Pilgrim Reindeer in Pisa, 1348

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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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15. Royal Audiences [August 31, 1347]

Samuel delivered the message of the Lord in full to those who were asking him for a king. He told them: “The rights of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot.

The morning began with Lady Birgitta carefully rehearsing her speech to the king, her advisor, the thin monk Peter Olofsson listening and nodding in encouragement.

“This crusade, oh kinsman, must be one to win the hearts of the heathen Novgorodans: you must first send emissaries to convince them of the error of their ways. For by clinging to the wrong ways of the Orthodox, they turn their backs on God’s holy shepherd the pope and open their souls to eternal damnation. Your highness must challenge these Novgorodans to a debate, with the condition that whosoever loses the debate must convert to the other’s religion. Then it will come to pass that they will see the superiority of our faith and leave their foolish rituals behind!”

The monk smiled encouragingly and nodded. The Lady Birgitta breathed deeply and continued with a darker tone: “But if they harden their hearts and fail to convert, then, sire, you must move against them with the resolve and the power of a holy army. You and your soldiers must be full of love in your hearts, your bodies made worthy by fasting and labor. Only worthy vassals of the king should take part in this holy enterprise: no foreign mercenaries, none who cherish profit or power in their hearts! He who would send others to heaven must attend first to his own soul! Each must examine his sins and put them behind. Not only shall soldiers take to the field, but priests and monks as well, so that the heathens can be baptized as needed, even on the field of battle.”

The monk nodded again. “This is prudently stated,” he said, “and well argued. The king will certainly be moved.”

Birgitta frowned a little and continued: “And God, who is love itself, will reward his supporters one hundred fold for their labors on his behalf. The kingdom will flourish as a result. And the heathens who die in battle will still benefit even if they die unconverted. For by dying earlier than they might otherwise, they will lessen the strife they will face in the hereafter for their evil ways. For if they had lived longer they surely would have sinned more.”

“It is well stated, my Lady,” said the monk bowing. “I hope that the king may listen to your entreaty today.”

“So do I,” said the woman. “God is impatient for his will to be done!”

That same morning, Bávlos was prepared for royal audiences with both Queen Blanka and King Magnus. The royal couple were visiting the estate at the time, having come to discuss with Birgitta her plans for transforming the estate into a convent, a new order dedicated to the most holy Savior, to be governed precisely in accordance with a vision Birgitta had received. Catharina’s servants acceded to Bávlos’s wish that he be allowed to wash in preparation for the audience. He was sorry that the servants did not seem to have a sauna on hand, but they brought him water with which he was able to clean his head and arms at least. The servants tried their best to convince him to accept a change of clothes from the ones he had brought as well, but Bávlos steadfastly refused. The clothes of the strangers were of wondrous colors and much smooth and fine fabric, but they did not seem as serviceable or as beautiful as the leather ones he had from home. And after some vociferous arguing back and forth, the servants seemed to relent and resign themselves to allowing the pilgrim to present himself before the queen and king in his native dress.

When Bávlos was thus prepared, Catharina came to see him. “I shall go with you, my friend,” she said to him. “Do not fear these two, although they are far more worldly than either you or I.” Catharina led Bávlos out of the servant quarters of the estate and across a courtyard toward a large building. They climbed some wide stone stairs and entered a large, brightly lit room, its massive oaken doors pushed to the sides. In the center of the hall, on a raised platform covered by a red carpet, sat a beautiful, dark-haired woman, mid-way in age between Fina and her mother, clad in a smooth fabric of white, dotted with sparkling gems that caught the light of the morning sun.

“Ah, the Finn!” she cried with delight as Catharina and Bávlos entered. Bávlos could tell at once that she had an accent different from either Catharina or Birgitta. She seemed to express herself with much more energy than the other two women and she punctuated her statements with elaborate and graceful gestures.

