The Great Shadow of Death (II)

The codex Renbaudus was found in 1962 in Southeastern France. It contains the memoirs in Latin of an 11th century Norman knight, Renbaudus of Bernay. The codex mainly narrates his pilgrimage to Jerusalem between 1095 and 1099.

Even though many pages of the codex have been lost, it is now understood that it originally contained different sections. In one of the few surviving ones, Renbaudus describes his childhood and the lessons he learned from the Benedictine monks who raised him at Cluny abbey.

As a codicologist, my aim is to translate and share with you what he wrote more than 10 centuries ago, hoping these timeless lessons will be useful. I have taken some stylish liberties and you can find a glossary at the bottom for place names, difficult words and Latin words. You may also hover over the dotted-underlined words to get the definitions.



The next time I met Father Eusebius, Henry was with me. The Great Abbot Hugh had authorized us to spend the night in Berzé. Delighted at the prospect of more freedom, we rushed there just after the None prayers.

Berzé was one of the barns around Cluny Abbey. Crop harvests were stored there waiting to feed the large population of the mother house. Its peaceful atmosphere and its proximity had made it a favorite of the Great Abbot.

At Berzé, the cena was, as always, pleasant. The harsh Cluniac monastic rules didn’t apply at the small church, and we felt good escaping the detailed rules of Cluny. Sitting among elderly monks, we could talk freely while eating, something that was not permitted at the mother house.

As we were enjoying a warm pottage with freshly baked bread, Father Eusebius looked at me. “Renbaudus, I am curious to know what happened to the Prime cleaning of your classroom.”

Henry turned to me before I could open my mouth. “Now I get it!”

The good Father looked puzzled.

Before he could say anything, I waved my hands. “Please Father, let me explain from the beginning.” I gave Henry a warning look. He shrugged and focused on his pottage.

“After our conversation, I gathered my six classmates who were supposed to do the cleaning of the classroom. I told them that I wanted to play Knights & Heathens. Everyone cheered. I said that I wanted to play in the morning. Josseran who, as you know. is the smartest of the bunch, asked me when we were going to play, as we had no time between Prime, the cleaning, and the start of the lectiones.”

Father Eusebius listened carefully and Henry slowly emptied his bowl.

“I asked my group if they had any ideas, but no one answered. I then suggested that maybe we could play and clean at the same time. They looked at each other and Guy asked how we could achieve that.”

Several other monks started to pay attention. Father Eusebius raised his white, bushy eyebrows. “I am curious too. What was your idea?”

“I explained that we would all be Knights and everything that had to be cleaned would be Heathens. Everyone thought it was a great idea. I asked if they would come next morning after Prime and I got a resounding ‘Yes!’ which pleased me.”

Father Eusebius looked around the table. “I think that was a good idea.”

Everyone agreed.

“So next day after Prime, did everyone come?”


“Every single classmate came. Even Hilduinus who is the youngest and we feel is still a toddler,” I answered, pulling off a big chunk of bread from the still-warm loaf. “I felt proud of myself.”

The good Father frowned.

“I am sorry. I shouldn’t have. Because then, we grabbed our brooms made of boxwood branches and started to feverishly attack the dust all around the room.”

“And this was when the Heathens started to win!” offered Brother Tolius, the prior of Berzé.

I looked down at my remaining pottage. “Yes. It sort of got out of hand.”

Father Eusebius looked around the table. “I think we should congratulate Renbaudus for his efforts.” Several heads nodded. His gaze returned to me. “Tell us what you learned from this first attempt.”

“We were so excited to fight the dust with our brooms that we didn’t notice we were not cleaning anything,” I said. “We were laughing and running all over the place. The dust flew everywhere. A few of us got hit by some else’s broom. And then Brother Servius opened the door.”

Around the table, most of the monks were smiling. Father Eusebius tried to remain solemn. “Was it time to start the first lectio?”

I nodded.

“You must have felt uncomfortable,” said the good Father.

“I thought I was going to die right there! Father Servius was furious. He kicked my butt out of the room and sent me to the Great Prior for punishment.”

Henry was laughing. “That story was very popular around the abbey for the next few days.”

Father Eusebius smiled. “Renbaudus, did you understand what was wrong with your agreement?”

“Yes. It should have been much more detailed.”

“What happened next?”

“The Great Prior, Father Odo, asked me a few questions and I explained about having people work in agreement with you. He then ordered me to clean the whole room by myself after the lectiones were over.”

“Fair enough?” asked Father Eusebius.

