How to Stop a Bully (IV)

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.



Still astounded, Henry and I entered by a side door of the church near the scriptorium. In the front, towards the autel, a few candles had been placed to provide more light. A man, alone, was kneeling. Praying. Nearby, close to the right pillars of the church, a small group of men stood waiting.

I silently pointed out our abbot, Hugh the Great, conversing in hushed tones with our prior, Father Odo. The highest ranking clerics of our abbey were there too. It was rare to see all of them gathered, waiting patiently for the Duke to finish his prayers.

Hugh Ist was barely 22, and had recently inherited the Duchy from his violent grandfather Robert. That had happened three years ago and he’d had to elbow out some of his uncles who believed they were the right heirs. But now, with the young duke married to the powerful Sybilla of Nevers, everyone was hoping for a long and peaceful reign.

Henry, gesturing, indicated that he wanted to get closer. So, we moved slowly, using the pillars’ shadows as protection. The Duke of Burgundy crossed himself, stood up, looked for a moment at the beautiful frescoes behind the autel, and walked toward the group.

I had already spent some time, invited by Henry, at the family castle in Dole, North of Cluny. I remember the young Duke had this boyish face that made him look younger, but with a sharp look that showed his determination. Tonight though, the sharpness was gone, replaced by utter sadness.

The Great Abbot came to him and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“We feel for you, my son. No words can ease your pain. Only God knows the truth.”

Hugh Ist barely nodded and moved toward the group. He looked at them, his face pale.

“I have made up my mind.” His voice was heavy with sorrow. “The death of my beloved wife is a sign that I had been going down the wrong path. I was looking for power and riches. I have paid the price. I wish now to relinquish all my powers and retire here as a simple monk, atoning for my sins.”

A surprised murmur ran through the group. The chamberlain, Bernhardus, the closest assistant to the Duke, stepped forward.

“My Lord,” he said, “this is so sudden. Maybe you shouldn’t make such a decision under these extremes circumstances. I implore you to wait a few days.”

“This is irrevocable,” answered the young duke, the sharpness coming back into his eyes for an instant. “By the end of this year, I will have made a donation to Cluny, released all my possessions, and will own but a simple robe.”

“My Lord, the security of the Duchy is at stake. You brought peace to your subjects. You are the most apt ruler for Burgundy. If you retire, who will succeed you?”

Hugh Ist let out a sigh. “The next of kin. My brother Otto.”


Strong protests arose from the group. The Great Abbot had a hard time silencing them. Reminding them to respect the House of God was not enough.

In the midst of the noise, I looked at Henry. His eyes, shocked, were still on his brother, the Duke. He moved forward, as if he wanted to walk there, but I grabbed his arm and stopped him.

“Henry, you can’t go now,” I whispered. “We are not supposed to be here.”

The group had now surrounded the Duke, and the men from his retinue were obviously trying to convince him not to act. Hugh Ist seemed oblivious of them. The abbey officials, the Great Abbot and Father Odo among them, were patiently waiting.

Finally, the Duke raised his hand to silence his entourage. Detached, he looked at them. “Upon God, Iesu and the Spiritus Sanctus, I say it again: my decision is made.” He turned again towards the autel, signed himself, and left the church, his retinue following.

Bernhardus stayed behind and looked at the Great Abbot.

“You are the most powerful man in Christendom. You can influence kings. The Pope follows your advice. You must stop the Duke, or Burgundy will fall again into anarchy!”

The Great Abbot answered slowly. “Sometimes a man’s will is stronger than anything else. The Duke will not bow to any pressure,” he said. “We will have to deal with whatever happens.”

The chamberlain lowered his head. “This is so sad. Burgundy could have become the most powerful state of all Christendom. He could have become one of the most revered rulers ever. But now…”

“Now what?…” said a sharp voice from behind them.

Otto the Red had slowly moved forward, obviously relishing the turn of events. He was still surrounded by the two men who had been sent to fetch him.

“Now my brother retires,” he said, “I become Duke, and I rule Burgundy!”

“Not so fast,” interjected the Great Abbot. “You may be the new head of Burgundy, but I encourage you to think about what is going to happen. Do you think your uncles will accept your rule without lifting a finger?”

“I will fight and rout them out!”

“With whom?” asked the Great Abbot.

“With the mighty milites of Burgundy!”

