Sunday, 15 May 2011
Abbe Otho's Revenge
In the Musee Cluny at Paris there is a well in the courtyard. As you may see from the picture, at the side there is a figure of a man who seems to be jammed up against the side of the elegant side of the well. He is screaming in some unknown agony like one damned to the infernal dominions. His history is largely unknown, we do not know who his parents were or where he came from. All we know is written in a medieval manuscript that was recently translated by Dr Amelie Courageux of the Sorbonne.
Knowing Dr Courageux as I do, I wonder what she thought of it, but she was less interested in the story of this man than the details that she considered vital to the study of medieval French history. She pushed her elegant glasses up her nose and considered me as if I were to be studied.
"Oh you and your stories of the fantastic," she said with a trace of amusement, "They are just allegories and parables as Lemieux explains in his paper on the story in French medieval history. They are not relevant to anything other than that."
"My dear Amelie, stories are much more than that. They have power. They can move us, amuse, reflect our own problems and tell us even something about ourselves," I answered passionately, for it's true that I love stories.
She smiled indulgently and shook her head but allowed me that much, knowing me as she did. Ah, but you are not interested in such academic debates. So, let me tell you how it is translated.
Many years ago when Otho of Drax was abbe of the monastery at Cluny, water was hard to get during one summer. Now Otho needed water for the gardens, for those gardens kept the monks fed and helped the poor of Paris. But the only available water came from the Chateau above the Sorbonne and the Duc De Sauvage was not in a hurry to allow the water of his lands to be given away so easily.
The Dean of the Sorbonne went to him and asked him if water might not be given to the Sorbonne for their gardens, but he was thrown out of the Chateau. He mentioned this to Abbe Otho and the abbe was greatly concerned. He would have sent to the king, but the King was at Limoges. Instead, he went first to the Duc Le Meredoc, the Ducs of Caradoc and Mascagne and the Countess De Rascagnat. All of them tried their best to negotiate with the Duc De Sauvage, but he merely insisted that those who wanted water must pay.
The Ducs and the Countesses returned to Abbe Otho and told him of the Duc's obduracy and hoped that he would pay for it in the afterlife. However Abbe Otho was not willing to wait so long, after all, there were the poor to be fed and without a garden full of good vegetables and fruit, without water to make ale everyone would go hungry. He prayed all night and struggled to find answers to the problem, but to no avail.
Now it happened that the next day an old woman arrived at the Cluny and asked if she might have lunch with the abbe. The monks were indignant, for the abbe was an important man. The Abbe, seeing the woman from the window of his office leaned out and asked the woman to wait, for he would be happy to have lunch with her. He went down to the courtyard and she smelled terrible. It was as if she had fallen in a thousand stagnant swamps. Abbe Otho twitched his nose but bowed to her. She smiled and said that she wished to share his wine with him. Abbe Otho invited her in and took her to his private dining chambers where she shared bread, roast fowl and wine with him. Throughout the meal, Otho spoke to her courteously and kindly, though her manners were terrible. She crammed food into her mouth, spoke with her mouth full and burped when she was full. She scratched herself too and cackled when she spoke. She was truly a horrendous guest. Yet Abbe Otho treated her as if she were the Queen of France herself.
"I hear that that you are suffering from a lack of water Monsignor," the old woman said as their dishes were cleared away.
The Abbe told her with a sigh about the problem and said that he hoped the Duc De Sauvage would see reason.
"Oh he will never see reason, for he is a stubborn man with no care for anything but money," the old woman cackled.
Then Abbe Otho lowered his head for he thought of the poor who came to the monastery gates and his monks who would be also without food. He shook his head and raised his head to the woman who grinned a toothless smile.
"One day he came to the Lac des Fees and took water in barrels from the lake for his fountains. For his fountains Monsignor! Somebody from the wood went to him to demand our water be returned and he laughed at our messenger and said that when Abbe Otho himself begged for water we should get our water back. Monsignor, pride is a hard thing to ignore, but I am asking you to beg him to return our water to us," the old woman said.
