The abbot let out a long, laboured breath and regarded Thomas impatiently. He said, “If you must study, Brother Thomas, remember First Thessalonians: Study to be quiet.” He waited for Thomas to respond, but the German monk used good sense and remained silent. “Perhaps you are not clear on your vocation,” the abbot said. “Perhaps you have not thought through what this manner of life entails. Perhaps the Benedictine order is not the one for you.”
Thomas nodded his head slowly. “Abbot, I will leave your monastery if you so desire. I would never stay anywhere I am not wanted or welcomed.”
The abbot did not respond immediately. The two men stood silently in the room, each trying to determine the true character of the other. They were both strong men in their own right, and neither sought a battle of wills.
“I am not asking you to leave the monastery, Brother Thomas,” the abbot began. “That is a decision you must come to on your own. I am telling you this as a means to help you find your way, to aid you in your spiritual pursuits.”
“For that, my lord Abbot, I am humbly grateful.”
“And to aid you further in this worthwhile endeavour, I am commissioning you, purely as an act of devotion and penance of labour, to copy out a New Testament book.”
Brother Thomas stared mutely at the abbot. After a moment, he found his voice.
“Are you certain this is the right devotion for me?” Thomas spoke. “My abilities as a scribe are not the finest.”
“All the more reason to practice.”
”Brother Thomas, it is done,” the abbot said with finality, and their eyes met briefly.
Thomas knew that tone and that look. He decided not to pursue the matter. The German monk bowed briefly, then turned to leave the abbot’s quarters, but stopped at the door and asked, “What book would you wish me to copy?”
The abbot paused for a moment with his eyes turned up towards the ceiling as if waiting for divine inspiration. “I believe the Revelation to John would benefit you considerably. Brother Gedeon will supply you with parchment.”
Thomas of Worms bowed to the abbot again and left the chamber. He walked down the corridor with decisiveness and purpose. He had not foreseen this latest outcome, and there was little he could do but follow the abbot’s direction. He had, on rare occasions, gone against the abbot’s will, but never without a very good reason and never in a way that it would be obvious. He would have to carry out the duties of a scribe.
Brother Thomas went in search of Brother Gedeon who was the monastery’s percamenarius—its parchment maker. Brother Gedeon was a very ordinary, nondescript man of middle age and medium height, with a very forgettable face. His only distinction was that he smelled bad. It was not an odour that could easily be identified. It was not quite like rotting flesh, not quite mould-covered vegetables, but it was a thick stench, a sickening putridity that once experienced could never be forgotten. It was a smell that was exclusive, thank God, to Brother Gedeon.
Since parchment was made from animal skin, Brother Gedeon followed the process from start to finish, beginning with raising the animals himself. Though parchment could be made from virtually any skin, the monastery kept pens of goat and sheep for just such purpose. Though Gedeon had learned long ago that the finest parchment was made from calfskin, the monastery was, alas, a poor one and could not afford cattle.
To make parchment Brother Gedeon carefully washed the flayed skin of the sheep or goat and then let it soak in a vat of clean water for a day and a night. It was then placed in another vat containing a solution of lime and water for eight to sixteen days, depending on the weather. Several times a day the vat was stirred with a large wooden paddle to help loosen the hair on the hide. The skins were then removed from the vat and laid over a log where Gedeon would scrape off the hair using a blunt, curved blade. Opposite the grain side, any remaining flesh was removed. The skin was then soaked in fresh water for two more days. Brother Gedeon would then take the skin and stretch it on a wooden frame and while the skin was still wet, he would carefully scrape both sides of the skin with a curved blade. The skin was then allowed to dry in the sun. By then, the skin was tight and was again scraped to a desired thinness. Finally, the parchment could be removed and rolled up until needed. This long, smelly process lent Brother Gedeon his very distinct odour.
Thomas knew he would find Brother Gedeon behind the monastery among the animal pens. It was well known by most of the brothers that Gedeon was usually the first to wake and liked to inspect the pens early in the morning. Aside from sheep and goats, the monastery also raised geese, pigs, and chickens. To Brother Thomas it appeared that Brother Gedeon was more at ease with his animals than he was with people.
“Good day, Brother Gedeon,” Thomas greeted him, careful to stay upwind of the percamenarius.
Gedeon glanced in the other monk’s direction and grunted a greeting.
“All the animals are looking well today,” Thomas commented.
Gedeon again grunted in reply. It occurred to Thomas that perhaps Brother Gedeon spent a trifle too much time with his animals.
“You certainly do excellent work raising these beasts. It shows in the parchment you produce.”
Brother Gedeon grunted again and said, “You obviously want something, Brother Thomas. Best tell me what it is now, and forgo all the pleasantries.”
“I require parchment, Brother.”
Gedeon grunted a burst of surprise. “I did not know you listed scribe among your many talents.”
“Neither did I, but the abbot has commissioned me to copy a book.”
“So it is not for anyone in particular?”
Thomas shrugged his uncertainty. “It is for the abbot. It will most likely be put away in the library, and perhaps one day find its way to some poor church or wayward monastery.”
“Would you be willing to use palimpsests?”
