Pilgrim Reindeer in Pisa, 1348

a free multimedia novel by

Thomas A. DuBois, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Detail, Triumph of Death. Camposanto. Pisa

Sálle has waited all his life to be contacted by the spirits. Now that they've called, there's no turning back—not until the spirits say STOP.

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14. Vadstena [August 30, 1347]

One of them, a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, from the city of Thyatira, a worshiper of God, listened, and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying. After she and her household had been baptized, she offered us an invitation, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home,” and she prevailed upon us. 

Bávlos ran as quickly as he could down the hill toward the wagon where the young woman remained with her friends, stroking the back of the grateful and now contended Nieiddash.

“Dat lea mu áldun,” said Bávlos respectfully, as he approached the wagon. “Giitu.”

The woman looked up from her stroking of the reindeer and looked confused. She stared at him and said nothing. Bávlos decided to try Pekka’s language: “Tämä on minun poroni.” Still no reaction. “Hmn,” said Bávlos, “Why isn’t this working?” Slowly and very carefully he pointed at Nieiddash. “Boazu,” he said.

“Ah,” said the woman, now delighted, “Ren.”

“Ahaa,” thought Bávlos. “So that is the word for reindeer.” He continued. “Mu ren,” he said, pointing from the reindeer to himself and back.

“Ja sĺ,” said the woman, delighted again, “Din ren!” She pointed eagerly at Nieiddash and Bávlos. They were communicating now and Bávlos could feel the tension of the initial situation dissipate in the excitement of the nascent conversation.

“Din ren!” Bávlos repeated happily.

The woman looked confused again, however, and pointed to the reindeer and herself, saying: “Min ren?”

At once Bávlos understood his mistake. He had just described Nieiddash as the woman’s own reindeer.“Min ren!” he said quickly, pointing to himself. Nieiddash belonged to him, and that was the most important point of this conversation.

Calling Nieiddash simply a ren was of course, not accurate, strictly speaking, if ren meant boazu. After all, Nieiddash was an áldu, a fully grown, sexually mature female. Or maybe better still would be to call her a lojash, a female who was tame and tractable. In terms of looks, she was definitely a beavrrit, since her legs were so long and she kept so trim. Still, ren seemed general enough, and the important thing at this point was to try to get communication going with this stranger in her own language. He decided to try to explain what had happened and immediately launched into the narrative of how he had come to the forest, how Nieiddash had been chased by dogs and hunters, how he had seen the woman protect the frightened reindeer and how he had run as fast as he could to reach her, all with elaborate pantomimes and imitations. At one moment he was happily walking along, the next, startled by noise, his hand to his ear. Then he was a rabid hound barking and running, then a huntsman blowing a horn. Then he was the kind woman, opening the door in her carriage for the frightened reindeer, and the reindeer, her eyes darting wildly about and grunting. Finally, he was himself, panting and panicked, running up to say “Min ren!” The woman clapped with joy and amusement. She seemed delighted by the story.

Then she asked a question and looked at him inquiringly. She asked again, but its meaning still eluded Bávlos. Finally, she, too, began to act out her words. “Du,” she said, pointing to him, “Varifrĺn?” she acted out a person walking, looking around confused.

“Finland!” said her interlocutor, using a word he had learned on the ship. Finland was what these people called Pekka’s settlements. “Mun,” he said, pointing to himself, “Lappalainen.” He used the Finnish word for Sámi, hoping the woman would understand.

“Lapp!” cried the woman with delight, holding her lovely hands up to her cheek. There was something indescribably sweet and beautiful about this woman: she was the embodiment of kindness and patience. Not more than fifteen, she was nonetheless fully a woman, self-possessed and somehow boundlessly gracious. It seemed to Bávlos that her face was unclouded by anxiety or self-interest: there was something strangely childlike about her. Her blue eyes laughed with the simply joy of being able to communicate with him, and it seemed like she would be glad to converse in this way forever.

