The Name of the Artichoke (III)
Episodium III about how the very pious, tired and sticky Franciscan brother Pio de Pollalonga and the also very pious an not less tired but more sticky and smarter William de Whiskey visit the library and see many books and learn about the high pitched voice of a furious Inquisitor and about how brother Pio obtains great amusement out of seeing a midget and obtains later a much less amusing blow in his head for his poor understanding of Roman numerals and excessive liking of flattery and there is hunger and they go for supper.
The library of the abbey of Lalechera was famous in all Christendom for his collection of beautifully crafted recipe books and cooking manuals. It was said somewhere in its shelves there was a copy of Frigidus Magnum’s treatise on necromancy and ice-cream making that contained recipes of cold sweets that had been inspired by the Devil but that tasted so good that the king of France Louis the Obese offered Provence with all serfs included to anybody who could obtain a copy for his royal kitchen. Also were famous the books on fishing and farming that dealt with scholarly matters like the spiritual nature of edible fish and the question of the soul’s immortality in chicken. There was richly illuminated bestiaries with monstrous beasts with many horns and many eyes but little chance of being invited to a wedding. There was a richly decorated Bible autographed by God but the calligraphy was illegible and the dedication rude and merciless. There was navigational charts showing the route to Catay and Cipango in the Far East where people are all heretics and fornicate on the top of trees. There was travelogues about the Spice Islands that are dull and uninteresting in spite of its name. There was a learned but nevertheless comical treatsie about the inhabitants of the Antipodes who walk upside down and always lose their hats and who cause great repulsion when they defecate. There was volumes on pharmacology and botany dealing with poisons and deadly herbs that enjoyed great popularity among those prelates who wanted to advance up the hierarchy of the Church. There was accounts of the customs of the faraway kingdom of a Christian king that pestered his subjects so frequently that got the nickname of Pester John. There was leather bound thick tomes of alchemy that told of how lead can be transmuted in all sort useful utensils but refuses to become gold and stick stubbornly to their initial plumbic condition causing many alchemist to become deponent and sour. There was dark treatsies of necromancy and demonology with ancient black pages written in blood whose reading was more amusing than the Bible in spite of the awful reviews they always got in Vatican circles. There was pious books written by holy saints and fathers of the Church about how to unmask heresy and blasphemy using only an iron rod and some chunks of burning coal. There was witchcraft books allegedly written by women which is lunacy because it is well known that women cannot write or perform intellectual labors. In short, there were many books in there and it was there where I found out what a book was and I was very pleased that they were so heavy because William had told me they contained wisdom and those were certainly well stuffed.
The monks of the abbey took great pride and care of the books they spent their lives painstakingly copying from other books because monks are not very original thinkers and wear the same robe and haircut all their life. The scribes sometimes grew so fond of the volume they were assigned to copy that some of them slept with them on their bunks for fear of thiefs which caused some volumes to smells funny afterwards. William once told me the story of a Benedictine who was copying a particularly salacious book for which he developed such an affection that abandoned the order and requested a Papal dispensation to marry the third chapter but was burned instead and the book blacklisted. Most of this priceless volumes were aligned on the maze of shelves that constituted the library of Lalechera although some specially thick and sturdy books had been used to build an armchair for abbot Malallet and while other helped to balance his skewed table, a practice that William considered barbaric, specially when we entered the abbot’s office and there was not a single chairs for our molified bones. The abbot quickly sat in his throne made of books and smiled.
‘ That was a very interesting exposition brother William’ He said and laid his feet on the table making great display of comfort and coziness in front of us who had traveled for months through inhospitable regions on horseback and had our bodies aching and sore.
