Buzzards, Hawks and Ravens
(An Account of Six Friends' Lives in the "Dark" Ages)
RAIDO! Head-on into the Unknown
- Berrit's Time as a Novice-
Next morning an icy squall rattled at the door and at the loose planks of the old barn and tossed slates from the roof. Because of the icy rain, the four companions decided to leave for lower altitudes. They just didn't want to get caught by an early snowfall high in the mountains. Hours later they reached a hamlet in a small valley by a creek which fed its water into the river, near the Monastery of Niwenburg. Freezing cold with soppy clothes, Berrit knocked at the door of the biggest building in the hamlet. After a while, the scared face of an old woman peaked through a crack in the door. Berrit recognized her immediately, "Hey Mascha, you recall me, don't you? I'm Friar Benedict, the young infirmarian from Niwenburg! May I and my friends stay here overnight?"
The old woman, full of suspicion of the strangers, kept the door barred. But at that moment a young, strong farmer stepped out of a barn, walked over and said "Hello, can I trust my eyes? The humble infirmarian of Niwenburg clad like great knight! Are you really Friar Benedict, who healed my broken leg? I already have heard, the Duke, your father, ordered you back to Quentisburry. And now you are a Duke also! Welcome to my humble house! Welcome, to you and your escort!"
After a lively chat with the farmers of the hamlet and a simple meal, Berrit and Ruwen were ushered into the bedroom for the night. Their servants, Fatty and Davy, had to sleep in the kitchen with the others. Soon, the heavy bedding let them feel comfortable and Berrit asked, "Shall I continue with my life-story?"
This is what Ruwen later recalls about Berrit's dreadful life as novice and sub-infirmarian in the monastery of Niwenburg:
On the edge of the deep chasm, the stony road crept uphill. Berrit was the first of the small party to reach the cataract where the waters of the river left the broad green valley and entered the gorge. On the horizon, beyond the green meadows, the monastery of Niwenburg became visible like a colorful painting, with church towers gleaming in the last sunbeams of the day. The Benedictine monastery, on the wide hill above the valley, before a threatening mountain ridge, reminded the approaching riders of a small town. It was spread out in the midst of pastures and empty fields. Throughout the valley's basin, small estates were strewn at large, and a hamlet marked the river crossing where the road lead to the monastery.
Further up far out on the mountain ridge, on a steep hilltop, the massive keep of a small castle rose from the dark green forest; the Niwenburg. The castle was deserted, since the last scion of the Knights of Niwenburg had left his home to make a fortune as a minnesinger, a troubadour.
Turning to his father, Berrit exclaimed, excitedly, "Look, Father, isn't it a lovely place for living? Is this the town where I will spend my life? "
"I am sure you will like it, Berrit! Our family is the founder, the patron and the benefactor of Niwenburg and we are proud of it! The Abbot is a friend of mine and will care for you like a son!" Fortunately, Berrit was looking ahead, full of excitement, and didn't notice the look of the doubt on his father's face.
At the Gate, a white-haired, crooked gatekeeper in a shabby coat bowed deeply, "Welcome our Highness, Duke of Quentisburry, welcome our Benefactor! His Highness the Abbot is absent, but the Prior will be with you every moment!"
Crossing the square in front of the high
cathedral, the Duke's party rode up to the
These words started a lively conversation between the Duke and the Prior, about the state of the Duchy and the Empire. Servants of the monastery took the horses to the stables and showed the Duke's escort to a small, old guest house to the right. Meanwhile the Prior guided the Duke and his son to a noble building to the left, announcing with a proud smile, "Sir, you and your son are the first ones to occupy our new guest-house. The rooms have been prepared especially for your Highness and will provide all comforts!" Tapping Berrit on his shoulder, "You, dear boy, can stay with your father till the Abbot bestows you with the status of `postulant'."
Early next morning a very old friar with a walking-cane knocked at the door of Berrit's room. Not waiting for permission, the good-natured monk entered and announced, "I am Father Egberth, your guide for the next few days. I am sure you would like to know all the secrets of this monastery, your future home." Berrit hesitated, because he slept nude. "Get out of bed, pretty boy. Quick! I have a lot to show you."
Leading Berrit by the hand, Egberth began to
introduce Berrit to the convent of Niwenburg with
a tour through the cathedral. "This is the nucleus of our monastic complex, our
High Church, with its two square towers. The cathedral is dedicated to Our
Virgin Mary. Do you see her golden statue, crowning the High Altar in the apse
of the sanctuary? The altar in the left aisle is dedicated to St. Pelagius, a
holy martyr in Roman times. The altarpiece in the right aisle shows St. Gallus.
I am sure you know of him. He was a missionary from
"But why is St. Gallus accompanied by a big bear? Was he an animal tamer?"
"Yes, you could call him a tamer, for sure. But that's one of God's miracles. Once, Gallus and another friar had to stay the night in a deep gorge just like the one you crossed yesterday. His companion was already deep asleep, when a big bear came along and wanted to devour the sleeper. Gallus, still praying, turned to the wild beast, offered him a piece of wood, and commanded: In the name of our Lord, feed the fire with the wood! The beast obeyed and Gallus rewarded it with a piece of bread. Watching the bear leaving, the other friar exclaimed, amazed: Now I know, you are chosen by the Lord! Even wild beasts follow your commands!"
Amazed by the legend, Berrit proceeded down the nave to the altar of St. Gallus, where an iron-forged barrier stopped them at the edge of the transept. The barrier divided the church into two sections. "Can't we approach the altars? Is it prohibited to go there?"
"No, and yes! It is not for you and me. The barrier separates the monks' quarters from the public quarters. The restricted area not only includes this part of the High Dome, but also the whole claustral quarter. This part of the monastery is restricted for women, every woman, even your mother. In the claustral part of the monastery no women are allowed, only men are."
"But, why is there the statue of Holy Mary in the high altar? Wasn't she a woman also?"
"Oh no; she is no woman. She is a virgin! She has never known a man! Already the Council of Ephesus declared her as being the Theotokos, the mother of God. The devil couldn't get his claws in her! She was the Lord's bride!"
Berrit shook his head. He did understand the point the friar wanted to make, and was happy to follow him through a door in the barrier, into the restricted part. Leaving the Church by a small door in the south side of the transept, they entered the claustral complex.
