In Which the Scholarly Inquiry Bears Strange Fruit
D ouglas Flinders-Petrie stood beneath the dripping eaves marvelling at the pageant. There were maids with pails of milk on yokes across their shoulders, ferrying their wares to the college inns; ironmongers selling skewers and sconces; bakers with trays of fresh bread on their heads hurrying across the square; vendors in ramshackle booths selling candles, ribbon, cloth, cheese, and spices. A butcher working from the back of an open wagon, carving up the carcass as required by his customers; a pie seller with a handcart, shouting for business; a farmer with braces of trussed and squawking chickens strolling through the milling throng; and on and on, like a live action study for a Brueghel painting.
How any of the students could concentrate on their professor, who was holding forth a few dozen paces away, Douglas could not fathom. But the lecturer, tall and gaunt upon his wooden crate, lifted his voice above the general din and declaimed in precise Latin on the subject of the day while the students, dressed in scholars’ robes of green and blue, faces earnest beneath the level brims of their square hats, sat or lounged on bales of straw that had been dragged together to form a loose semicircle around him. Not a few of the townsfolk stood listening as well, sometimes calling out facetious answers to the rhetorical questions posed by the renowned teacher.
It was the professor Douglas had come to see, the sole reason he had so painstakingly polished his Latin and assembled the wardrobe, studied the history, manners, and customs in order to make this trip to the mid-1200s. Therefore, Douglas studied him intently. A trim, solemn-faced fellow of middle years with a strong nose and high-domed head, Roger Bacon-doctor, professor, scientist, and theologian-had established himself as a prime moving force in the fields of academia that were his domain: anatomy, medicine, science, alchemy, philosophy, and theology. He wore his dark hair short and tonsured like any other priest of his stripe, and his simple brown Franciscan robe, though threadbare and frayed at hem and sleeve, was clean, his belt of braided cord neatly tied.
At one point in the lecture, some local youths muscled their way to the fore and began talking loudly and making rude imitations of the professor standing on his wooden box. From this Douglas grasped another fact of his research: the petty jealousy of some of the townsfolk of what was increasingly considered the educational elite in their midst. Some, like the crude yokels Douglas observed, felt themselves hard done by a system that seemed to favour those they considered transient interlopers and effete snobs. Indeed, owing to his propensity for unorthodox notions and the inexplicable behaviour that often accompanied his various experiments, the esteemed man of science was steadily establishing himself as a leading eccentric, if not a cap-and-bell fool, in the court of public opinion.
The troublemakers pursued a rather halfhearted attempt to interrupt the proceedings, until two bulky bailiffs with long pikes appeared and moved them along. Order restored, the open-air symposium continued. Douglas turned his attention to the lecture and tried to follow it as best he could. The Latin was accomplished-fluent and fluid, eloquent, and elegant in expression-and so highly polished by years of scholastic application that even when Douglas knew the words being spoken it was difficult to ascertain what sense was being conveyed. The students, and a smattering of townspeople, seemed to grasp the meaning of what Douglas eventually concluded was a discourse on the nature of the universe and the place of reason in framing the human conception of reality.
It might well have been riveting stuff, but it took all of Douglas’ newly acquired expertise in the ancient language just to identify the subject; actually following the subtle nuances of the argument were well beyond his nascent abilities. Still, he had a basic general idea of the flow if not the particulars, and anyway he had not come to sit at the feet of the learned professor. He was on a far more important mission.
“Snipe!” Douglas hissed under his breath. “Do not throw that.” He had seen his pugnacious assistant fingering a rotten pear he had picked up from the gutter on their way to the lecture. “Drop it now.”
The youth turned a baleful gaze upon his master, but still clutched the overripe fruit, juice oozing from his fingers.
“Drop it!” said Douglas. “Obey.”
With a sneer of defiance, the pale youth released the fruit. The pear hit the ground with a dull splat; Snipe stomped it with his foot and ground the soft fruit into the dirt. He then stood, rigid with rage, and glowered at the rabble around them.
