... excerpt from
To Know Evil
-- Chapter One --
Brother Thomas of Worms stood upright and pressed both hands to his lower back. He grimaced slightly as he raised his narrow eyes towards heaven. His thin lips moved in silent prayer, thanking God that his back could still bend. This northern climate was not good for his joints, and secretly he yearned for warmer countries. Brother Thomas looked over the garden. He was always sad when he harvested the last of his vegetables, for it heralded the beginning of winter and colder weather. He reached back and pulled his black hood over his tonsured head.
Down at the far end of the garden Thomas saw Brother Paolo’s full form, standing over his basket. Brother Paolo did not move very fast, if he moved at all. He was sampling some of the vegetables he’d picked. Thomas wondered how many more full baskets there would be for the monastery if Brother Paolo did not help with the harvest. He eyed the other monk as he ate. May the Lord forgive him for such unkindly thoughts: the man even chewed slowly.
Brother Paolo turned and saw Thomas watching him. He bent over—though they were not standing close, Thomas could imagine the groan that accompanied the movement—and he picked up his baskets of bounty and headed in Thomas’s direction. Thomas went back to his harvest. He knew it would be some time before the other man reached him.
“It was a very good harvest this year, Brother Thomas,” Brother Paolo said convivially as he stopped nearby.
“Do you think?” Thomas responded, still bent over. There was some doubt in his words, but Brother Paolo seemed not to notice.
“The beans are quite exceptional and sweet.”
“There is something about this soil . . .” Thomas scooped up some in his hand, straightened, and proceeded to examine it. “Even the rainfall is insufficient, which is strange for this climate. I do not know what it is, but . . .”
“These are the last two baskets,” Brother Paolo said. “I could take them now . . . or do you wish for me to wait so we may go up together?” He added the last part with visible reluctance.
“No, go up now, Brother Paolo,” Thomas said, “and I will follow in time.”
Thomas watched the other walk away, waddling slightly as he went. It was better to let Brother Paolo go sooner. If they walked together Thomas would have to slow his pace considerably to match the slow gate of his rotund brother.
Thomas filled his two large baskets and straightened, wincing at the strain on his back. As he did, he spied two more filled baskets at the end of the garden where Paolo had been working. Thomas shook his head. Brother Paolo had obviously seen these two baskets, but had not wished to make another trip. That was why he had said his were the last two, and why he had not wished to wait for Thomas. He had feared Thomas would see the other baskets and suggest he come back for them. Of all the brothers in the monastery, Brother Paolo had the greatest aptness for getting out of any extra work.
Beyond the baskets Thomas saw the west road that led to the sea and the Frankish Kingdoms. Thomas turned east and to the fields where a score or more of the brothers were working. One of them saw Thomas and raised an arm in greeting. Thomas responded in kind. Like the garden, field work would soon be coming to an end.
Thomas of Worms bent down and picked up two of the four large baskets of freshly picked vegetables. He knew he would have to come back for the two remaining baskets. Under the weight of the baskets it was a slow plodding walk up the mountain path, so Brother Thomas recited the beatitudes as he walked.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who do hunger and thirst for righteousness:
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called
the children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Brother Thomas of Worms was dressed in the Benedictine habit, a tunic and scapular worn underneath a long full gown of heavy coarse wool tied at the waist with a cord. Attached to the gown was a cowl to cover his head. The early Benedictines had worn a habit of white, the colour of undyed wool, but some time ago the colour had been changed to black, which had garnered the Benedictine brothers the name “black monks.”
He was about half way up the mountain trail when he passed two other brothers coming down the path. Though they acknowledged one another, they did not stop to speak, as all had duties to carry out. Many saw superfluous talk as a luxury, which went against their vows.
As he approached the monastery, Brother Thomas looked up at the structure. It was solidly built, practically a fortress. The outside of the monastery was rectangular, with high walls as if built to keep the divinity inside. Or were they to keep something else out? The monastery appeared more dismal and brooding today. Thomas could not quite rationalize his feelings towards the structure, yet he felt something was not quite right. He had been to other holy places in Christendom, some not as large and grand as this, while others had been truly awe-inspiring. But this one was different. He had known it when he had come here two years ago.
Thomas gazed about the surrounding countryside. The hills stood almost sullen, like a group of cowled monks with heads bowed and shoulders stooped as if prepared to receive a rebuke. A dull sun lay hidden behind layers of grey clouds lending the landscape an unsettling air. Though birds were seen to fly overhead, none ever nested in the vicinity. Little wildlife scampered through the woods, as if their instincts foretold of an unnatural danger. Was it this moody setting that gave the monastery its gloomy appearance, or was it the other way around? At times, Brother Thomas felt as if the monastery possessed an evil unto itself.