This complex was attached to the southern wall of the high Church and built around the cloister court. The cloister, a square area of ground known as the garth, with covered walkways along each of its sides, was central to conventual buildings. Each walkway was separated from the garth by a low wall with arcades. Its east edge comprised the lower story of a long, strung-out building used as the Calefactory and Chapter house, while its upper level was utilized as the Dormitory for the fathers and friars. The Dormitory was connected to the choir of the cathedral by a small entrance. The Refectory, with its upper story, the Vestarium, flanked the southern side of the cloister. It was linked by a passage to a big kitchen with a bake house and brew house. The storage house with a wine cellar and the larders adjoined the cloister to the west. The Abbot's house on the south side of this claustral complex was connected by a short passage to the chapter-house.
Berrit was surprised, because the door lead directly into the dormitory, with a row of beds along on both long sides of the long room.
"Why do we enter into the bedroom first? In my father's castle nobody enters the house through a bedroom; the entrance is always a hall."
"Of course! But today I've started our tour the other way around. The purpose of this door is for the convenience of the monks, when they attend divine services during the night-time."
"We always attend church during daytime; only Christmas service begins in the dark."
"Monks have to attend three prayer-times during the night, the Nocturns at midnight, the Matins, just when the sun rises and Prime, after which they start their daily chores. But you will be familiar with this schedule soon enough."
After the tour through the buildings surrounding the cloisters, both entered the kitchen-house. Noticing the boy's hungry eyes, Egberth asked "Are you hungry? I made you hop out off bed early, so you haven't had time for breakfast!"
"Oh yes, my tummy is rumbling! May I have some soup? It smells really wonderful."
"Let's go to the lavatory in the Necessary first. Before eating, everyone in the monastery has to wash his hands, that's obligatory! Remember this."
Close by was an important building for the monastic society, the Necessary. It was a separate building with lavatoriums, toilets and several bath-rooms.
Berrit was surprised, "Is that the Necessary? We have a toilet-tower in our castle, with a lot of shithouses stuck to the wall over the moat, like nests of barn-swallows. But it doesn't include wash-bowls or bath-rooms."
"Cleanliness is very important in monasteries. You have to take a bath at least once a month."
"In wintertime, also? Isn't it too cold then?"
"No problem, the water for the bathes is heated!"
That really impressed Berrit. Without hesitation he obeyed Egberth and cleaned his hands and also his face.
The Motto of St. Benedict, since the establishment of the founding of the first monastery at Monte Casino, was, "Ora et Labora". Therefore the assignment of the Benedictine convent was not only to praise and pray, but also to earn the living for all its members by menial work, to care for the sick, to teach young people and to establish the scientific center for the region. An essential part of the scientific facilities was the Library with its handwritten codices and books and the Scriptorium. Berrit moved excited from bookcase to bookcase and shelf to shelf. "Can I have a look at these wonderful books?"
"Have a look at this one, that's open. Don't touch it. Look at the first letter of the page, the initials. Look here at the painting with its golden background. ...Be careful, don't touch the parchment with wet fingers! .......Let's better go to the Scriptorium, now. During daytime some friars are always copying books for the monastery but also for customers. That's a special art. If you are skilled enough, you can later work here."
All morning long, Berrit had only met fathers, friars and servants. He had strained his eyes, but he hadn't been aware of only even a single novice. "Where are the novices, Egberth? Am I the only one? I thought there would be many around and I could make new friends! Where are they hiding?
"At the moment about eighteen novices are striving to become monks and you will be the nineteenth. ...Wait, wait! You will come to know them soon enough. ...They are live over there, east of the church, with their own little monastery with including a calefactory, a refectory, a dormitory, and rooms for the head master. The novices' quarter is next door to the infirmary and the infirmarian rooms. Both use the same chapels."
"But novices do not need an infirmarian; I never will. I was never sick at home!"
"We'll see later! Niwenburg is much closer to the mountains than Quentisburry and therefore it's much colder in winter. You will probably get a cold, at least...But look, the infirmarian is also responsible for a small sick house and the blood-letting house. He has to care for the herb garden with the medicinal plants and he makes medications. "
"Oh, the garden is good news. I like gardening and had my own garden back home. Can I help him?"
"Oh, I don't think you will have time for gardening, at least not in the beginning, maybe later on. You have to learn a lot. You will get extensive religious instruction. You have to become fluent in Latin and the Liberal Arts. You also have to learn the chants for the divine services, and as a first step you have to memorize all seventy-three Rules of St. Benedict."
"But I prefer Mechanical Arts to the Liberal Arts. My favorite subjects in school are arithmetic, geometry and music."
Next morning, Friar Egberth took Berrit on a tour through the menial and farming departments of Niwenburg. Big monasteries, like this one, were stand-alone economic units, or nearly so. Naturally all were dependent on their founders and sponsored by their respective lord, duke or even king. But they had other sources of income too, like the donations obtained from nobles, who urged their odd offspring to become monks, or the donations from the visiting pilgrims. Most monasteries also held rights over one or more parish churches, and sometimes received handsome incomes from them. Last, but not least, they were landowners planting and harvesting the donated land, grazing flocks of sheep and cattle upon them, managing woodlands for timber and peat bogs for fuel and even engaging in the production and sale of crafts.
In Niwenburg the quarters for the servants and workers in the menial and the farming departments were situated south-east of the church. A brook coming down the mountains cut the Settlement in two , crossed the orchard and the kitchen garden, then ran along between the cloistral area, encompassing the kitchenhouse, bakehouse and brewhouse, and the menial area. On its way to the river in the valley, it powered a watermill and fed three fish-ponds, the latter being needed to raise carp for the Friday dinners and the Lenting season. It finally added its waters to the big river in the valley.
The area left of the brook was devoted to workshops of shoemakers, saddlers, cutlers and grinders, as well as the black smith and goldsmith. The craftsmen's dwellings were in the rear. Further down was the farm, with its sheds for horses, cows and oxen, with goat-stables, piggeries and sheep-folds. The hen and duck house and a poultry-yard were close to the barn with a nearby granary and threshing-floor. These buildings stood out because of their size.