“Yes it was, and Henry was nice enough to help me.”

The good Father turned to my friend. “I know we can always rely on you, Henry.”

He shrugged. “Renbaudus didn’t do anything wrong. He tried to make things better. It just didn’t go the way he wanted.”

“I thought the Great Prior would ground me for several days,” I said, “but he surprised me. He told me to gather my group in the afternoon, to review my strategy, and start the Prime cleaning again the next morning.”

“He gave you another chance? That was noble,” said Father Eusebius.

“Yes, but that gave me a lot of ‘Great Shadow of Death’ feelings because I didn’t want to mess up again. So I took a long walk around the walls of the abbey, thinking about what I could do.”

Everyone at the table was paying attention.

In the corner of my eye I saw Father Eusebius retreating a little bit and smiling to himself. That made me feel good. He trusted my abilities. He knew I couldn’t fail.

Brother Tolius couldn’t wait. “Did you find a new idea?”

I looked at Father Eusebius. I must have looked proud.

Of me.

Of him.

“Yes, I did.”


The prior got excited. “So? Tell us!”

The other monks shushed him and they all looked at me.

“As I was walking, I thought the ‘Knights & Heathens’ idea was not good because it didn’t fit in a classroom. I had to find something, a reward within the setting of the room. But I couldn’t think of anything. What we usually like to do happens outdoors.”

Henry nodded. “It is so much fun to be running outside.”

Everyone shushed him.

“One thing I learned a while ago from Father Eusebius,” I said, “is that if you cannot find a good answer to your problem, try to reverse it.”

The good Father nodded in appreciation.

“So I asked myself, what could be helpful for them in the classroom setting?”

The grey-headed monks around the table suggested a few solutions:

“Reviewing lessons?”

“Correcting homework!”


I turned to Henry. “You know what? Each time we have a problem, we should come here and ask them. They have all the answers. And fast!”

We all laughed.

Brother Tolius was still curious. “How did you convince them?”

“After None I gathered my group in the small cloister. They were not really eager to listen to me. They had endured the ire of Brother Servius while getting extra homework. The last thing they wanted to hear was one of my new ideas.”

I was getting thirsty from talking so long in front of such a wise assembly. Henry understood, and gave me a bowl of fresh grape juice. I quickly downed it, cleaned my mouth with the back of my hand, and went on with my story.

“I asked them, ‘Do you always have time to do your homework before the schola? Do you always understand the exercises?’ They shook their heads, not saying a word for fear of having to commit to anything I might offer. I then said, ‘Before the first lectio, we have plenty of time to clean the room. Then those who want to ask a question can do so. But you can only ask one question. If you want to ask a second one, you must first answer a classmate’s question.’ After thinking about it, they all agreed.”

“Very elegant solution,” chimed in brother Gregorius. “A perfect distribution of the weight in a very scalable way.”

I frowned, not understanding what he meant.

Father Eusebius helped me. “He means that you made sure that there were not only people asking questions, but also that everyone got the opportunity to ask at least one. Very shrewd indeed.”

Brother Tolius was again curious. “Next morning, how did it go?”

I smiled. “I had doubts, but everyone came. We quickly cleaned the room and then sat in small groups to help each other. When Brother Servius opened the door, he was astounded to see us, writing, reading, or talking quietly to each other.”

There was silence in the small refectory.

Father Eusebius slowly stood up, his joints creaking. “Thank you Renbaudus, for this enjoyable story. As I keep saying to you and Henry, there is always a way. Just think! There is always an answer. If we cannot see it, often it is because we don’t want to see it. But the solution is there, whether we like it or not.”

I didn’t grasp his cryptic words. I looked at Henry who shook his head, letting me know that he also could not understand what the good Father meant. But by then I was too tired to ask.

Maybe tomorrow.


Berzé: small village near the abbey of Cluny.
Cluny: abbey located in Burgundy, France. Cluny was the head of the most powerful monastic movement in the Middle Ages.
None: mid-afternoon prayer around 3 pm. It is supposed to be the ninth hour of the day, hence the name. It is interesting to know that the word “afternoon” comes from “after none.”
Cena, cenae: dinner, supper.
Lectio, lectionis: lesson, class, lecture.
Ire (from the Latin ira, irae): anger, rage. The words “irascible” or “irate” are derived from it.
Extra: believe it or not but this is also a Latin word meaning “outside of.” Here the meaning suggests “more than the regular homework. Outside of the regular amount.” Think also extraordinary, extraterrestrial, or extra time!

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