April 15, 2013

Death in Paris

Death in Paris: A Fiction
by Ted Witham

Giovanni hurried out of the side door of the Franciscan College. It was cold, and he tugged his tattered habit tight around him intoning his favourite prayer for warmth: “Father Francis, if you had lived in Paris, you might not have insisted on sandals.” The icy wind curled around his ankles.

He turned the corner from St Hilaire’s Church as his tall slim figure rushed through a narrow alley towards the great Boulevard of St Genevieve. Thomas had asked to meet him in Rue St Nicolas, but as always in Paris in November, the streets were crowded and it would take Giovanni the time of Vespers to reach him.

Thomas’s message was urgent, but unclear. The messenger had slurred, whether from beer, running too fast, or simply being nervous in his presence, and all Giovanni had understood was “corpus sal… sal… sal,-something”.

As he walked under the grey sky, Giovanni tried to unravel the message. “Corpus” was easy – a body. But then, what sort of body would interest Thomas? Certainly not his own great hulk, which had earned Thomas the nickname of “The Dumb Ox”. A corpse, perhaps, but why? More likely a body of work, a new manuscript, or even his ever-expanding Summa!

And sal- could mean ‘dirty’. It did in their native Italian. A dirty body. But it could be the start of saliens, a jumping body, a leaping body, maybe a body in the process of resurrecting. Now, that would be interesting. But then, Giovanni thought, it might be something central to their work as doctores on ‘salvation’: the salvation body. But then why an urgent message, and not the usual scroll? No, nothing really fit.

Students were everywhere, many drunk. The smell of piss was strong on the air. Giovanni heard a group of young Poitevins, their yellow scarves proud around their necks, abusing Bretons for their fickleness. Leather-jerkined German youths shouted boisterously that they were proud not be drunk like the English. Giovanni felt homesickness pull at his stomach when he heard an Italian accent in the crowd. It could even have been a Viterban from Giovanni’s home province just north of Roma.

Giovanni pushed his way through the rowdy crowd. Some made way when they saw his brown habit and tonsure. A friendly voice greeted him, “Ave, Magister” and he recognised a student from his class seated on a rough chair in the shade of the building. “Ave, mi fili,” he called back cheerily and hurried on.

Giovanni loved this town, its chaos, its boisterous students, its love of learning, its devotion to God and the saints. He turned the corner of La Marche, the Lombard College, into Rue St Nicolas. The smells of stale beer turned to cabbage from the kitchen where the cooks were preparing stew for their resident students.

He saw his friend straight away, standing and waving to him from a doorway. “Salve, Tommaso,” he smiled. “In here.” Thomas waddled through the door. Giovanni followed, his mind still trying to work out the message. Sal-, salve, maybe, but surely Thomas wanted to say something more than just ‘hi.’ Greetings were rare in Thomas’s conversation.

Thomas filled most of the dark room, and Giovanni could just make out a body on the floor. “Mortis,” Thomas grunted in Latin. A large sword had entered the body just below the rib-cage. Illumination flushed through Giovanni, almost as though he were deeply embarrassed. “Corpus alienum,” he whispered. A medical term. No wonder the messenger had macerated it. “Oc.” ‘Yes’ in the language of the south. “Corpus alienum in corpore,” finished Thomas.

“But why call me?” asked Giovanni. “What has it to do with us?” Thomas lit a small torch from the one candle in the gloom. “Perspice. Look,” Thomas pointed to the floor next to the body. Giovanni was feeling queasy, and the flame showed a large pool of blood. Thomas saw his friend hesitate. “Concentrate,” he said. “It can’t hurt you.” On the edge of the blood was a piece of scroll. The blood has soaked into it part of the way, leaving a few words visible: …gne Dominus diiudicatur et in gladio suo …

Fratre piccolo,” Thomas’s choice of title was intimate, “you know your Bible.”

Quia in igne Dominus diiudicatur et in gladio suo ad omnem carnem et multiplicabuntur interfecti a Domino,” Giovanni quoted fluently.

“I knew you’d know it, I knew you’d know it.” Thomas jigged incongruously about in the small space. “The prophet of Emmanuel, isn’t it?”

Giovanni was surprised. “Yes, the great Isaiah. But my friend, you didn’t recognise it?”

“No,” Thomas replied. “But now I do.” He repeated the verse, “For by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many.

“Some one believes this is judgement,” Thomas continued, “but I do not believe it. I do not believe it, because I know it cannot be true.” Thomas crossed himself, and Giovanni noticed a tear beading in his friend’s eye. He couldn’t bear to hold Thomas’s look and turned his eyes back to the corpse. The robes were grey, like Thomas’s. The face was young, much younger than the two doctores. The hair had not been tonsured, so this young man could be a novice or postulant.

