Medieval Mirrors

Painting of a medieval family leaving on a journeyThe river spread before us into the flat delta. The fish raced to jump the rapids and rest in a calm widening. Much of the surface was rimed by a long shadows of tall trees from the soft banks. To hunt and fish here was forbidden by law, but the challenge was too great for the men and women of Marad village. We were prosperous and glad to own sheep and sow, to cut the soil and grow crops to fill a fat plate. I was known for my archery abilities as Buron the Bow, my good wife Alis cut cloth and sewed leather. She ran a business with considerable profit adding to our joint riches. Our son Duva at seventeen looked to the church for education and heavenly inspiration.

Under the sky, in these times all was well. The good God had spread his hand of favour across our green land, multiplying foul, grazers and folk.

Now, when we looked to the jumping fish, we rubbed our bellies in thoughts of cooked trout and salmon coated in warm butter.

But, we still had to catch them and Valance my best friend conjured up a plan. Simply, we had to split into three groups to take advantage of the river width and depth. Simple indeed, except the Baron had become used to our forays onto his lands.

Ecouland was first to be captured along with his wife Tilly and transported by whip to the Northern Castle. The rest of the good people of Marad made great haste through the Timber and thickets in ardent silence and arrow determination. We heard poor Ecouland and his wife were placed in the dudgeons naked and cold. Tilly was tied on to a plank and placed on her husbands chest to deprive him of full breath. This, before being relieved of a limb to send a message of all who had an eye for the Barons fish and deer. 

Swarms of bees had given us a taste for honey, washed in mulberry wine to entertain the throat of a consumer. We loved our hours of chatter and gossip by a wood glow fire. To listen to outlandish tales of lands where dragons and devils played. Where trees could talk and magic stones would tell the future, where birds could lift a man and carry him to a high mountain cave and when green children appeared under a full harvest moon. We were quite proud to have our own wise man Shmuel who practiced his strange religion in the quiet of the forest glades. Shmuel was consulted in monetary matters and would lend money if he thought it would help the village.

The smell of ripe harvest induced proud farmers to boast of the high yields and soaring profits. We felt safe and secure as our implements were sharpened on the anvil near the blowing fire of Smith Azon. Excitement was in the air as we anticipated gathering golden bundles under the clear blue skies, old songs would be sung and the young chaff  in bright humour.

During a night the rain came in drips, tapping on the roofs and slowly building to a wild crescendo. The turbulence gripped and squeezed the clouds to pour the last drops. It rained for a full three weeks drenching our crops to the mud ground. The rain took our hopes and our resistance to the oncoming winter without mercy. At first, many were convinced it would not rain long and old country weather myths were reinvented to show the rain  would soon terminate. On the second week all doubts realised as the fields became muddy marsh. When the sun finally decided to grace, a stink of rot hung over the farmlands. We all knew the message of the rains was famine and its dance of death. Optimism and its good heart died.

The church bell at first rang on holy days and later every day. With continuous knell, the melancholy echo filled the forest and Mooreland.

Churches were full of attentive people waiting for good news from a well fed priest. Vivid painting on the church walls of heaven and hell were now very real. We could feel the closeness of eternity and the dark long sleep that was about to prevail on us all.

Now we passed each other with side glances of suspicions. Each time of passing, we wondered if this person had a stash of food or some think of value hidden. Still, the children played in groups that laugh, cried and ran like the wind. But the number slowly diminished with each lengthy month of growing starvation.  

Valance and I hunted the forests for the village catching the few deer and wild pig. It was good to bring home a carcass to roast for our families to share and to see the delight of the hungry as the fat dropped into the fire. We become bolder as game lessened and hunting on the barons land became normal. This was despite the penalties which now included starving in a dungeon and being boiled alive.

Time did pass slowly but pass it did. The spring brought new hopes when young animals and birds came to our table.

In Summer we bought some food from the towns at high prices.

