Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Louise Lamprey

Basil the Scribe

How an Irish Monk in an English Abbey Came to Stand before Kings

B ROTHER BASIL, of the scriptorium, was doing two things at once with the same brain. He did not know whether any of the other monks ever indulged in this or not. None of them showed any signs of it.

The Abbot was clearly intent, soul, brain and body, on the ruling of the community. In such a house as this dozens of widely varied industries must be carried on, much time spent in prayer, song and meditation, and strict attention given to keeping in every detail the traditional Benedictine rule. In many mediæval Abbeys not all these things were done. Rumor hinted that one Order was too fond of ease, and another of increasing its estates. In the Irish Abbey where Brother Basil had received his first education, little thought was given to anything but religion; the fare was of the rudest and simplest kind. But in this English Abbey everything in the way of clothing, tools, furniture, meat and drink which could be produced on the lands was produced there. Guests of high rank were often entertained. The church, not yet complete, was planned on a magnificent scale. The work of the making of books had grown into something like a large publishing business. As the parchments for the writing, the leather for the covers, the goose-quill pens, the metal clasps, the ink, and the colors for illuminated lettering, were all made on the premises, a great deal of skilled labor was involved. Besides the revenues from the sale of manuscript volumes the Abbey sold increasing quantities of wool each year. Under some Abbots this material wealth might have led to luxury. But Benedict of Winchester held that a man who took the vows of religion should keep them.

With this Brother Basil entirely agreed. He desired above all to give his life to the service of God and the glory of his Order. He was a skillful, accurate and rapid penman. Manuscripts copied by him, or under his direction, had no mistakes or slovenly carelessness about them. The pens which he cut were works of art. The ink was from a rule for which he had made many experiments. Every book was carefully and strongly bound. Brother Basil, in short, was an artist, and though the work might be mechanical, he could not endure not to have it beautifully done.

The Abbot was quite aware of this, and made use of the young monk's talent for perfection by putting him in charge of the scriptorium. In the twelfth century the monks were almost the only persons who had leisure for bookmaking. They wrote and translated many histories; they copied the books which made up their own libraries, borrowed books wherever they could and copied those, over and over again. They sold their work to kings, noblemen, and scholars, and to other religious houses. The need for books was so great that in the scriptorium of which Brother Basil had charge, very little time was spent on illumination. Missals, chronicles and books of hymns fancifully decorated in color were done only when there was a demand for them. They were costly in time, labor and material.

Brother Basil could copy a manuscript with his right hand and one half his brain, while the other half dreamed of things far afield. He could not remain blind to the grace of a bird's wing on its flight northward in spring, to the delicate seeking tendrils of grapevines, the starry beauty of daisies or the tracery of arched leafless boughs. Within his mind he could follow the gracious curves of the noble Norman choir, and he had visions of color more lustrous than a sunrise.

Day by day, year by year, the sheep nibbled the tender springing grass. Yet the green sward continued to be decked with orfrey-work of many hues—buttercups, violets, rose-campion, speedwell, daisies—defiant little bright heads not three inches from the roots. His fancies would come up in spite of everything, like the flowers.

But would it always be so? Was he to spend his life in copying these bulky volumes of theology and history—the same old phrases, the same authors, the same seat by the same window? And some day, would he find that his dreams had vanished forever? Might he not grow to be like Brother Peter, who had kept the porter's lodge for forty years and hated to see a new face? This was the doubt in the back of his mind, and it was very sobering indeed.

Years ago, when he was a boy, he had read the old stories of the missionary monks of Scotland and Ireland. These men carried the message of the Cross to savage tribes, they stood before Kings, they wrought wonders. Was there no more need for such work as theirs? Even now there was fierce misrule in Ireland. Even now the dispute between church and state had resulted in the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the steps of the altar. The Abbeys of all England had hummed like bee-hives when that news came.

