Pilgrim Reindeer in Pisa, 1348

a free multimedia novel by

Thomas A. DuBois, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Click here to return to Tom's homepage

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.

Navigate the novel by:

Drum head Calendar Click here to return to novel homepage



Previous chapter
Cultural information for this chapter
Notes from the author
Next Chapter

25. Simon the Jew [October 15, 1347]

Happy the man who fears the Lord, Who greatly delights in his commands.

As the two men walked through the city, Simon explained his situation to Bávlos with patience and delicacy.

“You see, sir” he said. “We Jews are not favored as travel companions. In fact, if I make so bold to say it, we are despised.”

“Why sir?” asked Bávlos. He was surprised at the man’s admission.

“Because we are Jews,” said the man, shaking his head slowly, “simply because we are Jews.”

“And folk hold that against you?” asked Bávlos.

The man laughed. “You are a font of irony, I see,” he said.

“Irony?” said Bávlos innocently, “I do not know this word.”

The man stared at Bávlos for some time and then said: “Forgive my chutzpe, kind sir, but you do not seem much like most Christians.”

“Do I not?” asked Bávlos. “Perhaps,” he said quietly, “perhaps that is because I have not been a Christian for very long.”

“What?” said the man in surprise, “you were not raised a Christian?”

“I was not,” said Bávlos frankly. “In fact, I have only been one for about four months.”

“Can it be so?” gasped the man. “And what were you before then?”

“I was a pagan,” said Bávlos.

“I see,” said the man. “So you are a bit of an outcast as well.”

“I suppose,” said Bávlos. “I have not felt unwelcome, but I don’t think I really fit in either. This land and its people are very different from what I knew back home.”

“Hear my proposal,” said the man, suddenly encouraged. “I shall travel with you to Köln and help point you in the direction of Paris. And for my trouble you shall promise to help guard me from robbers and hatred on the road.”

“Gladly!” said Bávlos. “We can go together then! I should like that very much!”

“Good,” said the merchant. “Which inn are you staying at?”

“I am not staying at any inn,” said Bávlos simply. “I shall sleep in the forest south of town.”

“I see!” said the merchant. “You trappers live under the sky!”

“We do,” said Bávlos smiling, “and I am happy for it.”

“Come, walk with me toward the inn where I had planned to lodge,” said the man, “and I will collect my things. Then we can head out to this camp of yours in the woods. You are not deceiving me, are you?” he said, narrowing his eyes as he spoke. “You’re not some goniff, are you?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Bávlos. “It is more pleasant for my reindeer to sleep in the wilds.”

“And we shall be safe there?” asked the man.

“I should think so,” said Bávlos. “We will find a place that is hidden from both animals and men and my Nieiddash here will warn us of any who approach.”

“Well,” said the man scratching his chin. “I do need to get to Köln. And if you give me your solemn vow as a Christian that you will not do me harm—“

“I do so vow!” said Bávlos. “It will be nice to have company.”

So it was that Bávlos the Trapper and Simon the Jewish Merchant began their travels together. It did not take Simon long to collect his goods and an old mule from a small inn in a very different part of town and to follow Bávlos out of the city gates. He carried a strong walking staff in his hand, which he brandished at Bávlos when he returned from the inn. “Just so you know that I am not helpless!” he said with a tone of menace. “If a man wants to beat a dog he finds a stick!”

“What?” said Bávlos, confused.

“Don’t try any funny business with me, lad!”

“I shall not,” said Bávlos firmly. “I am glad to have someone to walk with.”

“Well,” said Simon, “then this is a good arrangement for us both.” When they left the city, Bávlos headed them toward a forest that stretched from the side of the road downward to a small brook. “Let us look for a suitable place to rest here,” he said.

“All right, Sir Woodsman,” said Simon with a touch of hesitation. “If you think we’ll be safe—“

“Very safe,” said Bávlos. “I have been living this way for months now and have had no trouble yet.”

