Saint Bartholomew ‘s Man.

Top to toe, Rahere was white with cold. His black woollen robe had been handed down from one singing boy to another for years, and it was threadbare. The other boys were calling to each other, racing on the frosty grass, but he was too cold; stiffly, he bent to coax some warmth into his feet.

“Here, lad.”

The voice came from the scriptorium. There, in the cloisters, monks sat at their manuscripts, murmuring each letter as they wrote, for mistakes on vellum or even parchment were costly. Rahere loved the busy sound they made, like the bees in Brother Gilbert’s hives. Cautiously, he hobbled towards them.

“Me, Brother Edmund?” It was said that Edmund was one of the best child masters in all the monasteries; firm, but gentle too – a good father to all the singing children.

“Rahere, run with the other boys, or you’ll be too cold to sing at Vespers.”  As he spoke, he saw the boy’s feet. The toes were swollen and sore – one was bleeding.

“Lad, why didn’t you tell me? Broken chilblains, and you didn’t say a word. Get to the infirmary – tell Brother Peter I sent you.”

Gratefully, Rahere went. The infirmary was always warmer than most of the monastery buildings; the lay brothers cooked broth for the sick, and he might get near the fire, if only for a moment. It was a  sin for healthy folk to grumble about bearing cold and hunger for the Lord’s sake, but then, Brother Edmund had sent him .

The infirmary was quiet, and Brother Peter smiled at the anxious face in the doorway. He also saw those feet. “Come in – don’t sit too near the fire, or your toes will feel worse.” He turned to a lay brother. “Hugh,  bring some broth for Rahere.” He busied himself with a bowl of warm water and clean rags, adding – “There’s a pair of sandals in that chest.” His patient curled stiff fingers around a hot bowl, wonderingly surveying the contents; meat, and herbs, and some chunks of stale bread, swollen temptingly to twice their normal size by the steaming broth. He closed his eyes and sipped blissfully, soothed by Peter’s gentle touch as his feet were bathed and bound, protected from the ground by bandaging and leather sandals; perhaps they were a trifle too big, but they were a blessed comfort.

There came an acrid smell, and a beggar staggered through the doorway. His rags were far thinner than Rahere’s robe; they hung in shreds. One leg had been ripped open in a long wound, but ignoring the smell and the blood, Brother Peter strode towards him, catching the old man in his arms as he collapsed. Hugh hurried to help.

“That’s right – gently now – put him over here.” Tenderly, they laid him on a straw pallet. “Look at that gash – dog’s fangs, by the look of it.”

Hugh nodded morosely, pushing rags beneath the gaping wound. “Folk always set them on, then we have to patch up. I’ll get water.” He turned, but Rahere was already there with a basin and more rags.

“Let me give him my broth, Brother Peter.”

“No, that’s for you. We’ll get him some more, but you’re a good boy. Finish it quickly – they’ll be ringing the bell for Vespers, and you not ready.” Even as he spoke, the bell began to toll. Rahere swallowed the last delicious morsels, and ran.

Vespers were followed closely by Lauds; serene evening services both, with supple, wandering melodies rising easily into the high stone arches of the church. The monks’ deep voices, warm and strong, sang the lower melodies; then as the canticle rose,  the clear voices of the singing children entered, high and silvery, as though the stars themselves were joining in  adoration. Day after day they sang; week after week, month after month; the loveliness never lessened, the singers hardly ever tired, for Our  Lady, the gracious one, was listening. Sometimes Rahere felt that she must be there with them; if only the church could be lit by a thousand great candles, they would see her – that loving face in the blue hood; Mary, holy Mother of Jesus. Brother Edmund had told them that no one need feel lonely without an earthly mother; Our Lady would always care. This evening, for the first time, Rahere was doubtful. What of the beggar? That face was so thin, it looked like a skull. What of the scratched hands, the torn leg, those pitiful rags? Every day, beggars came to the monastery, but rarely had  they been savaged like this old man. How had he ever managed to reach the monastery? Had Our Lady been watching over someone else when it  happened? Perhaps she missed the attack while she was at prayers – perhaps she had sent an angel to help – do angels lose their way? It was all very puzzling, but the old man would be safe now, with Brother Peter.

