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The Name Of The Artichoke (I)

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Episodium I about who is the very pious Franciscan brother Pio de Pollalonga and his many tribulations during the forbidding and tumultuous Middle Ages and how he happens to meet his mentor the also very pious but much smarter William de Whiskey to have together some more tribulations and depart then together to faraway lands at the end of the World and about the people and things they witness and of how they hear of many prodigies and occurrences related to a particularly delectable and holy cheese.

I am an old man now. My hands are bald and my head shakes and I do not know how long I shall live. The dark specter of the Black Death roams the streets of Verona and I am afraid his bony hand will soon knock on my door. God in His infinite wisdom has blessed me with deafness in the winter of my life so I might be fortunate enough not to hear her macabre calling. Besides, I don’t even know where Verona is or if such a place exists. My old head is now no more clear than God’s designs and I fear I might forget the extraordinary events that I am about to consign into the written word. As I do so I pray to merciful God I won’t forget later where I put these papers. Those who were involved in these events, including my good friend William, are all now either dead or remain illiterate. Those who died were all sinners as sinners are the illiterate ones, although the latter are luckier for they can’t read the Bible and sin freely only to find out about sin when they wind up in Hell. We are all sinners, sin is the curse of the Middle Ages and its most pressing social problem, specially among sinners. Europe has been marooned in the backwaters of history for a millennia because the excessive sinning of its population and now the Black Death is about to sweep them all. The signs of the End Of Days are clear: the Black Death came unannounced, the Saracen has taken Constantinople and a goat sits in the throne of Saint Peter in Rome. The animal is crafty disguised with embroidered garments of the richest velvet and a specially designed tiara conceals her prominent horns but even the dumbest folk realizes the mischief when seeing the Pope has breakfast grazing on the Roman pastures every morning.
Soon the Renaissance will come and we all be forgotten, so it is time for me to account for my sins before I meet my Maker, who is his infinite cheapness found suited to allot me only sixty-five years of sorrow, hunger, war, pestilence and despair. I hope He judges me pious enough to be at His side because I really need a vacation. In my professional life as a Franciscan monk I have seen innumerable depictions of hell on church carvings and it is definitely not the kind of place where you want to spend your holidays, much less eternity. But if I knew that my mentor, master and beloved friend William de Whiskey ended up there I would gladly forsake Heaven just to spend cooking time together in the same caldron. That is how much I loved the man that helped me to become the demented sack of bones that I am now. He told most of the things I know: from how to use a spoon to eat to how to warm another man’s feet using only my breath.
The events I am about to recount shall shake your faith and corrupt whatever goodness faith left inside you, but doubt not of their veracity. What I am about to chronicle is the faithful testimony of those events as they took place before my eyes. It is true that my memories have lost some luster in recent years and that a number of times I have been found teaching Latin to flocks of geese but I am Franciscan and our order has a long standing tradition of religious education for birds and fowl. Saint Francis, the holy founder of our order, spent most of his time preaching to birds in the belief they had met God personally because they can fly. It is my expectation that the facts that I have wasted my life trying to make sense of will help you to lead a life of virtue and chastity for they contain a deep and resonant moral lesson although which one it is, I am afraid, I have not idea. My story begins almost fifty years ago, when I was still a novice that did not know anything about the world although at least I could get out of bed without fracturing my hip.

Everything started when my preceptor brother William de Whiskey and me were sent by the Pope to investigate the mysterious disappearance of some cheese from the kitchen of a faraway abbey in the Spanish coast on a region called Galicia. The missing cheese was not common cheese. It was said that this delicacy that was commercialized under the name of Tetilla Gallega was so delicious that it had to be made with milk from the breasts of the Virgin Mary Mother of God. The Pope was very fond of this type cheese and always ate it with great display of delectation in front of his guests and His Holiness never failed to made a point of not to offering them any of it as affirmation of the authority and power of the Papacy.
It was this sublime snack that started the war between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy when a Teutonic Knight Templar tried to snatch a piece from the Pope’s mouth and His Holiness almost choked. The daring Knight Templar lost one finger but still the outraged Pope excommunicated him and swallowed his finger. Pope Cannibal I remains to this day as the only anthropophagous Pope in recorded history but his was a short lived papacy. The Teutonic Knight had gone to the Crusades to crush some infidel’s skulls but worked as professional German prince and had powerful friends. His fellow German Princes raised an army that looted Rome and the besieged Pope was poisoned by a Cardinal that coveted his post after the Pope had expressed his intention of eating one of his legs.
