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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31. Lëtzebuerg and the Duke (November 10, 1347)

They ranged through the countryside, striking down, and destroying the cities; each of them cast stones onto every fertile field till they had loaded it down; all the springs they stopped up and every useful tree they felled.

In the next week, Bávlos found his life transformed by a new mode of travel. Jacques had an eye for spotting likely places to perform and a marvelous array of songs. Bávlos needed only to show off his reindeer as the great Ogier, and then, while Jacques sang and played, to walk among the crowd receiving the coins they placed in his hat. People would cheer and clap, children would pet Nieiddash, folk would marvel at Bávlos’s clothing. All was pleasant. Jacques sang in Hansa speech and in French, and he was good as well in the local language that folk called eis Sprooch, “our speech.” In the evenings, the friends would purchase some food, talk to the tavern keeper, ask directions. They would enjoy their meals and beds, pay with coins they had gained, and when they felt the urge, move on to a new village the following day. Slowly, slowly they progressed—in fact, they moved far more slowly now than Bávlos had ever traveled before. It was all so different from what Bávlos had previously experienced; in fact, it made the long stretch of weeks before seem lonely by comparison, apart from the brief time with Simon. And as they walked and talked and sang, Bávlos was able to learn better and better the language of the region to the south, with Jacques as a patient and gifted teacher.

It was only a matter of time before they arrived at the village of Lëtzebuerg, huddled around the great castle of the duke who ruled this land. Jacques told Bávlos that it was only another week’s travel to reach Paris, especially if they got a ride from merchants traveling that way. Bávlos was encouraged by this news, for he felt a little guilty about their easy pace and long evenings of eating and drinking. He felt somehow that he should be living simpler: sleeping outside like he had done in the past, and walking longer distances in a day. But Jacques was not to be rushed, and Bávlos convinced himself that it was important to know French well before he met another great priest.

After singing and entertaining for the day, the friends found a small inn, not far from the Church of St. Nicholas, where they settled in for the night. They had earned good money that day, and Jacques was lavish in his order for dinner. The landlady was very pleased to have their business once she saw their coins, and hovered about them frequently with much talk and help. Never was Bávlos’s cup empty but the landlady sailed by to fill it up again, smiling broadly and nodding. She was a tall and pretty woman, not at all thin, with pink cheeks and twinkling blue eyes. She spoke to them in eis Sprooch, and they answered in a mix of that language, Hanze speech, and French.

“Who rules this land now that Charlemagne is gone?” asked Bávlos.

“King Karl has been dead for many centuries, sir!” said the woman.

“Ah yes,” said Bávlos. Somehow for him Charlemagne seemed to hang in the air wherever they went.

“Our grof,” said the woman, looking down, her lower lip quivering in sorrow, “our grof of today has died recently as well.”

“Oh?” said Bávlos, “Who was he? I am sorry I do not know such things, but I am from far away.”

“You would have to be not to know the great Grof Jang de Blannen,” said the woman, wiping a tear, “Johan de Blinde, Jean l’Aveugle.” Like many inkeepers of the region, she had the habit of saying nearly everything over again in at least two if not three languages. “He built the great walls around this city, so that we would be safe!”

“He was a good king then?” said Bávlos.

“He was our grof,” said the woman, “although he was also the kinnek of Béimen, or Bohemen or Behaigne as well, and for sometime the kinnek of Polen, Pologne. And yes, he was good. He was very good.”

“Did he demand much tribute?” asked Bávlos, glancing at Jacques.

“Of course not!” said the woman. “I said he was good, did I not? No, he had wealth of his own and he was pleased to look out of his window when he was here at his castle and enjoy our bustling life. But do you know? Lëtzebuerg was almost too small for him!”

“Was it?” said Bávlos.

“Yes,” said the woman. “He wanted to be a great king, a truly great king. So he joined with the Ritter of the Orden and he traveled to the pagan lands to the north and east to fight a Crusade for Christ!”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. He wondered if this Jang had come to Reval, or whether he had spent his time fighting the pagans further south.

“Yes,” said the woman, “It was there that the magic of the pagans first wounded him.”