In horror, Giovanni asked, “Who?”

“Brother Corrado,” Thomas clenched his teeth as he mentioned the name. “They think I did it.”

“Who? The university proctores?”

“Non,” whispered Thomas, “mi fratelli. My brothers. That’s why I called for you.”

The situation was beginning to become clear to Giovanni. He knew his friend evoked a variety of strong responses among the Dominican brothers. Some, particularly the novices of latter years, believed him to be a saint and a genius. Giovanni suspected they might be right. For other brothers, Thomas was a cause of fun, the lumbering ox who couldn’t tell a lie, the social incompetent who, while dining at the royal palace, simply because a thought struck him, took out his scroll and quill. Many were jealous, especially those who knew that he had turned down the Holy Father’s invitation to be a cardinal. Others, knowing that his writings were known throughout Christendom, took an ignorant pride in their local celebrity. It was this group that was pushing for him to be Regent of the University of Paris, a position Thomas knew could bring him into conflict with his friend Giovanni and the Little Brothers, and so was resisting this pressure.

Thomas and Giovanni had agreed that the times were becoming dangerous, but had determined whatever the politics to continue as friends.

For the first time since entering the tiny room, Giovanni looked to the door. Two burly novices stood there, one nearly as big as Thomas himself. Thomas followed his eyes. “It is so,” he said. “You and I need protection, and I want you to help me survive what’s happening.”

Giovanni was moved by the pleading in his friend’s eyes, but felt bewildered. “What can I do for you, mi caro, besides locate a quote?”

“Help me unravel it, fratello piccolo. It’s a puzzle, and if I don’t understand it, then who knows who else could receive a corpus alienum thrust through their ribs? When will it start; the many being slain by the Lord?”

There was a commotion at the door. “Brother Thomas, Brother Thomas, it’s time to go,” one of the novices said. “Come with us, Brother Thomas, come with us, Brother Giovanni.”

Without thinking, Giovanni scooped up the torn scroll from the flag stones and thrust it into the interior of his habit.

As Giovanni came back out into the street, he noticed that dark was fast approaching. The two novices threw their cowls over their heads and set off at a pace, the two doctores having no difficulty keeping up. Both were fitter than they appeared, accustomed as they were to walking to Rome every three years or so. They headed up with the crowd along the Great Street St Vitor, and headed towards the great complex of St Vitor. A side gate opened and suddenly they were out of the noise and crush and in the monastery garden. Birds were singing in the trees, and they could hear the mighty Seine lapping on its shore over the great wall.

“Wait here, Brothers.” Brother William rushed into the kitchen door of the monastery, and returned several minutes later with Brother Cook.

“Will the Benedictines come to our aid?” whispered Giovanni to Thomas.

“Indeed,” said Thomas. “Brother William is the brother of the Cook.”

Ave, Brother Thomas. Ave, Brother Giovanni. Dominus vobiscum.” The Cook inclined his head in a reverent bow, and kissed the hands of each of the mendicant brothers. “The Lord has brought us together, and salvation is on His mind.” He smiled. “At least, I can help with your present salvation, Brothers. The kitchen barge awaits you on the other side of the wall. Brother William will take you to the barge-driver, and will escort you down river. Your destination will become clear. But go, the swords of the Lord are beginning to gather.”

A few moments later a small gate on the river side of the garden opened. The two novices ushered the older friars through the gate, hurried them down the barge path, and jumped on to the barge. Thomas and Giovanni followed.

“Brothers, an honour. But there is no time to waste,” the barge-driver rasped out in his Parisian accent. He cast off, ran to the back of the barge with a huge pole and guided the flat boat down-stream. They slid under cover of the growing darkness under the looming tower known as Latournelle.

Soon the lights of the monastery of Notre Dame de Paris and the great church itself were coming into view.

“Notre Dame?” queried Giovanni.

Non. Before then, I think,” said Thomas. “The great church stands out, but St Denis de Paris comes first.”

St Denis shares l’Île de la Cité with Notre Dame. In the citadel of St Denis, French kings were buried, but it was the monastery at which the barge tied up.

Le bon Dieu te bénisse.” Thomas bowed to the barge-driver, who was clearly surprised that this scholarly cleric would address him in his own dialect.