“Very well,” said Simon. He helped Bávlos make camp and watched with admiration as his new companion built a low fire and prepared for the night.

“What did you mean back there at the furrier’s when you said I was shrewd for not trading all my pelts to that man?”

“Well,” said the old man, squinting a little, “One should never trade all one’s goods with a single merchant; that’s just good business sense, you know.”

“Why?” asked Bávlos.

“Did you not understand this already?” asked the man. “After all, you did not trade all of the pelts to him, did you?”

“Someone told me that I should not,” said Bávlos, hesitantly, “but I am not sure why.”

“Ah,” said the old man, nodding. “Well, he gave you good aitze then. I will explain why.”

“Please do,” said Bávlos. “I am not experienced in these things.”

“Well, it’s simple,” said Simon. “Take your pelts. Here in Lübeck you can trade them for a fair bit of money. But if you were to trade them somewhere else—for instance, in London or in Avignon—they would fetch far more! So, if you are traveling to the south or east, it makes sense to keep the pelts with you until you arrive there.”

“Why would they bring more money elsewhere than here?” asked Bávlos.

“Well, that is how trading works!” laughed Simon.

“How do you mean?”

“It is like this,” said the merchant good-naturedly. “No doubt you looked at the ships that came to Lübeck here from the north. They bring load after load of dried fish. You know the product?”

“Yes, I do!” said Bávlos. “I have been to the coast north of my father’s lands where such fish are caught and dried. They catch great quantities of fish in those waters.”

“And do you suppose people value that fish very much in the place they are caught?”

“Well,” said Bávlos hesitantly. “I don’t know. My father has a verdde, that means a special friend. He lives on the coast. And this verdde is a fisherman and catches and dries fish all summer long. And in the fall, when the ground hardens up and there is some snow to travel on, my father likes to head up to the coast to visit his friend. And we bring some pelts and some reindeer meat and cheese and trade them for some fish. This verdde is very happy for the meat and cheese because he is completely tired of fish by the end of the summer. But we are happy for the fish, because we have not eaten ocean fish for some time by then. So, I guess the verdde values the fish, but he finds them boring after a while.”

“Precisely!” said the man. “Very good. You are grasping the concept of value.”

“I am?” asked Bávlos in surprise.

“Yes, yes!” said the man. “Do you not see? The fish is the same whether it is on the coast or on your father’s lands. But its value changes.”

“Why does it change?” asked Bávlos.

“Well, because of the work involved,” said Simon smiling. “Fish on the coast is an easy thing. But fish at your father’s house is something a little harder. Someone has to go and get the fish and bring them to the house. That work is valuable too.”

“I see,” said Bávlos. “So the more work I put into something, the more valuable it becomes?”

“Yes,” said the man. “The fish on the coast has just the work of your father’s chavver, that’s what we call the kind of trading partner you mentioned. But the fish at your father’s house has the work of that man along with the work of your father! So it is worth more. And if you were to bring it here, it would have the work of your travel and trouble behind it as well. And so on, and so on: the fish becomes more valuable each time people work on it.”

“I see,” said Bávlos. “So then, why are there so many fish here?”

“Don’t you see?” said the man. “Can’ t you see what is going on? The merchants have taken the fish in the place where they have little value and they are adding value to them by bringing them here. So now the fish are worth more money, and the merchants can collect that money as a result.”

“Oh, I see,” said Bávlos, his eyes wide. “So the merchants receive something for their efforts? I had not realized that was so.”

“Well, of course it is so!” laughed the man. “Why else would they do it otherwise?”

“Well,” said Bávlos slowly, “in my father’s lands there are folk called birkalachat. They come through and demand that we give them goods—pelts, antler, rope, things that take a long time for us to make—and they say they are collecting them for a king, the king of Sweden I think, but I’m not sure. And then, when they are done taking those things, they usually give us a few things in exchange so that they can coax more goods out of us. I thought they were doing this all for the king, as they said.”