After the services, the monks went to the cloister for a short time. They could talk or read, or just sit; so could the boys, but Rahere ran back to the infirmary. The old man lay motionless on the straw, eyes closed, his leg bathed and bound, his torn hands soothed with goose grease. Hugh was about to bathe his face.

Rahere was on his knees beside the straw. “Let me do that for you, Brother Hugh.”

“Lad, you’re a mercy. I can go and get myself  a bite to eat.”

The more Rahere bathed, the more dirt came away, yet only the most delicate touch would do on so fragile a face, so still in slumber. Tenderly, he worked on, and presently the still features seemed to take on a new peace; their stillness was not merely a lack of motion, or even the peace of sleep. Brother Peter came and stood beside them. Gently, he took the basin.

“You soothed his way to God and the blessed saints, Rahere. You have been most highly favoured this day – what you gave to this poor man, you gave to God. Hey now – no tears! Well – maybe a few. Our Lady will love you for that. I’ve seen so many, my tears dried long since. God bless you, lad. Off with you to Compline.”

* * *

He had missed the little evening meal, but it was only a snack of bread and beer. Sometimes there might be cheese, but guests’ tables and the infirmary came first, and it mostly went to them. Rahere’s broth had been good, and now, in his sadness over the old man, he felt no more hunger. He lined up with the other boys and they filed into church. Tonight, Compline held new meaning; the prayers for the suffering and the poor, the prayers for holy rest – as he sang the ancient words, his voice held a new sweetness, and his eyes held the remembrance of the peaceful old face he had bathed. Impatiently, he brushed away fresh tears. What he had seen was holy rest, blessed peace, such as the old man had never known, never in all his life. Even Purgatory must be better than his earthly sufferings; indeed, perhaps the Lord would be able to take him straight to Heaven. It was a comforting thought.

Before Brother Edmund went to his own bed, he looked into the boys’ dorter. Rahere slept, one last tear poised on his cheek.

Lightly, Brother Edmund wiped it away.

* * *

Visitors were not always so  pitiful. Great nobles would arrive with many attendants, expecting hospitality, for all guests must be made welcome in the house of God. The singing children, round-eyed with excitement, watched the great stamping horses, the handsomely-dressed nobles and bustling servants; sunlight glowed upon the sheen of silk, the bright warm colours of wool and the sullen gleam of chain mail.

However, not all the company was military. Rahere always watched for the minstrels, whose music was very different from the Latin chants he knew so well. Their songs  were in everyday language, sometimes English, sometimes the familiar Norman French of the nobles; occasionally a hybrid of both. They were not prayers and praises to God; mostly, they were prayers and praises to beautiful ladies, or rip-roaring songs from the taverns – though these were only sung when the monks were well out of earshot. Some were songs of joy; not the joy  of the psalms, O clap your hands, all ye people; but mostly the joy of battle, the swing of a sword arm, the whistle-flight of a thousand arrows; things so far from monastery life, yet no further distant than the other side of the outer walls.

The songs were accompanied by musical instruments; a perpetual delight. Shawms and trumpets were blown until the musicians’ cheeks stood out like red apples. There were clappers and tambourines and little drums in pairs, called nakers. There were stringed instruments; the lute and psaltery, for plucking; but best by far, the fiddle, with its bow to draw across the taut strings, bringing such a sound – queer, harsh and rasping, yet tender; like the monks’ voices intoning Matins in the bleak early hours of a frost-bitten winter’s day. Rahere was entranced.

* * *

Winter days, summer days, spring and autumn; the seasons bore away the years, and Rahere knew that soon his clear voice would break, and with it his present life. Some singing children returned home to follow their parents in tilling the land, or in family crafts. Others remained in the monastery as lay brothers, essential workers in the community. Some took their vows. But Rahere? Father Abbot was fearful.

“You still wish to go to Court?”

“Yes, Father.”

“All the noise and filth, and who knows what wickedness besides, these days? On pain of death I  must say nothing against the King, but I could never warn you too strongly.”

“My father followed his. Should I not follow him?”

“I trust not.”  Father Abbot’s tone was dry. “Some sons are more worthy than others. Rahere, what do you hope for? A knight’s shield? You would be entitled to that eventually – your father left enough lands in trust.”