“Yes, the Finn!” said Birgitta from the corner of the room with characteristic force, “A Finn on a mission!” Birgitta in contrast seemed to have pared her language back to the very most minimal possible to express her opinions to others. Only when enunciating what Bávlos took to be listings of sins did Birgitta seem to allow poetic extravagance into her expressions.

“A mission?” asked the queen, sitting up with interest, “A mission for what? To where?” Her voice sounded almost as if she were singing.

“Avignon,” said Bávlos, trying to contribute to a conversation that was clearly proceeding without him. “I go Avignon, see Holy Father.”

“The Holy Father?” cried the queen in delight, “How charmante! And what would you want to say to the Holy Father when you meet him, I wonder?”

“My reindeer,” said Bávlos, “I give my reindeer.”

“Ah un renne de la reine de Sučde,” quipped the queen: “A reindeer from the queen of Sweden! How perfectly charming. His holiness will smile at my play on words!”

“It is not for you that he is traveling, your majesty,” said Birgitta bruskly, “He is making this gift on behalf of his people, the newly Christian Finns of the remote wilds.”

“But these people belong to my kingdom, no?” said the queen, raising her eyebrows and gracefully lifting her finger to her chin. She seemed to be dancing as she spoke; Bávlos found her captivating.

“They do most assuredly,” said Birgitta drily. Bávlos could see no flinch in her at all; it was as if the words simply emerged from inside her body without even her lips moving.

“Then the gift of this reindeer comes from me, the queen of this land, no?”

“It does, your majesty,” said Birgitta with an icy tone.

“But perhaps this man does not want a letter of introduction from his gracious queen?” said the younger woman, looking from Birgitta to Bávlos now and frowning. She brought her long fingers together beneath her chin as if to hold her face up as she asked the question.

“If you please, gracious queen,” interjected Catharina, “my friend pilgrim Bávlos would like any assistance he can receive on his errand. He is a stranger to our language and our ways, so he can ill speak for himself, but his heart is filled with love for our Lord, and he has been sent on his mission by our Savior himself. He has told me so.” Bávlos noticed that Catharina’s cheeks had turned bright red. She seemed ready to throw herself on the ground to plead on his behalf.

“Well,” said the queen, mollified by her young kinswoman’s words, “then I shall write him a letter to one of the canons of the cathedral of Notre Dame, Canon Girard de la Montaigne. He shall be pleased to host this man out of his love for me and my family, and he shall assist him in his journey to Avignon as well. Further, his highness the king will, at my suggestion, give this man a bill of free passage to Paris. He may show that letter to any of the merchants leaving from one of our ports and they shall see to it that he is safely conducted to Paris or suffer the displeasure of the king!”

“Good my noble royal highness,” said Catharina bowing deeply, “Your benevolence in this matter is very great indeed. May God reward you for such generosity and kindness!” She wrung her hands and bowed again.

“But this pleases you, Sir Pilgrim?” said the queen, turning again to gaze at Bávlos. He noticed a kind of hunger in her eyes: she was a woman who desired praise, a woman with strong appetites to be sure.

“Thanks to you,” he said bowing deeply.

“You would not prefer to stay here with me?” she said smiling, her eyes suddenly twinkling. “You are a handsome man, monseigneur the Finn, and I could use you well as a footman in my court! And this renne,” she used a word that must be from her own language for Nieiddash, “he could be a charming addition to my stables!”

“He is spoken for!” thundered Birgitta. “His reindeer is spoken for! They are on a mission from God!”

“Oh yes, God,” said the queen with a sigh, turning sullenly toward the black-clad Birgitta. “So it must be. But I would very much enjoy it if monseigneur the Finn were to return one day soon to visit us again and tell us of the Holy Father’s experience of this gift!” She said the latter with her eyes resting squarely on Bávlos, who felt at once flattered and embarrassed by the attention.

“If God leads him this way he will be back,” said Birgitta with finality. She raised her chin and frowned so as to signal that the discussion was definitively closed. Under the circumstances, the queen had to concede that the audience was over, even if she might have enjoyed some further conversation.