Those were indeed turbulent times. Rumors of Renaissance circulated already around Europe and you could not visit the home of a rich merchant in Florence and not to find yourself facing a large painting or sculpture of a naked pagan goddess frolicking on a meadow. In Avignon the antipope persisted in his policy of defiance of Roman authority by imitating all the acts of the Roman pontifex but in a mocking and disrespectful manner that attracted the interest of the serfs for its comical nature. The discredit of Roman authority reached its summit when a scandal for the mistreatment of Inquisition prisoners broke out and it was made public that many of them had been allowed to eat fish on Friday in clear contravention of the Council of Aphasia. The aging Pope had his judgment clouded by his age and when he appeared before the College of Cardinals for a Concordat rehearsal did it so with his garments outside out and the tiara upside down. The Cardinals suppressed their laughter for six hours while the ridiculous Pope babbled his exposition and several of them had to be taken out almost suffocated. This same Pope was lying in bed with fevers and constipations and at the verge of death when he called for my master, friar William de Whiskey to solve the case of the missing cheese and bring some portions to Rome because the Vatican pantry was almost depleted. He dispatched us with urgency to find out who was eating his cheese and why.
We traveled for months from Italy to France and then back to Italy when we realized we had forgotten our maps in Rome. When we restarted our trip the Pope was already dead and a new strong man was sitting in the pontifical throne. The late Pope had eaten almost all the Tetilla Gallega in stock before his demise and left orders to be buried with the remaining cheese stock. The new Pope was a fat and younger former Cardinal with a great liking for food and insisted the mission should be resumed. He replaced our rickety donkeys with two of the fastest mares in the Vatican stables to speed up the process in spite of the fact that the use of female livestocks by the clergy had been banned after the infamous scandal of continued abominations in the Vatican stables was disclosed when a goat gave birth to an monstrosity that resembled one of the cardinals.
We crossed the Alps to France and from there we negotiated the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees following the pilgrimage route of Saint James, a very popular tourist destination at that period. Its popularity and our lack of financial means were the reasons why we had to camp in the open being most hostels either overbooked or overpriced due to the high demand. Wherever we went we enjoyed the hospitality and devotion of the locals who never failed to shower our little entourage with rotten fruit and vegetable leftovers when passing through a market square. With rumors or Renaissance and Humanism spreading in Europe serfs had become unruly, fed up as they were of being called sinners every Sunday at mass while the rest of the week they did all the plowing and harvesting. There was discontent and the mediaeval feudal lords were not helping with their insistence of eating raw meat in their sumptuous banquets and refusing to use a fork to do so, which always made them look decadent and feral on society chronicles. It is speculated that the not less decadents Florentine princes of the Renaissance derived much of their popular support out of the introduction of fine cutlery in palace living increasing the appeal of Renaissance values among those who disliked sticky fingers. Lorenzo de Medici himself is said to have attended an audience with the Pope with two spoons sticking out his ears as defiant remainder to the pontifex of the superior craftsmanship and artistry of Florentine silverware.
At the time of the Galician cheese crisis I had been under the tutelage of William de Whiskey just for a few months but I already have developed a deep admiration and canine devotion for his intellectual prowess and sleek religious style. Where other less dashing Franciscans carried a single little simple wooden cross around their necks William carried two: a full-scale crucifix on his neck that gave him his characteristic Christ-like silhouette when seen from afar and a smaller one tied up on his ankle as backup, in case the Devil tried something funny with him. He was called with affection by his fellow Franciscans Dirty Father and was celebrated as the toughest member of the church in the Christendom West of the Tiber, with maybe the sole exception of some really wild French Carmelite nuns. I still remember with affection the many blows those crosses rained on my unworthy skull every time I made a mistake in my Latin declinations. Those heavy blows were nevertheless an improvement over the pitchfork my father used to motivate me to plow his fields and every time I see my deformed head on a mirror I can’t help but remember with devotion my sadly missed mentor and friend.