‘ Thank you but I am not here to hear vain compliments from a man covered in cheese ‘ Replied William ‘ I have crossed Europe to ensure the Vatican pantry and His Holiness palate get their share of Tetilla Gallega. The new Pope is French and a true gourmet, he told me he will canonize every goat of this lands if that is what it takes to resume the production of this delicacy. I personally dislike cheese because it makes look those who eat it like mice but His Holiness…’
‘ His Holiness is dead!’ interrupted the abbot, then quicly added ‘Shall his soul rest in peace. A messenger arrived three days ago with the bad news. He choked with is soup that had an ox’s rear quarter inside. A new Pope has been elected and the Inquisition has been commissioned to investigate the case. An inquisitor will be here tomorrow and I am sure he will be very happy to discuss these matters with you brother William. You have some pending business with him, or so I heard.’ Said the abbot with clear delectation.
‘ Bishop Caraquemada!’ Yelled William in disbelief. ‘The man whose spermatic sacks I kicked in Aberdeen.‘
‘ Your deductive powers serve you well again brother William. I am told he is enduring great hardship and mockery these days, since the Aberdeen incident his thundering voice has acquired a comical high pitched tone, not unlike of that of a castrati. A very beautiful timbre for a chorus singer but not fully adequate to promulgate anathemas or interrogate heretics. It is said that heretics and witches are not burned any more under bishops Caraquemada’s custody because they perish of excessive laughter during interrogation. The gossip in Rome is that he has commissioned a special set of pincers with your name engraved on them and he intends to use them during the investigation that is going to be conducted here. He sent message that you should stay here because he his eager to see you again and finish that scholastic controversy you had regarding the Holy Trinity. Now it is better you are rest in your cells to rest because you will need all the vigor you can muster for the upcoming dialectical duel although I advice you to shave your own spermatic sacks because I hate the smell of burning hair. Good evening brothers Franciscans, go with God.’
A small monk named Mediano guided us to ours cells through the maze-like corridors of the abbey. The layout was narrow and difficult to navigate as it has been designed by a master builder with an excessive liking for wine who had placed arches and pillars in the most inconvenient places causing many newcomers to fracture their skulls while wandering around during the night. Peter of Flintstone had been a celebrated builder of the Romanesque period who pioneered the economic notion of slicing a circle to obtain two arches and use the rest to make a millstone. He also was the first man to realize capitals looked much better on top of columns instead of at the bottom as it was the custom in the lower Middle Ages. This notion cost him his life when some disgruntled masons tired of climbing up columns dropped a buttress on his head, an incident that explains the hatred and contempt for masons the Roman Church had ever since.
When we arrived to the cells brother Mediano showed first my master William to his quarters and then I followed him towards mine. We descended a narrow spiral staircase to the underground floor while brother Mediano informed me with a malicious smirk on his face that my cell had been originally a dungeon. It had been redecorated although somebody had forgotten the shackles bolted on the walls, some of them with yellowish old bones still clinging inside the manacles. Brother Mediano told me before leaving that if required some assistance for my spiritual exercices of penitence he would be in his cell with his whip and eager to help if any flogging was required. I declined his generous offer and thanking him for his kindness I told him to go with God and as far from me as he could.
I was left alone in my dark windowless cell that smelled of death and sweat but at least had a roof. An oak plank a has been placed to serve as bed and in an unusual display of munificence and prodigality a coating of varnish has been applied to serve as mattress. I immediately noticed a paper sticking out under the so-called bed and I picked it up because we Franciscans are clean and austere people and dislike things that stick out. It was a piece of parchment with something written on it. Thanks to the patient tutelage of William I had mastered a certain degree of understanding of letters and I tried to decipher the message’s content. It said: ‘Xix vi clix xlix miv’. I didn’t understand what such a gibberish meant but I figured it had to be latin as I had heard senior churchmen spoke it before and it sounded equally unintelligible. I ran to William’s cell to get his advice and translation. I stormed inside without knocking first and he promptly admonished for my rudeness with a slap on my head when I caught him naked and using a razor to prepare his groin for the upcoming hearings with inquisitor Caraquemada. A second mighty and well deserved blow befell on my head when he realized the cryptic message was just a string of Roman numerals and while he elucidated for my miserable persona the meaning of the message I rubbed my head with a wet rag.