“Adieu, monseigneur the Finn!” she said to Bávlos. “Give my greetings to the canon and the Holy Father!”

As Bávlos, Catharina and Birgitta left the queen’s chambers, Birgitta seemed perturbed. Catharina was in high spirits, nearly dancing with excitement on Bávlos’s behalf.

“You shall go to Paris now and thence to Avignon! Oh Bávlos, it is thrilling!”

“You shouldn’t so praise the queen,” interrupted Birgitta testily. “Giving her thanks for her charitable acts simply robs them of their savor for our Lord. And such flattery is bound to lead her further toward the fires of hell more surely than ever you can imagine!” she said. “She is practically licked by the flames already that one, like a piece of bacon held above a fire! Or a lovely apple, brown and eaten by maggots in the inside. We need to pray for that one, daughter! Pray and pray hard!”

Catharina hung her head in sorrow. “The fires of hell? Oh, I am so sorry, Mother! Do you think God will be displeased with her generosity now?”

“If she is helping this pilgrim simply to show off to the pope and his retinue and her high-brow canon friend in Paris, you can believe me that God will not be pleased! He will take her act as the scrapings of horse manure mixed with rotting fish that it is rather than as the sweet, pure porridge of holy charity!”

“Oh Mother, I do feel terrible!” said Catharina remorsefully. “Why ever do I ever dare to speak?” She struck herself forcefully on the forehead.

Her mother stopped her after several such blows: “What’s done is done, daughter,” she said. Brightening a little she added: “Let’s hope things go as well with the king at any rate. He’s sure to be a harder nut to crack!”

That afternoon, after lunch, the ladies counseled Bávlos on how to respond to the king. The Lady Birgitta informed him somewhat acerbically that neither she nor her daughter would not be accompanying him into the audience. King Magnus preferred to receive Bávlos without their assistance, they had been told.

“Whatever you do,” said the lady Birgitta “Don’t end up alone with the king, and stay away from his new friend, Bengt Algotsson as well. Don’t ask me why; it’s just imperative that you do so. Oh, and another thing: Magnus hates to hear ‘no’ as an answer. So you must always answer ‘yes your highness,’ or ‘yes my lord,’ or ‘yes, o monarch’ to anything he asks. The trick is to answer ‘yes’ only when it’s something you want and to avoid answering at all when the answer would be ‘no.’ Understand?”

Bávlos had no idea what Birgitta meant. As he was puzzling it out he suddenly found himself being ushered into another, larger room, filled with men and banners and murmurs. Far at the other end of the room he saw a tall thin man lounging in a large chair. It, too, was set on a red dais, like the queen’s, but the carpet beneath his chair extended down the entire length of the room, forming a pathway that drew all eyes to the man seated on the golden chair. All the other men in the room were standing. Bávlos advanced down the center of the room as a herald announced his approach:

“Behold Bávlos, a subject pilgrim Finn from the distant edges of the monarch’s magnificent realm!”

Catharina had instructed Bávlos to bend to one knee before the king and to wait until the king said to rise. He must be certain to listen carefully to the king’s every order: failure to follow any instructions could be interpreted as an act of defiance, of intentional disobedience. The fact that Bávlos did not know the king’s language well was no excuse: he was a subject of the king and should know enough to understand his monarch’s words.

Bávlos walked within shouting distance of the man and then bent upon his knee. He heard the king’s voice from afar: “Rise, pilgrim and draw closer!” He recognized the word “closer” and rose to advance some paces forward, bending again as Catharina had instructed. “No, pilgrim, closer still!” laughed the king. The man of some thirty years was smiling as he spoke, crooking his finger like a small worm and wiggling it at Bávlos. Bávlos rose again, advanced to within a pace of the king and knelt again. He could hear people murmuring, a whispering between courtiers. Bávlos was unsure whether he had done right or wrong but he was too afraid to look about him to see. He remained silent and frozen.