“I know, Reverend Father.” Rahere’s eyes were downcast. How could he say it? How could he say the truth? He wanted no shield, no chain mail. With all his heart he longed for the music of the Court; the minstrels, the jongleurs, the sweet, gentle sounds of well-played instruments. Mail was poor stuff to wear; it could rub great wounds in the flesh it was supposed to protect if the undergarment shifted ever so slightly. Stupid garb.

He looked up. “Father , is there any rule to say how those lands must be used?”

“No, Rahere, there was no time. Your mother died at your birth, and your father was killed soon after he brought you here. When you leave us, all will be at your disposal.”

“I want you to have them, Father. All these years you have cared for me, and they will pay for the care of another boy.”

“A generous thought, Rahere, and I thank you for it. But those lands are tilled by folk who will be your responsibility just as you have been ours. The only way the community could accept such a gift would be in the certainty that you would take the tonsure. How many times have you declared that you have no vocation? The law forbids me to send you into the world without provision; in any case, for the love I bore your father I could never do so. But I hate to let you go to the Court. Why, Rahere – why?”

“The music, Father!” It was out. Rahere’s eyes were shining in the dim room. “Father, I love Our Lady’s music here, so cool  and beautiful that often I feel the angels wrote it.  But when the jongleurs and minstrels pass through, they make new music, music for  all the other ladies, and war music …”

“War killed your father.”

“Reverend Father, I know, but music is always beautiful, no matter what happens – it is not the music that kills.”

It was the voice of the artist, of creation, of dedication to a life’s work. The Abbot had a quick ear for such things. He heard it in the voices of the travelling masons who came to add new buildings to the monastery, or to raise new churches. He saw it in the stillness of monks in the scriptorium, rapt over their gold leaf and pigment; and in the absorbed faces of  nuns, working ceremonial robes for festal wearing.

Here it was again, glowing in the face of one of his best-loved children, though no longer a child; trained in music by the monastery, so that the community had only itself to blame. And surely there must be blame, in allowing a youngster to pass from cloister to Court … that Court … blessed saints, what despair! He must be growing old and foolish, to be so engulfed, so swiftly. Certainly he had no power to stop the lad, no authority from the father, except that he had left his son in their care; but such earthly power would have been as nothing, a petal in the wind, compared to the power of prayer. He smiled. Let the Court and the King be as evil as rumour claimed, and even more. Rahere would go in safety.

But not speedily. Only mistakes were made in a hurry, and several days passed while the whole community concentrated upon the entertainment of a great noble and his followers. Not until six days later did the Abbot and Brother Edmund have leisure to stroll together between Collation and Compline. The luxury of a quiet monastery, the warmth of the setting sun, and the unaccustomed satisfaction of cheese for supper – it was restful.

“Rahere will find it hard to accustom himself to the noise of Court life.”

That word, noise, encompassed more than voices and music; Edmund understood.

“Reverend Father, there is a chance that he may not need to go.”

“As a musician, where else? He says he cannot take the tonsure and remain with us.”

“This morning – I spoke with one of the minstrels who attended Lord Leofric. There is a musician in London who keeps his own establishment. Talented youngsters can learn to play as many instruments as their capacity allows, and Ranulph teaches well. He has only the very best of instruments – I’m told that many are studded with silver.”

The Abbot was disapproving. “Ranulph must be a very wealthy man. Venerable Bede mentioned no silver on the harp of Caedmon.”

“Reverend Father, it is said that he takes pains to see that all his people are fed well, and their livery is very seemly – even costly.”

“A temptation to pride, Brother Edmund?”

“Forgive my presumption, Father, but if the same splendid raiment is seen twenty times over on a score of bodies, will not the eyes cease to notice the splendour, being so accustomed to it?”

The Abbot chuckled. “So you think me over-fearful, Brother Edmund? Very well; let us assume that  Rahere will benefit from all this. Tell me, what exactly is Ranulph’s reputation?”

“He is widely known as the most skilful of musicians, and he and his servants are much in demand by the nobles. Indeed, some have begun to imitate his way with livery. When all the servants are clad alike, it pleases the eye, and adds to the pride of the wearers, think you Brother Edmund?”

“Better that than the Court, Reverend Father.”

“I know, but I doubt any avoidance of that on Ranulph’s part. Money and fame are to be had there, and obviously he values them.”

“Then what have you in mind for Rahere, Father?”