“Good boy,” Douglas commended him, and offered him a sop. “We will find a cat for you later.”
The lecture eventually came to an end and the students began drifting off in twos and threes, melting into the general bustle of the busy town square. A few lingered to ask questions, and Douglas waited for these to finish. When all had gone away, he approached. “Pax vobiscum, Magister Bacon,” he said, removing his round monk’s cap and making a nicely practised bow of deference. “Deus vobis.”
“Quis est?” said the professor, as he turned. Taking in Douglas’ robes, he said, “God with you, brother.”
Douglas introduced himself as a visiting priest who had come seeking enlightenment on a scholarly matter. “I wonder if I may call on you in your lodgings to discuss it?”
“It would be a sublime pleasure for a certainty,” replied Master Bacon. “Alas, my duties are many, and I have not found a way to expand time to accommodate them all. Therefore, I must sadly decline your offer to attend me-attractive as it may be.”
“To be sure,” replied Douglas, who had anticipated a similar response and was ready with a reply. “I would not presume to add to your burdens in any way, God knows. Yet it may interest you to know that I come from the abbey at Tyndyrn, where an exceedingly peculiar manuscript has come into our hands, we know not how.” He saw the glint of curiosity spark in the professor’s dark eyes. “Some of my brothers believe you may be the only person alive who can read it.”
“This manuscript of which you speak,” said Roger Bacon, rubbing the back of his hand, “what can you tell me about it?”
“Very little, sir. You see, it is written in no language ever seen before. At least, not one that our best scholars can identify.”
“Congratulations, my friend,” declared the august professor with a bow of his tonsured head. “You have succeeded in intriguing me-an eventuality that grows more difficult with each year that Christ tarries. Will you come to me tonight at the Bear? We will have supper together.” He indicated the inn behind them. “I take my meals within, and my table is always ready. I shall keep a place for you.” His eyes shifted to Douglas’ companion. “And your acolyte, of course. God’s greeting, my son.” Upon regarding the youth more closely, his smile wilted.
“He is mute and does not speak,” Douglas informed the master with a pat of Snipe’s overlarge head. “My thanks, Master Bacon. Until this evening, then.”
“God with you, friend,” replied the professor, stepping away.
Douglas waited a moment, then crossed the square and proceeded to the Star Inn, where he had taken rooms. He spoke to the matron and requested food and drink to be brought to him. He and Snipe returned to their upstairs lodgings, Douglas to study some more Latin in preparation for the evening’s conversation-an activity he expected to tax his linguistic powers to their utmost-and Snipe to sleep in preparation for tonight’s vigil.
Then, just after sunset, the two ley travellers donned their outer robes once more and went out to meet Master Bacon at the Bear. They crossed an all-but-deserted square-now occupied only by a few old women gleaning morsels from the detritus and garbage heaped at the street corners, and some mongrel dogs snuffling through the refuse in the gutters. Ignoring their beggarly imprecations, Douglas hurried to the inn, paused beneath the torch above the door, and with a last warning to Snipe to be on his best behaviour, lowered the hood of his cowl and went inside. The interior was a fog of smoke and steam and the scent of the beeswax candles that lit the room, casting everything in a warm amber glow. He stepped to the serving hatch and procured a pie, then turned to get the measure of the place. There were tables of assorted sizes scattered about the large central dining area served by a wide, deep, and glowing hearth where spitted meat roasted, cauldrons gurgled, and bread baked; three smaller rooms opened off the main room, each containing a single long table and benches. In one of these snugs they found Roger Bacon, surrounded by a bevy of students-sallow-faced striplings with straggly beards and long tousled hair, some wearing their scholars’ robes, others dressed more informally in dark satin jerkins and tunics. All clutched jars of ale, and they rose as one to greet the newcomers.
“Pray you, do not stand on our account,” Douglas told them. “Please, sit and take your ease.” Posting Snipe at the door with the pie, he took the seat offered him at the end of the table.