Brother William escorted the doctores off the barge and directly to the reception room in the abbot’s house. He and Brother Novus bowed to Thomas and Giovanni “We leave you here, good Brothers, where you will be safe, at least for tonight. Novus and I are attached to Notre Dame, so we can make our way home without drawing attention to your presence here. May our Lord Jesus bless you and keep you safe, holy fathers.”

They withdrew, leaving Thomas and Giovanni alone in the room. They looked about them at expensive furnishings and draperies. A huge gold crucifix hung over the main door, and a lavish tapestry showing the foundation of the monastery of St Denis covered the main wall. The room was lit by an opulent candelabra and twelve sconce candles along one wall. A large fire burned in a huge fire-place, and for the first time that day, Brother Giovanni felt warm. Both men knew that few places in Paris boasted such space and comfort. They moved to the fire, took their hands out of their large sleeves and held them to the warmth.

After some time, an internal door opened. A Benedictine appeared, his rank immediately clear by the pectoral cross glinting about his fat middle. Both friars bowed, muttering, “Dominus vobiscum, Pater,” and receiving a quickly traced benediction in reply.

“Welcome, little brothers,” the Abbot began smoothly. “I am glad you have been brought here. You will be safe. Dedicated to your studies, you may not have noticed passions are inflamed at the University, and you are unwittingly the cause of them.”

Labbra lusinghiero. The Italian phrase came unbidden to Giovanni’s mind: ‘Flattering lips.’

“There are certain factions among the Dominicans, Brother Thomas, who would have you appointed as Regent to the University. As you now know, the faction has started to use violence to push your claim.”

“Father,” said Thomas impatiently, “You know I cannot accept the appointment. Such a move would cause great division between the Preachers and the Little Brothers, some of whom are representing Giovanni here to be Regent.”

“No,” gasped Giovanni.

“Neither do I wish our brother here to be elevated to Regent. I fear our Master could not control the Dominicans if a Franciscan were appointed, and our scholarly work would be lost in the ensuing hostilities.” Thomas spoke passionately. “It has always been the Benedictines who can supply the balance and continuity for these great positions, and there are one or two and at Notre Dame who would be much preferable to either of us humble friars. Dom Justine, for ex--”

“No,” the Abbot cut across firmly though courteously. “There is no monk who brings the same intellectual and scholarly weight to the position as you do, Brother Thomas. The name Benedictine would be a laughing stock if I even proposed the name of Dom Justine. And there is another reason that you must accept.”

He paused, and rang a small bell. A novice nervously entered and bowed to his Abbot.

“Show our visitor in, Brother,” the Abbot ordered.

Just as quickly, the novice disappeared. The door opened again and a secular man in fine, brightly coloured court clothes entered, and bent to kiss the abbot’s ring.

Dominus vobiscum,” said the newcomer.

Benedicamus te,” replied the Abbot. Giovanni gasped as he recognised the newcomer and registered the Abbot’s ambiguous phrase. A benediction, of sorts, true, but it sounded like the Abbot was condescending to the royal person by arrogating the royal we to himself.

Giovanni bowed. “Altissimo,” he breathed.

Thomas grunted. “Domino mi.” Thomas’s obeisance was considerably shallower than Giovanni’s. Giovanni could see Thomas’s decreasing patience with what appeared to be an elaborate courtly game.

“Highness,” said Giovanni, “Father Abbot says one of us must accept the position of Regent. Both Brother Thomas and I are highly flattered by this attention, but must decline if only because the appointment of either of us would inflame the situation between Franciscans and Preachers. What can Your Highness say to attempt to change our minds?”

“Brother Giovanni,” said the Dauphin, “you saw the man who was killed. The corpus alienum. Did Brother Thomas tell you the man’s name?”

“Yes, Lord,” Giovanni replied. “Brother Corrado.”

“And his last name?” queried the Prince. Giovanni looked at Thomas, who averted his gaze.

“No, my Lord.”

“Would it shock you to know that ‘Brother’ Conrad was not a brother at all. His last name is d’Aquino.” Thomas continued to look away from his friend.

“Thomas,” said Giovanni. “Your kin.”

“And not just cousin to Brother Thomas, but son to the King of Sicily. A prince, like myself, sent to discover the court in Paris.”

“Then, Lord, what caused Prince Conrad to …?” Giovanni’s question trailed away.

The Dauphin looked at the two friars grimly.

“Our cousin the King of Sicily sent his son to be under our protection,” the Dauphin explained. “Conrad quickly became bored with our court and wanted to experience the University. But he was a prince, and we could not allow him to mingle with the students when there was a threat of violence. We approached the Master of the Preachers and persuaded him to disguise the Prince as a Dominican novice so that he could pass unnoticed through the streets. But somehow…”

“Somehow,” Giovanni continued “the pro-Thomas idiotes picked him off.”