Was it evil, he wondered? Brother Domitian had often spoken of evil. Though he would never admit it, Thomas did not believe in evil as a tangible force, an independent thing. He believed the writings of St. Paul implied that evil existed in man’s heart, forever locked in a constant struggle with goodness, and it was up to man to guard against it, to see that the evil did not win. Thomas could not share these thoughts with his brothers, of course—they could be grounds for heresy. He shook off his musings as he entered the monastery through the main gate on the western wall.
Brother Thomas passed through a pair of large oak double doors that hung on heavy ornate iron hinges. Though the two baskets were a burden, they did not slow him down. Unlike most of the monks, who took slow contemplative steps, Thomas walked with long determined strides as if he were constantly late for something. He strode across the wide spacious open courtyard, surrounded by a pillared and arched cloister, to the kitchen directly opposite the main gate. He entered the kitchen and was met by a melding of odours. In a large open hearth that could easily accommodate a grown man, coals burned, and over the coals hung a black iron cauldron, suspended in a hinged stand, in which brewed what some in the monastery referred to as soup. Standing by the pot and stirring it with a large wooden spoon stood Brother Bernard, with his sad, petulant face, tired eyes, and crooked nose.
Wordlessly Brother Thomas approached the cook and proudly displayed his baskets of bounty. Brother Bernard regarded the food almost contemptuously and motioned for Thomas to place the baskets on the table. Leaning sideways over the soup, Brother Thomas took in a long audible breath through his nostrils and smiled approvingly at the cook who stared blankly back. Thomas gave a slight shrug of his shoulders and put the baskets down on the table. He exited the kitchen, dreading whatever unpalatable concoction Bernard would make out of his vegetables.
Thomas walked through the western gate and stood for a moment before heading down the mountain to fetch the last two baskets of vegetables from his garden. From atop the mountain he could see the surrounding countryside. The mountain dwarfed the surrounding hills. It was a lonely, desolate spot, just the kind of place a man might come to find God and salvation. As his gaze shifted to the west, Thomas saw the approach of a lone traveler. Even from far off, Thomas could see the grey habit of a fellow ascetic, and he hastened down the mountain to meet him.
Thomas stood waiting on the edge of the garden with his laden baskets at his feet for the stranger to approach. The monk was perhaps several years older than Thomas, was heavily bearded, and carried a small travelling pack. The features on his sober face were dark, and from what Thomas could observe, he deduced the man was from the East.
“Greetings,” Thomas called out in a friendly fashion. He did not forget his Hebrews: Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. The stranger’s appearance and manner were anything but angelic, yet if the devil could assume an appealing disguise, then why not angels the reverse? Whether the stranger be angel, demon, or man, Brother Thomas met him openly.
The stranger did not answer or acknowledge Thomas in any way until he approached and stood close. Since the Rule called for every guest to the monastery to be treated as Christ himself, Thomas waited to greet the man with a holy kiss or a brotherly embrace. But the man made no attempt at even the slightest contact, except to ask curtly, “This is the monastery of St. Benedict?”
Thomas was taken aback at the man’s brusque manner.
“Yes,” he replied, “this is the monastery of St. Benedict. Welcome.”
Without a word or gesture the man turned and began his ascent of the mountain. Thomas snatched up his vegetables and escorted him matching the stranger stride for stride.
“I am Brother Thomas of Worms,” he said, and waited for a reply.
After a moment, it was reluctantly given. “Brother Lazarus.” The man’s voice was low and coarse, and Thomas detected an eastern accent.
“You have come a far way, I see, Brother Lazarus,” Thomas said as they plodded up the mountain path. The man did not speak, but this did not daunt Thomas in any way. “I trust you had a safe and comfortable sea voyage.”
The man stopped and regarded Thomas suspiciously. “How do you know I came by sea?”
“Though you came by the western road I see by your manner of speech and dress that you are from the East, for I have travelled to the East myself,” Thomas said. “I would conclude that you are from Constantinople. Therefore, undoubtedly, you travelled by ship and were put ashore at the coastal village of Lerici, or perhaps La Spezia, and from there came on by foot.”
“I may have been journeying eastward by land from a country west of here,” the stranger proposed. “How do you know I arrived by ship?”
“You have the smell of the sea on you,” Thomas said simply. “I find it interesting, though, that you have come so far expressly to visit our monastery.”
The man regarded Thomas with hostility. He clearly did not appreciate the black monk’s ability to divine so much of his affairs.
“Who said I came here for such a purpose?” Brother Lazarus demanded, his dark, deep-set eyes narrowing.
“When we met, you inquired about the monastery, and you referred to it by name as if it were your destination. It would be remarkable if you had heard of this monastery from such a distance. You have not come across us by chance, but for a singular purpose.”
Brother Lazarus stared at Thomas openmouthed. He studied the black monk’s light green eyes as if searching for a hint of intent.
“Your order does not call for a vow of silence, I see,” Brother Lazarus observed.
Thomas could not help but grin at the man’s insinuation, and neither spoke another word until they were inside the walls of the monastery.
