Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Templar and the True Cross III

Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier departed the tournament grounds hurriedly, denying all invitations to joust another round, or meet and be congratulated by admirers. He changed out of his armour, arranged for the care of his horse and entered the fair-grounds which lay adjacent to the tournament field. There were trees of oak, maple, and elm that lined the grounds. Their leaves had started to turn colour, but to de Montpellier, they did not seem as bright as he remembered from his youth. There was a dull hue hanging over the countryside that seemed to reflect the times.
    This would be the final trade fair of the year and would last several days. Merchants travelled from England, Spain, Provence, Flanders and Italy, and gathered north of the city to hawk their wares– French wine, Italian glass, and cloth and wool from Flanders. Jean-Marc saw splendid coloured fabrics from Ypres and Bruges that were known for their softness and perfect yarns. There were merchants with spices and silk that had come all the way from China, while others sold furs brought from as far as Russia and Germany.
            Entertainers, money changers, and other hangers-on added to the activity of fair days, while local merchants, moneylenders, and buyers found fairs convenient places to do business. Adding to the fair’s carnival atmosphere were a variety of entertainers such as stilt-walkers, jugglers, acrobats, and wandering musicians and minstrels.
    De Montpellier did not like the entertainers. As a Templar, he had no use for these types, and believed they served no useful purpose. They were too frivolous, too nonsensical. He believed the purpose of life was to serve God, and he could not see how these people served God in any way.
    Several stalls on the grounds offered produce from the local areas, but few offered palatable displays. This was the third year of the Great Famine. Since 1311, Western Europe had experienced early winters and cold wet springs which had considerably reduced harvest yields. Almost ten per cent of the population had succumbed to starvation, while more still died of illness brought on by malnourishment. This was the first famine Europeans had ever experienced, and most countries were thrown into a state of panic. In the past three centuries, the population of Europe had more than doubled. Urban areas such as Paris had grown faster than the number of farms needed to supply them with food. The people could only be fed when crops were good, which in these times, was seldom. Some believed it was the coming of the end times, and turned towards God for comfort. Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier did not know if this was indeed the coming of the end times, but he was certain that the famine was God’s own hand teaching the country a lesson for their unrighteousness. Man was straying from the Almighty’s path, and they needed something to help them find their way back.   
    Sir Jean-Marc stopped at a stall that offered food and drink. He purchased a simple flat-cake mixed with nuts and dried berries, which he washed down with very poor wine.
    The Templar knight could not help bringing attention to himself wherever he went. Even here on the fairground his presence garnered curious stares from all, some who thought they recognized the knight, and some who deemed they should. People often gave him a wide berth, and few dared move in too close. There was one on the fairground, however, who spied de Montpellier and studied him from a distance for a time before moving in for a closer scrutiny. He was a brash young man, a minstrel who carried a stringed instrument in his hand.
    The young man strummed his instrument gently as he approached the knight, humming a tune. As he moved closer, the musician broke out into song.
A bold brave knight did ride,
Across the dark countryside.
On a quest for truth and right
To bring to the land a new light
And thereby dispel the night.