“No, Brother,” the Prince shook his head. “It is more complicated than that, and that is why we sent for you to help us unravel the mystery. We believe the hand that plunged the sword into Conrad’s heart is working to undo the court of my father the King of France. It is convenient for him to have us believe that it is motivated by the cause to promote Brother Thomas.”

Giovanni withdrew from under his habit the scroll, still soaked on one corner in Prince Conrad’s blood and examined it thoughtfully using the light of the chandelier.

“Do you see this mark?” He pointed to where the paper was torn. The Prince saw as if engraved into the paper a crude shield with a crown above and a griffin on one side. Presumably a twin griffin was on the other half of the shield.

“A watermark,” said Thomas. As scholars, both were intrigued by this new technology.

“Sicily’s arms!” exclaimed the prince.

“It does confirm what your Highness has told us,” said Giovanni.

A bell tolled, its great voice muffled by the thick stone walls of the Abbot’s house. Giovanni pictured several hundred monks blearily rising from their cots to make their ways to the great churches on the island, those of St Denis and Our Lady.

“Only the Holy Father can command,” continued the dauphin, “but you would earn the gratitude and friendship of this prince if you could discover who committed this ignoble murder, and reflect on the invitation to you both to serve as Regent of the University.”

The prince turned and swept out of the room. Giovanni and Thomas made their bows to his retreating back.

“But I do command you,” said the Abbot, smiling. “you are my guests and you must stay overnight or until the culprit is found. Here you will be safe.”

Thomas thought for a moment that such hospitality was akin to that of the governor of a jail, but forced a smile nonetheless.

“We are honoured to be your guests,” said Giovanni, reflecting that St Francis would have accepted the offer of hospitality with an open heart and deep gratitude.

A novice showed the two mendicants to the Abbot’s guest room.

Both Thomas and Giovanni ignored the beds with their soft furnishings and took covers and laid them on the wooden floor as sleeping mats. Not only was this in accord with their Rules, but they were more comfortable sleeping as they normally did. Just before he blew out the candle, Thomas reached out an arm and lassoed a pillow to place under his head. Giovanni smiled in the darkness.

The two brothers lay in silence for some minutes. Giovanni was not about to sleep.

“Thomas,” he said, “remind me of why the Trinity is indivisible.”

“It’s after Nocturna,” grumbled Thomas.

“You know that I am not permitted to attend your lectures, and it would give me great pleasure to hear you lay out the argument.”

Thomas grunted, and sat up in bed. “Questionis: Cur Trinitatis indivisibilis?” he began. “Responsus: Primo: Each member of the Trinity is bound to the other and is ever found in company with the other two. Secundo: The Trinity itself is uncaused, but the action of one member on another causes movement in the world. With each action of love in the world, there may be a different face of the Holy Trinity, but the effect of its action is one. Tertio: ergo, the effects of the movements of the Trinity in the world will appear consistent as they arise from an indivisible first cause.”

Sequi,” Giovanni smiled. “I follow. When you see a unified effect, the three elements of a trinity have acted in concert to produce that action. Thank you, Brother.” He fell silent again.

Some minutes passed. Giovanni could hear the earliest roosters greeting another day. It was still dark in the guest room and would be for some hours. The roosters were full of optimism, but Thomas began to snore.

“Brother,” said Giovanni, “help me again.”

Thomas rolled over on his mat, and tried to settle into sleep on his left side, the pillow tucked up between his shoulder and huge neck.

“What, Brother?”

“Tell me the tale of the disgraced Sicilian.”

“Now, Brother?”

“If you please. You tell these stories of intrigue so beautifully.”

“Seven summers past, a Sicilian called Gennaro Luigi from Roccasecca, my town, came to the University. He was an aspirant for us Preachers. He did some study, but he was a wild man, and assaulted some of the King’s men in the street. The Prince sent him back to Roccasecca in disgrace. But Gennaro Luigi was a clever man, and vowed to take revenge on princes everywhere. News about his disgrace had travelled before him to Sicily, so he changed his name to Cropus Aliud – the Other Cropus, borrowed a brown habit from a passing friar, leaving the Little Brother naked on the hills outside Rome, and continued on to the court of Sicily. There he claimed to be a priest, a doctore like us. His Latin was polished, and his appearance sufficiently ecclesiastical, for him to gain entry to the court. He involved himself in all manner of scandal in the court, robberies and assaults, and disappeared about two years ago when the King of Sicily threatened to have him imprisoned. No one has seen or heard of him since. Now, why all these questions, Brother?”