Brother Basil discovered just then that the ink was failing, and went to see how the new supply was coming on. It was a tedious task to make ink, but when made it lasted. Wood of thorn-trees must be cut in April or May before the leaves or flowers were out, and the bundles of twigs dried for two, three or four weeks. Then they were beaten with wooden mallets upon hard wooden tablets to remove the bark, which was put in a barrel of water and left to stand for eight days. The water was then put in a cauldron and boiled with some of the bark, to boil out what sap remained. When it was boiled down to about a third of the original measure it was put into another kettle and cooked until black and thick, and reduced again to a third of its bulk. Then a little pure wine was added and it was further cooked until a sort of scum showed itself, when the pot was removed from the fire and placed in the sun until the black ink purified itself of the dregs. The pure ink was then poured into bags of parchment carefully sewn and hung in the sunlight until dry, when it could be kept for any length of time till wanted. To write, one moistened the ink with a little wine and vitriol.

As all the colors for illumination must be made by similar tedious processes, it can be seen that unless there was a demand for such work it would not be thrifty to do it.

Brother Basil arrived just in time to caution the lay brother, Simon Gastard, against undue haste. Gastard was a clever fellow, but he needed watching. He was too apt to think that a little slackness here and there was good for profits. Brother Basil stood over him until the ink was quite up to the standard of the Abbey. But his mind meanwhile ran on the petty squabblings and dry records of the chronicle that he had just been copying. How, after all, was he better than Gastard? He was giving the market what it wanted—and the book was not worth reading. If men were to write chronicles, why not make them vivid as legends, true, stirring, magnificent stories of the men who moved the world? Who would care, in a thousand years, what rent was paid by the tenant farmers of the Abbey, or who received a certain benefice from the King?

As he turned from the sunlit court where the ink was a-making, he received a summons to the Abbot's own parlor. He found that dignitary occupied with a stout and consequential monk of perhaps forty-five, who was looking bewildered, snubbed and indignant. Brother Ambrosius was most unaccustomed to admonitions, even of the mildest. He had a wide reputation as a writer, and was indeed the author of the very volume which Brother Basil was now copying. He seemed to know by instinct what would please the buyers of chronicles, and especially what was to be left out.

It was also most unusual to see the Abbot thoroughly aroused. He had a cool, indiferent manner, which made his rebukes more cutting. Now he was in wrathful earnest.

"Ambrosius," he thundered, "there are some of us who will live to see Thomas of Canterbury a Saint of the Church. But that is no reason why we should gabble about it beforehand. You have been thinking yourself a writer, have you? Your place here has been allowed you because you are—as a rule—cautious even to timidity. Silence is always safe, and an indiscreet pen is ruinous. The children of the brain travel far, and they must not discuss their betters."


'Some of us will live to see Thomas of Canterbury a saint of the church.'

"Shall we write then of the doings of hinds and swinkers?" asked the historian, pursing his heavy mouth. "It seems we cannot write of Kings and of Saints."

"You may write anything in reason of Kings and of Saints—when they are dead," the Abbot retorted. "But if you cannot avoid treasonable criticism of your King, I will find another historian. Go now to your penance."

And Brother Ambrosius, not venturing a reply, slunk out.

In the last three minutes Brother Basil had seen far beneath the surface of things. His deep-set blue eyes flamed. The dullness of the chronicle was not always the dullness of the author, it seemed. The King showed at best none too much respect for the Church, and his courtiers had dared the murder of Becket. Surely the Abbot was right.

"Basil," his superior observed grimly, "in a world full of fools it would be strange if some were not found here. It is the business of the Church to make all men alike useful to God. Because the murder of an Archbishop has set all Christendom a-buzz, we must be the more zealous to give no just cause of offence. I do not believe that Henry is guilty of that murder, but if he were, he would not shrink from other crimes. In the one case we have no reason to condemn him; in the other, we must be silent or court our own destruction. There are other ways of keeping alive the memory of Thomas of Canterbury besides foolish accusations in black and white. There may be pictures, which the people will see, ballads which they will hear and repeat—the very towers of the Cathedral will be his monument.

"I have sent for you now because there is work for you to do elsewhere. The road from Paris to Byzantium may soon be blocked. The Emperor of Germany is at open war with the Pope. Turks are attacking pilgrims in the Holy Land. Soon it may be impossible, even for a monk, to make the journey safely. The time to go is now."