“Well,” said Simon with a smile, “merchants say many things to get the goods they want for their business. But what about your father’s trade with his chavver: is that something forced on these men by the king?”

“Certainly not!” said Bávlos. “My father and his verdde do not trade goods because the king tells them to.” Bávlos hesitated. “Nor, I think, do they trade to receive something. They are friends, you see, and this trading is a way that they help each other and stay friendly.”

“Yes, I see your point,” said the man. “But they are, as you say, friends. So it is not a typical trade.”

“Is it not?” asked Bávlos, his eyes widening. “Is there some other kind?”

“Of course!” said the man. “Look about you! All this trading going on in Lübeck and elsewhere: do you suppose it is all simply between friends?”

“I thought so,” said Bávlos innocently.

“Well then, you were wrong!” said Simon. “Think of the merchant that you gave your pelts to, Master Hubert. Did you know him?”

“No, I guess I did not,” said Bávlos slowly. “I felt very bad about that.”

“There is nothing to feel bad about! “ laughed Simon. “Don’t you see? Whether or not you knew this man is of little importance! He saw the value of your pelts, and you saw the value of his money and ergo a deal was made. And after that, you each went your separate ways, both happier for the encounter but knowing each other little better than you did before. Is this not so?”

“I suppose it is,” said Bávlos. “But I guess I expected that since we had traded we were now friends. And should I come back through this city again, I expected that this man would befriend me in what ways he could.”

“Friendship and business are separate matters, my boy,” said Simon, nodding slowly. “It is good that you understand this point right away. You are not likely to find the kind of friendship your father has with his verdde, as you call it, in any Hansa city! It is more like your dealings with the birkalachat around here.”

“Oh?” said Bávlos.

“Definitely,” said Simon with finality. “But you will find something different in these Hansa cities: equality. People linked and freed by the exchange of goods! These cities, my boy,” he said, his voice rising dramatically, “these are the crucibles of a new world, a land not ruled by kings and alliances, but instead one where industrious and clever men can make good lives for themselves and their families through trade!”

“Oh,” said Bávlos. “That all sounds very grand indeed. But still somehow I do not see the point of trading if there is no friendship involved.”

Simon laughed indulgently. “My boy, you are an idealist,” he said. “And to tell you the truth, a bit of what my people call a shmo. This means that you are innocent, and it is, in its way, a very endearing quality about you. But,” he said, his voice growing suddenly sterner, “you must understand the world if you are to make your way in it. The Hansa cities can be a great place for those who know their rules. But they can be dangerous for folk who insist on holding onto outmoded ideas.”

“Outmoded ideas? said Bávlos. “Ideas can be outmoded? I thought the truth was simply the truth.”

“Truths change, lad,” said the merchant. “They change with the times. Life today rests on trade and commerce, not on the family ties and friendships of old. The kings know that: they have given the Hansa cities rule of themselves. Merchants make the decisions now in all things important, as the lords and monarchs skulk about their drafty castles, squabbling about whose son will next be king!

“And this new world is better?” asked Bávlos.

“Much better!” said Simon. “I will prove it to you! Look at the possessions you have with you here—your clothing and equipment and your reindeer—could you ever imagine producing all these fine things yourself?”

“Well, no,” said Bávlos. “But by and large they are all made by my family. My mother made the clothes I wear and my father and I made my tools. And my uncle gave me my draft reindeer, which he raised from a calf. My aunt gave me many of my supplies, because I had not brought enough with me when I left my home. The grass I used in my shoes she gathered for me, and the salt I carry is stored in a bottle she carved.”

The merchant stared at Bávlos in disbelief. “Do you mean to tell me that everything you have has been made or procured for you by family members? Can that still be possible in this day and age?”

“Well, not everything,” said Bávlos. “I have this knife—“

“Ahaa!” said the merchant triumphantly. “Show me this knife!” Bávlos took the long knife and sheath that he wore at his waist and placed it on the table.