    Sir Jean-Marc studied the minstrel closely. The other man was a slim, comely youth perhaps twenty years of age, with curly light hair that hung down to his shoulders. The knight had seen this type before in his travels; itinerant jongleurs who roamed about making a living from singing songs, telling stories and  performing feats of magic or displaying acrobatic skill. If Jean-Marc could appreciate singing, he would have to admit that the man had a sweet voice and carried a tune well. As it was, Jean-Marc attempted to ignore the man, but he could not expect the same from the jongleur.
    “You are new to the province, are you not?” the singer said brazenly to Jean-Marc. “I have been to every fair around Paris for the past six years and I have never seen your like before. My name is Gilbert, master minstrel. I am known from Paris to London, where I have been in the court of Edward II. I studied under Henri de Chevolet. He taught me his entire repertoire before he died last year. Surely you have heard of Chevolet, even if you are not from here. His reputation is well-known. Henri de Chevolet knew the works of Adam de la Halle, the famous trouvère. Surely you have heard of him.”
    Jean-Marc chewed on his dry flat-cake and took a sip of wine. He shook his head to indicate he had not heard of the man Chevolet or of de la Halle.
    “That is a wonder you have not heard of Henri de Chevolet,” the minstrel said. “You must be from some outer province not to have heard of him. Tell me, Sir Knight, from where do you hail? Have you ever been to Paris?”
    Jean-Marc nodded.
    “I have been invited to play in the palace of his Royal Highness King Philip the Fair,” Gilbert said boastfully. “So, tell me, good Sir Knight, what is your name?”
    The Templar hesitated and hoped that this man would go away, but he did not. “My name is Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier,” the Templar said. Jean-Marc knew he should be more tactful; he had in fact been ordered by the king to be discreet, but his father had taught him as a young boy to be proud of his name.
    Gilbert paused in thought. “It would seem that I should know that name,” he said. “It sounds familiar.”  Still thinking, Gilbert strummed his instrument, and after a moment broke out into song.
And he rode far out of sight
This young, brave Templar Knight
While his brothers fed the fire
At the royal command of their sire
de Montpellier bore visions dire.
    “Are you that de Montpellier, Sir Knight?” Gilbert asked thoughtfully. “Some say you fled France to let your brother knights die at the stake. Others say that it was you who betrayed them so you could have the riches of the Templars for yourself.”
    “I care not for what others say,” the Templar responded.
    “But what do you say, Sir Knight?” the minstrel asked. “What is the truth, so I might put it in song?”
    “The Good Lord, the king, and I know the truth. That is enough for me. You need not put it in song.”                                                                               
    Without another word, the Templar rose and walked off. Gilbert followed Sir Jean-Marc’s progress through the fairgrounds, but after a short time decided to ply his trade elsewhere and perhaps make a little money.
    De Montpellier decided to leave the fairgrounds as soon as possible. A grubby-looking youth ran past the knight on his left which caused him to turn in that direction. Before he was aware of another youth on his right, the little thief had cut the purse-strings from his belt and was off at a run. Despite his size, the knight moved with unbelievable swiftness. His long strides caught up with the youth, who attempted to evade capture by darting this way and that. The boy let out a surprised scream when he was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and lifted off his feet.
    “Hand over my property,” Sir Jean-Marc ordered.
    The youth cried out for help which immediately garnered attention. Heads turned, and people began to move in. The knight, oblivious of the spectators, asked for purse but the boy continued to cry out for help. Even when people asked the stranger to explain his actions, the knight paid them no mind and searched the boy with one hand while he held on to him with the other.
    “What is the problem here?” asked an authoritative voice. “What are you doing there?”
    The crowd that had gathered now parted and a stern-looking mounted guard rode up to the scene, demanding an explanation. The knight turned to the guard but would not release the boy. Sir Jean-Marc knew this was an appointed guard whose duty it was to patrol the grounds and knew it was best to cooperate.
    “This boy cut my purse-strings and made off with my property,” the knight said simply.
    “Did he now?” the guard asked with a hint of doubt.
    The boy protested, “This man grabbed me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t go with him. He wanted to take me somewhere. I was scared and ran. He chased me and is going to kill me. Please, don’t let him kill me.”
    “He is lying,” the knight said.
    “You be silent,” said the guard, and when the boy persisted, he said, “You too, be silent. Does he have your purse on his person?” the guard asked de Montpellier.
    “He must have passed it on to his friend,” Jean-Marc said.
    By this time the crowd was making up their mind, and since de Montpellier was a stranger, most sided with the boy, even though most suspected he was a little thief.
   The comments became threatening and for their own safety, the guard instructed them, speaking in a loud clear voice so all could hear, that he was taking Jean-Marc and the boy to the pied-poudre where the matter would be settled.
    The crowd protested, mainly because this was the only decent entertainment they had witnessed all day. The guard moved the boy and knight hastily away to a white and red striped tent that held the pied-poudre, a special temporary court where parties could settle their differences on the fairground. The mounted guard climbed down from his horse and escorted man and boy into the tent. 
    Inside the tent, presiding over the pied-poudre, was a minor official who sat behind a small table. Beside him was a secretary recording all that transpired. Two armed guards stood within the tent to keep order. They entered the tent to see that there was presently a case before the court.
    As one litigant was desperately trying to explain her case, the official rested his head in his hands, his face turn down to the table. The litigant, a local resident, said she had bought a bolt of cloth from a merchant from Flanders, but soon after buying the cloth the woman examined it more closely and saw that it was not of the best quality and was demanding her money back. The Flanders merchant explained that the female customer had been satisfied when she bought it and saw no reason to return her money. Besides, the merchant went on to explain, the women had left the fairgrounds some time ago, and the merchant was not even certain she had returned with the same bolt of cloth he had sold her.
    The two proceeded to argue until the magistrate held up his hands and cried out for them to halt in a loud voice. He sat staring at the two litigants. His eyes betrayed his contempt for them. The magistrate had received his appointment from Pierre Duboise, a personal council to the king, but had hopes of presiding over more important and august cases. He felt his talents were going to waste with these peasants and decided to dispense his own brand of justice that shadowed the wisdom of Solomon, and would teach these two lowly serfs not to waste his precious time.
    The magistrate’s decision was that the merchant was to return half the money to the woman, and the bolt of cloth would be cut in half down the middle— making it fairly useless— and each were given a piece. The litigants walked away dejected, and totally unsatisfied.

    “Next case!” the magistrate called.
     The guard stepped forward, and in as few words as possible, explained the case and indicated the two new litigants. The official regarded the pair and asked the boy to explain himself. Calling forth a few tears, the boy repeated the same story he had related to the guard.
    “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the magistrate asked de Montpellier.
    “Only God’s own truth that I have already stated,” the knight uttered. “And if Your Honour cannot see that, than even the smallest bit of justice has fled the land.”
    The magistrate considered the man before him. At first, the man’s insolence had incensed him, but he then thought better of it. There was something different about the stranger. He wore a sense of honour about him. And there was something familiar about him. The magistrate decided to take an obvious precaution. He ordered the guard to pick up the young lad by the heels and after a few shakes and amid the crying protests of the boy, a few different purses fell to the ground. 
    Jean-Marc de Montpellier bent over, picked up his purse and went on his way.
    The knight wished he had not passed through the fairgrounds. Not only for the inconvenience of having his purse stolen and having to go to the pied-poudre, but mostly because he felt contempt for these displays. The entire affair held no appeal to his simple and ascetic nature. He felt too much energy was put into these types of materialistic endeavours and kept people from contemplating God and His glory. He left the fairground and walked toward the city.

The Templar and the True Cross by Stephen Gaspar is available on Amazon

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