"You will set forth within a fortnight, and go to Rouen, Paris and Limoges; thence to Rome, Byzantium and Alexandria. I will give you memoranda of certain manuscripts which you are to secure if possible, either by purchase or by securing permission to make copies. Get as many more as you can. The King is coming here to-night in company with the Archbishop of York, the Chancellor, a Prince of Ireland, and others. He may buy or order some works on the ancient law. He desires also to found an Abbey in Ireland, to be a cell of this house. I have selected Cuthbert of Oxenford to take charge of the work, and he will set out immediately with twelve brethren to make the foundation. When you return from your journey it will doubtless be well under way. You will begin there the training of scribes, artists, metal workers and other craftsmen. It is true that you know little of any work except that of the scriptorium, but one can learn to know men there as well as anywhere. You will observe what is done in France, Lombardy and Byzantium. The men to whom you will have letters will make you acquainted with young craftsmen who may be induced to go to Ireland to work, and teach their work to others. Little can be done toward establishing a school until Ireland is more quiet, but in this the King believes that we shall be of some assistance. I desire you to be present at our conference, to make notes as you are directed, and to say nothing, for the present, of these matters. Ambrosius may think that you are to have his place, and that will be very well."

The Abbot concluded with a rather ominous little smile. Brother Basil went back to the scriptorium, his head in a whirl. Within a twelvemonth he would see the mosaics of Saint Mark's in Venice, the glorious windows of the French cathedrals, the dome of Saint Sophia, the wonders of the Holy Land. He was no longer part of a machine. Indeed, he must always have been more than that, or the Abbot would not have chosen him for this work. He felt very humble and very happy.

He knew that he must study architecture above anything else, for the building done by the monks was for centuries to come. Each brother of the Order gathered wisdom for all. When a monk of distinguised ability learned how to strengthen an arch here or carve a doorway there, his work was seen and studied by others from a hundred towns and cities. Living day by day with their work, the builders detected weaknesses and proved step by step all that they did. Cuthbert of Oxenford was a sure and careful mason, but that was all. The beauty of the building would have to be created by another man. Glass-work, goldsmith work, mosaics, vestments and books might be brought from abroad, but the stone-work must be done with materials near at hand and such labor as could be had. Brother Basil received letters not only to Abbots and Bishops, but to Gerard the wood-carver of Amiens, Matteo the Florentine artist, Tomaso the physician of Padua, Angelo the glass-maker. He set all in order in the scriptorium where he had toiled for five long years. Then, having been diligent in business, he went to stand before the King.

Many churchmen pictured this Plantagenet with horns and a cloven foot, and muttered references to the old fairy tale about a certain ancestor of the family who married a witch. But Brother Basil was familiar with the records of history. He knew the fierce Norman blood of the race, and knew also the long struggle between Matilda, this King's mother, and Stephen. Here, in the plainly furnished room of the Abbot, was a hawk-nosed man with gray eyes and a stout restless figure, broad coarse hands, and slightly bowed legs, as if he spent most of his days in the saddle. The others, churchmen and courtiers, looked far more like royalty. Yet Henry's realm took in all England, a part of Ireland, and a half of what is now France. He was the only real rival to the German Emperor who had defied and driven into exile the Pope of Rome. If Henry were of like mind with Frederick Barbarossa it would be a sorry day indeed for the Church. If he were disposed to contend with Barbarossa for the supreme power over Europe, the land would be worn out with wars. What would he do? Brother Basil watched the debating group and tried to make up his mind.

He wrote now and then a paragraph at the Abbot's command. It seemed that the King claimed certain taxes and service from the churchmen who held estates under him, precisely as from the feudal nobles. The Abbots and Bishops, while claiming protection of English law for their property, claimed also that they owed no obedience to the King, but only to their spiritual master. Argument after argument was advanced by their trained minds.

But it was not for amusement that Henry II., after a day with some hunting Abbot, falcon on fist, read busily in books of law. Brother Basil began to see that the King was defining, little by little, a code of England based on the old Roman law and customs handed down from the primitive British village. Would he at last obey the Church, or not?

Suddenly the monarch halted in his pacing of the room, turned and faced the group. The lightning of his eye flashed from one to another, and all drew back a little except the Abbot, who listened with the little grim smile that the monks knew.

"I tell ye," said Henry, bringing his hard fist down upon the oaken table, "Pope or no Pope, Emperor or no Emperor, I will be King of England, and this land shall be fief to no King upon earth. I will have neither two masters to my dogs, nor two laws to my realm. Hear ye that, my lords and councilors?"