Brother Thomas directed Brother Lazarus to the abbot’s chamber, and the two parted company. Thomas then delivered the remaining vegetables to the kitchen. He left the kitchen and was in hopes of visiting the library, when he heard the bell toll for tierce—the midmorning work of God. Tierce was only one of eight communal prayers of the Divine Office, which began long before dawn and ended at nightfall. When the Divine Office was signaled, every monk of the monastery stopped whatever he was doing to congregate in the church. Once everyone was inside, the opus Dei began with a psalm, silent prayer, a hymn, and readings from the Bible and the Church Fathers.
One hundred fifty psalms were sung each week—or more accurately, the psalms were chanted in a low melodious tone. Most everyone enjoyed the chants, mainly because of Brother Nicholas, a fresh-faced youth whose beautiful soprano voice filled the church to overflowing. As the soloist, Brother Nicholas would sing a line that was repeated by the other monks, or sometimes the order was reversed. The daily chanting dated back to Jewish tradition of worship, and for the Benedictine monks the chant was spiritually connected to every aspect of their lives. The chants radiated through their entire beings, uniting them and bringing them into contact with God. It was truly musica mundana—music of the spheres—and the very sound could conjure up images of celestial choirs. Not all the brothers had fine voices, but the soloist, Brother Nicholas, was extraordinary.
Nicholas had been in the monastery since he was a very young man, and he was not yet twenty years old. Brother Nicholas had been chosen as soloist for his exceptional singing voice which, when raised in the great echoing walls of the church, sounded more like the voice of an angel. When the other brothers joined in, it was the closest thing to a heavenly choir the monastery had ever witnessed. Though none of the monks in the monastery would admit it—even to themselves—some of them felt their eyes drawn to Brother Nicholas as he sang. Nicholas possessed an enchanting quality. Perhaps it was his voice, or perhaps his youthful, gentle, comely face and wide blue-green eyes that made some regard him as a precious cherub. Whatever the attraction, regarding Nicholas in that manner was not at all holy, and most of the monks endeavoured to drive such thoughts from their heads.
Most, but not all.
While in his choir stall, Brother Thomas looked over at Brother Nicholas who was attempting to catch his attention. Nicholas’s anxious demeanour told Thomas the young monk wished to speak with him. The two were good friends and often talked in private, away from the watchful eye of the prior, Brother Vittorio. Though speaking was not forbidden in the monastery, supererogatory talking was frowned upon.
After tierce Thomas and Nicholas left the church separately. They would rendezvous in a small alcove in the library, but Thomas thought it best to take a long and circuitous route to the tryst. He was cutting across the courtyard when Brother Ferrutio caught his attention.
“Brother Thomas,” Ferrutio spoke in the same low tone all the brothers used. Thomas of Worms pretended he did not hear, and walked on. “Brother Thomas!” Ferrutio spoke louder, though it almost pained him to do so. Thomas did not wish to cause Brother Ferrutio any more discomfort, so he stopped and turned towards him.
“Ah, Brother Ferrutio, good day,” Thomas said.
“Thank God I found you, Brother Thomas.”
“Why? What is wrong, Brother?”
“The prior, Brother Vittorio, is looking for you.”
“Oh, is it serious?”
“With Brother Vittorio, everything is serious,” Ferrutio said, not trying to make Thomas smile, but he did.
“Thank you, Brother,” Thomas said and turned to leave.
“Are you going to Brother Vittorio now?” Ferrutio asked, concerned.
“Where would you suggest I find him?” Thomas asked, though he truly did not wish to know.
Brother Ferrutio assumed a sober expression and said, “I do not know, but I believe you should find him. Perhaps you should remain here, and I will find Brother Vittorio and bring him to you. Or perhaps we should—”
“Brother Ferrutio, do not trouble yourself,” Thomas said, hoping to calm the man. “I shall find Brother Vittorio, or he shall find me. Do not fear. All will transpire the way it should.”
“I certainly pray so,” Brother Ferrutio called after Thomas as the German monk walked away, then called out, “If I see Brother Vittorio, where should I say you will be?”
“I was out in the garden, and I should get back to it,” Thomas called back.
“But shouldn’t you remain about the monastery?”
Thomas walked off, not bothering to respond.
Thomas did not like to speak in a deceiving manner, and he trusted God would forgive him. He was careful as he made his way to the library, hoping he would not run into anyone else, especially the prior. Fortunately for Thomas and Nicholas, however, the chancellor was not in the room and they could converse in some privacy. Whenever the two met they spoke in low hushed tones, which caused them to stand very close to each other when they conversed.
Brother Nicholas was the chancellor’s assistant. He was also shorter and slimmer than Thomas, and had more hair on his head despite his tonsure.
“Did you harvest the last of your vegetables?” Nicholas asked, in a voice barely above a whisper.