“Here it is,” he said. The old man’s eyes went wide with wonder. Bávlos looked on with a mixture of pride and curiosity. “Do you like it?” he asked.

“It is beautiful!” said Simon with a gasp. Bávlos nodded in agreement. “Wherever did you find such a beautiful knife?” asked Simon, shaking his head.

“Well,” said Bávlos, a little embarrassed. “I carved the sheath and the handle myself out of reindeer antler.”

“Ah,” said Simon admiringly. “You are a skilled carver I see.”

“Thank you,” said Bávlos. “But the blade on this knife: the blade I did not make. That is something that my uncle procured for me from a birkalash. I believe my uncle paid a good deal of reindeer meat to obtain the piece of metal itself and then he hammered it and worked it on his forge to make this blade.”

“Well, there you go!” said Simon happily. “Do you see? It would have been difficult for you to get the metal for the knife blade by yourself. So you were willing to pay for someone else’s work to get the blade for you!”

“Yes,” said Bávlos. “My uncle is good at the forge but he does not have a ready supply of metal. So if we want tools of metal, we must trade for them. The birkalash is good for at least that, my uncle says.”

“Yes,” said the man. “Because, of course, metal tools are better?”

“Yes, they are,” affirmed Bávlos. “I still have antler pieces for my fishing gear and arrow tips, but for most other tools, I am glad to have metal. It is stronger and lasts longer than bone.”

“So there you go!” said Simon triumphantly. “Your life is improved through trade! Now imagine if you traded for all your goods—your life would be even better, would it not?”

Bávlos smiled and nodded politely. He was silent for a moment and then said, “Forgive me for saying this, kind sir, but I think I should not like it if all my things were procured by trade.”

“Why not?” asked Simon in surprise.

“Well,” said Bávlos hesitantly. “It is like this: When I wear this hat,” he pointed at the leather cap he wore, with its four corners facing in different directions, “I think of my sister who made it for me. And that brings value to it too, I think.”

“I see,” said the old man, nodding, “Go on.”

“And this knife,” said Bávlos. “I like it in part because I made it myself in the way that men of my family have always made knives. That pattern there—“ he said, pointing at the hilt, “that is the pattern of decoration that my father taught me. And he learned it from his father, after whom I am named, and he in turn learned it from his father and so on, back to the time in the long past when our people learned to carve antler from the folk who live beneath the ground. So that is a value too, is it not?”

“It is,” said Simon thoughtfully. “So you are saying that these things of yours are more valuable than ones you could obtain by trade?”

“Well no,” said Bávlos. “The trade that my father undertakes with his verdde, is very valuable indeed. It makes them both happy. It is true that life would be a little less interesting without the verdde’s fish over the winter. And I am sure that he feels the same way about the cheese and meat that we give him. But I think it is their friendship that makes the things truly valuable, not the fish or cheese or meat in themselves.”

“You are an idealist,” said Simon chuckling. “But there is a kernel of truth in what you say. But now that we are talking about your pagan land, tell me this: how are the Jews treated there?”

“The Jews?” said Bávlos, puzzled. “I don’t believe there are any Jews in my father’s lands.”

“Ahaa,” said Simon, shaking his head sadly, “excluded.”

“I do not know if they have been excluded, sir,” said Bávlos. “We have no Christians either.”

“No Christians either? Then you come from a land of Muslims?”

“No,” said Bávlos, trying to make sense of the situation. “There are simply us pagans.”

“But who do you worship, then?” asked Simon intently. “Surely you must turn to someone for aid in this life? All pagans do.” “

We have sieiddit,” said Bávlos slowly. “They are like statues, but more powerful. And we bring them part of our catch and they reward us with luck and help.”

“Ah,” said Simon nodding. “Idols.”