“Our friend is visiting from Tyndyrn Abbey,” the professor informed his audience. He poured another jar and pushed it along the table to Douglas. “He comes seeking enlightenment. Is this not so?”
“Verily, that is the purpose of my visit,” replied Douglas. He noticed the twitch of the students’ eyes as they darted glances to one another when he spoke. He guessed the cause and swiftly moved to disarm any mistrust, adding, “Before we converse further, I will apologise for my lack of learning and the crudeness of my speech. I was not brought up to the Latin of my betters. I was born and raised on the Isle of Man. Whatever learning I possess, I acquired late in life and through the instruction of those but little better informed than myself.” He gazed steadily around the table and concluded, “I am sorry if my speech offends you, brothers. I humbly beg your indulgence.”
“Nonsense!” cried Roger Bacon. “All scholars are pilgrims on the same journey. Some may have set foot to the path the sooner, and so have advanced a little further.” He, too, passed his gaze around the gathering. “As a pilgrim people, we do not presume to hold judgement over one another, but accept all like-minded travellers in our company as friends for the journey.”
The students, subtly chastised, ratified this sentiment with hearty cheers and thirsty quaffs of beer, hailing the newcomer in their midst.
“My thanks,” said Douglas, wiping his mouth on his sleeve in imitation of his companions. “I am your servant.”
“Since our company is complete,” said the master, “let us break bread together and commend our converse to the Almighty, may our erudition bring him glory.”
“Amen!” cried the students. “To supper!”
Three of the more junior members were dispatched to the kitchen to collect the food and bring it to the table. They trooped off noisily, returning shortly with a collection of crockery filled with roast meats, small loaves of bread, and a variety of vegetable porridges. Wooden spoons were passed around, and they all fell to with a will. Douglas was glad he had remembered to bring along a knife of his own since, in an age where everyone was expected to furnish his own cutlery, the hospitality of the inn did not extend past the communal wooden spoons.
The meal soon settled into a convivial hum presided over by Master Bacon, and Douglas observed the manners and culture of his fellow diners. The camaraderie was genuine and seemed deep, as was the esteem in which they held their renowned professor. When Friar Bacon spoke, all eyes turned to him, as all thoughts yielded to his guidance. His was the last word in all discussions. As might have been expected of academics, the talk around the table was a heady stew: chemistry, mechanics, mathematics, astronomy, all mixed together with heavy dollops of philosophy and theology-much of it beyond Douglas’ ability to digest. However rich, the master was always able to elucidate any matter further, or expound in greater or finer degree. Douglas sensed that the scope and sophistication of the man’s thoughts were staggering, and though he could not follow the intricacies of expression, he could marvel at the suppleness of mind that produced it.
When, long after the dishes had been cleared and the ale jars filled once and again and again, the students were dismissed to their evening prayers and the master at last turned to his newest guest. “Now, my friend, we have some time to ourselves. Will you accompany me to my laboratory, where we can speak more privately?”
“Of course, I would be honoured.”
Leaving the inn, they went out into the night, passing through the city only intermittently illumined by torches and braziers set up at the street corners and tended by the town’s bailiffs-the local militia who acted as peacekeepers and enforcers of the king’s law. Tonight the old town was quiet, and the two men-accompanied by a truculent shadow in the form of Snipe-walked easily and unmolested down the wide street leading to the bridge and its imposing tower. Upon reaching the base of the tower, Master Bacon produced a large iron key and proceeded to unlock his laboratory, which occupied the ground floor.
While the professor worked his key in the lock, Douglas turned to Snipe. “Stay here and guard this door,” he told him, bending near. “I do not wish to be disturbed. Understand?”
By means Douglas did not perceive, the professor lit candles with a mere snap of his fingers. As soon as it was light enough to see the interior, Douglas observed that it was a single large square room, its stone walls unadorned, its floors bare. Two long board tables set up on trestles side by side ran the length of the room, their surfaces covered with books and parchments at one end and bottles, vials, jars, and mixing bowls on the other. In a nearby corner stood a brick oven something like a small blacksmith forge; smouldering coals sent a thin tendril of smoke rising towards a hole in the ceiling. Surrounded by arcane tools and vessels of copper, iron, tin, and bronze, it gave that corner of the room the appearance of a combination foundry and chemist’s laboratory.