Thomas nodded. He would not speak if a gesture sufficed, yet he did not mind speaking. In fact, he suspected he would have made an accomplished orator. “We should be feasting on fresh vegetables for a few weeks. After that . . .”
Nicolas smiled knowingly at this veiled commentary on Brother Bernard’s culinary skills—or lack thereof.
“We received a visitor this morning,” Thomas said, as he stroked his beard contemplatively. “Brother Lazarus from Constantinople. One has to wonder why he is here. I hesitate to say it, but he appeared very suspicious.”
“I hesitate to say it, Brother Thomas, but you find most people very suspicious.”
Thomas regarded Nicholas with a look of mock indignation and asked, “Was there a specific reason you wished to speak with me?”
“I asked you here, Brother Thomas, because I found something very exciting—a remarkable find!” Nicholas said, with his usual youthful enthusiasm.
“What is it?”
“In the library I came across what looks like an old, common psalter.”
“And what is so exciting about an old book of psalms?” Thomas asked.
“It is not the psalms that are the find, but what was written beneath them.”
“Are you saying the book contains palimpsests?”
“Yes!” Nicholas said, grinning. “You can still see the writing beneath the psalms, but it is faint.”
“And what is so fascinating about what is written underneath?”
“Though the writing has practically all been scraped away, I was able to decipher some of the words,” Nicholas said proudly. “They allude to the first Benedictines who came to this monastery.”
“That is amazing!” Thomas exclaimed. “Just how—”
Brother Thomas stopped as he heard a door open to the library. Thomas and Nicholas eased into the shadow of the alcove. They stood side by side as they listened to the soft, slow tread of sandaled feet entering the library and coming closer and closer. Though he could not see clearly from his position, Brother Thomas suspected the person to be very close now. He did not wish to be found with Brother Nicholas in this way, so placing a restraining hand upon the shoulder of his companion, Thomas stepped rather quickly out of the shadows of the alcove.
“Ah, Brother Vittorio!” Thomas half shouted so as to startle the monk.
His sudden appearance and exclamation had the desired effect, for Brother Vittorio jumped back in surprise and fear.
“Oh, my apologies, Brother,” said Thomas, laying a hand upon the other’s arm. “Did I frighten you?”
Vittorio pulled back from Thomas’s touch. His face and manner displayed both suspicion and trepidation—as they often did—and his close-set eyes darted from Brother Thomas to the alcove. “Why were you not in the garden, Brother Thomas?” he asked accusingly. “You told Brother Ferrutio you were going to the garden.”
“Brother Ferrutio must have misunderstood,” Thomas said. “I told him that I had been in the garden picking vegetables.”
Brother Vittorio regarded Thomas suspiciously and asked, “What were you doing in there?” He had to look up at Thomas, for he was a small man with quick, nervous gestures.
“I came to the library looking for a book.”
“What book?” Vittorio asked, and his flat pugnacious nose twitched ferret-like as if trying to sniff out deception.
“I came looking for one of the many Latin works of Jerome. Perhaps you know the work, Brother. Jerome explains how our distrust and suspicions are only reflections of our own sinful nature.”
“No, I do not know it,” Brother Vittorio uttered, ignorant of the other’s meaning.
“Was there something you required, Brother?” Thomas asked in his typical friendly fashion.
Vittorio stared into the alcove as he spoke. “The abbot wishes to see you. He sent me to bring you to him.”
Thomas took two steps towards the library door. Vittorio remained rooted staring into the alcove. The monk took a hesitant step towards it.
“Should we not hasten to the abbot?” Thomas said, turning to the other and gesturing towards the door.
Brother Vittorio turned from the alcove. With a self-righteous look, he brushed past Thomas and out of the library.
Like every room in the monastery, the abbot’s chamber, which was separate from the other monks’, was simple and austere. The room was furnished with a small crude table and two uncomfortable chairs. A large closed Bible stood upon a tall stand, and beyond that a plain curtain hung dividing the room. Two small, high windows lit the otherwise gloomy space. Brother Michael had been chosen abbot of the monastery by its members twelve years ago and would remain abbot until the day he died, which at his present age of fifty-one could be in a day, a year, or—God willing—even a decade. As was with many of the brothers in the monastery, the abbot’s face was solemn, but also weary, as if the weight of responsibility for the salvation of all the souls committed to his care rested entirely upon his shoulders. Every time he spoke it was with a heaviness, as if those very words would be his last.
Brother Vittorio escorted Thomas into the abbot’s chamber and stood sentry by the door.
The abbot stood at his desk, studying a document written upon a large sheet of parchment. The abbot himself was a large man whose heavy breathing was audible and regular. His small pea-like eyes looked even smaller set deep into his fat round face.
“You may leave us, Brother Vittorio,” the abbot said not looking up.
Vittorio hesitated. “Are . . . are you certain?” he stammered. Brother Vittorio knew what was to come, and he eagerly desired to witness it.