“Idols?” said Bávlos

“Idols,” said Simon, shrugging his shoulders. “Like the ones holy Rachel kept on the sly. She carried them with her when she traveled with her husband Jacob, and he never knew she had them!” Bávlos stopped to consider this idea. Could it be that his mother and sister had idols hidden in their things, the equivalents of the fish sieidi but portable? Perhaps they were embodiments of the old women who lived under the hearth and doorway? And perhaps they kept them hidden from the men just as this Rachel had kept hers hidden from Jacob?

“When they traveled?” asked Bávlos at last. “Did they travel much? Your people, I mean?”

“They lived in tents, my ancestors,” said the old man. “And they came from a land in the mountains to the Promised Land at God’s bidding.”

“God’s bidding,” said Bávlos.

“Yes,” said Simon. “The God of our ancestors called to Abram where he lived in Ur and told him to travel to the land he would give him. And he promised to guide his descendents forever and to make us as plentiful as the sands of the sea or the stars of the sky.” Simon was gazing up at the star-filled sky in satisfaction.

“And this God,” asked Bávlos. “He is the God of the Christians?”

“They say so,” said Simon, sadly. “They say that their Jesus was his son.”

“And this God,” said Bávlas again. “What name does he call himself?”

“He calls himself, well, his name I cannot repeat,” said Simon, “but it means ‘I am. I myself.’”

“Iesh,” thought Bávlos to himself. Myself. The God of the Jews was the one who had called him. He asked aloud, “And he called his Abram to a new land? He told him where to go?”

“Well, not exactly,” said Simon. “It was hard for Abram. The Lord renamed him Abraham and told him to travel to a new place. But he was never sure what would happen next. The Lord had promised him many descendents, a great nation, but he and his wife were old and had no children at all.”

“Ah,” thought Bávlos. This certainly sounded like Iesh. “I think I know how he must have felt,” he said aloud.

“You?” said Simon, smiling, “How so?”

“Well,” said Bávlos. “I have no real idea where I’m headed apart from God’s call and a couple of letters.”

“Letters?” said the old man with interest. “What letters are these?”

“Letters from the king and queen of Sweden, to a great churchman in Paris and to the Holy Father in Avignon.”

“You’d better let me have a look at them.” Said Simon, reaching out his hand.

“Why?” asked Bávlos.

“Friend,” said Simon calmly. “I am afraid I was wrong when I said you were shrewd. You are an innocent, plain and simple, and you are lucky that your God and mine put us together!”

“How so?” asked Bávlos. “I know that there is much I am unacquainted with in this land, but I think I am faring pretty well. And anyway, what harm can a couple of letters do?”

“What harm?” snorted Simon. “What harm? Have you never heard of Uriah?”

“No, who’s he?”

“Dead!” said Simon dramatically. “Dead! That’s who he is! He had a letter from King David that he was supposed to deliver to the general of the army. You know what the letter said?”

“What?” asked Bávlos. “’Put this man in harm’s way!’ That’s what it said! ‘Put this man out in the front lines of the battle, and when the going gets tough, call the rest of the troops back and let him get killed!’ The general did what he was told in the letter and poor Uriah was killed the next day in battle!”

“Why did the king do that?” asked Bávlos, shocked.

“He wanted Uriah’s wife,” said Simon. “He married her thereafter. You don’t have a wife this king was hungry for, do you?”

Bávlos thought for a moment. “No,” he said, “but he did take an interest in my reindeer.”

“There you go,” said the old man with finality. “What did I tell you? The letters, please!” He held out his hand expectantly.

“But King Magnus wouldn’t do such a thing to me,” said Bávlos. He felt himself breaking out in a sweat.

“Take it from me, lad,” said Simon dryly, “These kings, they are not like ordinary people. And further—you’ll forgive me for saying so since you’re only recently become one yourself—these Christians are not always as kind and as holy as they like to claim!” Bávlos nodded slowly. He had certainly seen evidence of that in the past few weeks. He rose from where they were sitting and went to his pack, where he carefully pulled out the two letters.

“Here,” he said. “Please do read them for me.”