“My son,” said the Great Abbot, “the moment you step out from this abbey, I would primo, watch my back and secundo, look for help and alliances. You will no more be a spoiled child at the schola where you can do whatever you wish with your friends. In the real world, you need to think.”

Otto wanted to retort but the Great Abbot didn’t let him. “Yes,” he emphasized, “you need to think or you will not stay alive for long.”

“I will kill all who don’t submit to my power,” said Otto. “I am the Duke.” He raised his voice, which echoed in the church. “I am the powerful Duke of Burgundy!”

He looked over the Great Abbot’s shoulder, a sneer on his face. He was looking straight at us. I didn’t like the look in his eyes.


The next day, Otto didn’t come to the schola. I guess he was too busy securing his new-found power.

The mood in class was somber. Even Eginhard noticed it. Our plan, carefully crafted, had fallen apart upon the death of the Duchess. Josseran, when he learned about the latest events, had been particularly affected.

He went back home and didn’t attend any other classes that day. Henry also was deeply troubled. After all, this was a family matter. The loss of his aunt, the sorrow of his brother, the fight looming for the Dukedom. I, too, would have been too unable to cope.

Henry tried to put on a brave face for his classmates all morning, but he was not really there. In the afternoon, he practiced swordmanship harder than ever.

I didn’t. I went, as soon as I could escape, to Berzé. Sitting on his bench, Father Eusebius seemed to be waiting for me.

“Sit, my son. I heard the news.”

“This is a catastrophe, Father. Armageddon in Burgundy! We are doomed. With Otto the Red as the new Duke, we will all suffer!”

“Do I sense the ‘Great Shadow of Death’?”

I shut up. The good Father was inflexible about the “Great Shadow of Death” rule. Even after last night’s events.

“What happened since we met last time?” inquired Father Eusebius, as if nothing had changed in Burgundy.

A little bit shocked at his lack of compassion, I told him about our progress in reining in Otto’s bullying.

“That was luminous!” he exclaimed. “Henry, Josseran, all your classmates and you did a great job. How smart you littles ones are!” He chuckled. “I would have never thought about that.”

His reaction gave me some solace. He was right. The last few days had been peaceful for us. We had managed to find a way.

“What was Henry’s next idea?”

“We were supposed to follow Otto and learn as much as we could. Henry thought we might find out something we could use against him. To control him. Forever.”

“That was a good idea too,” confirmed Father Eusebius. “But not the best one. Now you know why. Controlling a bully is risky because people or circumstances change. Coercion is never a good idea. A willing person is much better.”

“It is imposs…” I cut myself short.

“Thank you, Renbaudus,” he said. “The ‘Great Shadow of Death’ is never helpful. You have a new situation whether you and your friends like it or not. You all worked hard and were able to neutralize Otto until today. The new situation might give you some new opportunities.”

I tried to share Father Eusebius’s optimism. “At least Otto will be far from Cluny.”

Father Eusebius’s reaction was instantaneous.

“Renbaudus! Don’t be selfish,” he said. “You think that as a Duke, Otto will be so busy hurting other people that he won’t care for Cluny. If you let him get out of hand, all Burgundy and beyond will pay the price. Even Cluny. You know him. You all are responsible for reining him in. You did it once. Think Renbaudus! With your friends, there must be something you haven’t thought of.”

He calmed down a little.”Remember that Otto the Red is a bully. The main characteristic of bullys is that they suffer from lack of confidence.”

“Are you serious Father? Otto is not confident? You should have seen him last night.”

“A bully lacks confidence,” he insisted. “He is seeking power. Did you notice that Otto only harasses weaker students? He never deals with adults or people as strong as himself. If he was confident, then this shouldn’t be a problem.”

I nodded, starting to understand Father Eusebius’s point.

“A bully is generally someone who was not respected at home. Someone who wasn’t cherished. If you can find something to do where he feels valued,” he said. “His life will turn around and he will be as gentle as a butterfly.”

His last words really surprised me.

“Otto, a gentle butterfly? How can it be?”

“Think Renbaudus, think!” answered Father Eusebius, enjoying this new challenge. “What could be done, so he turns around and becomes a gentle butterfly?”

He stopped talking, and appeared to be deeply thinking. After a while though, I noticed his body was slowly moving towards me. Father Eusebius was napping.

What could turn Otto around? I had to talk to Henry and Josseran. Maybe they would have some ideas. Nonetheless, I remained less than convinced. The “Great Shadow of Death” was still hovering above me.

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