On Sunday morning the presence of the Abbot was announced to the visitors. He received the Duke in his rooms to discuss the donations for Berrit's admission as a novice. He seemed very pleased by the two villages offered, because after the Terce he welcomed Berrit as the new postulant in the chapter-house. In honor of the Duke, the welcome ceremony was performed in the presence of the most important members of the convent.
The Abbot was a giant of a man, with a high and scratchy voice that didn't fit his appearance at all. Berrit had to kneel down in front of him and kiss his jewel-adorned ring. "Now my tender lad, you have the honor of becoming a member of the oldest monastic society of the whole world. Your presence will tie your family to the monastery stronger than ever before! Be welcome, as another of my sons!... A new name will be awarded to you. To honor your family we have chosen the name of our great founder, Sanctus Benedictus. Now, young Benedict, it's on you to follow his footsteps. His grace will enable you to become a saint like he was, if that is God's will. But to achieve this, you have to obey your masters' orders wholeheartedly."
With this, Berrit was dismissed.
The Sunday dinner took place in the refectory in presence of all fathers, friars and postulants. The Duke and Berrit were honored by being seated right and left to the Abbot at the table at the head of the refectory. Berrit, that is the postulant Benedict, was proud and beamed in expectation.
After the introductory prayer the Abbot rose and announced: "God has opened his horn of plenty! Today our Patron and Benefactor the Duke of Quentisburry had committed his youngest son Berrit under our care. His future name will be Benedict. I confer to you the responsibility for Benedict's life and soul! Care for your new brother!"
Berrit was surprised and flattered by this bombastic introduction and took a deep bow in front of the convent. His face radiated because he was not anticipating how much distress and pain these words would cause him during his future life as a novice. First of all, this announcement made public that Berrit was the son of the Duke, the patron and benefactor of the monastery, secondly, by being seated at the abbot's table he had been honored in front of the others, and thirdly, the abbot had elevated him undeserved above the others, by selecting the name Benedict as his monks-name, the name of the holy founder of this order.
Immediately after dinner Berrit was escorted to the novices' confines by the master of the novices and his two assistants, the tutors. It seemed more like abduction, as he was even prevented from saying good bye to his father.
"Now Postulant Benedict, welcome to the novices´ quarters!" the master of the novices announced, as they entered his new home. Without delay, hold he commanded, with a smirk, "Shed your noble clothes!"
Disbelieving and horrified, Berrit removed his upper clothing, but that was not enough.
"Shed your shirt also, and your shoes!" the stouter of the tutors ordered.
Standing naked in the chapel, Berrit got a shirt of scratchy linen and a tunic, strung together with a thick cord to cover his nakedness. The grey shirt, as well as the bleached black cowl of wool were worn out and down handed from generation to generation of postulants. Instead of his shiny leather boots he had to wear simple shoes.
Berrit was bowled over by this investiture as a postulant. But when the other tutor took his burse, the ring his mother had given him as a farewell-present, and his sharp dagger, he spoke up, "Please leave the ring to me, at least. It's a farewell present from my dear mother!"
"Now the monastery is your mother and the Abbot your father. We act on his behalf. Don't argue!"
All his former belongings and fine clothes had been confiscated. While tears were streaming down Benedict's cheeks, the smaller of the tutors collected his former property into a small casket, which was later removed to the Vestiarum.
"Now you get this; that's all you need as a novice!" after this blunt remark, the stout tutor handed him a thick rosary, a bowl, a spoon and a blunt knife.
Now Berrit looked like any other novice, not like a prince anymore, with the exception of his long wavy hair, which dangled down to his shoulders. But, taking a pair of scissors, the tutors did cut off the hair he was so proud off and left only stubble.
Berrit didn't realize that his was just the start of the investiture. A more degrading part followed immediately.
"Down on your knees!" the browbeating voice of the headmaster ordered, pushing him to the altar, "Confess your sins, you miserable worm! Lay down your sins in front of God, your most secret thoughts in front of God and in front of the convent! Repent! Ask for His Merci!"
Berrit had made a confession just the day before. He couldn't remember anything evil, anything worth confessing and with a firm voice he replied, "I can't remember having committed a single sin! I was at confession yesterday..."
There was an ominous silence, then the headmaster began to run riot. "Down, down on your face! Lay face down on the steps of the altar! You undiscerning, obdurate, abhorrent worm! Pray! Plead for HIS Forgiveness! Pray! May God have Mercy on you!" The headmaster left with the tutors, and Berrit stayed sprawled in front of the altar, his face touching the cold stones of the steps.
Hours later, the others novices came for the evening prayer, the Vespers. Paralyzed by fear, he could hear them taking their seats in the stalls, then their saying of the prayers and the chants praising God. In the pauses between the choruses he could overhear the merciless giggling of some novices because of the abasement of the Duke's son. He was feeling small! He had never felt this small and degraded before. He stayed on the ice-cold steps shaking in terror and despair.
As the others left the headmaster came to him: "Are you still sure you are without a sin, you vain creature? Go, follow the others, the tutors will show you your bedstead."
The dormitory was a narrow room with a low ceiling. Two small windows high in the wall on the east side let some light filter in, and the room was cold and damp, and smelled moldy, even though it was still warm outside. On the left there was small corridor. On the right twenty small cubicles were aligned. Grey curtains of moldy linen were ready to conceal the inside of each cubicle. The bedsteads were mattresses filled with damp straw, on the floor. The beds were covered with scratchy woolen blankets and a casket in each contained a shirt and a towel. There was no room for private belongings.
Berrit turned to the tutor, questioningly, who pointed at one of the cubicles, "That's your private home from now on. It is between the beds of two more advanced novices. The bedsteads for the older novices are always interspersed with the younger."
Berrit did not answer and entered his small home. Immediately he shuddered because of the cold air rising from the mattress. Thinking back at the spacious boy's room he had shared with his brothers, he felt like he was in his father's dungeon.
In the refectory at the evening meal, Berrit was seated at the very end of the table. "From now on, this is your place," the stout tutor told him, "till new postulants arrive later in the year."
There where eighteen hungry novices at the table besides Berrit. As the dishes were passed down the table from the head to the end; this was not a place any novice would want. Usually the bowls were close to empty when they arrived at the last novice.
After the prayer, the meals were taken in silence, while one of the older novices had the task of the lector. At first he quoted one of the Rules of Benedict, and then he recited from the Bible.
