Pestilence Sampler

Approaching the dressmaker’s shop, Gwen remarks on a group of people nearby in the square. An itinerant priest is holding forth to any who will listen, and the crowd seems to be slowly growing. My inclination is to steer our little party away, but Gwen and Catherine are adamant. “We’ve heard so much about these priests,” says my aunt. “It seems impossible that what we’ve heard could be true. Let’s just listen for a bit.”

So we edge closer, taking care to stay on the fringes and not become engulfed in the crowd. The priest is just hitting his stride with the exhortations I’ve heard far too often.

“You know in your hearts,” he says, “that God is saddened by your sin. That is why He has sent these trials upon you. Like a good father, He must discipline His children when they go astray.

“Repent! Give up your sinful ways! Beg God’s forgiveness, and He will take you back to His bosom and reward you with all manner of good things in life. Cast the heathen and non-believers out from your midst! Give up your dancing and singing! Be sober and be modest of dress!

“For if you do not, God will send a pestilence the likes of which you have never seen. There will be a great sickness in the land. Many will be stricken, and many will die. Only the righteous will survive! Remember the plagues God sent upon Egypt. The plague of frogs. The plague of locusts. The plague of boils. All these will be as nothing compared to the plague God will visit upon this land! And as in ancient Egypt, you will see your children die, and there will be nought you can do to prevent it.”

And then his message takes an unexpected turn. He pauses and drops his voice from the fever pitch with which he had prophesied a plague. “There is one among you today who may bring such misery upon you. A man selling books.” His voice starts to rise again. “Give up your reading of books, for there is only one true book and that is the Bible. There is only one truth and that is God’s truth, and the Bible is God’s truth writ for mankind. All else is heresy!”

He lowers his voice again. “But this man selling books is more dangerous than you know, for he has books written by non-believers. You must shun such things! Cast him out from your midst! Cast his heresy out with him!” The fever pitch is back.

And I have heard enough. “Donal, take the ladies to the dressmaker’s shop. Stay with them there until I come to fetch you. The rest of you come with me.”

We return to the bookseller’s stall. “Quick, my good man, grab your wares and go with Osbert here to our wagon. The crowd is about to get ugly, and I think you will be their target.”

The bookseller looks confused, but does as I say. “Osbert, hide him and his books under the wool sacks in the wagon. Then move away to a safe distance so as not to draw attention to the hiding place; but watch that he stays safe. Rupert and I will go find the sheriff or someone to disperse the crowd.”

“Hugo, go with them,” Rupert tells his squire. “Help make sure he’s well hidden.”

The three of them scurry off toward the wagon. Just in time, for the priest has finished and the crowd is milling around. At first, it seems they might disperse; but a couple of rough-looking men start to whip them into a frenzy. One carries a truncheon of some sort; the other picks up a loose cobble from the square. “Let’s go get him,” shouts the one with the truncheon, as he starts to lead people through the market stalls. They seem only too happy to follow.

I’ve no idea where to find a sheriff or magistrate so we head toward what looks like it might be a meeting hall for the town. There’s no one there. By now the crowd has found the bookseller’s stall empty and have started tearing it down, haranguing anyone nearby with questions about where he might have gone. When no one seems to know, they start smashing up nearby stalls, throwing the wares onto the ground, ripping down the stall structures. The sellers initially try to protect their property, but soon decide to flee rather than face the raging mob.

The crowd is now completely out of control. We can do nothing on foot. “Let’s go get the horses,” Rupert suggests.