The abbot looked up and met the other’s eyes briefly. The look alone was an answer. Brother Vittorio promptly left the room.
Thomas turned and watched the prior leave. His head twisted back at the mention of his name.
“So, Brother Thomas, how long have you been with us now?” the abbot asked, sitting down behind his desk. His eyes seldom looked directly at the person to whom he spoke, almost as if the person were beneath his notice.
“Two years, Abbot,” replied Thomas.
“And before you came to us, you were in . . . ?”
“Lyons,” Thomas responded.
“And prior to that?”
“And prior to that?”
Thomas took a breath and said: “Cordoba, Cyrene, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus, Constantinople, and Athens.”
“You are quite well travelled,” the abbot remarked casually.
“I believe a man should not let much grass grow beneath his sandals,” Thomas said, just as casually. “I was fortunate as a very young man that my father’s position allowed me to travel and to see some of the world. When I took up the Order, I retained the desire to travel. Do my past travels have anything to do with Brother Lazarus of Constantinople?”
The abbot started. “What do you mean?” he asked. His fat face shook slightly as he spoke. “How do you know of Brother Lazarus? He arrived only this morning.”
“Yes, I know,” Thomas said. “I met him at the foot of the mountain as I was returning from the garden. I thought it strange that an Orthodox monk would come all this way to visit our monastery.”
“Brother Thomas, this has nothing to do with Brother Lazarus, and I wish you not to mention him again,” the abbot admonished, showing more perturbation than Thomas thought was warranted.
“As to your travels, Brother Thomas, do you plan to leave us one day?” the abbot asked, regaining his composure.
Thomas hesitated, then slowly said: “I did have hopes of seeing Rome one day.”
“Brother Thomas, you are originally from . . . ?”
“I am from Worms, Abbot.”
“Ah, yes, Worms. That is in Germany.”
“Perhaps that is where the problem lies.”
“What problem is that?” Thomas asked. “And what has it to do with my coming from Germany?”
“Brother Thomas, as members of the Benedictine order we took a vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience to the abbot. We live a communal life of working together, eating together, praying together . . . and we are expected to live in this monastery forever. Though we do open our doors to anyone, we do expect some sense of loyalty, and you have just admitted that you plan to leave us. You are what our patron, Benedict of Nursia, referred to as a gyrovague, one of those who spend a good deal of their lives drifting from region to region in different monasteries.”
“Is that all?” Thomas asked.
“No, that is not all,” the abbot said truculently. “Though we do not expect a vow of silence from our brothers, unnecessary conversation is avoided. You have been known to speak excessively, more than any other brother in the monastery.”
“I see. And what does my coming from Germany have to do with it?”
“I am certain you will not take this the wrong way, Brother Thomas. My intent is not to besmirch our Emperor, Otto III, but as northerners, you are relatively new to our ways. It was not long ago that your Germanic tribes were converted.”
“I am not certain what you are trying to say, Lord Abbot.”
“Just why are you here, Brother?” the abbot asked.
“I am here for the same reason we all are here,” Thomas stated. “To strive for the goal of personal salvation.”
“And you believe educating yourself in the secular world will help you do that?” Thomas showed a hint of surprise, and the abbot added: “Yes, I am well aware of your personal studies. What do you have to say about them?”
“Only that, if we are to become wise, then surely knowledge is the path to wisdom,” Brother Thomas said.
To which the abbot quoted, “Let the wise display his wisdom not in words but in good works. St. Clement I, late first century.”
“My personal studies, as you call them, may be secular, but they are not ungodly. Our patron, Benedict of Nursia, himself, was an educated man.”
“Benedict of Nursia renounced his earthly studies in favour of spiritual pursuits,” said the abbot. “You would do well to remember the words of Augustine of Hippo from the early fifth century: I desire to know God and my own soul. Nothing else; nothing whatever.”
“I believe any enlightenment of this world is worthwhile,” Thomas countered. “For we must first understand ourselves before we can begin to understand God.”
“I am afraid I am not familiar with that passage,” the abbot said.
“Thomas of Worms, late tenth century.”
The abbot let out a long, laboured breath and regarded Thomas impatiently. He said, “If you must study, Brother Thomas, remember First Thessalonians: Study to be quiet.” He waited for Thomas to respond, but the German monk used good sense and remained silent. “Perhaps you are not clear on your vocation,” the abbot said. “Perhaps you have not thought through what this manner of life entails. Perhaps the Benedictine order is not the one for you.”
Thomas nodded his head slowly. “Abbot, I will leave your monastery if you so desire. I would never stay anywhere I am not wanted or welcomed.”
The abbot did not respond immediately. The two men stood silently in the room, each trying to determine the true character of the other. They were both strong men in their own right, and neither sought a battle of wills.
“I am not asking you to leave the monastery, Brother Thomas,” the abbot began. “That is a decision you must come to on your own. I am telling you this as a means to help you find your way, to aid you in your spiritual pursuits.”