Near to harvest the rains began again and repeated its destruction to the crops we had planted in the tilled earth. The village watched the proud crops fall under the battering rain and flatten to a mingled mess. We thought of their children and the old, hoping for a miracle of some kind. Thankfully, the Baron sent meat and flour to us and saved us so much hardship. In turn the church allowed the most needy sustenance from the monks kitchen…We suspected this was to prevent the rise of violence and banditry.

The winter was long and bitter as the game became less. Hardly a white hare or fox could be found. A large influx of town dwellers scrounging for food in the barren fields and empty forests. From the north a rumour spread of the old Rovan family children killing their mother and father for food. For this deed they were hanged partially and then disembowelled.

We did not want to believe it at first, but as time went by, we began to understand the plight of the children. Roving bands of folk attacked a farm large house killing all the cattle and burning what could not be moved. Soon we became concerned as news spread of the burnings close by. The next day we took our disquiet to the baron, asking his help. He arranged for a small force with our help to plan a defence. Valance and I were of the  few fit to carry a bow or spear, but  we worked hard to impress the barons officers.

In the set ambush seventeen of the band were killed and the rest strung up on the road for all to see. It was as if the dangling worn bodies were a sign of things to come, of fear and mortality.

A well known business man named Mosses had contacts as far as the Silk Roads and told us of a spread of disease. It had reaches the island of Sicily during one of his business tours and had caused much devastation to human life. But we had enough concerns looking of food, fuel and hunting down murdering bands.

After years of famine we gradually found our way to a reasonable prosperity. Our son Duva was now a priest giving us an important status. This helped in business and soon we reaped the benefits of comfort and surety. It was as if we were now back to a normality. Deer and Boar ran in larger numbers through the forests and fish swam in crowded rivers and streams. Our belief in a heaven and the faith in the guidance of the church returned.

 Mosses on a return from a trade in the Mediterranean told us a strange tale. A large fleet of Genovese ships had ran from the port of Caffa in stark fear of a plague. The ships were running to the safety of Messina, but by the time they arrived the crews were dead or infected. Grounded ships with dead crews lined the shore. This news was several years old and made us wonder of the probabilities of the pestilence reaching us. 

Unknown to us the Plaque ran riot over European countries who did not understand its power. Food became short and exporting became prohibited and fishing in numbers band. As people began to die en mass the harvests could not be gathered properly. The Black Market took over normal trade with robbery and looting common. Piracy became the method of supplying the black market to sell foodstuffs at exorbitant prices.

Our land had been at war with our neighbours for many years and our coffers were near empty.
Drawing shows gravediggers paring to bury plague dead
The first signs of the great mortality was an influx of fleeing people, most were in rags and starving. Fear was evident in all their faces which we found difficult to appreciate at the time.
Helping our fellow man was natural to us but there is a limit to the amount of food and fuel we had.

  As the plaque arrived in its wild virulence covering bodies with bulbous poison. Soon it outwitted the best of us and we began to look for simple explanations. Had we not prayed enough nor been devout enough, had we been lapse in our Christian duties. Did God find us wanting and sent a plaque as punishment. The silliest of theories became important and then dangerous. News spread that Jews had poisoned the water. What water? and where? did not matter and how was it possible? did not enter into the minds of those resolved to find revenge. Mosses our famous trader was first to taste savage reprisals. All of his family were beheaded and his property dispersed to the perpetrators. Shmuel tried to run but suffered drowning where we swam as a boy. No gold was found on his property and mobs searched three days and nights to no avail. I had to admire old Shmuel he out foxed the greedy and planted a legend of over flowing gold coffers in the quiet glades.

Duva succumbed to the Plaque now known as the Black Death carrying my good wife Alis with him. Devastation and hunger and war seemed to follow the plaque. Few stayed in the villages, towns or castles and left a barren wanting land.