“A trinity of things is acting together,” Giovanni replied. “The watermark on the blood-stained paper, the quotation from the Prophet, and the message brought to me. The paper can only have come directly from the Sicilian court, which is where Cropus has been making havoc. The writing can only be that of a literate man who has attended this University, or perhaps Padua or Genoa. The quotation was of revenge. And the messenger told me his name. Not corpus sal, but Cropus Aliud.”

“But where will we find him?”

“Here: in the monastery of St Denis, pretending to be a monk, and hiding as near to the French court as possible.”

Thomas was waking up. “So Father Abbot was wrong to think we would be safe here.”

“Indeed, Brother, this is the place of least safety in the whole of the city of Paris. And more than that. Father Abbot of the flattering lips knows Cropus is here. Brother, we are not safe.”

“He will not act against us while the Prince knows we are here,” Thomas stated. “But we will not be able to leave this place until the Highness if informed.”

The two friars listened as the monks shuffled to Lauds and back and then to Prime, and the sun eventually rose over Notre-Dame de Paris, bringing a new crisp day. The friars recited their offices in the guest room.

Well before Terce, Brothers William and Novus appeared. Giovanni related to the two brothers the conclusions that he and Thomas had reached during the night.

“Go to the Dauphin with a message from us,” they asked, “and request His Highness to come here to the Abbot’s house. Only he can ask the Abbot to deliver up Cropus Aliud.”

An hour later, an embarrassed Abbot stammered to the Dauphin that he hadn’t really known who the stranger from Italy in the other guest room was, but he owed him the ministry of hospitality.

The Dauphin called soldiers while the Abbot summoned the accused. The moment Thomas addressed him in Sicilian as Frate Gennaro, Cropus turned to the dauphin and begged for mercy.

“Do come and enjoy the ministry of hospitality at the palace of St Denis,” the Dauphin said grimly and nodded to the soldiers to escort him to a lower level of the citadel. “We will keep him there for some time,” he assured the Brothers. “You may now go home with our thanks and friendship.”

The two friars blessed the Prince and he bade them godspeed.

The next day a messenger from the Prince arrived at the Dominican friary. “The Dauphin thanks you for the service rendered to him and his father the King. The court is more deeply convinced that you are the only one who can be Regent of the University. Would you consider the post if a tabulam of Benedictines and Franciscans, led by Dom Justine of Carcassone, care for the University day to day, and you would then be free to continue your lectures and be for the University a symbol of the best it can be.”

Thomas grumbled, but to the Dauphin’s surprise sent back a message of acceptance.

Ten days later on the Lord’s Day, the Franciscans had celebrated their great Mass, and then gathered in the refectory to break the fast together. Giovanni took his turn in the kitchen, and plunged his hands into a great bowl of water filled with dirty plates. He smiled, thinking of his friend Thomas, who had been asked not to present himself for kitchen duty at the Dominican friary. Too many plates were broken, and too often the dishes had to be done again. Thomas composed his Summa in the kitchen, as in every other place.

There was a disturbance behind Giovanni. “The Pope’s messenger,” excited voices called to him, and indeed a messenger pushed into the kitchen, knelt before Giovanni and extended to him a red hat. “His Holiness has work for you in preparing for the great Council,” said the messenger.

There was a long pause. All in the kitchen were silent.

Giovanni smiled. “Hang the hat on the tree outside until I’ve finished the dishes,” he said, “then I will wear it in all humility.”

* * *

Historical note: Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (baptismal name Giovanni) and Thomas Aquinas were the two leading intellectuals in the University of Paris through the 1250s. They graduated Master in the same year and must have at least been acquainted with each other, but the historical record does not speak of any friendship such as I have described here. Thomas was first appointed Regent Master in 1257. It was actually not until 1274 that Bonaventure finally accepted the Cardinal’s red hat. He was elected the Minister General of the Franciscan order in 1257.

* * *

Ted Witham’s stories, memoirs and poems have been published in journals in Australia and in the US. As well as a compulsive writer, Ted is an Anglican priest and a Franciscan tertiary. He lives in the beautiful south-west region of Western Australia.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

Often words and phrases are the ignition to begin writing a story, but as I write I like to create a world by describing and naming specific details. This accuracy is for me the key to historical fiction, but characters I can empathize with, as with all story writing, are the main attraction of the genre. Writing historical fiction is getting inside the head of a character or two and seeing their world through their eyes.