Brother Thomas winced. He did not relish the idea of rubbing down parchment that had already been written upon to use over again.
“I would prefer new parchment, Brother Percamenarius.”
Just then the bell tolled for sext, the noontime prayer.
“Whatever you prefer, Brother Thomas,” Gedeon said, “will have to wait.”
After sext the monks gathered in the refectory for dinner, the main meal of the day. The meal, eaten in silence, usually consisted of soup, bread, fruit with cheese or eggs, along with Brother Thomas’s fresh vegetables. Meat or fish during a meal was rare, and would only be served on special occasions, but never on a fast day. Today was a day of fast.
After lunch, Thomas met Gedeon in the scriptorium, a room on the second floor and next to the library. Inside, away from the fresh air, the percamenarius’s odour was even more offensive.
The scriptorium was smaller than the library, with several slanted tables the monks used for copying out sacred texts and other works pertaining to the Faith. The tables were set up in individual cloisters so the scribes might have some privacy to concentrate on their work. No candles were allowed in the scriptorium for fear of fire, so all work was done during the daytime when sunlight shone in through high windows. Only one other monk was in the scriptorium when Thomas and Gedeon entered, Brother Bartholomew, the master scribe and armarius. He sat hunched over his table, his once sharp, penetrating eyes squinting at the words he endeavoured to copy. Thomas had observed Brother Bartholomew’s scripting, which was, of course, letter perfect and very neat. This surprised Thomas of Worms since the master scribe’s hands shook considerably. Thomas wondered how the armarius could maintain such fine and detailed work, and concluded that the ways of God were awesome and wondrous. Though Thomas and Gedeon spoke little, and very softly when they did, Brother Bartholomew would occasionally stop his work to glare intolerantly at them for their distracting behaviour.
Gedeon led Thomas to the back of the room where rolled up pieces of parchment lay neatly tucked away in numerous wooden cubical compartments. They began to select parchments, not the very best parchments, or even fine pieces, for Brother Gedeon could not see wasting his best and finest on Brother Thomas and some minor work. With a sufficient bundle gathered, Thomas brought his parchments to a table in the scriptorium and, with a knife called a lunellum, he began to trim his parchments to be the exact same size. He then folded each parchment in half, which would make up four pages. Since parchment was actually the skin of an animal, one side was the inner skin, and the other was the hide where the fur had been. Brother Thomas layered his parchment so that a skin side would touch a skin side of the next sheet, and the hair side of adjacent sheets would face each other. This method allowed facing pages to be similar, to give a more uniform appearance.
To prepare the pages prior to writing on them, Brother Thomas rubbed the sheets with pumice and smoothed it with chalk, to remove any oil and thus keep the ink from running.
“You are going to use ruled lines, are you not?” The question came from behind him, and though it was a mere whisper, Brother Thomas started, for the prolonged bout of silence had given him the impression that he was alone. He turned to see Brother Bartholomew. The armarius had trod noiselessly to Thomas’s work station to observe his progress. Years of copying had given Brother Bartholomew a permanent squint. Even when he stood, his back and shoulders retained the exact stoop he had developed from years of sitting hunched over his table copying texts. His hair and beard were grey and bushy. Even his eyebrows were bushy. His old, wrinkled fingers were stained black with layers of ink from years of copying. Thomas had frequently heard the rumour about the monastery that whenever the armarius received a cut, he bled black, inasmuch as more ink ran through his veins than blood.
“I was not considering using lines,” Thomas admitted.
“In this scriptorium only ruled manuscripts are produced,” Brother Bartholomew stated with pride and finality. “Ruled pages are preferred. It will make your work neater and more uniform.” Thomas nodded in agreement, and the master scribe asked, “What are you working on? I have not assigned you any work. What is it you are doing here?”
“The abbot has given me an assignment,” Thomas responded.
At hearing this, Brother Bartholomew’s face stiffened with suppressed rage. Thomas knew that the chief scribe coveted his position and believed that he should decide all the copying assignments. Though it was at the discretion of the abbot to assign work to scribes, Bartholomew resented it, as he felt it was an infringement upon his role as armarius.
To match the ruled lines from sheet to sheet, Brother Thomas had to perforate several sheets at once with a sharp instrument, and then score lines upon the pages using a dull knife, being careful not to cut through the parchment. Thomas had just finished this when the bell sounded for none, the mid-afternoon prayer.
After none, Thomas approached Brother Domitian, the chancellor. He was the keeper of the monastery’s books, its most valuable treasures, and Brother Domitian guarded them jealously. His job was to catalogue the books as well as keep a close eye on any that were being used. Like many of the monks who held a prominent position in the monastery, Brother Domitian was elderly as well as crotchety, and he resented any distraction that disturbed his daily routine. His face and hands were wrinkled, and his skin was deathly pale from spending the majority of his life in the library, seldom venturing out into the daylight. Thomas could not help observing that the chancellor’s insalubrious pallor resembled the colour of aged parchment.
“Brother Domitian,” Thomas began, “I find I am in need of a book.”
Though Thomas had spoken in a mere whisper, Brother Domitian gave the German monk an indignant look and motioned for him to lower his voice.