Near to the oven was a large wooden chair piled high with fleeces and coverings. A large iron candle tree stood to one side of the chair, and a contraption resembling a cantilevered drafting table stood on the other. From this Douglas surmised that it was the place where the eminent professor did his reading and thinking and writing.
“Welcome, my friend,” said Master Bacon, waving out the reed he used to light the candles. “Every creature has its true home. This is mine. Here I have everything I need for the sustenance of the inner life.”
“A most commodious dwelling,” agreed Douglas. Indicating the collection of bottles and jars on the table, he said, “Am I right in thinking that you are engaged in alchemical investigations?”
“You are perceptive,” replied the master. “For some years, I have been pursuing the promise of alchemy. Alas, it is proving a very elusive prize. It is with no small regret that I confess I seem no closer to achieving the goal I have set for myself-although I have made many discoveries and enjoyed some small success along the way.”
“Nothing is wasted,” said Douglas.
“Verily.” Roger Bacon smiled indulgently. “For the scholar no effort is ever wasted.” He moved to the end of the table covered by his manuscripts. “I believe,” he said, rolling up one of the parchments to clear a space, “you have brought something for me to examine. Let us be about our business.”
“I am your servant,” said Douglas. Reaching into the inner pocket of his robe, he brought out the small, linen-wrapped parcel; he removed the cloth and placed the book on the board. “I would be most grateful, sir, to receive your erudite opinion, for I confess its contents are wholly mysterious to me.”
“Not sir,” corrected Bacon, “but brother only. We are fellow priests, are we not?”
Douglas merely smiled and pushed the book nearer. Roger Bacon’s gaze fell onto the volume, his dark eyes suddenly agleam with the excitement of the chase. “Let us see what we have.” Taking up the book, he carefully opened the leather cover and stared for a long moment at the first page, then turned it, glanced at another, and then three more in quick succession.
“How did this come into your possession?” he asked, his voice trembling. His gaze turned fierce. He stabbed a finger at the text. “This… this book-how was it obtained?”
“Is there some difficulty?” replied Douglas slowly. Unable to read the meaning behind Bacon’s words, he stalled for time to think.
“Do not be offended, I pray thee,” Bacon said. “But I must know. It is of utmost importance to me.”
“It belonged to the previous abbot, I believe. As I have it, the book was found among his things when he died last spring,” Douglas lied. He had practised the story so often, he almost believed it himself. “How it came into the dear man’s possession, I cannot say. The present abbot could no doubt tell you more, but as he is too old and infirm to make the journey here, I was deputed to the task.” Douglas offered a smile of wan sincerity. “Beyond that, I can offer nothing. I am sorry.”
“A very pity.” The eminent scholar shook his head gently. “It may be that certain questions must remain unanswered until another day. In the meantime, we shall proceed with the task before us.”
Roger Bacon opened the book again, and Douglas breathed an inward sigh of relief as he watched the scholar brushing his fingers lightly over the close-written lines of abstruse symbols, his lips moving all the while.
“Can you read it?” Douglas asked, trying to affect a scholarly disinterest.
“For a truth, I can,” confirmed the master. “You see, my friend, I am the one who devised it.”
“Devised?” wondered Douglas, uncertain he had heard correctly. “Do you mean that you wrote this?”
“Oh, no,” Bacon replied with a quick shake of his head. “I did not compose this book, but I transcribed the script in which it is written.”
“Pray, what language is represented here? I confess neither I nor anyone else I know has ever seen the like.”
Here the master scholar allowed himself a bemused smile. “That does not surprise me in the least,” he said gently. “Few mortals will have ever seen it.” He lowered his gaze to the text once more, brushing a line of the flowing script with his long fingers. “It is the language of the angels.”