Bávlos pointed to himself and said, “Bávlos.” Then he pointed at her and asked “Du?” At this moment, the woman’s companion broke in. She was an old woman, very wrinkled, dressed in heavy, dark fabric. She seemed to be the one in charge of ordering the driver of the carriage about and of performing all other such practical duties.

“Hur vĺgar du tala sĺ här till den fina frun?” she asked. There was something imperious in her voice, something intolerant. Bávlos saw the younger woman wince and lay her hand on the woman’s sleeve, whispering something to her. This woman must have been scolding Bávlos for talking to this woman without proper introductions. She must be highly marriageable and it was this elder woman’s duty to guard the young one from strange men like him. He could understand the necessity and bowed very low so as to signal that he understood and accepted the rebuff. Still, he was grateful to know what he took to be the woman’s name, Fina Frun. Later, he would come to know that these words meant “fine lady,” but it never occurred to him that they were not the beautiful young woman’s name: they seemed to fit her perfectly.

“Fina frun,” he said, bowing again. The older woman looked somewhat mollified and sniffed in satisfaction, her nose held high and mouth tightly closed. To Bávlos, the gesture looked like a reindeer sniffing the air for danger. Bávlos knew that in such a situation it was good not to move too fast or the animal would panic and flee. At this moment, however, the younger woman surprised Bávlos. She began to laugh, and touching her elderly companion on the sleeve so as to calm her, she lightly descended from the carriage and extended her hand to Bávlos.

“God dag, Herr Bávlos,” she said with a small curtsy.

“God dag,” he replied, bowing again.The two talked and talked after that. Bávlos did not know how much she understood of what he said and he wasn’t sure that he understood everything she said, yet they both felt that they understood the essentials. He told her of his home and family in the shadow of Sállevárra, of his parents and siblings, of hunting, of meeting Pekka the priest, of coming to the Church at Hattula, of the great city of Ĺbo, of the boat and the trekking through the countryside of this land. She told about her family and her life. She lived in a great house somewhere nearby, and she was apparently married or destined to be married to the man who had been on the hunt that afternoon, possibly the leader of the hunt himself. There was something that seemed to fill her with sadness as she talked about him, something wistful. Her eyes looked off upward and away and her voice trailed off.

At length she asked about the ribbons in Nieiddash’s ears. Bávlos explained that whereas most of his reindeer belonged to him, this one was especially set aside. He pantomimed the concept of corralling an animal off separate from the rest and then pointed reverently to the sky. “This one belongs to Iesh,” he said, pointing upward.

“To Jesu,” said the woman, her eyes sparkling. She was delighted by the idea. “Oh that I might have such markings and be eternally set apart for our Lord,” she sighed. Bávlos understood the gist of what she was saying: this woman wanted to be a sacrifice herself! Although it sounded strange to him at first, something inside him seemed to realize that this was exactly what he had become himself. After all, was he not also now a sacrificial animal? Had he not become set apart from all others by Iesh’s call and demands? Here he was, wandering the world with this reindeer at Iesh’s behest, and he did not even know where he was headed. He nodded sadly at the woman’s remark, and pointed to himself and the sky:

“Such have I become as well,” he said. The woman seemed to understand. She smiled with jubilance and enthusiasm and took hold of his hands, nodding eagerly. The old woman cackled something sharply at her, but she scolded her elder right back, telling her, Bávlos imagined, that he was a man set apart, someone with a commission from Iesh. “I am glad that we meet,” Bávlos said, now building his utterances carefully of words he had heard Fina say.

“I am glad as well,” she replied.


It was late in the morning when the Lady Catharina, newly returned from her drive with her maid, entered the royal estate at Vadstena. King Magnus had presented this fine house to her mother, Lady Birgitta Birger’s Daughter only the year before, to become the home of Birgitta’s planned order of nuns and priests. Catharina made her way hurriedly to the chamber of her mother, kinswoman and former advisor to King Magnus himself. There, in a large drafty room sparsely appointed with a bed, crucifix and writing table, she found her mother lying face down on the bare stone floor, praying diligently.

“Mother!” she cried, “Oh mother!”