After the last prayers were done, the stouter of the two tutors stood in front of Berrit and explained, "You remember the novice responsible for serving the meal? For the next four weeks serving will be your task. You are only allowed to begin eating when everybody else has finished his meal."
During the first day Berrit did not mind going hungry, because he was still sated from the stay in the guest-house. Later, he would be going to bed hungry every day of the week, every week of the month.
After the Compline all novices went to bed. At night-time the dormitory was dimly lit by a smoldering lantern, which poisoned the air. Berrit, now Benedict, slipped into his cubicle and was about to strip his tunic and shirt, when the novice in the bed next to him drew back the curtain and proclaimed with a loud voice, "Benedict wants to sleep naked! Hew, hew, that little piggy! I caught him!"
Berrit blushed. Then one of the tutors came over, "Didn't you know? Monks must wear a shirt day and night! You are no longer one of these lecherous laypersons! Sleeping in the nude is a sin!"
At home, Berrit and his brothers always slept in their birth-suits; everyone did, even his parents. Were they all sinners? He wracked his brain, his head was spinning! He could not fall asleep, because he was not used to sleeping in clothes. He could not fall asleep, because of the snoring noises coming from the other cubicles. He was keyed up and out worn at the same time by all the events of the first day. He was still shaking from the treatment he had received from the headmaster and the tutors. He was broken-hearted, because he missed his mother and father. He was freezing in the cold and damp bed and remembered his brothers, who always huddled with him, when he was cold or sad.
Berrit must have fallen asleep, since tiptoeing feet passing his cubicle woke him up. There was some whispering going on in one of the beds to the left. The whispering changed into giggling and then into heavy panting and stifled moaning. He wondered. These were the same sounds emanating from Edward's bed when his brother had played with one of the maidens. But this was the restricted zone. There should be no girls around, only boys, novices. He wondered!
Berrit must have fallen asleep again and didn't wake up till the noise of a wooden flapper shattered the silence. It was still dark and cold, when the novices walked to the chapel to celebrate the Matins just at sunrise.
Berrit stumbled to the chapel, tired and hardly awake. Here he got the next shock. He was rudely excluded from the communion by the headmaster, "Yesterday, you didn't confess your sins, you didn't repent! Now you will be excluded from the communion, till you have done penance!" The tutors forced him to kneel down in a dark corner to the left of the altar. He had to stay there during the Matins, then during the time the others got some additional rest till the Prime began, and then throughout the whole Prime.
This punishment stressed Berrit to such a degree that he was hardly able to perform his duty as a servant at the morning-table. His condition worsened as nobody talked to him. As soon as he tried to engage another novice in a conversation, the one addressed raised his forefinger to his lips indicating the Benediction ban on speaking.
The first task Berrit was commanded to fulfill, was to learn by heart the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. The headmaster called on him, "Take this book that is the bequest of our holy founder, the patron of your name. That is the Rule of St. Benedict. These seventy-three rules are the basis of our community. You have to know all the rules by heart. Sit down and memorize every rule. I will check your knowledge at random. You have seventy three days to memorize the rules completely. Start now!"
That was a bad start for Berrit. He had learned some Latin at the school in Quentisburry, but he was far from perfect in this language. Although Berrit did know that the Liberal Arts were the basis of education, he did not care about grammar, rhetoric and dialectic and preferred arithmetic and geometry. His favorite subjects however, were the Mechanical Arts like agriculture, architecture, warfare, hunting and metallurgy. Now he had to sit down and learn the seventy-three chapters of Benedict's Rules.
He began reading the prologue:
Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui, et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter comple, ut ad eum per oboedientiae laborem redeas, a quo per inoboedientiae desidiam recesseras.
(Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.)
Oh, want a terrible language. He was hardly able to comprehend only part of the meaning. Out of curiosity he switched to the very end of chapter seventy-three:
Quisquis ergo ad patriam caelestem festinas, hanc minimam inchoationis regulam descriptam, adiuvante Christo, perfice, et tunc demum ad maiora quae supra commemoravimus doctrinae virtutumque culmina, Deo protegente, pervenies. (Thou, therefore, who hastenest to the heavenly home, with the help of Christ fulfil this least rule written for a beginning; and then thou shalt with God's help attain at last to the greater heights of knowledge and virtue which we have mentioned above.)
At first, this seemed an impossible task to him. But soon he got the melody of the language and it turned out to be only half as hard as expected to memorize the rules. And he had some small comfort. He soon became aware that even those novices in their last year had difficulties in memorizing all the rules correctly. In addition to the rules, Berrit had to memorize the chants performed during the Divine offices, the Nocturns, Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. That was much easier, because he enjoyed singing the chants with a clear voice, singing straight from his heart.
At noon Berrit had to serve the meal for the others, a task he had never performed before. He handled the bowls with the hot broth very clumsily. He burned his fingers, spilled some of the fatty food and soiled the cowls of two novices. His clumsiness earned him killing glances from the tutors and giggles from the others. After the others had finished their meals, they left the refectory for the recreation, headed by the master. Left behind alone, he was allowed to consume the leftovers. These hardly satisfied his hunger. Then he hurried to join the others in the cloister.
The recreation after the noon meal was the only time of the day that conversation was allowed. The procedure of the recreation was new to him. The novices aligned themselves in two rows facing each other and began to stroll back and forth. Therefore, one row walked forward, the other backward. Thus conversation was only possible in presence of the headmaster and all the other novices. For Berrit, personal communication seemed impossible at this beginning of his time in the monastery.
At first all the novices looked the same to Berrit because of their habit uniforms. After a short period, however, he could distinguish the different novices. One, with the name of Pietro, stood out from the beginning. Pietro was bronze-skinned and had coal-black eyes. But his looks were secondary to his habit. His tunic was brown, the cord strapped around his waist white and he wore sandals instead of shoes. He was a novice of the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans and lived temporarily in Niwenburg, because his master was copying a book. His German was poor, but his smiles compensated for this shortcoming.
Saturday, the novices and all monks also were supposed to make their weekly confession. The evening before, the stout tutor approached him at the way to refectory, "Are you sure this time, what to confess, Benedict?" Berrit looked at him in surprise and confusion, as the tutor continued, "I will make sure; I will teach you tonight!"
