A Militant Habit

C.M. Schott

If pressed to choose between the two, Brother Eudo would probably say he preferred the sword to the mace. Not because swordplay required more skill than bashing one’s opponent with a heavy object—though it certainly did—but because he liked the way a sword felt in his hands: balanced, reliable, perfectly simple but no less beautiful. At least, he reflected, sorting through the used habits in the storeroom looking for ones to fit the abbey’s two new novices, that is how he remembered the feel of a sword. It had been quite some time since he had last held one.

Having found two suitable robes, he hung them over his arm and headed back toward the base of the stairs, making certain the cellarer noted in the log what he took. These stairs were hazardous—more so lately, it seemed—and Eudo planted his free hand on the rough-hewn wall to steady himself as he placed each foot deliberately on the sloping step before heaving himself up and catching his balance again. His right knee made a cracking sound whenever he straightened it. Perhaps it was the tip of that arrowhead? No, no, that was the other knee. He would have to see Brother Boniface in the infirmary again; perhaps there was some salve the leech could give him.

By the time he reached the west cloister walk where the novices awaited him, the exercise had eased the stiffness out of his limbs and his knee cracked only when he straightened it too quickly. He was not out even of breath. It was all the hours of standing still in choir during offices that made him creak; all he needed was action, and he felt his old self again. Like armor, he reflected: leave it idle and it rusts, but let it serve its purpose and it will last. He congratulated himself on his astuteness, rather pleased with his analogy.

The novices rose from their seat on a bench when he came around the corner. Which one was which, now? To give himself time to consider, he handed them their robes.

“My name is Brother Eudo,” he said. “I’m to look after you two until the novice master returns tonight; after that you’ll be taking your instruction from him.”

“Instruction in what?” asked the redhead, too loudly.

Ah, yes. The loud one was Walter. The abbot had been loath to take him on, but the Goodman family was wealthy, and an abbey as small as St. Oswin’s could not afford to be overly scrupulous when a novice came attached with a sizable dowry. He would be a handful, no doubt, but Brother Thomas had dealt with worse in his career as a novice master. Even Eudo had dealt with worse, in his lay life—that awful squire in ’88, for instance. Never had he seen a more inept and un-teachable horseman; he had nearly cost Eudo his chance to join the Crusade, but in the end he took on another squire for the real duties and kept the first one to lead the pack mule. He smiled at the memory.

“Instruction in what?” Walter repeated, this time with less volume.

Of course, this fellow might be almost as bad. “In the Rule, mostly,” Eudo replied, “and in the Psalms and prayers you’ll say from memory. Do you know the order of the Hours, for example?”

“Surely. They start with Prime . . .”

“They start with Matins and Lauds,” Eudo corrected.

“Then why don’t they call them Prime?” The novice did not wait for an answer. “Prime comes second, then. Next is Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline.” He rattled off the list with the speed of one who has learned by rote rather than comprehension. “You don’t have offices for all of those, do you?” he asked after a pause.

Poor fellow, Eudo thought. “Yes, for all of them, and two Masses besides. And Vigil too, during the night.” To prevent the outburst he saw rising in the young man’s face, he pressed on, “Can you read, Brother Walter?”

“It’s Watt,” he responded. “And of course I can read . . . some.”

He looked like a Watt. This other novice, brown-haired and fit, looked overwhelmed. He had a light in his green eyes that undoubtedly expressed something profound about his character, but physiognomy had never been a strength of Eudo’s. What he did know was that this fellow—Godric? Geoffrey?—was a horseman. He was built like one, and his clothes gave off the faint scent of hay and leather. This made Eudo like him immediately.

“And you, Brother . . .”

Watt offered, “Godfrey?” and Eudo shot him an ungrateful look; he would have remembered in a moment.

“Can you read, Brother Godfrey?”

“Yes, Brother. Latin, French, English, and a very little Greek.”

Pity. Abbot Anselm would certainly coop him up in the scriptorium copying manuscripts. Waste of a good rider. Watt rolled his eyes at Godfrey’s answer and looked away. Perhaps they had something in common after all, Eudo thought—Watt and himself. He was hardly a scholar either, though he knew enough Latin and French to suit his purposes. He had even picked up the odd Arabic word here and there in the old days.

“You’d best hurry and change clothes,” he said. “The dorter is this way, up the stairs.”