“For that, my lord Abbot, I am humbly grateful.”
“And to aid you further in this worthwhile endeavour, I am commissioning you, purely as an act of devotion and penance of labour, to copy out a New Testament book.”
Brother Thomas stared mutely at the abbot. After a moment, he found his voice.
“Are you certain this is the right devotion for me?” Thomas spoke. “My abilities as a scribe are not the finest.”
“All the more reason to practice.”
”Brother Thomas, it is done,” the abbot said with finality, and their eyes met briefly.
Thomas knew that tone and that look. He decided not to pursue the matter. The German monk bowed briefly, then turned to leave the abbot’s quarters, but stopped at the door and asked, “What book would you wish me to copy?”
The abbot paused for a moment with his eyes turned up towards the ceiling as if waiting for divine inspiration. “I believe the Revelation to John would benefit you considerably. Brother Gedeon will supply you with parchment.”
Thomas of Worms bowed to the abbot again and left the chamber. He walked down the corridor with decisiveness and purpose. He had not foreseen this latest outcome, and there was little he could do but follow the abbot’s direction. He had, on rare occasions, gone against the abbot’s will, but never without a very good reason and never in a way that it would be obvious. He would have to carry out the duties of a scribe.
Brother Thomas went in search of Brother Gedeon who was the monastery’s percamenarius—its parchment maker. Brother Gedeon was a very ordinary, nondescript man of middle age and medium height, with a very forgettable face. His only distinction was that he smelled bad. It was not an odour that could easily be identified. It was not quite like rotting flesh, not quite mould-covered vegetables, but it was a thick stench, a sickening putridity that once experienced could never be forgotten. It was a smell that was exclusive, thank God, to Brother Gedeon.
Since parchment was made from animal skin, Brother Gedeon followed the process from start to finish, beginning with raising the animals himself. Though parchment could be made from virtually any skin, the monastery kept pens of goat and sheep for just such purpose. Though Gedeon had learned long ago that the finest parchment was made from calfskin, the monastery was, alas, a poor one and could not afford cattle.
To make parchment Brother Gedeon carefully washed the flayed skin of the sheep or goat and then let it soak in a vat of clean water for a day and a night. It was then placed in another vat containing a solution of lime and water for eight to sixteen days, depending on the weather. Several times a day the vat was stirred with a large wooden paddle to help loosen the hair on the hide. The skins were then removed from the vat and laid over a log where Gedeon would scrape off the hair using a blunt, curved blade. Opposite the grain side, any remaining flesh was removed. The skin was then soaked in fresh water for two more days. Brother Gedeon would then take the skin and stretch it on a wooden frame and while the skin was still wet, he would carefully scrape both sides of the skin with a curved blade. The skin was then allowed to dry in the sun. By then, the skin was tight and was again scraped to a desired thinness. Finally, the parchment could be removed and rolled up until needed. This long, smelly process lent Brother Gedeon his very distinct odour.
Thomas knew he would find Brother Gedeon behind the monastery among the animal pens. It was well known by most of the brothers that Gedeon was usually the first to wake and liked to inspect the pens early in the morning. Aside from sheep and goats, the monastery also raised geese, pigs, and chickens. To Brother Thomas it appeared that Brother Gedeon was more at ease with his animals than he was with people.
“Good day, Brother Gedeon,” Thomas greeted him, careful to stay upwind of the percamenarius.
Gedeon glanced in the other monk’s direction and grunted a greeting.
“All the animals are looking well today,” Thomas commented.
Gedeon again grunted in reply. It occurred to Thomas that perhaps Brother Gedeon spent a trifle too much time with his animals.
“You certainly do excellent work raising these beasts. It shows in the parchment you produce.”
Brother Gedeon grunted again and said, “You obviously want something, Brother Thomas. Best tell me what it is now, and forgo all the pleasantries.”
“I require parchment, Brother.”
Gedeon grunted a burst of surprise. “I did not know you listed scribe among your many talents.”
“Neither did I, but the abbot has commissioned me to copy a book.”
“So it is not for anyone in particular?”
Thomas shrugged his uncertainty. “It is for the abbot. It will most likely be put away in the library, and perhaps one day find its way to some poor church or wayward monastery.”
“Would you be willing to use palimpsests?”
Brother Thomas winced. He did not relish the idea of rubbing down parchment that had already been written upon to use over again.
“I would prefer new parchment, Brother Percamenarius.”
Just then the bell tolled for sext, the noontime prayer.
“Whatever you prefer, Brother Thomas,” Gedeon said, “will have to wait.”
After sext the monks gathered in the refectory for dinner, the main meal of the day. The meal, eaten in silence, usually consisted of soup, bread, fruit with cheese or eggs, along with Brother Thomas’s fresh vegetables. Meat or fish during a meal was rare, and would only be served on special occasions, but never on a fast day. Today was a day of fast.