He was without doubt the most flamboyant member of the Franciscan order whose members’ attitude and attire are so meek and humble that they tend to be taken for beggars and running over them as become a quite popular pastime among horsemen. It wasn’t just vain and transient earthly physical appearance what set apart William de Whiskey from the everyday Franciscan. It was his inquisitive mind which always got him in trouble with the Tribunal of the Inquisition whose members consider human brains good only as foodstuff for barbecues. This disparity of criteria combined with the great liking of William for the hard liquor of his Scottish native land that had given him his monastic nickname were the reason that had brought him to Rome as exile. Back in Scotland he had got into a fistfight with bishop Caraquemada, the Great Inquisitor’s envoy in Aberdeen, over a subtle scholastic question regarding the Holy Trinity. William had knocked down the bishop with a couple of well placed kicks in His Eminence’s spermatic sacks and thrown his unconscious body into a pigsty. Great scandal and outrage ensued when the Holy Trinity name was mentioned linked to the public disturbance. The Inquisition refused to pick the tab for the alcohol consumed by the two contenders and sued William for damages and slander of the Holy Trinity. Aware of the lack of intellectual finesse of the Tribunal of the Inquisition hearings and because a Franciscan with some guts never picks the tab, specially if he wins the fistfight, he had to flee to Rome and hide under the wide garments of His Holiness.
His disgrace became my fortune when his exhausted donkey died at the gates of Rome after the seven months long trip from Scotland. He was taken under the direct protection of the Pope who had a great liking for tough-looking Franciscans friars with hairy chests. In spite of the good disposition of the Pope the depleted coffers of the Vatican bank were unable to provide funds for the purchase of even a second-hand donkey. The funds had been spent on the payment of compensations to Christian families after the scandal over the financing of slave trade of children with the Saracen. So they gave him me instead. At the time I had been working as mitre shiner for a cardinal and although I had not the strength of a quadruped they assured William that with patience he could teach me all sorts of useful tricks.
One of the disadvantages of working as monk is that you are not allowed to have children and if you have one the order’s ethical code of conduct is clear: after baptizing him you shall drown your offspring on a well, so he will go straight to Heaven instead of pestering you for the rest of your life. William had taken his vows of chastity when after a night of heavy drinking he found himslelf laying on a bed by the side of a very ugly Scottish stonemason who he had mistaken by a woman because in his inebriated state he had forgot the custom of men of those lands of wearing enticing pleaded skits of bright colors. Of such a decission he only regretted was that he had always wanted to have a child or at least a pet to teach him everything he knew. That was certainly too much wisdom for a thick head like mine but at the beginning he felt I was an improvement over having a dead donkey as a pupil.
Both during our stay in Rome and later during our one year long trip to Galicia he used his time to teach me the answer to the basic questions on the disciplines that a learned man of the church is expected to be opinionated about at a Vatican cocktail party.
Theology: Who is God and why there is so much fuss about him lately. Why the Holy Ghost is so difficult to catch. How many angels can dance a jig on the top of a pin. And how many if they are all drunk. Who is the skinny guy nailed to a cross.
Scholastic: What is scholastic anyway. Are all scholastic done at a school. How to do good scholastics at home every morning to stay in good spiritual shape.
Ethics: Why serfs have to do the heavy lifting. Why serfs have to handle manure. How a member of the church can lead a productive life without raising a finger unless it is to bless his flock.
Religion: Why the Pope is always right and how to dress if he invites you for brunch. Why saints are depicted with a golden space suit helmet in their heads. Can’t they breath normal air?
Medicine: Why the Black Death does not go back to Africa and stops pestering Christendom. Why taking a bath once a day is a sin. How to cure the flu with an exorcism. How to be nice to a leper from a seven leagues distance.
Dialectics: Why is rude to speak with your mouth full of food and how that affects our credibility as speakers. How to persuade somebody to give you his money in exchange of good words. How to pretend you are listening when you are not.
Heresy: How long can a heretic hold his breath underwater without perishing. Can a man sign a confession with his head severed. Are witches burn because they are heretical or just because they are ugly. Proper cooking times for Jews, witches, heretics and Christmas turkey.
Cosmology: Interesting stories about the planets and stars and how to tell them without ending up as a mound of ashes. Funny jokes to discredit the madmen that say the Earth is round. What is the Sun doing at night. Sleeping?
Mathematics and Geometry: Why two and two equal four and beyond. Advanced algebra without the use of fingers. How to square a circle and vice versa. God’s opinions on roundness.
Grammar & Calligraphy: Why there are so many letters and how to combine them to make words. Why Latin has nothing to do with salsa and burritos. Easy ways to make ink at home using water and dirt.
Geography: Why only crusaders go to the Holy Land on vacation. Why the Garden of Eden had no rest rooms. Why Jews eat Christian babies instead of pig.
When we finally reached our destination on the westernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula I hadn’t mastered any of these disciplines, even to this day I hardly know the answer of one or two of those important questions and then only if I check my notes but I least I was able to fasten my sandals without lacing together both feet.

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