“Enough!” cried the king, now clearly angry. He rose somewhat in his chair and held his hand to his golden crown, shouting: “All courtiers, all advisors, all knights of the realm leave this room at once! I shall talk to this shy pilgrim alone. Bengt,” he said as an afterthought, “Bengt son of Algot you alone are to stay!”

Again Bávlos heard murmurs as the men filed out of the room. Their feet were heavy and it sounded thunderous as the courtiers cleared the hall. He was to be alone with the king and with Bengt, precisely what Birgitta had warned him against. There was no remedy for it now, however. He must trust in Iesh to get through this ordeal.

“Now we are alone at last,” said the king in a kinder voice. “Friend pilgrim, rise and do not fear. I am a gracious king to all good Christians. Have you not heard? I have given my kinswoman the Lady Birgitta this house as a convent! And if the Lady Birgitta’s visions prove true, I am to become a great crusader for Our Lord as well!” He smiled as he spoke, looking directly at Bávlos who barely dared to return a glance.

“Yes o my monarch highness,” said Bávlos looking down.

The king and Bengt both laughed. “Oh my, this one is too innocent!” chuckled the king at his friend. Bengt, who was now standing next to the king nodded in delight. He was a young man, perhaps two or three years younger than Bávlos, but tall and very strong looking. Bávlos saw that beneath his pointed felt hat he had very long yellow hair, much like Fina’s, and a beard that was parted into two strands. His clothing looked extremely rich, as did the king’s. He wore a blue doublet of very smooth fabric, finely embroidered with various designs and cinched close to his waist by a thin belt. A large brooch of metal shown near his neck. Over the doublet he wore a fine coat of a lighter blue color that reached down to his calves; it was fringed in ermine fur. Its sleeves were full and flowing. His shoes were of colored leather, with long straight toe points that seemed half a foot longer than his feet themselves. Bávlos felt quite out of place in his reindeer hide clothing and curled up shoes, standing before these worldly men. He timidly turned his eyes toward the king to await his next command.

“Blue eyes!” smiled the king, “And such a handsome countenance. Bengt, is he not the picture of knightly beauty, a gem of courtliness in the rough?”

“He is indeed,” said the friend, smiling at Bávlos. These men seemed to be having a joke between themselves, something they were not sharing with him. Perhaps if he could understand their language better, he would know what they meant. As it was, he could only stand there mutely and wait.

“He is the very picture of the kind of holy warrior my kinswoman Birgitta has told me to assemble for the Crusade to Novgorod: Holy men, virile and honest, in their prime of life, carefully chosen by the king himself so as to be free of vice and sin!” The two men laughed again.

“Am I to understand,” said the king, turning to the business at hand, “that you wish to travel to Avignon?”

“To Avignon, yes o my highness” said Bávlos bowing.

“But Avignon is so very far away!” cried the king. “Can we afford to lose one such as you on such a long and arduous journey?”

“Yes, o king,” said Bávlos. He knew that this formula was not one of the ones Birgitta had prescribed for the occasion, but it seemed like one he could remember readily, and he wanted to concentrate all his attention now on what the king said and figure out when he could safely answer “yes.”

“A modest man,” said the friend smiling, “he counts himself of little value to you, sire.”

“Indeed,” said the king. “But you are my subject, pilgrim Bávlos, and my subjects are all dear to my heart!” He reached out his hand and patted Bávlos tenderly on the head. “How can I let one as innocent as you out into the dangers of the world? I ask you, how?”

Bávlos answered nothing.

“Wouldn’t you like to stay here with me instead?” asked the king brightly, as if it were a new and exciting idea he had just hit upon. “You could become a warrior in my planned Crusade against the pagan Orthodox! We could use your knowledge of the eastern realms in my army, and you and I could come to know each other better!” Bengt looked a little bothered by the king’s suggestion.

