Gold of Byzantium
How Guy of Limoges Taught the Art of Byzantium to Wilfrid of Sussex
Guy Bouverel was again in his own country, where he was called, according to the habit of the day, Guy of Limoges. He had spent nearly ten years working with Eloy, the master artist, in Limoges, and studying the art of enameling on copper, silver and gold. The new name was to him what a degree from some famous university is to the modern scientist. When a man was called Guy of Limoges, William of Sens, or Comelys of Arras, it usually meant that he was a good example of whatever made the place mentioned famous. Guy Bouverel might be anybody. The name was known among the goldsmiths of Guthrum's Lane in London; that was all. But Guy of Limoges meant a reputation for enamel-work.
The matter on which he was meditating, however, as he left Cold Harbor and walked up toward the house of Wilfrid the potter, was clean outside his own craft. The King, being much pleased with certain work done at the Abbey for which Guy was bound, had questioned him about it, and ended by giving him a rather large order. Brother Basil, a wise monk from an Irish monastery, had come to England to gather artists and artisans, and was for the time at this Abbey in the north, directing and aiding some work for the Church. Several of the company that lay the night before at Cold Harbor were going there, and among them they would be able to do what the King required.
The dowry of Princess Joan was to include a table of gold twelve feet long, twenty-four gold cups and as many plates, and some other trifles. A part of this work would be done in Limoges; but the King seemed to think that the rest might be done in England quite as well. He had also ordered stained glass for a chapel, and some reliquaries, or cases for precious relics, and three illuminated missals. The Sicilian court was one of the most splendid in Europe. The King evidently meant his daughter's setting out to be nowise shabby.
A chest of gold was to be delivered by the Chancellor to Guy, and he was to accompany it, with its guard, to its destination. One of the King's accountants would be nominally in charge, but of course if anything should happen to the chest, Guy would be in difficulties. There were ingots, or lumps, of gold, cast in molds for convenience in packing, and to be used in the goldsmith-work; but the greater part of the gold was coined bezants—coins worth about half a sovereign in modern money, and minted in Byzantium. This would pay for materials brought from almost every corner of the known world, and for the work of the skilled metal-worker, enamel-worker, glassmaker, and lumineur who would fill the order. Tomaso the physician had established himself in a half-ruined tower not far from the workshop on the Abbey lands, and would aid them in working out certain problems; and altogether, it was such a prospect as any man of Guy's age and ambition might find agreeable.
"Hola, lad!" called Ranulph the troubadour cheerily. "Have you the world on your shoulders, or only some new undertaking?"
Guy laughed, with a certain sense of relief. He had known Ranulph for some time, and it occurred to him that here he might safely find a listener.
"Do you know a certain clerk named Simon Gastard?" he asked.
"I have not that pleasure," laughed the troubadour. "Ought I to know him?"
"Not if you can help it," said Guy, "if he is the same Gastard whom I heard of in France five years ago. Didst ever hear of sweating gold?"
"It sounds like the tale of King Midas," Ranulph chuckled. "How, exactly, does it happen?"
"It does not happen," Guy answered, "except an itching palm be in the treasury. There was a clerk in Paris who took a cask full of gold pieces and sand, which being rolled about, gold more or less was ground off by the sand without great change in the look of the coin. Then, the coins being taken out in a sieve and the sand mixed with water, the gold dust sank to the bottom and was melted and sold, while the coins were paid on the nail. I had as lief get money by paring a cheese, but that's as you look at it. If I have to travel with this fellow I should like to know that there is nothing unusual about the chest our gold is in. I cannot keep awake all the time, and there is enough in that chest to make a dozen men rich. I knew a rascal once who made a hole in the bottom of a chest, stole most of the coin, and then nailed the chest to the floor to hide its emptiness."
Ranulph laughed sympathetically. "You do see the wrong side of mankind when you have anything to do with treasure."
"Unless you know something of it," returned Guy grimly, "you won't be allowed to handle treasure more than once."
"True," admitted Ranulph. "Why not take turns watching the chest?"
