By Patrick Cook - Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA - 23 November 2014
In August of 999 a small party of men stood at the mouth of the Corrib, where Galway huddled behind thick stone walls. It was a Viking town, like all the towns in Ireland. The Irish themselves lived only in ring-forts and monasteries. The little group was there on sufferance, as long as they behaved.
The party consisted of Father Gildea of Clonmacnois, his Abbot, Macconroy, and six bodyguards. Gildea was a short dark man, with black hair and an innocent, round face. That face had been his safe-conduct in many a touchy situation -- no one could fear trouble from his mild eyes and smooth brow.
Macconroy was nearly as moon-faced and innocent as Gildea, but a certain wariness and a habit of darting glances everywhere hinted that he would be hard to fool, however clever his adversary.
The bodyguards were not so blessed with innocence. They were hired killers and looked it, armed with pouches full of foot-long darts, and long, two-handed swords. They were there to protect the monks and their goods from the O'Flahertys, who were likely to swoop down on traders and carry them off to their fastness in Connemara, where they would enjoy the goods and sell their owners into slavery.
The bundles from the monastery were piled under a rough shed on the banks of the river, where swans floated down with the current, took flight, and landed upstream again, over and over.
Cured goat hides, calf skins for parchment, jars of mead -- the produce of Clonmacnois. They were awaiting the arrival of the ships from Spain in their last voyage of the year, before the winter winds off the Atlantic made such trips impossible.
Gildea was the first to spot the ships, three large vessels in the Spanish pattern. They struggled up the river against the same current that so troubled the swans, using both sail and oar, until they landed on the gravel. Sailors leapt from the ship and pulled it up with ropes, then drew swords and stood guard while other sailors unloaded the ship and spread their goods out on the gravel beach.
The Spanish had brought wine for the monastery masses, gold and silver for chalices and reliquaries. They had inks and dyes for manuscript illumination. They also had the greatest treasure in Gildea's eyes -- a manuscript of Father Romanus' from the Benedictine monastery in the Pyrenees.
This was rumored to be a breakthrough, a new philosophical approach which combined the wisdom of the pagans with the eternal truths of the faith. Gildea could hardly wait to read it, and he had obtained permission to copy it for Clonmacnois's library as well. Of course, the abbot had to read it first.
Gildea bargained for the gold and silver, the dyes and wine. The Spaniards claimed that the hides and parchments were not enough to pay for the entire load. They counted the hides quickly, and figured their costs even more quickly, using symbols Gildea did not understand. After his own laborious count, he had to admit they were right. He took less wine and gold, and the sailors were satisfied. They sailed away to other ports, their boats loaded with skins, bow-blanks of yew, iron and tin ingots, rough-cut garnets, and amber.
The monks loaded their donkeys and set off for the monastery. Abbot Macconroy spoke to his monk.
"Did you notice, Father Gildea, how the Spaniards did their sums?"
"Yes. When they discovered that our count was wrong."
"Ah. Their barbaric symbols, which sped their calculations so marvelously. I do remember. I also remember that I distrusted them, and checked the numbers myself. They were correct, alas, and we were wrong."
"Those barbaric symbols they learned from the Moors, who invented them. Their secret is, that they count by tens."
"Count by tens? Anyone can do that. That's no secret."
"True. But the Moors numbers actually go in tens themselves, and large numbers can be manipulated as easily as you can manipulate a handful."
"Wonderful. And where did you hear of this, Father Abbot?"
"From my brother abbot, Father Romanus. He claims that the Moors know many secrets, medical and philosophic, that they have lost books of Aristotle and Plato, whom we only know from references in Augustine. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have those books in our library, Father Gildea?"
"Truly it would, Father Abbot. But what stands in the way?"
"Alas, the books exist only in Arabic. They were translated years ago from the Greek. Father Romanus has no monk who can read the Moors language -- only hints of the treasure. It's a real pity."
A week later, the abbot gave Father Gildea Father Romanus' book.. He read with impatience, disgust, even, at times, despair. He returned the manuscript to the abbot with none of his former enthusiasm, and little desire to make a copy. His smooth brow was troubled, his moon-face clouded. The abbot noticed.
"What is it, Father Gildea? What has disturbed your serenity? Has Romanus made grammatical errors in his text? Is his Latin corrupt? Has he misquoted Virgil, mangled Cicero?"
"No, Father Abbot. His Latin is correct, his quotations accurate. Nothing is wrong. How could it be? Father Romanus has merely said the same things everyone else has said for years. He isn't even rewriting Jerome or Augustine -- he's rewriting Isidore of Seville. Another compendium. Among the many compendiums we already have, including Isidore's."