“Yes o king, that would be fine,” said Bávlos. He knew it was the wrong answer if he really wished to escape this place, but he could not think of any way of avoiding the answer without giving offense.

“But you feel that you must first travel to Avignon,” added Bengt quickly, “so as to fulfill your holy vow and serve your king as a holy emissary?”

“Yes,” said Bávlos gratefully. Bengt gave him a smile and subtle nod of the head.

“Yes, holy vows, holy vows…” murmured the king, leaning back in his chair and drumming his fingers on its arm with impatience. “There are so many vows around the court these days, what with the Lady Birgitta turning half the ladies in waiting into nuns and ordaining young men right and left for the priesthood…”

“Yes,” said Bávlos.

The king laughed. “Ah, I see,” he said. “Yes, the Lady Birgitta has her ways of overpowering all other considerations, doesn’t she?”

Bávlos nodded. “Yes o king.”

“Tell me though, sir pilgrim. Why give the Holy Father a reindeer? Whatever can he do with one of those? His land is far from Sweden: he has no use of such beasts. I could use a reindeer far more than he!”

“Yes,” said Bávlos hesitantly. This king wanted Nieiddash for himself. Iesh had commanded him to bring a two year old female reindeer with him for some reason, and Bávlos had always assumed it would be to make a sacrifice somewhere. But somehow Birgitta had added a new dimension to the instruction: the reindeer was now to be a gift for someone called the Holy Father. And now King Magnus wanted the reindeer for himself. Things were getting very complicated now. Bávlos would simply have to trust Iesh to sort it out.

“How many reindeer do I have in my royal stables at present?” asked the king.

“None whatsoever,” answered his young advisor with a smile.

“What if I were to establish a royal reindeer herd? Imagine it! Me, the king of the Swedes, riding into a city in a sleigh drawn by eight strapping male reindeer, their antlers strewn with colorful streamers, bells hanging off my sleigh, little gifts and favors for all the grateful citizens who would mob the streets to see me! Wouldn’t that be marvelous?”

“Heargit, your highness,” said Bávlos.

“Heargit?” Whatever do you mean by that term?” The king looked offended by its very sound.

“Heargit!” said Bávlos, somewhat helplessly. How to explain. He would have to act it out. His said the word again, slowly, and pointed to his groin. Then he pantomimed a Sámi herder taking a young male calf and biting his testicles with his teeth, thereby turning the young animal forever more into a heargi, more tractable than a bull, large and serviceable.

“Heargit?” said the king with a grimace.

Bengt was laughing now. “He means ‘gelding’ sire! You can’t have your sleigh pulled by bull reindeer but by geldings!”

The king laughed. “Sir Bávlos, I do like you!” he said. “You must promise to come back to us once your mission is complete. Will you promise?”

“Yes, o king.”

“And you will advise my friend Bengt here in building a royal reindeer herd for my stables?”

“Yes, o king.”

“I have a notion that such a herd could be useful for our eastern war. Bengt, dear boy, I will make you duke of Finland in due time, and you can work with Bávlos here at your side to build me a fine herd. Would you like that Bengt?”

“Duke of Finland, sire?” he said in raptures.

“Prepare the letter of transit for our Bávlos, my dear advisor,” said the king, “King’s passage, all expenses paid to Avignon and back!” Bávlos beamed at the good news.

“Thank you sire,” he said.

“We shall meet again, I hope,” said the king. “Entertaining subjects are such a rarity these days. Oh and Bávlos,” he added, “Will you make me a solemn promise?”

“Yes, o king,” he said.

“Promise me that no matter what that dictatorial old Birgitta says you will not cut your hair!” he said, tossling the bushy hair that Bávlos had exposed when he had doffed his hat. “She will have you shaved and tonsured before she lets you out of the door! Do you promise?”

“Yes, o king.” Bávlos left the audience feeling both elated and relieved.