” Edgar said. “Come along.”
He lifted his daughter from the horse, and then helped his sister down. For a moment, they clustered before the house like a troupe of beggars, then Catherine took the keys from the hook on her belt and sorted through them for the large iron one that would open the thick oak gate.
She had to use both hands to make it turn, and, when she heard the catch click open, she and Edgar still had to push together to make it move.
The gate scraped open far enough for Edgar to enter. They heard him exclaiming at the state of the place as he tore out the encroaching vines with his one hand. At last they were able to open it wide enough to bring the horses and the pack mule in.
Catherine stopped in horror.
“What happened?” she asked. “Even the front door is boarded up. Edgar, we’ll have to find someplace else to stay until the house can be aired. We can’t take the children in among the foul humors. Where is Samonie? I don’t understand this at all.”
“Catherine LeVendeur? Is that you?”
The voice came from the road. An old woman was peering through the gateway, squinting to make them out.
“Hervice?” Catherine ran to greet their neighbor. “What’s happened here? How long has the house been empty? Why is there no one here to greet us?”
“Your father was back sometime before the feast of the Nativity,” Hervice answered. “He left around the time of the Purification. He told everyone he was going on a pilgrimage and that you and your husband would be along to take up his trade soon.”
“But that was only four months ago!” Catherine said. “Things couldn’t have got into such a state in that short time.”
The old woman shook her head. “He didn’t stay here, but on the Île with his Jewish friends. Odd way to start a pilgrimage, I’d say.”
“Finishing his business with them, I suppose,” Catherine said. She swallowed the fear and the shame that came every time she remembered that her father had actually abandoned Christianity to return to the faith of his ancestors. No one must know that he was even now on his way to join the Jewish community in Arles. It would put the whole family under suspicion, even though Catherine and her sister were both good Christians and their brother, Guillaume, had never even learned of their father’s ancestry.
Hervice didn’t notice her hesitation and continued her complaint. “There’s been talk that he’d left a treasure behind in the house so he had the shutters nailed down and hired a guard. Sent your servants all up north to work for your brother, I think. Haven’t seen the guard in weeks. Maybe he took the treasure.”
“Father left nothing in the house,” Catherine told her. “All of value that we didn’t take to Trier, he left with my brother or the monks at Saint Denis for safe keeping.”
Hervice seemed about to express her doubt about that but then looked at their tired faces.
“Fine welcome home for you anyway,” she said. “Why didn’t you send word? Here now, come across to my house. You can wash the dust off and have some soup and bread.”
As they followed her, Edgar leaned close and whispered to Catherine, “How much gossip do you think we’ll get with our soup?”
“A lot, I hope,” Catherine whispered back. “How else will we find out what’s been going on while we were away?”
Edgar murmured his opinion of the usefulness of kitchen talk.
“Nonsense,” Catherine answered. “I’ll wager Hervice knows things even the priest hasn’t heard yet.”
“Nor ever will,” Edgar said. “But that’s not the sort of news I was hoping for.”
“Then just attend to the children and eat your soup,” Catherine suggested. “I’ll strain the truth from her tales and feed it to you later.”
They settled on benches in Hervice’s garden while she called a servant to bring soup.
“You’ll want to slake your thirst after the journey, as well,” she said. “Gilles! Fetch water for our guests!”
Edgar had been hoping for something stronger. He set down the soup bowl to take the water, ignoring the serving boy, who stared in shock at the black leather strap covering the tender skin of his left wrist where the hand used to be.
“Did a Saracen cut it off?” Gilles breathed, his eyes round.
Edgar smiled bitterly. “No, a demon in the body of a man.”
“A demon!” Gilles’s eyes grew even wider. “What did it look like?”
“Like my father,” Edgar said bitterly. “Exactly like him.”
It was clear that Gilles wanted to ask more, but Hervice ordered him sharply to stop gawking and drag out a table for their guests.
James and Edana, who had already set their bowls on the ground, fetched wooden spoons from Catherine’s sack and were happily eating.
Catherine waited until the family had settled before she questioned Hervice about what had been happening in Paris over the long year they had been gone.
“Last year was a bad harvest.” Hervice clucked her tongue. “Bread was dear and beggars on every corner. The wine was thin and sour. The spring has been too cold this year, as well. Not a good omen for this venture of the king’s.”
“We saw armed men wearing pilgrim crosses everywhere as we came through town,” Catherine commented. “I thought they would have left by now.”
Hervice shook her head. “I hear they’re starting out any day, but it seems that the only pilgrimage anyone is making is to Paris. There are even Knights of the Temple, dozens of them, with all their squires and servants, doing God knows what. No wonder Edessa fell, if all of them are loafing about here in France!”
Catherine nodded. “I saw a group of them. I didn’t realize the order had grown so. They must have come to guide the king and the emperor to the Holy Land.”
“Well, I say if they’re going, then they should go,” Hervice snapped. “The place is overrun by men with swords. Warriors, knights, lordlings, even those who are supposed to be clerics. They say some of the knights are also monks, but I never heard of a warrior taking a vow of chastity and I have granddaughters. You give any man a sword and sooner or later someone will get run through. It’s their nature.”
Catherine reached a protective arm out to Margaret, who had been listening in silence. The men who had attacked her in Germany hadn’t carried swords. Perhaps that was how she had survived. But what had happened to her was more brutal than a simple thrust and a quick death.
“It will be all right,
,” Catherine assured her.
Margaret gave a sad smile. “Of course. We’re home now.”
Catherine kept her arm around Margaret as she turned back to Hervice.
“Has no one come by recently asking for us? A friend was supposed to be here when we arrived.”
Hervice shrugged and yelled for Gilles to bring more water. “No one that I know of. We can ask the rest of the street. But I’d have heard of it, I think.”
Catherine agreed. For some reason Solomon had been delayed. It
wasn’t like him, but the times were unsettled, especially for a Jewish trader, and he might have had to change his plans.
“Messages go astray,” Margaret said, following her thoughts.
“They do indeed,” Catherine said. “All too often. He might have sent word to Trier after we had left.”
She gave her bowl to the serving boy and stood.
“Thank you, Hervice,” she said. “Now we need to find a place to stay until the house can be opened and aired.”
“I’m feeding a houseful now, or I’d take you in,” Hervice answered, endeavoring to look regretful.
“We wouldn’t think of it,” Edgar told her honestly.