Posts Tagged ‘William the Conqueror’

How to Stop a Bully (I)

Tuesday, June 3rd, 1079

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.



“Give it to me.”

The command was clear. Otto was much stronger than we were. We couldn’t argue. Josseran slowly held out the little bird nestled in his cupped hands.

We had found it at the base of a tree, a small brownish sparrow with a broken wing. We were bringing it to the infirmary when we ran into Otto the Red.

As we looked on, powerless, Otto grabbed it by the head. The bird frantically flapped its lone working wing. Otto used his other hand to block it, squeezing the tiny body. Extending both arms so we could see the little creature struggling in his grip, he twisted both hands in opposite directions, breaking its neck.

Then, satisfied by his performance, Otto tossed the lifeless body back to Josseran, who was silently weeping.

“Next time, when I say help me with my homework, you help me. Understood?”

Josseran, tears streaming down his face, nodded. Holding back my tears, I looked up at Otto. “You are so mean!”

Instantaneously, he slapped me.

“You, Norman pig, you shut up or I will remove you from Burgundy, as I did with the bird. Go back to your filthy land!”

Living in Cluny Abbey and attending the schola was fine with me. Except for Otto. At 19, he looked big and strong to us. Obviously bored, forced by his powerful family to attend the schola, he only enjoyed fighting exercises. And picking on us.

Otto was descended from the prestigious and feared family of the dukes of Burgundy. Besides me, almost everyone around here was a vassal to them. Otto’s father had died five years ago, before his grandfather Robert died. The latter, a violent man, passed away two years later, entrusting the title to Otto’s elder brother, Hugh Ist.

Otto the Red was looking for power. Being a younger son, he had no chance to inherit the dukedom, which would pass to Hugh Ist’s children. That’s why he was still studying. Preparing himself for a career in the religious world. Even though I couldn’t picture him as a bishop, that’s what was likely to happen in his future. I didn’t like this idea and neither did Otto. As time passed, he became more and more violent, like his grandfather. Unfortunately, we had to be his classmates.

We often felt like helpless animals in his hands, even Henry, his  younger brother. Whenever Otto felt like it, he would hit us, kick us, or pull our hair, just to hear us scream. Of course all of this was done out of view of the magistri. What could they say, anyway? His family name was too powerful for most of the monks to do anything about it.

When Otto was absent, we felt happy. When he joined the lectiones, we felt anxious. Especially Josseran, who was only safe in the scriptorium. He would run there as soon as he could, away from Otto’s claws.

At 11, Josseran was one of the youngest at the schola. He was the son of Rainaud, Lord of Bagé, who had died when Josseran was only three. His mother, Clementia, a small rotund woman drowned in sorrow, had refused to retire at the nunnery of Marcigny, east of Cluny. She had moved from Bagé to Cluny where she rented a small house, always worrying about her son and his future. Even though she was obviously overfeeding him, Josseran was as thin as a knife’s blade, the complete opposite of his mother.

He was quick to understand things, although the big blue eyes on his thin white face always seemed somewhere else. I liked Josseran because, I guess, I felt close to him, neither of us having a father. Clementia had also a mother-like feeling towards me but it was too much for my liking.

Josseran’s grandfather, Rodolphe, was still managing the family lands. He was old and was looking forward to his grandson taking over the lordship.

I couldn’t picture Josseran as a fiery lord, though. He was much more comfortable among the books in the scriptorium. That was the only place where he would really open up, happy to be immersed in parchments and charters. Josseran had a much better understanding of books than Henry and I.

His writing style was already outstanding and the shapes of his caroline minuscule letters were amazing. He could even read very old charters.

Outside of the scriptorium, Josseran was miserable. Physical exercises were not for him, and he could barely lift his sword. In the schola, despite his intellectual abilities, he was no match for his much older classmates.

One day, the little Lord of Bagé didn’t attend class. Nor did he attend the following day. Worried, on the third day of his absence, Henry and I went around the village looking for him. We knocked at the door of his house and when his mother opened it, we knew something was wrong.


“What happened to Josseran?” I asked.

“He is not feeling well. A little bit sick,” she mumbled. “He has to rest.”