Berrit got nervous and spilled more of the evening soup during serving. Nothing more happened, till the dormitory got dark and snoring drowned out the farting from the coleslaw they had at noon. Berrit was sound asleep, when the curtain of his cubicle moved and somebody squeezed himself under the cover and embraced him from behind. Berrit nearly jumped out of the bed and screamed in terror.
The hand of the intruder muffled the sound of his screaming, "Don't shout! It's me, I don't object! I promised you today to teach you to sin!"
Berrit's fear rose. With one hand the uninvited bed-guest covered Berrit's mouth, with the other he slowly and steadily reached forward. First the hand touched Berrit's leg, gently stroking it; then the hand shuffled forward and closed around Berrit's semi-hard cock. Berrit was paralyzed for one moment, than by instinct he bit into the hand covering his mouth. The tutor howled, hit Berrit with his fist and left the bed.
Out of fear Berrit delayed his walk to the refectory next morning as long as possible. It wasn't as bad as expected. The stout tutor avoided looking at him and later he showed him the bandaged hand, remarking in a friendly way, "Not everyone would stand up for his chastity like you. Please don't tell the others!" But the look in his eyes showed his mischievous intensions.
Right from the beginning the bigger novices teased Berrit and badgered him, while the smaller ones envied him. They tried to pull dirty tricks on him, like putting snails in his bed or a nest with young mice. They tried to make his life a mess. He was convinced they disliked him, because he was the son of the Duke.
A small comfort was Pietro's presence. Not that they became friends, but the Italian was always friendly. Pietro had made friends of one of the other novices and Berrit was a little jealous, because he longed to have a friend too. Pietro and his friend were always walking together. They walked side by side during recreation, they walked side by side into the church and sat opposite during the meals, and in the divine services they exchanged smiles.
long a time later, just when the first snow was falling, Pietro had to leave
with his master to return to their monastery in
Christmas Berrit got a cold. He got a severe cold, because of his deteriorated
body condition. His tutors had managed to assign him so many services as a
waiter, that he had lost a lot of weight, getting only the leftovers for food.
He was coughing, his body was hot and cold in turn, and he shivered badly. He
was not allowed to stay in bed and at Epiphany he even had to perform chants in
Much later, Berrit woke up in a small over-heated room, in a strange bed, with a candle glowing beside it on a small cabinet. He never found out if he was unconscious just for an hour, or a day or even two. On a chair by the bed was a friar praying the rosary. Berrit had seen this old monk before in the infirmary. His name was Pirmin. He had a reputation of smiling at every novice he met and trying to engage him into a conversation. Smiling at Berrit he took his hand, "Slept enough my boy? It's night, but I have to fetch the infirmarian; he told me so."
Pirmin came back after a while, with a bowl of warm soup, "Eat, boy, you are skinny as a spider." Berrit tried to spoon the soup, but he only made a mess on the quilt. Resigned, he fell back onto the cushion.
"Wait boy, Friar Ambrose will be around in a moment."
As if on command, the door swung back and Friar Ambrose, the physician and pharmacist of the monastery, hurried inside and, with him, the scent of herbs, unguents and elixirs. Fixing Berrit in a worried gaze, "Boy, you scared the Abbot near to death! The precious son of our benefactor, the Duke, fainting at the table! How embarrassing! I told him, he should have been more careful for you from the beginning!"
"Oh, the novices´ master and his tutors took good care of me..."
"Don't tell me that nonsense. You lost weight and that's poison for young boys...Now, let us feed you first, and then we will change the cold wet-pack around your upper body with a hot one."
For the next two weeks Berrit was cared for like a baby, he was not even allowed to go to the toilet alone. In the third week he insisted in getting up and walking to the necessary. But he was still so weak that he had to rest at infirmarians's room.
It was winter, but the study smelled of flowers, herbs, refreshing potions and salves. Its grey walls were concealed by shelves with books, cans, big and small containers, jars and bottles. On the table were some open folios. Berrit became immediately fascinated by the books and their illustrations. One of the illustrations attracted his attention to such a degree that he didn't notice the arrival of the infirmarian.
"Welcome, Benedict, to my realm. Do you like my books? This one is by the famous Hildegard von Bingen."
Berrit turned around as if stung by a hornet and stammered, "Oh! Oh! Excuse my curiosity, Sir. I didn't..."
Friar Ambrose looked like every other friar, in his drab tunic. He was very frail, but alert and always friendly. He laughed loudly and, evaluating Berrit as being like a curious magpie drawn to a piece of jewelry, he remarked, "I like curious boys! Don't be afraid, Benedict. You are welcome to view all these books...I have heard of you and your gifts, little prince. You like reading?...Would you mind helping me read the small characters, as my eyes are not so good anymore? I could use your help too, for writing up my prescriptions in a book. I'm getting old."
This broke the ice for Berrit. He was flustered but agreed happily. What he didn't know at the moment was that this would be his chance to regain his tarnished self-esteem; but Ambrose did know.
So far, Berrit was not much more than a scared kid, thrown into a deep pit of wild beasts. His sickness brought about a lot of changes though. In due time, the head-master of the novices was replaced by a strict, but fair, monk. This young monk, named Notker, now took over the care of every single novice and encouraged every boy to give his best. The two tutors that Berrit had suffered under took their solemn vows and were transferred to the main monastic complex. Two others were selected for tutors. Berrit, taking the offer of the infirmarian to become his pupil, recovered in weeks and regained his weight, and his self-esteem.
At first Berrit was only allowed to work with Friar Ambrose once a week, then on two afternoons and later every hour of the week that he could spare. He assisted Ambrose by reading to him from books about healing and herbs. This was not easy, because most folios were in Latin. But soon he knew all the parts of the famous "Liber compositae medicinae de aegritudinum causis, signis et curis" by the Blessed Hildegard. This famous Benedictine Nun and Abbess had also written a treatise about medical plants, the "Liber simplicis medicinae secundum creationem". He was especially dedicated to books dealing with drugs of plant, animal and mineral origins, like the "Circa instans" by Odo Magdunensis, because of his illustrations. In secret, he also leafed through the transcripts of the "Anatomy" by the famous Roman scientist, Galenius, and the "Alqanun fi altibb, The Canon of Medicine", a book by the Persian scientist and physician, Ibn Sina (Avicenna).