"The others who are bound for the Abbey have gone on. I had to wait for the Chancellor, and then I saw Gastard."
"Ask the potter," said Ranulph at last. "He can be trusted, and he may know of some one who has a chest that will defy your clerk. I suppose you don't expect him to steal it, chest and all?"
"No; I have had dealings with the captain of the guard before. He is Sir Stephen Giffard, a West-country knight, and he will send men who can be trusted. The trouble is, you see, that I am not sure about Gastard. But he could not object to the secure packing of the gold."
By this time they had reached Wilfrid's house, and he was at home. When Guy unfolded his problem the potter looked thoughtful.
"I may have the very thing you want," he said. "Come here."
He led the way into a small room which he used as a study, and dragged into the middle of the floor a carved oaken chest bound with iron. There was just enough carved work on it to add to its look of strength. Two leopards' heads in wrought iron, with rings in their jaws, formed handles on the ends. The corners were shielded with rounded iron plates suggesting oak leaves. The ornamental wrought iron hinges, in an oak and acorn pattern, stretched more than half way across the lid and down the back. Iron bolts passing through staples held the lid, and acorn-headed nails studded it all over. In fact, the iron was so spread over it in one way and another that to break it up one would have needed a small saw to work in and out among the nails, or a stone-crusher. When the lid was thrown back, more iron appeared, a network of small rods bedded into the inner surface of lid, bottom and sides. The staples holding the lock went clean through the front to the inside of the box.
"What a piece of cunning workmanship!" said Guy in admiration. "It is like some of the German work, and yet that never came over seas."
"No," said Wilfrid, "it was done here in the Sussex Weald. I had the idea of it when I came back from France, and young Dickon, whom you saw last night, made the iron-work. He began with the hinges and handles, and then Quentin of Peronne did the wood-work and brought the chest here, and Dickon fitted in these grilles yesterday."
"Will you sell it?" asked Guy. The other hesitated.
"I had meant to keep it to show the Abbey folk," he said. "I had thought it might get Dickon a job at some cathedral."
"We'll use it to pack some gold-work that's to go to the King," averred Guy promptly. "Will that content you?"
"It ought to," smiled Wilfrid, well satisfied, as he took the contents of the coffer out and shut down the lid.
"What's your price?" asked Guy.
Wilfrid hesitated again. It might have been thought that he was wondering how much he could possibly ask. But it was not that.
"I met you in London, Master Bouverel," he said finally, "and I understood you to be a worker in amail."
Amail was the common name for enamel. The corruption may have come from the fancied likeness of the work to the richly ornamented "mail," or from the fact that the enamel covered the gold as mail covers a man's body.
"Amail, gold and silver work, and jewelry," said Guy.
"Is it hard to learn?"
"That depends," returned the goldsmith. "I was brought up to the craft, and I've been at it ten year now in Limoges, but I'm a prentice lad beside the masters."
"Well, it's like this," said the potter slowly. "I saw amail in France and Limoges that fair made me silly. I know a bit of glass-work, and something of my own trade, but this was beyond me. I'll never be aught but a potter, but if you can give me a piece o' that I'll give you the chest and what you like besides to make up the price."
Guy smiled—he had never suspected that Wilfrid felt about the enameling as he himself did. "You shall have it and welcome," he answered. "But why not come to the Abbey and learn to do the work yourself—if you can leave your own workshop? We can do with more men, and there might be things about the glazing and that which would be useful in your pottery."
Wilfrid met the suggestion gladly. He could make arrangements to leave the pottery in the hands of his head man for a while; for all the work they did was common ware which a man could almost make in his sleep. If he could study some of the secrets of glazing and color work with Guy, he might come back with ideas worth the journey.
He did not tell Edwitha anything about the enamel-work. That was to be a surprise.
It was some time before they met again at the Abbey. The gold arrived safely in due season, and Simon Gastard bade it good-by, with very sour looks. It was placed in charge of Brother Basil and Tomaso, and Wilfrid, who had been a Master Potter, took his place as apprentice to a new craft. His experience as a potter helped him, however, for the processes were in some ways rather alike. At last he was ready to make the gift he intended for Edwitha.