Abbe Otho smiled and said to the old woman,
"Mistress, I asked Ducs and Countesses to negotiate for me and he would not give us water, why should he do so when I ask him myself?"
"Because Monsignor, you did not go yourself, you sent others. Many in Paris respect you and he does not. You help the poor when he does not. You continue to believe unlike him that people are more important than money. So he hates you for you show him to be the greedy man that he is," she replied.
Otho spread his hands and said that if begging would gain the woman her water, he would be happy to do so.
"In doing so, your own water will be returned to you Monsignor, this I promise you," the old woman answered.
Otho smiled at this and said that so long as the poor could be fed as well as the monks he would go hungry. He would go that day.
"If you will go now, I will go with you Monsignor," the old woman said.
It struck Otho now that there was something wild and strange about her, but he was too polite to say anything about it. Instead he helped the old woman up and gave her his arm. She took it and they went down to the courtyard. Slowly they went up the hill to the Chateau where the woman was told to wait outside. The Abbe was furious, but the woman merely cackled and said she would wait. Abbe Otho was shown with derision to the Duc De Sauvage himself. He sat at his own dining table and barely looked up when the Abbe was shown to him.
"My lord, I am told that you promised someone from the Bois de fees that if I begged for water you would return their water to them," Otho said restraining the anger within him.
"So I did," the Duc answered, "But I will have no water for my fountains if I did so. Therefore I am afraid they will get nothing."
"My lord Duc, you have so much will you not give some to save Paris?" Otho asked him.
The Duc shrugged his shoulders carelessly,
"If anyone will pay they may have water," he said negligently.
Abbe Otho struggled with his own pride, but reflecting that pride is a sin, he went down on his knees and begged the Duc to return the water to the Lac des Fees. The Duc laughed and threw a chicken bone at the Abbe.
"Here dog, eat well, then scurry home. The water for Cluny and for the Lac des Fees will cost you a million livres," he said snarling.
Then he told the Abbe to get out. Otho was furious and told the Duc that he would be avenged. Then he left, his demeanour so furious that the Duc's men bowed their heads. Outside the old woman had gone and Otho returned to the Cluny deeply unhappy for he did not see what more he could do. There were many poor people in the courtyard and all of them starving. Otho ordered that all the food from the stores be halved. One half to be given to the poor. If there were not enough, the rest was to be handed out to them. The Countess De Rascagnat hearing of this sent word to the all the Ducs and Duchesses in Paris. Food and wine was sent to the Cluny to feed the poor and the monks. The honourable behaviour of the Abbe Otho was well-remarked upon and his fame spread among all the people of Paris.
That night many people slept well. But the following day the news spread that the Duc de Sauvage had disappeared. He could not be found anywhere and it is fair to say that nobody missed him greatly. Many rumours abounded; that the Devil himself had come for him, that he had been so overcome with shame that he had gone abroad, that he had been poisoned by the water in his own wells.
But when the king returned to Paris he passed through the Bois des Fees and a beautiful woman with red hair and green eyes dressed in a long red dress with green trim the colour of standing lakes bid him bear a gift to the Abbe of the Cluny in Paris and to say that Abbe Otho had many good friends in the woods. The king was much puzzled by these words, but agreed to do what he may for the young woman.
Then six fine horses bearing a fine carriage were presented to the King and these were led to the Cluny in Paris. The King returned to Paris and had the carriage with the horses taken to Abbe Otho. He went himself, curious to know what was in the carriage. To the surprise of both the King and Abbe the carriage was placed over a certain part of the courtyard. The carriage disappeared and the horses turned into crows that flew lazily away over Paris. What was left was the well-head of carved stone with a figure struggling to flee. A figure that looked remarkably like the Duc de Sauvage. But it could not be him, for he had vanished who knows were.
Later the ironwork pulley was put over the top of it and to the surprise of the monks and the Abbe, water was regularly drawn from the well that had appeared there. The old woman however was never seen again. Perhaps she had gone away with the Duc, who knows?