Simon’s eyes went wide when he looked at the two fine scrolls set before him, their wax seals carefully affixed with long ribbons. “Okay, I’ll have to do this carefully,” he said. He took out a knife and heated it in the fire. Then with care and speed he ran it beneath King Magnus’s seal and lifted it off the parchment. He studied the text inside with careful eyes. “In Latin, “ he said.

“God’s language,” said Bávlos nodding eagerly.

“Nonsense,” chuckled Simon. “God speaks in Hebrew. Jesus spoke Hebrew. My language. Latin is the language of Rome.”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. This man seemed to know so many things that Bávlos had never heard of before.

“Says here that you are bringing your deer as King Magnus’s gift to the pope at Avignon!”

“It’s not the king’s gift,” said Bávlos, somewhat perturbed. “Nieiddash is my uncle’s reindeer. It was Iesh that asked me to bring her along—“

“I’m just telling you what the letter says,” said Simon raising his hand for silence. “Don’t blame me for the contents!”

“Go on,” said Bávlos. “Says you have a ring with you,” said the man.

“A ring?” said Bávlos. “Oh yes, he did give me a ring. I have it somewhere here.” Bávlos motioned toward his pack.

“Have it somewhere?” said Simon in surprise. “My boy, you'd better have that ring with you and you had better not lose it, or this letter is your death warrant!”

“My death warrant?” asked Bávlos in incomprehension.

“Yes! It says here, er,” he raised his voice as he translated the passage from the letter: “’The man who rightfully holds this scroll carries with him a ring that bears our crest!’ That’s the ring! And it goes on: ‘Discover this scroll in the hands of one who does not bear said ring, or have with him said beast,’—he must mean your deer—‘and we will thank the reader likewise to arrest the bearer in our name!’ Arrest, boy, do you know what that means?”

“What?” asked Bávlos excitedly.

The older man said nothing, but simply drew his finger across his neck making a ripping sound. “Don’t lose that ring or that deer!” he said, waving his finger at Bávlos. Bávlos thought of all the times he had nearly given away the ring during his journey thus far and felt nearly faint at the thought.

“Thank you for reading this for me,” he said. “It is good that I know. Read me the other one now.”

Simon nodded and performed the same careful removal of the seal from the second letter. “From the Queen, and in French,” he said. “You are lucky I am a lamden, a wise and learned man!”

Bávlos nodded.

“The queen is from France,” he said.

“Yes,” said Simon.

“It says here—“ he began to chuckle.

“What?” asked Bávlos anxiously. “It says here that the deer is a gift from her!”

“It does?” said Bávlos. These two rulers seemed more alike than he had thought. The old man was chuckling again.

“What?” asked Bávlos.

“Says here that you have eyes of piercing blue!” Bávlos felt himself blushing. The merchant cleared his throat and continued: “She says that you know a word that the canon will recognize and that will prove that you are the rightful bearer of the letter. Do you know that word?”

Bávlos paused to think. His audience with the queen had been so long ago and so much had happened since then. Could he remember the word? “I, I don’t know,” said Bávlos nervously. “I will have to think about it for a while.”

“You had better know that word the moment you hand this scroll to the prelate!” said Simon gravely. “They’re not likely to tell you to have a nice nap and tell them later!”

Bávlos nodded. “Wait!” he cried with excitement, “I remember! It’s—”

“No!” cried Simon quickly, “Don’t tell me! Don’t tell anyone! Do you hear me? Anyone!” He looked around him to make sure that they were absolutely alone. “That word is your only guarantee of not being thrown out onto the street or strung up like a criminal! Believe you me—these are serious things I’m telling you of!” Bávlos nodded slowly.

“It is kind of you to help me,” he said.

“No problem, my boy,” said the merchant. “We Jews are not that bad, you know.” He carefully rolled the scrolls back up, retied them and affixed the seals as they were before. “Good as new,” he said smiling, as he handed them back to Bávlos. “Guard these tefilin well. They can be a great help but they can also be fatal.”

“Indeed,” said Bávlos nodding.