“The magic of the pagans?”

“Yes. He defeated a terrible sorcerer-soldier of the pagans and as that man was dying he hurled a curse at our poor grof. And immediately his eyes became sore and very swollen. And they remained that way a long, long time, so that when good Grof Jang finally was able to return to Lëtzebuerg, he had scarcely any sight left at all!”

“Ah,” said Bávlos. “That must have been powerful magic!”

“It was terrible,” said the woman. “It was not in line with chevalerie these acts of that soldier, I must say!”

“No indeed! said Jacques. He was now becoming quite interested in the landlady’s tale, although at first he had paid almost no attention.

“Did he die of this blindness?” asked Bávlos.

“No,” said the woman. She began to sob, and turned away to blow her nose. It was some time before she continued the tale. “Our grof had ruled our land for as long as I have lived!” said the woman. “Nearly thirty years he ruled! But now he was blind and unhappy. And a lesser man—a man with less a sense of chevalerie—would have quietly retired to his castle and done no more with his life. But our grof, his heart was too great for that!”

“What did he do?” asked Bávlos. He could not imagine him doing many things with no eyesight to help him.

“Well, sir,” said the woman. “You are not from this land or you would know of the evil deeds of the horrible, blood-thirsty, uncivilized men of England!”

Bávlos saw that Jacques grew tense at the very mention of the name. “These men have attacked this land?” he asked.

“Not this land, but France,” said the woman. “They claim that their kinnek, who is called Edvard, is the rightful heir of the throne of France! And they would displace the great kinnek Philippe le Fortuné from his throne and make all France a part of England forever more!”

Jacques shuddered in revulsion.

“These men of England would do such a thing?” asked Bávlos.

“Yes,” said the woman gravely. “And all rulers of honor in the world have come to fight on the side of France against this fiend from across the sea and his wicked son Edvard de Schwaarze Prënz!”

“So do I understand from what you are saying,” said Bávlos, “that even Grof Jang went to fight these men?”

“Yes!” said the woman, clasping her hands and looking to heaven, “such was the honor of our grof! Such was his chevalerie!”

“But, but, how—“ sputtered Bávlos.

“How did he go to war without sight you ask?” said the woman. “I will tell you! He called some of his most trusted chevaliers to his side and he said: ‘Friends, you know that I have lived my life as a chevalier of rank. And so will I die! Lead me, if you will, to the front of the battle, and point me at some of the English that I may assail them with my sword!’ ‘We shall do so gladly!’ said the men together. “So they tied the reins of their horses together,” said the woman, acting out the scene, “and they marched to the very front of the battle. And our grof swang fiercely and fast with his sword, and he killed many, many of the foreign fiends! But in the end he died, as did his men, and all of their horses. They lay dead in the field till the next morning came.” The woman fell into sobs again and said no more.

“That was the Battle of Crécy,” said Jacques quietly. “I know of that battle. The English broke all rules of chevalerie on that day.”

“All rules,” said the woman, drying her tears and hardening her tone. “The flower of chevalerie died that day!”

“What did they do?” asked Bávlos.

“They were beasts,” said Jacques. “The king of France had arranged for music to play in battle, to cheer our troops and fill the hearts of the enemy with fear. But these English opened fire before we—before the music had even started! And then they brought bowmen with them, poor common men of Wales. Poor, but stout and dogged. And these men began to fire much faster than the vile bowmen our king had hired from the wretched land of Genoa. These men could not load their crossbows quickly enough to return fire. And they panicked and began to retreat! And then, to make matters worse, the chevaliers of our side became incensed at these cowards and they began to hack at them with their swords as they ran away! Imagine! They were on the same side yet they were fighting in this way! And finally, the terrible king of England brought a huge machine to the battle that hurled great balls of iron at blinding speed and with great booming voice! It killed all who came in its way. All who heard and saw it were terrified, I can tell you!”