But with the coming of spring, Berrit's time with books decreased because the planting and care of healing drugs in the physic garden took most of his time. At twelve, his career as healer began. But attending the sick and old monks in the infirmary didn't fully satisfy his curiosity, therefore Ambrose took him to the sick-house to assist at blood-letting, the treating of minor wounds and to help dispense medicine. On his thirteenth birthday, Berrit got a present more precious than a cake, a book, or an instrument. The abbot appointed Berrit as apprentice to Ambrose. That terminated his career as a vocalist in the Abbey's chorus; although his best time as a vocalist was gone anyway, as his voice had changed rapidly during puberty.
Now Berrit was often on duty in the sick-house. In Ambrose's absence, he had to carry the full responsibility for the sick.
Upon opening the bloodletting-house one early morning, Berrit found a young farmer dropping half dead at his feet. The left side the farm-boy's head was thickly covered with blood, one eye completely hidden by swollen flesh and his body covered with blue and green bruises. Berrit lacked experience with heavy damage like these. But by intuition he choose the right treatments. He cleaned the wounds of the unconscious young man, with an extraction of chamomile, pot marigold and barks of the oak, and covered the swollen parts with cold compresses soaked with essence of arnica, common comfrey and St. John's-wort. After six days in bed, Raffy, that was the name of the lad, had recovered middling well. A very grateful Raffy said `Good-Bye' to Berrit, leaving the sick-house, but not without promising a payback for his care.
The chance for a pay-back came around about eight weeks later. Berrit had delivered some medicine to a sick countess about 20 miles away. On his way back, he used a short cut because the evening was close. Soon he got lost. Just as the sun touched the horizon, he came into an unknown hamlet in a small valley. Looking for a place for the night, he was pleased to hear a familiar voice coming from behind a small cottage.
On a stony field five young men were playing mob football, "Hey, Raffy! Is that you?"
A young man came running, grinned from ear to ear. Berrit had difficulties recognizing Raffy. The tanned face of the light and lissome teenager was fine, the nose straight again and his left eye sparkled like the right one, "Oh, Friar Benedict! Is that you? I haven't forgotten about you! I am still in your debt, but I have to earn the money first and I still don't have enough." He embraced Berrit wildly, kissed him on both cheeks and shouted to his friends, "It's Berrit, my savior! He mended my wounds!
Surprised by this enthusiastic reception, Berrit groaned laughingly, "Don't strangle me! I thought you wanted to pay me back, not kill me. Let me join your game and then give me a bed for the night. That will do it, and we are even."
The six played for an hour or more, till they couldn't see the ball anymore and they were bathed in sweat. Raffy invited Berrit into the smallest hut. "This is mine. Both my parents are dead and my brothers have left. I am the only one now...You are lucky, Benedict. Just today, I made a new straw mattress and treated the bed with lousewort. That will guarantee you a sound sleep!"
Raffy was a good cook and the dinner he made was big enough to fill two still growing lads. After supper Raffy undressed, and, standing naked in front of Berrit, he asked with an innocent voice, "What are you wearing under that tunic of yours, nothing, or a shirt?"
Berrit blushed. Nobody had talked to him this way since he had left his father's castle, "Don't be so curious! There is no chance that you will see a novice naked. I will sleep in my shirt!"
"Are you chicken?" Raffy tried to provoke Berrit, "Nobody is sleeping dressed in my bed." With that, he slipped under the cover.
Berrit was assailed by doubts. Should he undress completely or shouldn't he? Finally, he decided not to be chicken, because he was sure Raffy wouldn't touch him. Turning his back to Raffy, the novice undressed completely and joined Raffy.
"Your eye seems to be alright, but are all your bruises healed?" in the poor light of a candle Berrit tried to verify the results of his healing, palpating the upper part of Raffy's body, "You never told me who was beating you up and why!"
"That's quite the story! You know I am seventeen and I need a wife for loving, although I can't run my little farm all by myself. So, I went looking for the right girl in the villages near here. And I found the perfect bride to be; blond, sweet, lithe and a little shorter than me. She liked me as soon as she saw me. We decided to make love already that first evening, to prove we belong with each other. When we made out and got noisy, her brothers found us. They didn't approve of our intention and beat me nearly to death!... But that's nothing you have to worry about as a monk!"
"You are right! We have to keep away from women. And I don't mind."
"Do you also have to keep away from boys? I have heard some rumors. Are they true?"
"Don't be nosey! Better keep your big mouth shut. I am not into boys!"
Little Raffy was insistent, "Have you ever been with a girl?"
"Have you ever been with a boy?"
"No, I told you, Monks have to be chaste. We pledge chastity at the profession!"
"Have you ever had..."
"No! No! No!" but Berrit was loosing his way, thinking of his nightly pollutions.
Suddenly Raffy touched Berrit, "Oh, I just knew it! You are sprouting a woodie, just as I am! You are a man, not a fish!" Embarrassed, Berrit moved to the edge of the bed. But Raffy grabbed Berrit's hand under the cover, and taking it, placing it on his own hot prick. "Here, that's mine, feel it!" Feeling Berrit up, Raffy snickered, "That wood of yours is not bad for a little monk! Are you sure the rumors aren't true!"
Berrit couldn't resist any longer. He began to finger Raffy's wood, he just couldn't resist. The skin was so silky, he liked its touch. Soon both were jacking each other off. Both came vigorously. Raffy, being more experienced, dipped his forefinger in Berrit's spunk and sniffed, "It smells nutty!" after a short lick "But it has no special taste to it! I like it!...Would you try mine?"
When Berrit departed next morning Raffy teased, "I knew it; novices aren't different from farm boys. Not down there."
As a rule novices pledge stability and obedience at sixteen. This solemn vow, called `profess', binds the monk to a monastery forever. Days before Berrit's the sixteenth birthday, his father arrived at Niwenburg.
"People have told me miracles about your healing power! I am proud to have a son like you, Berrit. Now, you sure want to pledge stability and obedience to the abbey."
"Well, Father, I haven't seen you for seven years now. I guess you hardly know me anymore. I'm not sure why you are asking me, since you didn't care about me, when I needed you most...But let's not talk about times gone. Let's talk about the future."
