Master Richard the Scribe
A Tale of the Age of Faith
The tang of salt-kissed air offered up by the Channel still lingered in his nostrils, even after the five-hour journey from the chalk cliffs of Dover to his destination in Canterbury. Master Richard the Scribe ran his gaze over the parchment scroll summons sent to him at his former residence of Bec Abbey, near his birthplace in the heart of Normandy. Its script, perfectly ruled along knife-measured lines, he recognized as that of his friend and fellow scribe Rumbold, one of Archbishop Anselm’s personal scribes, his use of sharp, angular ascenders evidencing his Norman style. Made from the highest-quality vellum, cultivated from the sheep pastored by the Canterbury Cathedral priory and remarkable for its supple and smooth texture, the document reminded him of the great joy and gratitude he gave to God for his life as an itinerant, professional scribe.
The pale English Sun was just beginning to set behind clouds pregnant with impending rain, their trails already hazing the air with mist. Winter frost crunched beneath the shoed hoofs of his two horses as his carriage trundled along a winding, cobblestoned road in Canterbury, the armored knightly bodyguards who met him at Dover riding side-by-side behind him. A few street vendors straggled on either side of the road, hocking their fresh vegetables, baying sheep, snorting pigs and clucking chickens, as well as the woolen clothing for which England was famous and other crafts made by Canterbury’s fine artisans. The aroma of meats roasting on spits and honey mead and mulled wine shared in taverns after a hard day’s work mingled with the musk of domesticated animals being led back to their fields and barns outside the city. Richard smiled and gave a silent prayer of thanks for his undeserved fortune at again visiting such a renowned sanctuary of Christian civilization.
Finally, as his caravan turned a corner, the magnificent Canterbury Cathedral loomed into view, shrouded in a halo of fog sparkling in the fading sunlight. Since Richard’s last visit some years before, Ernulf, the cathedral’s new prior, had added a west wing which doubled the size of the great building, transforming it into an even greater spectacle and testament to the prosperity and piety of Canterbury, though by all accounts Ernulf had not yet finished his elaborate plans. Staring up in awe, Richard was reminded of the Abbey of Saint-Etienne, which he saw often growing up in Caen and which was, so he had heard, a prominent inspiration for the cathedral’s design.
As Richard arrived at the cathedral’s entrance, with the cloister and other attached structures of the cathedral priory coming into view as the evening fog cleared, he was met at the western portal of the cathedral cruciform by Archbishop Anselm and Prior Ernulf themselves, as well as chief scribe Rumbold and several attendant monks, their black Benedictine habits and tonsured heads acting as a blending uniform. Even from this distance the celestial hum of Gregorian chant echoed from within the great cathedral as Mass was offered at its High Altar and in radiating chapels for the benefit of ambulating pilgrims. Richard stepped down from his carriage, a leather carry-bag on his shoulder, and genuflected before the archbishop, whose erudition and holiness radiated like the transfigured auras of saints and angels in his manuscript illuminations.
“Your Eminence and Prior,” Richard began, as his audience looked upon him with serious yet glad smiles, “I answer your solemn summons to offer my skills in aid to the work of producing copies of the great Fathers of the Church, the books of Sacred Scripture and the works of ancient Greece and Rome for the posterity and embellishment of the Canterbury Cathedral library and the edification of its holy monks.”
Reaching into his carry-bag, he gingerly pulled out a voluminous codex, its ivory-carved, leather-bound text protectively covered by a sheet of chemise fabric. Still kneeling, he held it up to his receivers and bowed his head. “Accept this gift, your graces, as a sign of my service and dedication to the work for which I have come: a copy, made by my own hands, of the De consolatione philosophiae by Boethius, given for my deliverance to you by the goodwill of my former employer, Abbot Theobald of Bec Abbey, once your own abbey, Your Eminence.”
As one of the accompanying monks took the gift with great care at the prior’s signal, Archbishop Anselm blessed Richard with the Sign of the Cross: “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. May God grant you the peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and bless all your contributions to his Holy Church.”
Richard made the Sign of the Cross, then rose and followed the archbishop, the prior and the throng of black-clad monks through the doors of the cathedral, his mind alight and his heart uplifted with the prospect of inscribing and illustrating, as well as overseeing the making of new codices for his Christian brethren of Canterbury.