“I have been commissioned to copy out The Revelation to John,” Thomas informed him quietly.
“I am sorry, Brother Thomas, but I do not think we have an adequate copy,” the chancellor responded. Though his pale lips moved, Thomas found he had to strain his ears to hear him.
“I am certain if you look hard enough you will find one,” Thomas said mildly. “I would not wish to return to the abbot and report that in the entire library we do not have The Revelation to John. We most likely would have to borrow one from another monastery which means we would have to lend them one of our books.”
Brother Domitian glared at Thomas with as much dislike as monks are allowed.
“Very well,” Domitian spoke gruffly. “Come with me and we shall find the book you require.”
Both the library and the scriptorium were on the second level of the monastery. The library was a modest-sized room, containing a few small desks and chairs. The books, which numbered eighty-three in all, were stored flat in wall cupboards that were tucked into cloisters identical to the ones found in the scriptorium. Thomas suspected the two spaces had once been one large room, but that at some time a wall had been raised between them. High atop some of the cupboards were elaborate shrines in which were stored the monastery’s most precious and revered books.
Standing before a cupboard Brother Domitian began a systematic search as he ran his finger along the bindings of all the books upon the shelves. When Thomas reached up to touch a book, Domitian slapped his hand away. Rebuked, Thomas stepped back and allowed the chancellor to continue his search. Brother Nicholas entered the library and approached Thomas, but turned away when, with a silent gesture, Thomas indicated that now was not a good time to be seen together. After his meeting with the abbot, Thomas deemed it prudent not to be seen speaking with Brother Nicholas. Nicholas gave a knowing nod of his head, and walked away.
While perusing the lowest shelf of the fourth cupboard, Brother Domitian gave a low sound in his throat that Thomas took to be of a positive nature. From the shelf the chancellor drew out an old book. The cover of the book was dark with no design upon it, while the pages seemed uneven. The book was clearly not one of the library’s treasures.
“Here it is,” Brother Domitian announced without enthusiasm. “You may use this to copy from. It is an editio vulgata—a common edition. It was brought here by a monk from Spain many years ago. He died here and the book became the property of the library.” The chancellor leafed casually through the pages, and Brother Thomas held out his hand for it. Though Domitian had little affection for the book, he still seemed reluctant to hand it over. “I expect this book to be returned to me personally when you have completed copying it,” the chancellor said in a low voice, with a hint of a threat in his tone.
Brother Thomas took the book graciously but wordlessly and proceeded to the scriptorium. The book was indeed Spanish, though written in Latin, and contained not only the Revelation to John but also of Jude, and the three books of John. Brother Domitian’s appraisal of the book had been quite correct; it was not a treasure. The script was very ordinary, the pages were unlined and trimmed unevenly. Indeed, the entire work was quite common, yet the monk who had scripted it must have thought highly of his work for at the end of the text he had written a warning to would-be thieves. It read:
IF ANYONE TAKE AWAY THIS BOOK, LET HIM DIE SUCH A DEATH THAT HIS BODY BE BROKEN, HIS MIND FEVERED, HIS SKIN FESTERED, SO THAT NO ONE WILL LOOK UPON HIM AND THE BIRDS WILL PICK AT HIS FLESH.
“Spaniards.” Brother Thomas shook his head, and with half a grin, said to himself, “They have quite a mean streak.”
Before he could begin his work, Brother Thomas needed instruments with which to write. In a cupboard in the scriptorium he snatched up a large selection of quills made from goose feathers that had already been dried and hardened. He laid them on his desk and looking over his supplies saw that he needed ink.
Thomas approached Brother Bartholomew’s work station and stood watching the armarius toil almost lovingly over his parchment. He dipped his quill ever so gently into the ink pot and withdrew it in one smooth flowing motion. Again and again he plunged his tip into the liquid with an experienced rhythm developed over years of practice. He scripted slowly, but with precision and grace. The quill barely seemed to touch the parchment, but left its black trail upon it. He performed it as a labour of deep love, done with pure affection.
So engrossed in his work, Brother Bartholomew did not even seem aware of Brother Thomas’s presence until the latter quietly cleared his throat. The armarius looked up irritably with a start, and wordlessly inquired the reason for the interruption.
“I am in need of ink,” Thomas whispered.
There were a few small inkpots upon the master scribe’s desk. He picked up each, looking for one with ink, found one, and pushed it gruffly into Thomas’s hand.
“The next time you are in need of ink you will have to make your own! And do not bother me again unless it is important!” He returned to his work.
Thomas examined the ink as he took it back to his desk. The black ink used by the monks was a carbon ink, made from charcoal or soot mixed with a variety of plant gums or sap.
Brother Thomas was almost ready to begin. With his knife, he sharpened the end of the feather shaft, and then slightly squared off the sharp tip. Carefully he put a fine slit up the centre of the shaft. Thomas would keep his knife handy while he worked for he knew he would need to sharpen his quill periodically. Now he was ready to begin.
Just then, the bell tolled to vespers, or evening prayers. After that, would be supper. Brother Thomas decided to wait until morning and begin fresh.