He led them up, testing his knee carefully, as it had stiffened again during their conversation. Promising to fetch them for Sext, he descended the stairs again and joined the brothers for their prescribed hour of morning reading.

It was a pleasant day, and Eudo felt strongly that a sunny morning should never be wasted in the damp, gray climate of central England. So after he found the volume he had been reading for the past week he took it outside to a bench on the garth and buried his sandaled toes in the cool grass as he began to read. The earth always seemed cool and wet here, compared to the parched, dusty rubble of the Holy Lands. When was he last there? Eudo put his finger at the point where he stopped reading and tilted his head back to soak in the sun. He had left England in 1188 and returned when Richard had left Jerusalem four years later. That was how long ago? He drew the figures with his finger on the page, not believing the sum his mental arithmetic suggested. Yes, twenty-four years—twenty-eight since he first left for the Crusade. He wagged his head in amazement.

They had already thought him old to be going into battle, back then in ’88. But he was a skilled fighter, well known around Tutbury, in fact, as a jousting champion. But then news came that Richard the Lion Heart was mustering another force to take Jerusalem, and Eudo exchanged his wooden jousting lance for one of steel. It was a most natural change; what else could one do when king and country called?

Those were good days, he reflected, closing his eyes and remembering how very hot the sun was in that foreign land. His duty had been so simple—much more agreeable to his phlegmatic temperament than the fine lines and gray areas of duty in the abbey. What was that debate he heard between Brother Thomas and Brother Augustine the other day? Whether, when St. Benedict exhorted his followers to abstain from the meat of four-footed animals, he meant also to forbid them from using their fat or bones for cooking other dishes. Whatever would make the brothers think he did not, Eudo had no idea. As for himself, he ate what was given to him and left such mincing matters to his superiors; surely they knew better than he. It was much easier as a knight under Richard: if a fellow was trying to win back the city, he was a friend, and if he was trying to keep you from winning it, he was a foe. Eudo was good with such broad distinctions.

He never lost anyone under his protection, either—not even that thick-headed squire. Richard himself had acknowledged him once after a skirmish, a day he often relived, in all its vivid color. Those were the times he would summon to mind these days. It was only in the most unlikely idle moments that he remembered the rest: the smell of sweat-stained armor; the taste of blood—his, others,’ it tasted the same—how difficult it was to inflict a mortal wound on a man; how very, very long he takes to die.

But on a May morning like this, Eudo’s thoughts floated in the sunshine back to the romance of the wars. Like the day he pulled that young-blood Raymond out of a mob of raiders. He had even managed to save the fellow’s mount, he reflected with satisfaction. A fine animal that was, and loyal as a hound. What times those were! And how different from when the war finally ended.

Prior Nicolas was looking at him. Wordlessly, the monk gestured toward the book that lay forgotten in Eudo’s lap, open to a page of dense lettering in a messy hand. Eudo bent his head once again to read. It was a hagiography of St. Columba, the Irish missionary, and he had selected it for the fact that Columba had been to war as well. But this, apparently, is where the similarity ended, and as he read half-heartedly about inter-monastery squabbling over who had the rights to copy a borrowed manuscript, he wondered briefly at how eager men must be for war, if they would fight to the death over a Psalter.

It was an impulse he understood, though, in his simple, unquestioning way. Letting his eyes lose focus—not such a difficult thing to do these days—he contrasted his holy adventure, terrible though it was, with the aimless life to which he returned when the war was over. For two years, perhaps three, he had tended to his hereditary estate near Tutbury, losing bits and pieces of it to poor management and crafty stewards; business conducted with a pen lent itself much less readily to his talents than that conducted with a sword—or even a mace, for that matter. Then came the vision.

Very few of the brothers here knew that Eudo had had a vision. It seemed the wrong sort of thing to share readily with people who were half one’s age. But it had been a vision, sure enough, though it had seemed at first a dream. When it began Eudo was in full armor, standing horseless in a summer field. Then a saint had appeared before him, from quite out of nowhere, but one does not think to question logicality in the presence of such a personage. Eudo had known him for a saint because his head was overlarge for his body and crowned by a perfect circle of gold, extending in an arch from one shoulder to the other. It was really quite remarkable how well the manuscript decorators rendered this appearance, and Eudo had wondered often since that night how the artists had known to depict them thus. He was less certain how he knew that this fellow was St. Oswin, king and martyr of some six centuries before, now patron saint of those betrayed, but he knew him very well on sight.

