Stephen Berer
the Eternal Jew's biographer

The Eternal Jew’s Tale, #136, Scriptorium

Female Scribe; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Nuremberg Chronicles-LOC-p342, in the public domain.
Female Scribe; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Nuremberg Chronicles-LOC-p342, in the public domain.
In this episode… get thee to a nunnery!

The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Nineteenth Era, Part 1, ~1432 C.E., Mallorca

A moment later, rattle and klop, marchin’ soldiers, swords in sheaths, stompin’ out of the center of town. Casual, slow, I turn my seat so my back’s to the street, just sippin’ my tea. But my heart’s thumpin’ like their hobnail boots.
And then from the harbor a troop of priests in their black hoods, like angels of death…
I keep on sippin’ my tea.
“You, I said! Here, right now!”
Slow, I gets up an shuffles to them.
“We have no love of sailors and drunks. Mind! I’ve got my eye on you!”
Well, ‘clothes make the man’ some poet said, and looky me, I thinks with a frown. There’s the Jew of me lain in a heap under the hammock back on the ship. If I’d been wearin’ them clothes right here, the heap would be here with me in ‘em. When the swords and crosses have cut their swath right and left and out of sight, I mosey into a back street and sit in the shadows and sip and wait.
And now that sparrow flitters by, and under his breath,
“Follow me.”
I stand and yawn, look here and there, and slowly meander down the lane, keepin’ the boy barely in sight thru narrow alleys and grimy shuks covered by billowin’ burlap sheets. And now he knocks and enters a house. I’m five doors down, and what to do, when, bustle and tussle, women come out with a bulky rug, flap and flop, and begin to beat it with a heavy broom. Oh, how the dust come billowin’ out, and amongst the fuss, a little girl takes my hand and hustles me inside.
I’m standing in a faceless room with chairs arranged around the walls, which walls been bare exceptin’ one with a filigree hamsa hung on a chain, and from it a cross inlaid with beads. An inner door opens, and there, a monk in his black cowl and bare feet.
“Come in, my son. The father awaits.”
And shock and fear surge thru me.
“That child mistook me for someone else…”
I starts to stutter.
“There’s a mistake…”
But he grabs my arm and pulls me inside.
I stand at the intersection of worlds. How many life-lines spiral out from this one moment, this one place?
The father inquires,
“What is your name?”
Fearin’ the church, my tongue gets stuck.
“I’m told it’s Saadia. Be that correct?”
I nod my head. I been denounced…
“Nothing to fear. You’re safe with us. Juan de Vallseca, who serves the crown, sent you here to this safe house.”
Astounded, a prayer slips from my tongue,
“In this world be the grace of God.”
“Some would say that, yes, sometimes. Come. Remove those corsair clothes. Your hair is greasy; take a bath. And don this garb that won’t draw eyes.”
Clean, refreshed, relieved, I return to the father’s office.
“Better, my friend. You look like you come from Aragon. Welcome to the belly of the beast.”
“*Seems like I been down this way before. Is there any truth in that, senior?*”
*-* Dylan, Senior, Tales of Yankee Power
“All these ways been trod before. Come. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
We make our ways thru rooms and halls, out a different door to a crooked lane so narrow I can touch both sides as I stand in the sewer, where we have to walk. It winds it self thru Palma’s guts, maze within maze, inward and out. And again, I’m wonderin’ who am I with? A friend? A foe? A soldier? A priest? And how will I ever find Batkol here?
“You takin’ me to Vallseca’s home? I have some urgent matters to discuss.”
“In due time, but first a stop. I want you to see a scriptorium. I’d like your opinion of their expertise.”
How did he know I were a scribe?
“Your reputation precedes you.”
And how does he know the thoughts in my head?
We come to a church with a monastery attached to its side. Long he knocks til the door opens, but only a crack. But seein’ who stands there, it opens wide. A woman it be, who clasps her hands:
“So sorry to keep you, Senior Enrique.”
I marvel as I enter. It’s all women here. We pass down a hallway long and dark to a room. For a moment I can hardly see, so full of light. A scriptorium, the likes of which I’ve never seen. Sloped tables with brushes and quills; pots of ink, pigments, glue; knives, rules, powdered chalk; styluses, gum arabic, burnishers, sanding sticks, and more. And more the wonder: at every bench, women seated, working on texts, drawing, painting, laying gold.
Senior Enrique walks me around, to assess the work of each artist’s hand. The parchment is fine, well finished and thin. The ink dense, lampblack enriched. This scribe writes in a fine Latin hand, well controlled and evenly spaced. This next one works on a tiny manuscript that could snugly fit in the palm of her hand. And here a woman using a pounce to outline an elegant floral design. She passes her leaves to the next bench where the artist draws the details in full, and notes the colors for each field. Goodness! Behold! This one paints with the finest pigments money can buy — even cinnabar and ultra marine — to complete a page fit for a king.
“Marvelous work. Finest kind. These women can stand proud anywheres.”
“Come take a look at the gilding bench. See what you think of the work they do.”
In the next episode, women gilders and a Gordian knot.
About the Author
I am a writer, educator, artist, and artisan. My poetry is devoted to composing long narrative poems that explore the clash between the real and the ideal, in the lives of historical figures and people I have known. Some of the titles of my books are: The Song uv Elmallahz Kumming A Pilgimmage tu Jerusalem The Pardaes Dokkumen The Atternen Juez Talen You can listen to podcasts of my Eternal Jew posts on my personal blog, Textures and Shadows, which can be found on my website, or directly, at: I live just outside Washington, DC with my bashert, and we have two remarkable sons. Those three light my life.
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