The grey skies were awash with rain over the English road. Streams slunk through the muddy ruts, and splashed under the wooden wagon wheels of a solitary cart that wound its way up the long hill to the abbey. A single man walked beside the weary cart-horse. The monk turned away from the window. It had been a year since Bertram had last come to the abbey, and every year to the day he was faithful in returning. Brother Mark hurried down to the gate, where Brother Obadiah was already opening the modest wooden bars. The cart creaked through slowly. It was clear that their guest was tired out from the cold rain and soft roads. Under the long brown hood, his face was barely visible. “You, you, and you,” he said, pointing at three watching novices. “Get the cart into the stable, and don’t you dare take any of the wraps off until I get there.”
The novices hurried off with the horse and cart, cases jolting under the heavy leather and cloth tarps that swathed the entire contents of the cart. “Slower!” he called after them, and turned to Brother Mark.
“Is all well here, Brother?”
“All is well. As usual, you arrive on time, and as cantankerous as ever.”
“Bah! What’s wrong with my temper? It’s these fool novices of yours. No idea how to treat precious cargo.” He snorted. “It’s a good thing I take a year between visits. I can only take so much of you celibate ink-dribblers.”
Together they turned and headed for the main hall.
“Father Abbot had been expecting you. He’s particularly interested in this new book about the history of the church in England. Do you have it?”
“Yes, indeed: the work of the ecclesiastical Bede. And much more. Come, let us talk to the abbot.”
The abbot was happy: the abbot was ecstatic: the abbot was superlatively delighted.
“At last! How are the books? How are you? Do you have the book of Bede?”
Bertram laughed. “One question at a time, Father. I’m fine, and the books are well also. No mishaps this trip, despite the rain: my coverings can handle all the water God can throw at them.”
“And Bede?” asked Father Ansel eagerly, clutching at Bertram’s soaked shoulders.
“I brought it” Bertram answered, and was treated to the sight of the Reverend Father doing a victory jig in his brown habit.
“I take it that you’ve been waiting for this particular book. What is it that could have instilled such excitement in an old Benedictine abbot?”
“Mind your tongue, young man” returned the suddenly stationary Father Ansel, smoothing out his habit over his age-spotted, loose-skinned arms. “I could still thrash you if I had a mind to.”
Bertram playfully pulled a grimace and rubbed his hindquarters. He recalled the day he had stolen a cheese from the monastery cellars and walked out of the door straight into the arms Brother Grim, who dragged him to Father Ansel. Bertram expected a weak attempt at a beating but the subsequent thrashing had left him bruised for weeks. He lost his taste for stolen cheese, and gained a new respect for Father Ansel.
Bertram shivered, suddenly aware of his storm-drenched garments. “Yes, you probably could. But setting aside old vendettas, I wouldn’t mind some dry clothes and a meal.”
“Ah! Of course! Forgive me, I’m forgetting my charity in all my excitement over my books. Come down to the kitchens: I’ll get Brother Mark to come down with a fresh robe while the cook gets you a meal.”
In the kitchen, Bertram basked in front of a roaring fire while the kitchen monks quietly prepared the evening meal. He sighed. This was why he liked monasteries, and especially Alnwick Abbey. Peace. It wasn’t just the quiet, it was also the attitude of contentment, assurance, and an unhurried pace through life. Monks had life down: they knew who they were, and where they were at. A good life, if a little removed from outside events. It was a simple world, one that revolved around good solid things, like prayer, psalms, and getting garden dirt under your nails. And the books. There were always the books.
This was one of many monasteries in England that specialized in copying books and illuminating them. Painstakingly and precisely duplicating precious manuscripts handed down to them from previous generations filled much of the monks’ lives, and over the years the beauty of the art they made on the pages had filled their monastery with many treasures.
Of course, the main problem was that monks, being secluded from the world, had little recourse to new books to copy. To get new books, they had to send one of the brothers away to another monastery to beg new books to take back to Alnwick Abbey to be copied, which meant that he had to take their own books to trade to the other monks. It was only reluctantly that the abbots let the brothers leave the cloisters and brave the world. And after they had copied most books from the nearest monastery, they began looking farther afield. Eventually one brother was robbed and wounded on the road, and the monastery lost a precious, nearly priceless copy of Augustine’s Confessions, leaving both monasteries without the book. With the other monastery refusing to lend more books, Alnwick was stranded without books to copy, and the art began to die out.
Bertram the novice, Bertram the disobedient one, Bertram the troublemaker ran away from the abbey when he was fifteen. But the books, the marvelous books with their pictures and sacred stories had never left his mind. Two years later, a figure came walking up the road to Alnwick with a large pack strapped onto his back. The shocked gatekeeper let Bertram in, and he came before the abbot, where he unloaded his pack, displaying to the delighted saint book after book after book. The copyists renibbed their pens, mixed new ink, and before long books grew again under the copyists’ care. It was his way of giving penance for running away. He alone loved the monastery and knew the ways of the world, and thus Bertram the novice became Bertram the book-carrier.
Not only did he carry books for Alnwick Abbey, but many other abbeys as well. A messenger who diligently kept monasteries supplied with books, free from the worries and dangers of travel, found himself met with open arms all throughout the North of England.
And so it was that twenty years later Bertram came to be in the hot kitchen, thinking about the new load of books that were being taken to the scriptorium. He stretched on his stool and grunted. He would sleep well tonight, spend a day or two with the monks, selecting books to take out to the other monasteries, and then begin to travel southward again. The Abbey was situated in the far north of England by the River Aln, almost a border between England and Scotland. It was heavily guarded, and for good reason: relations between Scotland and England were tense. Ever since England had seized control of Scotland, sporadic episodes of resistance and unrest had broken out along borders, and an undefended place like a monastery presented an easy target for the eyes of raiders. Bertram had never traveled much in Scotland, but he kept well out of it with his book-trading: there were too few monasteries to justify such a dangerous trip. He always kept an ear open for news of any fighting that might affect Alnwick Abbey, and sometimes relayed news back to the monks to keep watch on the north side of the walls.