“Were you there?” asked Bávlos. Jacques said nothing, but turned toward the wall. The landlady began to speak again:

“When the battle was over, the men of England sent common soldiers into the field with long daggers. And when they found a ritter who was still alive, they stabbed him through the helmet or into his underarm and killed him that way! And this was a very great violation of chevalerie, for it is stated that none may kill a nobleman but another nobleman. And these soldiers, you see, were common folk, like you or I.”

“I see,” said Bávlos. “They should have sent chevaliers out to kill them?”

“No,” said the woman. “They should have taken the chevaliers who had been wounded and ransomed them. Our city would have gladly paid much money to have some of those worthy noblemen returned to us alive. But we had no chance. They took no prisoners at all.”

Bávlos nodded quietly and looked down at the table. He did not feel much like eating or drinking anymore.

“And then at last,” said the woman, softly weeping again, “the evil Scwaarze Prënz, Edvard black as pitch in his heart, this Black Prënz of Wales returned to the field to inspect the dead. And he came upon the tragic heap of our beloved grof and his worthy men. And the Black Prënz cried out; 'Here lies the Fürst vun der Ritterlechkeet! Here lies the lord of chevalerie! But he will not die!' And he took up our grof’s shield and adopted it as his own. And folk say that he has brought it back to England with him and declares that he will use it forever more in honor of Grof Jang!”

“This is an honorable thing, yes?” said Bávlos. He felt at last he was beginning to understand the ways of chevalerie.

“May he never have joy from it!” said the woman. “May he never live to take the throne of any land! I curse him thus!” she said.

“I see,” said Bávlos.

“You have a new grof by now, though?” said Jacques, trying to turn the subject to something a little more optimistic.

“Yes,” said the woman, straightening her apron. “Jang’s son Karl was crowned grof of Lëtzebuerg and kinnek of Béime just last month. He is a fine ruler as well, although he fled the field of Crécy.”

“All who had eyes to see did likewise,” said Jacques quietly. Bávlos thought of the poor grof and his men swinging blindly in the fray, as his own son and all who understood the situation turned and fled. He thought how sad it was that a man would wish to die in this way rather than enjoy a quiet life in his fine castle with pleasant folk like this landlady to dote over him and make him food.

The friends stayed at the inn that night, because it was raining hard and Jacques had no desire to camp in such weather. As they were climbing into the bed they were to share with one other lodger, Bávlos said to his friend: “You know, these words ritter and chevalerie, they sound like words in my language as well.”

“Do they?” asked Jacques, “what do they mean in your tongue?”

“Well, strangely enough,” said Bávlos, “their meanings seem apt. Riidu is what we call it when folk argue and fight about something for a long time. And I think these ritter are folk that do just that, especially if they are told to do so by their kings.”

“Yes,” said Jacques pensively, “I guess you are right about that. It is their duty, after all. But what does chevalerie mean to you?”

“Well,” said Bávlos, “when something is shiervi, it means that it has grown weak and delicate, too delicate perhaps, to be of any use.”

“And you feel that chevalerie is that?” said Jacques.

“Well,” said Bávlos hesitating, “I don’t mean to sound cruel or crude, but it does sound like fighting is governed by many rules in this land. And perhaps the many rules, while keeping things polite and pleasant in some ways, make chevaliers more eager to fight each other than try to get along.”

“I suppose you are right,” said Jacques with a sigh. “Anyway, the true days of chevalerie are now gone forever. After Crécy, there can be no turning back. Now we can only hope for shadows of the past.”

“Have you seen many yet?” asked Bávlos.

“Not many,” said Jacques thoughtfully. “The world is less beautiful than in the songs that I sing. But once in a while I see a really fine man or lady who listens politely to my singing and places not a small coin but a really large and generous sum in my hat and nods with only the smallest tilt of the head. And I bow as low as I can and I think to myself.,‘There for all I know goes the great great grandson of Charlemagne himself, or of a great lady, or even of Ogier.’ And I feel that a little bit of the chevalerie of old lives on.”

The man who was sharing their bed burbed loudly and grunted. “Oy!” he said. “I’ve got to be up at daybreak to take a wagon to Metz. Can we please stop the chatter for the night?”

“We are sorry, monseigneur the teamster,” said Jacques contritely. They settled down to somber and disquieted sleep.