Padraig, the young artist and scribe who was making most of their designs, drafted a pattern for the work, but Wilfrid shook his head.
"That is too fine," he said. "Too many flowers and leaves —finikin work. Make it simpler. Every one of those lines means a separate gold thread. It will be all gold network and no flowers."
"As you will," Padraig answered. "It's the man that's to wear the cap that can say does it fit." And he tried again.
Wilfrid himself modified the design in one or two details, for he had made pottery long enough to have ideas of his own. The enamel was to show dewberry blossoms and fruit, white and red, with green leaves, on a blue ground; the band of enamel around the gold cup was to be in little oblong sections divided by strips of ruby red. It was not like anything else they had made. It was as English as a hawthorn hedge.
Very thin and narrow strips of gold were softened in the fire until they could be bent, in and out, in a network corresponding to the outlines of the design. This was fastened to the groundwork with flour paste. Then it was heated until the gold soldered itself on. Powdered glass of the red chosen for the berries was taken up in a tiny spoon made of a quill, and ladled carefully into each minute compartment, and packed firmly down. Then it was put into a copper case with small holes in the top, smooth inside, and rough like a grater outside, to let out the hot air and keep out hot ashes. The case had a long handle, and coals were piled all around it in a wall. When it had been heated long enough to melt the glass it was taken out and set aside to cool. This took some hours. When it was cold the glass had melted and sunk into the compartment as dissolved sugar sinks in a glass. More glass was put in and packed down, and the process repeated. When no more could possibly be heaped on the jewel-like bit of ruby glass inside the tiny gold wall, the white blossoms, green leaves, blue ground, and strips of deeper red, were made in turn. Only one color was handled at a time. If the glass used in the separate layers was not quite the same shade, it gave a certain depth and changefulness of color. Overheating, haste or carelessness would ruin the whole. Only the patient, intent care of a worker who loved every step of the work would make the right Limoges enamel. This was one of the simpler processes which are still known.
The polishing was yet to be done. A goatskin was stretched smooth on a wooden table; the medallion was fixed in a piece of wax for a handle, and polished first on a smooth piece of bone and then on the goatskin. Each medallion was polished in turn until if half the work were wet and half dry the eye could detect no difference.
Alan brought his mother, Dame Cicely, to the glass-house while Wilfrid was still at work on the polishing, and after she had seen the great window they had made for the Abbey church at the King's order, she paused to look at the enamel.
"Tha'lt wear out thy ten finger-bones, lad," said she. "I'm pleased that my cheeses don't have to be rubbed i' that road. They say that women's work's never done, but good wheaten bread now—mix meal and leaven, and salt and water, and the batch'll rise itself."
"There's no place for a hasty man in the work of making amail, mother," drawled her son. "Nor in most other crafts, to my mind."
"My father told me once," quoth Wilfrid, smiling, "that no work is worth the doing for ourselves alone. We were making a wall round the sheepfold, and I, being but a lad, wondered at the tugging and bedding of great stones when half the size would ha' served. He wasn't a stout man neither —it was the spring before he died. He told me it was 'for the honor of the land.' I can see it all now—the silly sheep straying over the sweet spring turf, gray old Pincher guarding them, the old Roman wall that we could not ha' grubbed up if we would, and our wall joining it, to last after we were dead. That bit o' wall's been a monument to me all these years."
"You're not one to scamp work whatever you're at," Guy declared heartily, "but that cup's due to be finished by tomorrow."
When the wreath of blossoms was in place around the shallow golden bowl, the smaller garland around the base, and the stem was encircled with bands of ruby, azure and emerald, it was a chalice fit for the Queen of Fairyland if she were also a Sussex lass. Brother Basil, whose eye was never at fault, pronounced it perfect. It was not like anything else that they had made, but that, he said, was no matter.
"When Abbot Suger of St. Denys made his master-works," Guy observed as he put away his tools for the night, "he did not bring workmen from Byzantium; he taught Frenchmen to do their own work. And an Englishman is as good as a Frenchman any day."