(creator: Howard of Warwick)
|Brother Hermitage was a young monk in the monastery of De'Ath's Dingle in September 1066 when the story starts. At first he seems a bit simple but, as another monk says, he "does think a lot. Can't be good for you." When his abbott said that he was "ignorant of so many things", he "found this rather hurtful. He knew pride was a sin, but he thought of himself as rather bright. And so he was, compare to the population of De'Ath's Dingle."
He particularly enjoyed lengthy theological discussions and "craved knowledge about everything but if it was a new area for him he got positively frisky." His father had once told him, after other children had thrown him into the village pond, "The only thing you can do better than anyone else is debate. Pointlessly. Next time they start picking on you, debate with them. They'll all be bored rigid and bugger off to bother someone else." And this is a skill he delights in using.
He explains his unusual name was due to the abbot of his first monastery suggesting that the best thing he could do for his brothers would be to become a hermit. "They would send up food and make sure that I was still alive but other than that they would leave me alone. After that the abbot took to calling me Hermitage and the name seem to sort of stick.There are times when I wish I was a hermit, you know."
He had handsome features. "His bright blue eyes were wide and honest," and he had an "open and fresh expression". It is a pity that "he worried about most things most of the time". He is very much an innocent abroad, being "a helpless rather hopeless monk .... all brains and no sense".
Howard of Warwich is, we are told, "but a humble chronicler with the blind luck to stumble upon the Hermitage manuscripts. His work has been heard, seen and read, most of it accompanied by laughter and some of it by money. His peers have even seen fit to recognise his unworthy efforts with a prize for making up stories."
Heretics of De'Ath (2010)
It is all great fun to read, even if most of the characters are highly disreputable, including the fat and repulsive Earl of Northumbria whose "eating habits were regular in that he ate all the time". The abbot lives in total squalor, looking rather like a "plague victim on the verge of death. Highly infectious, no one had bothered to give him any clean clothes, or feed him. Or show him where the privy was." Luckily, he seldom emerged from his cell.
Athan, the prior seems to spend much of his time hitting or kicking his fellow monks. It is he who has his own reasons for sending the obedient Hermitage on a mission to deliver a letter to the Bishop of Lincoln. As is only to be expected, the hapless monk sets off with no idea of how to find his way, then, after wandering around for a whole day and a night, he ends right back when he started, outside his own monastery. However, Wat the Weaver saves him from a violent assault. Why, Wat wants to know, was he attacked? "Hermitage thought that this was a very good question and started warming up for an exploration of the nature of sin, the presence of evil and the consequences of the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden." But Wat knows how to cut him short and has lots of questions to ask about what has been going on at the monastery. As he tells him, "If there was any organisation guaranteed to out-corrupt an honest crook, it would be the church."
It is a simple story, told with great gusto and humour, as when we are informed that "Preparations fit for the passage of the dead brother Ambrosius into the hands of the Lord were made. He was put in the meat store." Some brothers "expressed genuine concern over this for well argued reasons", such as a feeling that "the Lord will be waiting to take him and would hardly do so if the dear departed were accompanied by departed deer" and there was the objection that "Brother Jeremy, the monastery's butcher, was a fellow of remarkable speediness in his work but of equally remarkable poor sight. It was some time since he had lost a finger, but there was no guarantee he would differentiate a brother from a boar and serve something wholly unsuitable, not to say sinful."
But even Hermitage can be provoked. When he is imprisoned by the vicious Athan, he gets into such a fever pitch of anger that "If Athan had really been in the room he would have seriously thought about considering having a long talk with him." How desperate can you get?
Eventually, the abbott tells Athan, "You are a violent man. Vindictive, spiteful, aggressive and unpleasant. You bear grudges and ill will such as I have not seen for a long time, and you have no friends at all to speak of. The other brothers look on you with fear and loathing.They tremble in your presence and create the most imaginative fates for you in your absence. You have achieved the fine balance of being hated, while cowing all those around you such that none of them are prepared to do anything about it."
There are some nice terms of phrase too as when we are told that the ever-curious Hermitage, being invited to inspect the body, "was as happy as a cardinal in a convent". I liked too the way that King Harold (yes, he too appears in the story) suggests to Wat the Weaver, the master of pornographic tapestries, "I have an idea for a work based on a skirmishing band of soldiers accidentally crashing through a bathhouse. Perhaps you can work on some preliminary sketches while I'm away. Once I've defeated William (the Conqueror) and taken his lands, I have a mind to hang something insulting on the town hall in Bayeux. Never did like that place." And he postpones further investigations, having to hurry off to fight the Battle of Hastings in which, in this version, Athan prevents later enquiries by commissioning "a phenomenal archer. Reckons he could take someone's eye out at two hundred paces. Being a Mason, he's very discreet." So that explains Harold's fate.
The book describes hitherto-unrevealed aspects of 11th century life, and is written in a racy style that makes full use of modern vernacular. It's an entertaining read, and, even if, after a time, some of the humour seems to get just a little forced, it is to be recommended for its sheer originality.
Although Hermitage eventually sorts out what must have happened, he is unfortunately absent from much of the action as he is held prisoner outside the castle by a band of highly incompetent Saxons who tell him, "We're always killing Normans, we are. It's what we do." And Hermitage himself gets into more trouble than he needs to by always insisting on telling the "whole truth". He was "totally incapable of keeping his mouth shut".
The book had got on to a promising start with the words, "These were very dark ages. Thus mused Henri de Turold as he stumbled through one of the darkest bits and stubbed his toes on a beam of worm ridden English oak". And it was an amusing idea for the dreadful lord Grismal always to address Aethelred, the previous owner of the castle who was now his servant, by the name of Ethel.
But unfortunately, although it has its amusing moments, too much of the humour and comic invention, of which there is much less than previously, starts to sound distinctly forced, and some of the comic caricatures are highly unpleasant ones, ranging from Grosmal who revels in the idea of inflicting pain and torture, to the Saxon Lady Foella who enjoys killing animals just for the sake of it. This is intended, no doubt, to be satiric but in fact it is often just plain nasty. And long conversations, such as that between Lady Foella's maid Eleanor and her boyfriend William, soon become distinctly tedious. The author is even reduced to having to explain his own jokes as when it turns out that the name of a particularly small man is Magnus, and he has to translate it for the benefit of his readers.
After all the fun of the first book, it comes as a considerable disappointment.
|The cover looks a bit home-made - but then transferring his manuscript to Kindle obviously presented Brother Howard with quite a challenge, as can be seen from the chapter ("Caput) heading below where the two prompts in brackets always seem to get left in.|
|Similarly the words "section break" have been left in the text wherever the author intended a space to be left. But as the Kindle book only cost 49p, perhaps we should just regard the whole thing as an act of charity.|