‘ Look, these are XIX-VI-CLIX-XLIX-MIV. They are indications to find a book in the abbey’s library. The library shelves are numbered, the first number is nineteen, that is the nineteenth bookcase, the second number is for the shelf: the sixth. CLIX is the hundred fifty-ninth volume of the row while MIV, one thousand and nine, stands either for a page number or a chapter from the book that we’ll find there, although I anticipate is the page number because a book with so many chapters would stick out the library’s walls and reach Jerusalem. I also suspect this message has been written by the diminutive monk that show us to our cells.’
‘ How can you possibly his eminence know that? ‘ I said in total astonishment.
‘ Didn’t you notice that he was a midget? And if you didn’t why were you giggling like an idiot all the way here? God in his infinite liking for practical jokes made some exceptionally small men and other freaks so princes can have entertainment in their courts and common folk find consolation to their hardships in the fact for some people are more unfortunate than themselves. Midgets have a distaste for capital letters and for great things in general. That is explains why he wrote the numerals using minuscules causing your confusion. And please, I beg you for thousandth time you stop calling me ‘his eminence’ I am just a humble servant of God and I don’t like laudation and bottom-kissing.’
‘ Yes, my master. Thank you master.’ I said.
‘ Just brother William for Christ’s sake and stop kissing my feet that they get all sticky afterwards.’
‘ There is still some cheese between the toes and I am hungry’ I replied.
‘ You are right this time. It is almost dinner time. We must join our hosts at the refectory but before we will make some plans and preparations for a visit to the library. Tonight!’
‘ Monks are not allowed to go out by night, in fact we are not allowed to go anywhere any time without a Papal dispensation.’ I said trembling of fear and foreboding, although I wasn’t sure what foreboding was: I imagined forebodings were dead souls that wandered abbeys and other old stone buildings at night wearing a sheet and scaring those who dare walk around at late hours. When William explained that those were called ghosts I felt great relief and we went to eat with the other monks.
The refectory is the hall where all monks have their meals together on a very long table with a single not less long elongated plate named porcinarium. The only monks excused from attendance are those particularly rude and vile who are segregated and have their meals in the pigsty. Everybody must finish their food and the monks are reminded of the many serfs outside whose poor children have nothing to eat, the fact that their toiling on the fields put the food in the refectory’s table in the first place is mercifully omitted. During supper is customary to have a monk read passages from the Bible or some sacred book, which is said to have beneficial effects in the digestive process although is difficult to understand what it is read because the monk in charge has always his mouth gorged with foodstuff and his diction hindered by mastication. Holy books used for this perusals are always soiled and smeared with food and I found myself once a half eaten desiccated onion that some impious monk had used to mark a chapter of the gospels of Mark.
The abbey’s refectory was roomy and laid in the shape of a spoon instead of a cross because the cross-shaped layout is exclusive of churches and cathedrals. The refectory table was presided by abbot Malallet. At his right was brother Marrano, who ate his ration faster than anybody else and picked leftovers from the abbot’s plate when he wasn’t looking. At his left there was a very old monk named Cegato de Peor, because he was blind and he had been chosen as caretaker for the forbidden books of the library that included basically anything not written in Latin and by an author whose name does not start with the word ‘Saint’. He repeatedly stuffed his food in the abbot’s face by mistake but the abbot never complained and ingested it without protest, even when it was inserted in his ear. William pointed out that the old blind monk had to have a some powerful ascendancy over the cruel abbot because otherwise the blind monk would had been already thrown into the abbey’s moat. All the Dominican brothers sat in silence and very erect on the bench, the only monk dispensed was brother Mediano who because his shortness couldn’t reach the table and ate standing up on top of the table. Like a jester he tried to amuse his sour brothers by jokingly bathing his feet inside the soup contained in the porcinarium but nobody seemed truly amused and some monks chased him and thrown him into a well confirming the black legend about the lack of humor of the Dominicans.