"Well, Father Gildea. I am surprised.. I for one found Fr. Romanus' book very useful. A great text for the novices to memorize, arranged to lead them from lower truths to higher…"
"Yes. That is the great innovation. A new arrangement. For seven hundred years we have made new arrangements of the same old intellectual furniture, trying to see which is more comfortable, which most useful for the novices, without bringing forward one new thing. It's been almost a thousand years since our Savior gave up His life. People are going to notice that we are out of ideas."
"Our Savior has risen from the dead. He forgives our sins, seventy times seven times. Especially the sin of pride, Father Gildea. What have you to add to this? What could be 'new'?"
"Forgive me, Father Abbot. I mean no change to the deposit of faith. But couldn't we at least write about it in a new way? I am sure I could write about my love for truth as an image of my love for God―indeed, as all of the loves my soul holds. Or, as another example, couldn't we try to build as the ancients did? I can't believe their cities sat in such filth as ours do, nor that their temples were as small and dark as ours."
The good abbot thought about his impatient monk. On the one hand he was a troublemaker, forever questioning the most basic things. On the other, he was the most skilled illuminator he had, capable of turning out text quickly and accurately, or of elaborating a capital letter into snakes and birds, dragons and lions, or whatever else his fancy made of the alphabet. He didn't want to lose Gildea.
Still, Gildea didn't understand how ignorant he was. He had no idea what a flexible language, filled with subtlety and nuance, he would need to pull off his project. He had no idea of his mathematical ignorance either. To build like the ancients, without their knowledge -- impossible.
"Do you remember our conversation on the way back from Galway, Father?"
"I do. We discussed the mathematics of the Moors, their philosophy and medicine."
"None of which we know, of course―neither the mathematics, nor the medicine, nor the philosophy?"
"Well, that is correct. Father Abbot. Still, we must push on, should we not? Shouldn't we try to advance the glory of God ourselves, even if we don't know everything the ancients did?"
"It would be vain to advance at this point―the best we can do is hold our ground. Build the towers, copy the manuscripts."
"I don't understand, Father Abbot"
"The point is that we have much to learn. Before we can build anew we must learn the secret of large numbers. Mistaking the count of a few hides is embarrassing. Mistaking the stress of a dome is disastrous. The same is true of language. Our Latin is good for expressing a few plain truths, not for subtlety. Please, Father Gildea. Copy the manuscript of Father Romanus, so I can send the original back to him in the Spring. Forget these impossible projects."
Father Gildea continued to beg for permission to write his great work, comparing the love of God to other loves. Finally the abbot gave in, with the stipulation that the hothead stick to his illumination after the great work was done.
Two months later Father Gildea begged permission to see the Abbot. He presented two manuscripts to him, one of Father Romanus' book with an illuminated capital on each page, very nicely done. For a frontispiece, he had done a carpet-page depicting the cross elaborated and swirled, with gold and green, red and yellow inks. He also brought his own manuscript, in plain text, which consisted of about four hundred four-line stanzas, in Erse, with the third line of each in Latin. A monk's piece, if ever there was one.
He read two pages of the manuscript and put it down. A waste. Stiff, forced, obvious. Not an interesting comparison or arresting phrase in the whole work.
The abbot then looked at the carpet page. Father Gildea had let his imagination run beautifully wild here. The bottom of the cross held three Spanish ships, whose high prows turned magically into swans, their necks folding in and out within each other . The bodyguards faces, murderous and cruel, looked down at two little monks, Then Spanish sailors scratched in the sand, their scratches turning into bird-tracks, leading once again to swans, whose necks entwined again in a different pattern. Then the abbot returned, engaged in conversation with another Abbot (was this Father Romanus?) while the monastery walls crumbled around them. Abbot Macconroy doubled with laughter. The carpet page was wonderful, worth any number of dull enumerations of the correspondence between natural love (of truth, or beauty, of physical and spiritual love) and the love of God, which made up the manuscript. A noble theme, a slavish execution. How could it be otherwise?
Father Abbot turned back to Gildea's manuscript and fell asleep over the third page, which managed to make the love of the natural world dull and uninteresting. He hoped for a day when a new world could be born, when churches would soar above the European plain, and poetry to rival the classics could be written. He was even stronger in his belief that the time was not ripe for innovation; but he had no idea that a mere century and a half would bring these miracles to pass.
NotA bene: An earlier version of this short story first appeared in print in Ancient Paths Literary Magazine. Our revised version is published with the permission of the author and the Ancient Paths editor.