“My dear!” said the older woman, somewhat sharply, turning her head to one side to look at her daughter, “I have many more Aves to say if I am to get to one thousand before midday meal!”

“I am sorry,” said the younger woman, bowing and retreating to a seat beside the door. The old woman returned to her prayer. Her mumbled voice sounded raspy and tired but full of an intensity that Catharina recognized as her mother’s trademark emotion. The Lady Birgitta was serious about her faith and everyone who met her knew it. After an hour, the old woman’s voice grew fainter and she seemed to be dozing. Catharina sat by, watching patiently but making no sound whatsoever. At length the woman seemed to revive and made to rise. Catharina stepped forward to help her to her feet but her mother raised a hand in irritation:

“No help, daughter!” said the woman sternly, “I must suffer for my sins and lift myself up from the slime of my unworthy life myself, thank you.”

“Yes mother,” said Catharina making a small curtsy and looking down. Catharina beheld her mother. She was a small woman in her forties, short and grave looking, dressed entirely in black, but for small touches of white by her face and cuffs. Her veil was heavy and imposing, shading her eyes from immediate view.

“I have seen a vision,” said the mother. “You have something to tell me.”

“I do, mother,” said her daughter enthusiastically. “I have met the most wonderful and fascinating man! He is a Lapp from the east, in Finland, and he has come with a reindeer dedicated to God! He is wholly unlettered in our language, but he is a fervent Christian, Mother, I can tell, and he speaks with a simple eloquence that would make you think he is a prince from Germany or from Poland!”

“A man and good Christian,” said Birgitta, nodding. “You may bring this man before me.”

Catharina nodded obediently and left the room. She sent word to the kitchens where Bávlos had been placed with a great plate of food and drink. The stiff elder maid now hurried to the spot to escort Bávlos to Birgitta’s rooms. The other servants looked on with riveted interest. Who was this strange foreigner who had come to the estate, so wild looking, dressed in skins and speaking nothing but a primitive jumble of grunts and gestures? Why had the Lady Catharina insisted that he be given good fowl to eat, and soft bread and groats, and a stoup of ale? And now, why was he being summoned to an audience with Lady Birgitta? They had no answers for these questions, but they could not help feeling sorry for the stranger nonetheless: an audience with the Lady Birgitta was something people generally feared, even when they understood what she was saying. A contingent of servants found various excuses to follow Bávlos and his escort through the house to the Lady Birgitta’s room, finding doorways or corners from which to try to watch the interaction.

When Bávlos entered the room, he saw his friend Fina smiling at his entry, her eyes bright with enthusiasm. The room was large and cool: light poured in from the single narrow window onto a table and some chairs. In the corner was a large bed. There were several pictures on the wall, all showing figures that had halos, meaning that they also must be sacred beings. A large risti hung on the wall, its Iesh painted in vivid white, with ample dabblings of blood red on his forehead, side, hands and feet. He seemed to be looking down at an older woman who stood very upright in the center of the room watching Bávlos keenly. A tall thin man in a monk’s habit stood to the side, behind the table looking from person to person with great attentiveness.

“Sir,” said the older woman primly, advancing a step toward Bávlos, “You are welcome in the name of God our Father and of our savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” She nodded as she spoke. Bávlos bowed humbly in reply.“You, I take it,” continued the woman, “Are a Finn; what people east of the Baltic call a ‘Lapp.’ Catharina my dear,” she said, turning to her daughter with an indulgent smile. “This man is no Polish prince at all. He is a Finn, plain and simple.”

“Mother, I didn’t—” began the younger woman, but then she seemed to catch herself and simply nodded.

“I have seen a vision of this man,” said the older woman, her eyes now flashing, “A vision!” Both Catharina and the monk in the corner seemed to start at this word; it was clearly of great significance.“This man has been sent by his people, newly Christian as they are, to bring a gift to the Holy Father. It is high time for the Holy Father to proclaim a Holy Year for pilgrimage to the Holy City and it’s high time for my kinsman King Magnus to lead a Holy War against those pagan Orthodox to the east!”

“Holy,” said Bávlos.