After lunch, Thomas met Gedeon in the scriptorium, a room on the second floor and next to the library. Inside, away from the fresh air, the percamenarius’s odour was even more offensive.
The scriptorium was smaller than the library, with several slanted tables the monks used for copying out sacred texts and other works pertaining to the Faith. The tables were set up in individual cloisters so the scribes might have some privacy to concentrate on their work. No candles were allowed in the scriptorium for fear of fire, so all work was done during the daytime when sunlight shone in through high windows. Only one other monk was in the scriptorium when Thomas and Gedeon entered, Brother Bartholomew, the master scribe and armarius. He sat hunched over his table, his once sharp, penetrating eyes squinting at the words he endeavoured to copy. Thomas had observed Brother Bartholomew’s scripting, which was, of course, letter perfect and very neat. This surprised Thomas of Worms since the master scribe’s hands shook considerably. Thomas wondered how the armarius could maintain such fine and detailed work, and concluded that the ways of God were awesome and wondrous. Though Thomas and Gedeon spoke little, and very softly when they did, Brother Bartholomew would occasionally stop his work to glare intolerantly at them for their distracting behaviour.
Gedeon led Thomas to the back of the room where rolled up pieces of parchment lay neatly tucked away in numerous wooden cubical compartments. They began to select parchments, not the very best parchments, or even fine pieces, for Brother Gedeon could not see wasting his best and finest on Brother Thomas and some minor work. With a sufficient bundle gathered, Thomas brought his parchments to a table in the scriptorium and, with a knife called a lunellum, he began to trim his parchments to be the exact same size. He then folded each parchment in half, which would make up four pages. Since parchment was actually the skin of an animal, one side was the inner skin, and the other was the hide where the fur had been. Brother Thomas layered his parchment so that a skin side would touch a skin side of the next sheet, and the hair side of adjacent sheets would face each other. This method allowed facing pages to be similar, to give a more uniform appearance.
To prepare the pages prior to writing on them, Brother Thomas rubbed the sheets with pumice and smoothed it with chalk, to remove any oil and thus keep the ink from running.
“You are going to use ruled lines, are you not?” The question came from behind him, and though it was a mere whisper, Brother Thomas started, for the prolonged bout of silence had given him the impression that he was alone. He turned to see Brother Bartholomew. The armarius had trod noiselessly to Thomas’s work station to observe his progress. Years of copying had given Brother Bartholomew a permanent squint. Even when he stood, his back and shoulders retained the exact stoop he had developed from years of sitting hunched over his table copying texts. His hair and beard were grey and bushy. Even his eyebrows were bushy. His old, wrinkled fingers were stained black with layers of ink from years of copying. Thomas had frequently heard the rumour about the monastery that whenever the armarius received a cut, he bled black, inasmuch as more ink ran through his veins than blood.
“I was not considering using lines,” Thomas admitted.
“In this scriptorium only ruled manuscripts are produced,” Brother Bartholomew stated with pride and finality. “Ruled pages are preferred. It will make your work neater and more uniform.” Thomas nodded in agreement, and the master scribe asked, “What are you working on? I have not assigned you any work. What is it you are doing here?”
“The abbot has given me an assignment,” Thomas responded.
At hearing this, Brother Bartholomew’s face stiffened with suppressed rage. Thomas knew that the chief scribe coveted his position and believed that he should decide all the copying assignments. Though it was at the discretion of the abbot to assign work to scribes, Bartholomew resented it, as he felt it was an infringement upon his role as armarius.
To match the ruled lines from sheet to sheet, Brother Thomas had to perforate several sheets at once with a sharp instrument, and then score lines upon the pages using a dull knife, being careful not to cut through the parchment. Thomas had just finished this when the bell sounded for none, the mid-afternoon prayer.
After none, Thomas approached Brother Domitian, the chancellor. He was the keeper of the monastery’s books, its most valuable treasures, and Brother Domitian guarded them jealously. His job was to catalogue the books as well as keep a close eye on any that were being used. Like many of the monks who held a prominent position in the monastery, Brother Domitian was elderly as well as crotchety, and he resented any distraction that disturbed his daily routine. His face and hands were wrinkled, and his skin was deathly pale from spending the majority of his life in the library, seldom venturing out into the daylight. Thomas could not help observing that the chancellor’s insalubrious pallor resembled the colour of aged parchment.
“Brother Domitian,” Thomas began, “I find I am in need of a book.”
Though Thomas had spoken in a mere whisper, Brother Domitian gave the German monk an indignant look and motioned for him to lower his voice.
“I have been commissioned to copy out The Revelation to John,” Thomas informed him quietly.
“I am sorry, Brother Thomas, but I do not think we have an adequate copy,” the chancellor responded. Though his pale lips moved, Thomas found he had to strain his ears to hear him.
