I gave a talk at Uppermill library in Saddleworth last week and one of my audience - Laura- said she particularly enjoyed my Medieval Monday posts. I admit to being a bit lax with these sometimes as I don't always have the time, but spurred on by her comment - thanks Laura :-) ! I have set out to post one today.
It's from volume 1 of the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal - the story of the great William Marshal's life - and it's a particular incident that happened to him while he was travelling and on his way back to Montmirail, to the Household of his liege lord The Young King. The dateline is circa 1182/3. It's not an incident I have put in The Greatest Knight, but you might find it in some of his biographies.
It tells us so much about the life and attitudes of the time. My comments are in bold.
'On the Wednesday, as the Marshal was on his way there, it so happened that he felt a desire to sleep; he could not resist and gave way to it. Eustace de Bertrimont stayed with him, nobody else. So the Marshal, well on his way to being asleep, dismounted by the side of the road and lay down on the spot to sleep, (so kipping by the roadside if one had the need was an acceptable norm for knights one assumes) and his squire Eustace took off the
horses' bridles and let them graze over the open countryside. As the Marshal was sleeping, there suddenly appeared a tall, handsome man and a beautiful woman, whether married or not I do not know. They were riding big, fine palfreys, sleek, well-fed and ambling nicely along; the steps they took were big ones and they had bulky baggage, for they each had on a cape of heavy material made in Flanders, and very fine they were. (so this tells us their outdoor cloaks were from cloth woven in Flanders and that it was excellent stuff. I am stating the obvious here, but for someone researching the period this is a useful little nugget of detail. Also some interesting descriptions of the riding horses). When they arrived on the spot where the Marshal was lying asleep, the woman said in a very low voice: 'Good God, how tired I am!' Eustace overheard this, and the Marshal heard it too, and he woke up and asked: 'Eustace, what is that I heard?'
He replied: 'My Lord, the long and the short of it is that I saw a man and a woman passing here right in front of us. The woman said that she was very tired, but they still went on at a smart pace. Also they had a lot of baggage.'
The Marshal said: 'Put the bridle on my horse because I want to find out in full where they've come from and where they're going, who they are and what their business is.'
Immediately he mounted as fast as he could, but in his haste, he forgot about his sword. He spurred on until he caught them up. He took the man by the sleeve of his cape and said:
'My dear sir, now tell me the truth, who are you? I wish to know.' And the man, annoyed by this replied: 'Sir, I am a man.'
'Upon my soul, I can see very well that you are not an animal!'
The man nudged his cape with his elbow, making it slip from the Marshal's grip, and once it was gone from his hand, the man put his hand to his sword.
At this the Marshal said, 'Are you looking for a fight? If you are, you'll get one, and you'll very soon know about it.' He said to Eustace, without any doubt: 'Here, hand me my sword, here, hand it to me!' The man took fright and drew back, and as he did, his cape slipped down and covered the sword which he had uncovered so as to draw it.
The Marshal dug in his spurs and seized the man by his hood; he tugged so violently that he got one of his fingers stuck in his coif and ripped it.
At this point there is nothing more to be said, except that he was the most handsome monk to be found between there and Cologne; once his head was uncovered, there was no hiding the fact. So the Marshal then said: 'Haha! just the chap I was looking for! Who are you, tell me, and who is this woman here?'
The man was frightened and ashamed, upset and troubled, and he said: 'My lord have pity on me in the name of God! Here we are at your mercy. As you can see for yourself I am a monk.'
'Now tell me what you're about; tell me, don't hide it from me.'
'My lord, this woman is my lady friend; I have taken her away from her own land, and we are going to a foreign one.'
Then in turn the Marshal said to the young woman, 'Tell me, fair lady, who are you and what is your family?'
She was very ashamed and, crying on account of the great trouble she was in, she replied: 'My lord, I am from Flanders and the sister of Sir Ralph de Lens.'
'My fair lady, you are not behaving sensibly, I can see that,' said the Marshal. 'I advise you in good faith to desist from this folly and I shall reconcile you with your brother, without a doubt, for I know him very well.'
The lady, not keen to be an object of shame, replied: 'My lord, if it please God, never more shall I be seen in a land where I am known.'
The Marshal said to the monk: 'Tell me, so God Save you; since such is the course you intend to take, have you got coins or other money to provide for and support yourselves?
The man lifted up the hem of his cape and unclipped a very fat purse. 'Of course,' he said 'my dear lord, just see all the money we have here. We've got 48 pounds.' (wow, that must have been some purse when you think of the coinage back then!).
And the Marshal asked him: 'What will you do with them my friend? How have you planned to live on this money of yours?'
'I'll be very happy to tell you that. I would not exchange them, but in some town where we are not known we shall advance them to others to make a profit and live on the interest.'
The Marshal replied 'What! usury! God's Lance, I don't much care for this. So it please God, this will never be! Eustace, take that money! Since you are unwilling to go back where you came from, since you have no mind to lead an honourable life and have been led astray by your wicked hearts, go now and may devils give you speed!'
The Marshal came to the lodgings and he ordered Eustace to make sure he did not disclose any of this business to any man. There is not much else to tell: the Marshal came to the lodgings and found Sir Baldwin who was more to him than a neighbour, and Hugh de Hamelincourt. They both hurried up to meet him, gave him a joyful welcome and cried out together: 'Marshal, your delay en route today has kept us fasting a very long time.'
'My lords,' he replied, 'never mind about that! I have won something of greater use to us, in which gladly I grant you a share. Eustace, over here with that money!'
Eustace was more than happy to oblige and threw it down on the ground in front of them. Being the wise man he was, the Marshal said: 'Take it to pay what we owe.'
They then asked: 'Marshal, where does this money come from?'
He answered: 'Be patient for a while, I shall not let you know just yet.'
Joyfully they ate and drank and, once they had left the table, all the coins were counted, for they thought that the man who had lent them him had miscounted. When the tally had been made, they found 48 pounds in good money; it was all there. The Marshal then said: 'Now I know that the lender was telling me the truth.' So he then began to tell the tale from beginning to end, the whole truth of it, as you have already heard me tell it.
When Sir Hugh heard it, I can tell you he was not best pleased. 'God's teeth, you were more than kind to them for even letting go their palfreys and baggage. Here, bring me my horse. By my faith, I want a word with them.'
The Marshal said: 'My dear lord, in God's name curb this anger of yours. You will hear no more of them from me, and you shall have no more of theirs.'
The moral of this story being that a monk who seeks to run off with someone's sister and live off usury is fair game to have his wherewithal to make a living taken. We might think the Marshal's actions harsh and opportunistic (accosting a stranger on the road, taking his money and dividing the dosh between his cronies!) but his colleagues thought he had not gone far enough and were ready to head out, find the couple and seize their horses and belongings too, although the Marshal prevented them. It's an interesting tale and shows that within the realms of chivalry, there were areas of tarnish on the armour to our modern way of thinking. To theirs, not so.