It was then that reason betrayed me and I volunteered for the last Crusade. Pope Boniface IX announce a new crusade against the Turks, which in truth was his scheme to regain his lost power. There were now two Popes, one in Rome and another in Avignon. The papal powers had diminished and a nice war against the unbelievers was ideal.  
John de Gaunt and Philip the Bold were on this escapade and that was good enough for me. About a thousand from this Island formed the one hundred thousand army of John de Nevers. Needless to say it was cumbersome and slow in thought and movement. I decided the tactics would to be traditional disallowing any speedy actions. Jean de Nevers as commander was given the honour to lead the first attack on the city of Nicopolis with his French Nobleman. After all he had spent a lot of money on this adventure and the fist in the attack would be first to the booty.
Nicopolis had become a Muslim strong hold and therefore a thorn in the side of the church. On the way we raided the farms and villages destroying and plundering at will. The fine City of Rahova was sacked for food and booty, killing as many of the inhabitants as we could and taking the remainder prisoners.

NicopolisWe arrived on the outskirts of Nicopolis weary and hungry to find it well defended and well supplied.

Some one had forgotten the Siege weapons and this gave time for the Ottomans to organise a surprise for us.

Sultan Bayezid had been busy with his own siege at Constantinople but found the time to march his  hundred thousand men to aid Nicopolis. Along the way he arranged for the Serb army of one hundred thousand men to come along later. The Serbs were his vassals and his wife the daughter of Prince Lazar of Serbia.

Sultan Bayezid had been given our troop movements by yours truly Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan Signore of Verona, Vicenza and Pavia for a handsome profit. 

Both sides readied themselves in battle order. It was then for some unfortunate reason the French contingent decided to kill all the survivors of the city of Rahova. There had been a recognisance, but the finding were never transmitted to our French leader as there had been an argument between the use of light cavalry and his heavy cavalry.

The Vanguard consisted of  the French in the middle with us thankfully behind. While the Transylvanians were on the right and the Wallachians on the left. To counter this, the Sultan set out his cavalry as vanguard and placed his archers behind a hill. We did not realise the Ottoman cavalry were placed behind pits and long wooden stakes.

 The French cavalry in heavy armour charged towards the stakes and decided the only thing they could do was to dismount. This offered a perfect target for the Sultans archers. While still unhorsed, the French lines were attacked by the Ottoman infantry. French armour and sword proved decisive and the enemy were cut down, killing ten thousand of them. On horse the French Cavalry rushed Ottoman cavalry killing five thousand and forcing them to run to the protection of the hill.

Medieval battle paintingWe watched as the valiant French Cavalry reach the top of the hill now exhausted. Over the brow of the hill the full army of the Sultan lay in wait for them. Bravely and stubbornly they fought, only defeated by the larger force. Jean de Vienne was said to have defended the French Standard six times before being killed. John de Nevers, Enguerand VII de Coucy and the Marshal of France captured. The riderless horses of the French cavalry ran back to their own lines, giving us a taste of what was come.

The major battle took place on the hill and was for a time fairly even. Then the arrival of the hundred thousand Serbs changed the odds on their favour.. Retreat was then inevitable.  One of our brave leaders had managed to find passage on a Viennese ship, while his troops were out flanked and forced to surrender.

Sultan Bayezid had not forgotten the French murder of the citizens of Rahova. In reprisal he ordered the death of three thousand of our men. In his mercy he allowed some of the younger men to join his army. The journey back was long and arduous for those fortunate to escape. I arrived back in the village happy to have survived the ordeals and swore never to leave again.

The weeds had grown over the farmlands and houses dilapidated. My old friend Valance had returned a few days before and told me of his adventures in the long war against the French. He took some convincing that the French had been on our side in the Crusade, it is a thing to puzzle over.

Wages for work in the fields was now very high. Large houses could be occupied if no successor was found. Gradually food became aplenty and the village began to grow in population and wealth. We never found the hidden fortune of Shmuel the wise old man of the glades.

Later we heard Sultan Bayezid had built the beautiful Ulu Camii  in Bursa Turkey to celebrate his victory. The city was locally known as Yesil Bursa, meaning Green Bursa. Which reminded me of the grass and the overhanging trees of our lost village. 

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