They came to a stone seat, warmed by the last rays of the sunset. “Sit with me awhile. I will tell you my thoughts, but Edmund, in this matter, forget that I am Abbot. Consider me only as a brother, and if I appear wrong in any particular, however small, remember it is your duty to speak. Indeed I am sure you will, for Rahere is very dear to you.”

“As he is to you, Reverend Father.”

“This I tell you. In those earliest days he was a dear babe, my old friend’s son, who clutched my fingers because his own father had been stricken in war. Later, when he sat with us for instruction, I sensed a difference between him and the other boys. I was as certain as a man might be, that he was one with a vocation. No matter what he may say at present – and he is not yet a man – I still sense that strength of purpose. He is of an age when change seems the most desirable objective; he is in love with his art, and with other men’s stories of life outside these walls. We have no authority to hold him back; indeed, it would be most unwise, for to his independent mind the injustice would be unforgivable. Above all else, we must avoid breaking the love between us, for one day that love will bring him back.”

“Back to us, Reverend Father?”

“Not necessarily. Back to wherever the love of God may need him.”

“The love of God – Father, you know how Rahere has worked in the infirmary? Brother Peter told me of the loving care he lavished on one beggar, and since then on many others. However stinking their dirt and wounds, he greets them in the same loving fashion … yet he wants to go to Court.”

“Court, Brother Edmund, is a travelling show, with Rufus and his henchmen in place of jugglers and acrobats – if Rahere joined it, he would certainly get his fill of travel. From being weary of static monastic life, he’d soon weary of living on a mule’s back, or tramping so many leagues a day in lashing rain and sleet, and sharing a damp pallet with the vermin.”

“So … you will offer complete freedom, but suggest that there will be more music, and better, in the house of Ranulph? From there, the Court will still beckon.”

“It will be one step further away, and a mind full to the brim with so many different instruments as well as the music to go with them, is a mind with little room left for the amusements of Rufus and his cronies.”

“What of Rahere’s lands and tenants?”

“Let him take one step at a time. Our bailiff will watch over them as usual, and supply Rahere with any money he may need.” He smiled ruefully. “One step at a time for us also. We shall miss him sorely. Until he feels able to attend to his business affairs as well as his psalteries, he’ll need to visit us whenever he needs more money.”

Brother Edmund laughed. “If he’s at all like myself at the same age we shall  see him often. My poor father’s endurance was taxed to the utmost – to say nothing of his purse. Vocation hides in the strangest places … then you will speak to him, Reverend Father?”

“Send him to me tomorrow morning, after High Mass.”

* * *

Beyond his wildest hopes, above and beyond the most he had dared to pray for; Rahere wondered how it could be, that his life was about to surpass even the warmest and happiest of his dreams. As Father Abbot told him of the music school of Ranulph, he sat motionless, wide-eyed. How could it be? – yet it must be, this place of wonder – Brother Edmund knew about it. Court life, which had seemed so attractive, would not be nearly so interesting. He could see that clearly. There, his music-making would consist of what he already knew, or what he could learn casually, watching other people’s work – how many would care to share their secrets with a mere boy? But Ranulph kept a school; it seemed that his work was famous … there, one would really learn, really know about each different instrument, really make music … perhaps even gentler sounds could be coaxed from the psaltery, if one knew how; touching the harp strings, one would hear music made by Caedmon, hundreds of years before. The fiddle, with its human voice, would be his to hold, to coax into song … Suddenly he smiled in such delight that the Abbot caught his breath.

“Father, how soon will Ranulph take me into his school?”

“We shall know when Brother Edmund visits him. He goes tomorrow – had you not been interested it would have been a wasted journey. I gather that is not the case?” He chuckled – Rahere’s delight was infectious. “You understand, we must be certain that Ranulph’s school really is as good as folk say. The singing children  of this monastery cannot go forth into misery. I want only the best for my dear friend’s son.”

Rahere laughed aloud. “Misery, Reverend Father – with all those fiddles and psalteries to be played?”

The Abbot rose. “You never can tell, Rahere – you never can tell. Come along to dinner, and Brother Edmund will tell us all about it when he returns.”

Rahere ran to join the line of singing children at the door of the refectory. The old monk, content, walked to the great chair at the top table. Court life was no longer in the forefront of Rahere’s mind. Deo Gratias.

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