“I am certain if you look hard enough you will find one,” Thomas said mildly. “I would not wish to return to the abbot and report that in the entire library we do not have The Revelation to John. We most likely would have to borrow one from another monastery which means we would have to lend them one of our books.”
Brother Domitian glared at Thomas with as much dislike as monks are allowed.
“Very well,” Domitian spoke gruffly. “Come with me and we shall find the book you require.”
Both the library and the scriptorium were on the second level of the monastery. The library was a modest-sized room, containing a few small desks and chairs. The books, which numbered eighty-three in all, were stored flat in wall cupboards that were tucked into cloisters identical to the ones found in the scriptorium. Thomas suspected the two spaces had once been one large room, but that at some time a wall had been raised between them. High atop some of the cupboards were elaborate shrines in which were stored the monastery’s most precious and revered books.
Standing before a cupboard Brother Domitian began a systematic search as he ran his finger along the bindings of all the books upon the shelves. When Thomas reached up to touch a book, Domitian slapped his hand away. Rebuked, Thomas stepped back and allowed the chancellor to continue his search. Brother Nicholas entered the library and approached Thomas, but turned away when, with a silent gesture, Thomas indicated that now was not a good time to be seen together. After his meeting with the abbot, Thomas deemed it prudent not to be seen speaking with Brother Nicholas. Nicholas gave a knowing nod of his head, and walked away.
While perusing the lowest shelf of the fourth cupboard, Brother Domitian gave a low sound in his throat that Thomas took to be of a positive nature. From the shelf the chancellor drew out an old book. The cover of the book was dark with no design upon it, while the pages seemed uneven. The book was clearly not one of the library’s treasures.
“Here it is,” Brother Domitian announced without enthusiasm. “You may use this to copy from. It is an editio vulgata—a common edition. It was brought here by a monk from Spain many years ago. He died here and the book became the property of the library.” The chancellor leafed casually through the pages, and Brother Thomas held out his hand for it. Though Domitian had little affection for the book, he still seemed reluctant to hand it over. “I expect this book to be returned to me personally when you have completed copying it,” the chancellor said in a low voice, with a hint of a threat in his tone.
Brother Thomas took the book graciously but wordlessly and proceeded to the scriptorium. The book was indeed Spanish, though written in Latin, and contained not only the Revelation to John but also of Jude, and the three books of John. Brother Domitian’s appraisal of the book had been quite correct; it was not a treasure. The script was very ordinary, the pages were unlined and trimmed unevenly. Indeed, the entire work was quite common, yet the monk who had scripted it must have thought highly of his work for at the end of the text he had written a warning to would-be thieves. It read:
IF ANYONE TAKE AWAY THIS BOOK, LET HIM DIE SUCH A DEATH THAT HIS BODY BE BROKEN, HIS MIND FEVERED, HIS SKIN FESTERED, SO THAT NO ONE WILL LOOK UPON HIM AND THE BIRDS WILL PICK AT HIS FLESH.
“Spaniards.” Brother Thomas shook his head, and with half a grin, said to himself, “They have quite a mean streak.”
Before he could begin his work, Brother Thomas needed instruments with which to write. In a cupboard in the scriptorium he snatched up a large selection of quills made from goose feathers that had already been dried and hardened. He laid them on his desk and looking over his supplies saw that he needed ink.
Thomas approached Brother Bartholomew’s work station and stood watching the armarius toil almost lovingly over his parchment. He dipped his quill ever so gently into the ink pot and withdrew it in one smooth flowing motion. Again and again he plunged his tip into the liquid with an experienced rhythm developed over years of practice. He scripted slowly, but with precision and grace. The quill barely seemed to touch the parchment, but left its black trail upon it. He performed it as a labour of deep love, done with pure affection.
So engrossed in his work, Brother Bartholomew did not even seem aware of Brother Thomas’s presence until the latter quietly cleared his throat. The armarius looked up irritably with a start, and wordlessly inquired the reason for the interruption.
“I am in need of ink,” Thomas whispered.
There were a few small inkpots upon the master scribe’s desk. He picked up each, looking for one with ink, found one, and pushed it gruffly into Thomas’s hand.
“The next time you are in need of ink you will have to make your own! And do not bother me again unless it is important!” He returned to his work.
Thomas examined the ink as he took it back to his desk. The
black ink used by the monks was a carbon ink, made from charcoal or soot mixed with a variety of plant gums or sap.
Brother Thomas was almost ready to begin. With his knife, he sharpened the end of the feather shaft, and then slightly squared off the sharp tip. Carefully he put a fine slit up the centre of the shaft. Thomas would keep his knife handy while he worked for he knew he would need to sharpen his quill periodically. Now he was ready to begin.
Just then, the bell tolled to vespers, or evening prayers. After that, would be supper. Brother Thomas decided to wait until morning and begin fresh.
Copyright 2009 Stephen Gaspar. All rights reserved.
Last updated: 12 July 2009
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