"I am deeply sorry, but the Abbot asked me not to come to see you. He even told me not to come before you are sixteen, and now I am here!"
"Yes, you are here now; but I am not ready to join the convent forever. You may to have to come back again next year, or the year after, or even the year after that. Do you mind? Will you do me this favor?"
"Is there a reason for your indecision; something I should know?"
"I can't tell you; I don't even know myself for sure! But I'm asking you to please tell the Abbot that I need more time to decide!"
That fall, Berrit saw Anzo, or Timotheus as he was called as a novice, for the first time. Anzo came into the infirmary with a deep wound to his arm. He had defended another novice against a mad dog. Berrit was scared, "Did the dog have rabies? Was his mouth covered with saliva? Did the dog attack everyone?"
"No, he didn't have rabies! I know rabies. I have already hunted down dogs with rabies. He just went mad and attacked a small, unwary novice, while we were playing!"
At thirteen, Anzo was actually too old to enter the novitiate. But he was here at his uncle's command, and against his will. His uncle, the Count of Veldegg, had handed him over to the monastery. "Make a monk out of him. There is no place for my brother's offspring in my shire."
Anzo was a small but wiry kid. Unlike Berrit, he was a go-getter and in Veldegg was known for his hunting trips. Soon he was in command of the younger novices and turned the lame group into a smart and pertly gang. Despite the pranks he initiated, everyone, even by hard-hearted monks, because of his forthrightness, liked Anzo.
Berrit liked him on the spot, but the two met only a few times, because as the sub-infirmarian, he lived in the infirmary, while Anzo lived with the novices. That changed suddenly one evening in early winter.
Late one afternoon in early winter, worried novices hastened through the monastic complex, asking everyone if they had seen Anzo. At the evening-meal Anzo was still absent, which surprised the head-master as this boy never missed a meal. Late during the evening meal a barking dog broke into the refectory, its fur covered with icicles.
That is when the novices of Anzo's gang confessed to the head-master. "Timotheus slipped out alone, to check if the ice covering the fish-ponds is strong enough for tomorrow's shinney-match."
They organized a rescue-party, checking all the fish-ponds in the valley. He wasn't anywhere to be found. Then they ordered the dog, "Search, Search!" And the dog ran off, but to other side of the monastery, to a pond in the mountains.
It was colder up there, but the ice-cover was still not strong enough to carry even the weight of a dog. Later on, Anzo's memory about the incident was fuzzy. He just remembered that the dog had broken into the ice and he tried to rescue him.
The friars found Anzo unconscious at the steep edge of the pond, cold and stiff but still alive. They rushed him back. In the infirmary Ambrose and Berrit stripped him naked, immersed him in a bathtub with lukewarm water and then wrapped him in hot blankets.
It was very late in the night when Friar Ambrose ordered, "Keep a close watch on him Friar Berrit! Keep the fire in the room going; the whole night."
Anzo stayed unconscious but breathed deeply. Berrit soaked linen in hot water and wrapped the cold body with the steaming compresses. This helped a short time. Anzo's body temperature rose and he began to kick around and moan. But as soon as the linen got cooler his body warmth decreased and he lost consciousness again. Berrit was worried. He didn't know what to do. Finally he remembered that his brothers had spooned him when he had a cold and was in bed with chattering teeth. Waiving away Benedict's rules, he shed his tunic and slipped next to Anzo under the covers and spooned him.
Berrit felt twinges of guilt. Bodily contact was sin and spooning a boy in the bed was a deadly sin. He had to make a decision and decided as a physician would. He embraced Anzo hard and after some kicking around and moaning the novice fell asleep and his respiration became steady."
In the morning Ambrose's voice woke Berrit out of a dead-like sleep. "Oh Benedict, you have worked wonders! It's a miracle; he is alive and sleeping like a baby. You did great! You applied the best remedy of all. You applied love; you are a real physician." Then grinning sheepishly "We better not write down your remedy, or reveal your method to the Abbot."
In the evening Ambrose advised Berrit to repeat this kind of treatment if necessary. Anzo responded to this treatment quickly and after just three nights in Berrit's arms, he had recovered.
Next Sunday at the joint meal of monks and novices in the refectory, Berrit found two spoons instead of one together with a knife beside his bowl. The spoons were tied up carefully with a soft cord of red and white silk.He wondered if someone wanted to tease him, or play a trick on him or give him a secret hint.
The next Sunday he found a carefully furled parchment under his bowl. He managed to slip it into the sleeve of his tunic, while his neighbors were deep in prayer. He looked around, exercising caution. But he couldn't find anyone watching him in secret, not one of the fathers, nor one of the friars or even one of the novices, who were also present on Sundays. Later, when in his little study, he unfurled the parchment. It was a sketch of a family of bears, with Mother Bear, Father Bear and cubs, the big ones playing around lovingly and the small ones getting feed by the mother. It was a joyful little work of art. It made Berrit blush imaging its hidden meaning. But there still was no sign to show who gave it to him."
On the next Sunday, Berrit could hardly keep calm during the Sext. He missed the onset of the prayers and his voice sounded hoarse at the psalms. At the table he searched his place for a new sign. No new sign, neither a twisted cord, nor a new letter, nothing. Being slightly devastated, he spooned at his soup inattentively. Then he fished something out of the soup, something hard and he nearly swallowed it. He coughed and spat. He was surprised and couldn't catch it before it hit the table. It was half a penny, but not a half penny from the mint. It was one half of a silver penny cut into two pieces.
The Abbot was staring at him disapprovingly, while someone slapped him helpfully a on his back to relief the coughs. Berrit turned around and there was Anzo, a smiling Anzo.
Bending over, Anzo dropped the other half of the penny into Berrit's hand, whispering "Here, that's the missing half...wait for me in the chapel after dark!"
The whole afternoon, especially during None and the Verspers services, Berrit couldn't concentrate. He had an itchy feeling all over, and during the Compline, butterflies whirled in his stomach. In the chapel he waited, leaning in a dark spot against the cold wall. It got later and later, darker and darker. Finally he could barely see his hands in front of his face anymore...Then the door opened slightly and a small grey shape slipped in. "Are you still here, Benedict?"