“Can we see him? We brought some homework,” I said while Henry showed her the bag he was carrying.

Clementia seemed uneasy. “I will give it to him, thank you,” she answered, snatching the bag from Henry’s hand.

We remained silent. She forced a smile. “Josseran will be back soon. He will be happy to know that you care so much for him. God bless you.” She slammed the door in our faces. We looked at each other and went back to the abbey.

“She didn’t even offer you some honey on bread,” Henry said, breaking the silence as we were walking. “You know how much she cares for you.”

“What can we do?” I asked.

“I  guess we should find Otto and talk.”

“Are you serious? Your brother is going to beat us just for asking him a question.”

Henry sighed. “Do you have a better idea? Do you care for Josseran? Obviously, his mother is scared. She is not going to help us. Remember, even sick as hell, he would go to the scriptorium. He loves it, and he was not there yesterday.”

With fear gripping our bellies, we began looking for Otto. When we asked brother Eginhard, he looked surprised.

“You are looking for trouble?”

“Not at all,” answered Henry. “I have to talk to my brother about something he asked me.”

“Since when does he asks you things?” laughed Eginhard. “I haven’t seen him around since breakfast.”

As an older student, Otto was able to have his own cell. We entered the room and called out for him. Nobody answered.

Vespers will ring soon” I said. “We must go to the church for prayers.”

“Anyway, it is getting dark. Maybe he will be there.”

“Well he should. How could he miss Vespers?”

“You know my brother,” said Henry. “I don’t think saving his soul is something he thinks a lot about.”

After Vespers, we went to the coquina. As we were walking past the bakery around the domus, I shared my thoughts with Henry. I was relieved not to have found Otto because I still felt scared just to talk to him. “We will have plenty of time tomorrow to find your brother. Cluny is a huge place. He might even find us before we do…”

“You couldn’t say it better!” a sharp high-pitched voice hissed behind us. We recognized Otto’s voice at once. Shocked, we turned around.

Henry’s brother slowly headed towards us, as if strolling, a smile on his lips. We started walking backwards. Horrified, I noticed a sword resting in his hilt. It looked huge.

Behind us we heard steps. We almost bumped into Ranulf and Toly, his two conniving friends. They shoved us against the wall of the domus.

We were trapped. And scared.


Otto the Red walked towards Henry, getting very close.

“Here is my nosy brother who should study instead of asking the wrong questions.” Suddenly, he slapped him. Henry didn’t say anything, biting his lip.

Otto came towards me. Too close.

“And here we have the Norman scum again. No father, no mother, no name. Like William the bastard pig! No family, no bloodline. Just plundering and stealing lands. Like rats. Normans are rats!”

I lifted my head, angry at him for insulting King William the Conqueror, but he pushed me against the wall and grabbed my neck with his hand, slowly tightening his fingers.

“This is what we do here in Burgundy to Norman rats!”

Ranulf and Toly were sneering, encouraging Otto to get rid of the Norman maggot. Suddenly, he let go, stepped back and while I was massaging my throat, coughing and trying to recover my breath, he spoke to Henry.

“You think my soul will not be saved? You don’t trust me enough to get a good deal with God at the right time?” He laughed.

“You heard us?” asked Henry.

“I was there, in my cell. Who do you think you are? I am too important to answer to little boys’ calls. Especially from a foreigner who had better get out of Burgundy!” I lowered my head, my throat still hurting.

“What did you do to Josseran?” said Henry.

“I thought so. You were wondering about that gnome. He got his lesson,” he sneered, looking back at his friends. They laughed.

“He will be back soon.” said Ranulf

“If you can recognize him,” added Toly.

At this point, things went fast. Otto ordered us to kneel down and his friends shoved our faces to the ground. Then we heard the cold rasp of the sword being unsheathed.

I panicked, silently starting to cry. Henry, his mouth full of soil, screamed at us. “Are you mad? You cannot kill us! This is sacred ground. God will punish you. You will rot in hell!”

A kick from Ranulf in the ribs choked him. The swoosh sound of the blade and Henry’s scream terrified me.

He…he killed Henry!

A second swoosh. Shouting, I asked God for forgiveness. The impact of the blade on my back was unbelievable, and then everything went black.