“Yes, holy,” said the younger woman warmly, “You know—“ she drew the image of the corral in the air, “like your reindeer.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. So helig meant ‘set apart.’ He was beginning to understand more and more of these women’s talk.

“Yes, the reindeer,” said the older woman avidly. “That is what he is bringing as a gift. I have seen it all in my vision! Our Savior appeared to me as I was in a swoon. He drew near me and smiled. ‘My bride,’ he said to me warmly, ‘I shall receive a gift from someone coming to you.’ He said, ‘I depend upon you to guide him toward me.’ Do you see, Catharina, it is God’s will that this poor man came to seek me out! This reindeer is meant for the Holy Father, to convince him to call a Holy Year and to convince him of the importance of a Holy Crusade to the land of the Novgorodians!”

The monk in the corner now stepped forward, attentive and nervous. “Your ladyship,” he said to the older woman. “Is it God’s will that this man journey to Avignon to see the pope?”

“Indeed it is!” cried the older woman exultantly. “And convince him to call a holy year and a holy crusade! That will compel him to return to Rome, where he should stand as the guide of his people, God’s holy bridge to the sinful, debauched world of these final days!”

“The Holy Father is not likely to want to travel to Rome, dear Lady Birgitta,” said the monk gently. “Even if he may look with kindness and gratitude on your kinsman’s plans to lead a Crusade into Novgorod. In fact, if I understand correctly,” he paused, searching for the best way to say what was on his mind, “If I understand correctly, Pope Clement has no intention of ever setting foot in Rome again. He enjoys residence in the city of Avignon with the blessings Queen Joanna of Naples, and the word is that he will buy the city from her before long and make it the permanent seat of the papacy forever more.”

“But he must, he must go to Rome!” cried Birgitta, her eyes flashing. “And this Finn shall help convince him! We must assist him in his quest to Avignon!”

“Mother,” said Catharina, now equally excited. “Can we do that? It would be wonderful if we could help this worthy man!”

“Yes,” said Birgitta. “We are in a perfect position to help. I will approach our kinswoman, the queen. Blanka is from France, after all, and though vain and shallow and given to faults that threaten to pull her into everlasting damnation, she is acquainted with many fine clerics in her homeland, I am sure. With a letter of introduction from Queen Blanche of Namur, this man should have no trouble reaching the Holy Father.”

“Oh, do you think so?” cried Catharina, clapping her hands with joy. “Oh, Bávlos, do you hear? Mother has found a way to help you in your quest!” Bávlos smiled and nodded. He had not understand much of what was said but it did seem that this older woman, Birgitta, had knowledge of what Iesh intended him to do. She was undoubtedly the same Birgitta of whom Bishop Hemming had spoken: the holy visionary who had such important visions. And now, somehow, he had become one of her visions as well! She had spoken about him meeting someone in a place called Avignon and of how to make that meeting occur. The monk and Fina seemed to have confidence in the woman’s abilities: she was undoubtedly a very consequential person in this land.

Suddenly, however, Birgitta stopped. The color drained from her face and she held her head in her hands. Shaking her head slowly, she groaned, “Nej, nej, nej…”

What is it dearest Mother?” asked Catharina solicitously. Her eyes were filled with concern and she looked toward the monk for his assistance.

“I just realized,” said the older woman sighing, “He’ll have to meet King Magnus as well. He can’t very well leave Sweden on a diplomatic mission of this magnitude without gaining the permission of the king. But oh, how to get that sniveling, weak-livered, self-congratulating, pompous little twit of a king to act in accord with God’s holy will? I have been begging that fool to undertake a Crusade to Novgorod for a year now and he has refused to act!”

“Holy,” said Bávlos.

“You are right!” said Birgitta brightening, “God’s holy will! Yes, let him try to resist this holy cause! Just let him try it! Resist God and God will crush that king like the little bug he is! This is a holy quest! This man is under God’s direction!”

“And yours,” said the monk solicitously.

“Yes, and mine too,” said Birgitta. “Come, pilgrim Finn,” she said jubilantly to Bávlos, “I want to see your reindeer!”