Berrit stepped out of the hiding place and touched Anzo's shoulder slightly. The novice jerked away frightened, but then searched out Berrit's hand. Without speaking Berrit guided him to his study in the infirmary. There, in the tiny room, sweet with the smell of herbs and elixirs, they talked till the bell invited them to attend the Matins."
During the next year Berrit and Anzo grew together more and more. At first the relation between the two was that of a younger brother to an older brother or of a pupil to a teacher. Anzo adored Berrit and was willing to go through fire and water for him. But Berrit was close to seventeen now, a nearly grown man, with the cravings of a man. And there had been the experience with Raffy. He still remembered the excitement and guilt of that night; and he didn't want to compromise Anzo.
Anzo was different. He had already had some experience with his friends before he was locked away in the monastery. He was always in search of Berrit's nearness and Berrit had the same desires but tried not to show it. In the monastery there was hardly any chance for the young men to meet unseen. The best time to enjoy each other's company unobserved was when Berrit and Anzo were sent on sick-calls and visited the sick or incurable people in the neighboring villages and hamlets. Staying away over night offered Anzo the chance to sleep with Berrit in the same bed. That meant cuddling and spooning the whole night. In the morning they always tried to hide their sticky underwear from each other.
Then one day Raffy knocked at the door of the sick-house. He wasn't sick, he was happy; he was beaming with pride. He knocked and called for Berrit, "Friar Benedict, Friar Benedict! Come outside, come! Have a look in my cart!"
Berrit was worried, as he lifted the curtain. "Oh, you scared me, you fool! But seeing you is a real surprise!"
In the cart, reclined on a soft pillow, was a wonderful looking blond girl. In her arms she held a fair and beautiful looking baby, a little black-haired boy, staring with big eyes at this stranger. Berrit's heart jumped for joy. "Is this your baby? Is this your wife?"
"Can't you guess what I came to show you? Guess...Yes, that's my bride, Mary, and that's my son!. You have to marry us and baptize our little Berrit! Please grant me the honor, my dear Friar Benedict. Our little son should have your name!"
Berrit was happy and proud, as if the baby boy was his own. He took the little boy into the restricted part of the monastery and showed it to Ambrose and Anzo, to all the novices and everybody he met. Anzo was even more fascinated by little Berrit!
For the wedding and the christening Berrit, together with Anzo, ransacked the monastery's pantry for a banquet. Later, close to the end of the party, Raffy, sitting besides Berrit, came around to the question bothering him since their memorable night, "Have you got a girlfriend or a boyfriend yet, Berrit? It's time for you to enjoy love. I still remember our night together and I know you need love!"
Berrit didn't know how to answer. His heart lay with Anzo. With dreamy eyes, he looked over to where Mary was bantering with Anzo.
Mary, catching Berrit's mesmerized glance at Anzo, took the young novice's hands into hers, "Berrit is eating up you with his eyes. He admires you, he loves you! I recognize these glances. Look Raffy glances at me in the same way."
Anzo blushed, lowered his head and stammered, nearly inaudibly, "Do you think he loves me?"
Ambrose began to observe the changes in Berrit's behavior and began to get worried. During one of their nights working in the sick-house, he asked, "What troubles you, dear boy? Sometime you are beaming and then suddenly you look terribly unhappy. Tell me, please. You know you can trust me! Is it about Anzo?" Berrit stayed silent and his face began to look desperate. Finally Ambrose took Berrit's hand, "Have you ever heard this gospel, young friend?
She approaches and bows down before Jesus and says to him, "Son of David, have mercy on me."
But the disciples scolded her.
And Jesus got angry and went with her into the garden where the tomb was.
Right away there was a loud voice from the tomb.
Then Jesus went up and rolled the stone away from the opening of the tomb.
He went right in where the youth was, reached out a hand and raised him, taking hold of his hand.
The youth loved him at first sight and began to plead with him to stay.
And coming out of the tomb, they go to the young man's home for he was rich.
And six days later Jesus called him.
And when evening came, the young man went to him wearing a shroud over his nude body.
And he stayed all night as Jesus taught him the secret of the kingdom of God.
From there he gets up and goes back across the Jordan."
With that, he blessed Berrit, saying, "Benedict, take this gospel of Marc as advice, think it over and make your decision. God is far more awesome than men will ever imagine!"
It was deep night. The cold wind from the mountains made Ruwen and Berrit to huddle together under the thick cover. Ruwen was dead-tired from listening, Berrit worn out by his story. The long account had strained both more than climbing a steep mountain range would have.
Despite his tiredness Ruwen asked, "Berrit, that's a gospel I never ever have heard off! What are the secrets of God's Kingdom? Did Ambrose explain it to you? Is this gospel an allegory or does it convey a real event?"
"He never told me...During the next month Anzo and I grew closer and closer. But we never indulged in the kind of carnal fun Fatty and Davy enjoyed yesterday, or Raffy and I had during that one night long ago. We never touched each other; I never even kissed Anzo!...Then one evening close to Anzo's sixtieth birthday an command from my father, the Duke, arrived, ordering my immediate return to Quentisburry. I had to leave the monastery forever."
"Why? Why did your father revoke his decision?"
"Later! I'll tell you later...Anzo and I had just one hour left together. In the chapel, the place we first met, we vowed to stay together forever and we kissed...Today I am going to the Abbot to pay the ransom for Anzo's freedom!"
The small troop left the hamlet at dawn and arrived at the monastery of Niwenburg, during the time the monks celebrated their prayer in the church. From his horse, Berrit rapped at the closed gate.
A humped and purblind friar swung open the small wicket beside the main gate, "Lord, praise the Lord!" he greeted, "Praise the Lord, our physician Benedict is back!"
Berrit jumped from his horse, embraced the old friar and patted his back "Great to see you are still alive, Severinus! You are looking better than at my departure. But tell me, how is the novice Timotheus? Where is Anzo?" The friar lowered his head, turned away "The poor boy is gone; he is here no more!"
I would like to express my special thanks to Paul and especially to B. for doing a great job by correcting all the wrong expressions and the punctuation used by a non native English writer.
Comments, reviews, questions and complaints are welcomed. Please send them to Ruwen Rouhs. And I would like to add, thanks for reading.
Copyright Notice - Copyright © 2008
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