Intimidated by the holy presence—after all, to this point in his life Eudo had only been in the company of mere kings—he said nothing as Oswin reached toward him and removed his helmet. In exchange, the saint handed him a bolt of black cloth, which unfolded into a cowl. That done, St. Oswin vanished in a no less abrupt fashion than he had appeared, and upon waking Eudo knew he was to become a monk. He made the decision in the same uncomplicated manner in which he made all his decisions, and once he had arranged his affairs he had ridden straight to St. Oswin’s Abbey and never left.

The abbot then—that was two abbots ago—had questioned the truthfulness of his vision. “Is it not more likely,” he had asked, “that it is the Enemy putting such a notion into your head, to bring about your downfall?”

“Is there a particular reason the devil would send me to a monastery?” Eudo replied.

“It is a harder life than you think,” was the response.

But in the end the abbot had relented, allowing this laconic knight to join a novitiate full of young men and even, though they had become rare recently, a few boys. Thus, at the age of forty-two Eudo became a monk; twelve years later he became a priest. And on a May morning some ten years after that, he sat in the sunny cloister reading the hagiography of a saint who went to war over a book of Psalms.

That abbot had been right, of course; life in an abbey had an entirely different set of challenges than life as a knight, not the least of which was the rusting inertia of contemplation, but Eudo had pressed on with the same slightly bovine determination that had taken him to Jerusalem and back. When the wanderlust set in and the walls seemed to press too closely against his shoulders, he would go to the stables and groom the abbey’s horses. It had been many years since this had been his own duty, and he would never understand why the abbot had begun to hire servants and stable boys over the able hands of his monks, but undoubtedly, this learned man had much greater wisdom than a humble onetime warrior. Still, the feel of the sturdy workhorses under his brush, the pawing of the abbot’s palfrey, the sound of snorting and neighing, all gave Eudo a feeling of motion and possibility.

Perhaps he would go there after fetching the novices for Sext. His feet were aching again for lack of use, his ears straining to hear the whine of the Saracen shawms as they played their battle song. Eudo shook his head, remembering now to turn over the leaf of parchment to feign an interest in his book for the prior’s benefit. This restlessness was becoming quite distracting, and he could not fathom why it came so powerfully now, after so many quiet years. But he felt something must be coming. He was always hearing rumors of new Crusades; one might start up any day. Perhaps the Saracens would sweep Europe and engage the English coast. Or perhaps Watt would bring ruin upon St. Oswin’s.

“Benedicite,” gasped a rasping voice, breaking into Eudo’s reverie.

By force of habit, Eudo had returned the greeting before he had gathered his thoughts enough to recognize who had spoken. It was old Brother Augustine—ancient even in Eudo’s eyes—and he was shuffling his way across the garth toward the chapel, looking shrunken inside his heavy black robes and leaning heavily on the arm of a younger monk. Eudo realized belatedly that he was blocking Augustine’s path with his feet, and the greeting had been the old monk’s characteristically polite way of asking him to move. Eudo humbly withdrew his legs and nodded as Augustine continued on his shuffling way.

Watching the hunched back sway and quaver toward the chapel, Eudo thought he knew now what was coming. What a pity, he thought to himself: it was just death after all. Still, he straightened up and set his jaw. Let it come; he was ready to meet it. Now that he knew what stranger to expect on the horizon, he looked determinedly for its arrival. It was most unfortunate, he philosophized, for a warrior to spend his life only to grow old. But even an old warrior could face this final adventure as he had faced all others, though it may be without sword in hand.

The abbey bell was ringing now, and the other monks were stirring, putting strings or markers in the books where they left off, ready to open them again the next day. Eudo closed his manuscript and nodded in thanks as one of the junior monks passed by and offered to return it to the scriptorium. He had best collect the two new novices now so that they could find their proper seats in the choir before the office began.

Bracing his hands on the stone bench, Eudo slid forward and rose slowly to his feet. A sudden twinge in his back made him stoop, rubbing his spine impatiently with one hand. He took a step and his right knee cracked loudly, causing him to recoil at first before placing his foot gently on the ground. He had been sitting too long again, he thought as he made his slow way back to the dorter, reminding himself to visit the infirmary after Sext to see about that salve.

C. M. Schott is a graduate student at the University of Virginia.

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