Friday, 16 February 2018

Next Excerpt from "The Poor Preachers: Adventures of the First Lollards." Chapter 3: The Making of a Shepherd

Soon William found himself in almost luxurious circumstances, partaking of good tender venison, fresh bread that melted in his mouth, butter, cheese and sweetmeats. He had never been treated as an honoured guest like this before, and once again, he felt overwhelmed. God was treating him right royally, as a king’s son. 

At first, he felt rustic and uncomfortable, not knowing how he should conduct himself amongst such exalted men, but their geniality and genuine interest in what he had to say set him at his ease. They were far more interested in William’s intellect and spiritual state than his social graces, status and appearance.

Hereford introduced the two other masters. 
Master John Parker, the eldest among them, was the one who had lost the wager, and Hereford made a little merriment over this, calling him the ‘Doubting Thomas’ among them. But, as Hereford explained to William, Master Parker was valued for his gift of objectivity, which kept their feet on Terra firma.
He was once a professor of Mathematics at New College, and dealt only in facts -- a characteristic of which he constantly boasted. He had studied further in Theology and joined the Wycliffeite Masters.

The other, Master William Smith, was a quiet man with dreamy eyes.
A lecturer in Theology at University College, where Hereford was based, he favoured the devotional side of Christianity, strongly advocating the doctrine of the Priesthood of Believers and a personal experience of God.
Some dismissed him as strangely mystical, but the dreams and visions he experienced were of far more practical use than most mystics of his day. He was in constant, good-humoured conflict with John Parker over spiritual matters, and had won that last wager.

Once they had assuaged the first pangs of hunger, Doctor Hereford asked William to tell his story, and not to hurry.

As William spoke, Hereford bent his powerful mind to what was being said, occasionally stopping him to ask very insightful questions. 
Every now and then, especially when William hesitantly came to describe his vision of the Great Shepherd, the men looked at each other in wonder. 

When William described Brother Joseph’s dream, Smith’s eyes grew wide, and he interjected:
'Tis the same! The memory cometh again unto me. In mine own vision I saw thy face with the Rod of Authority given from heaven!’ 
Looking toward his colleagues, he said with great conviction, ‘Gentlemen, let none further doubt this man’s credentials.’

‘Not indeed!’ agreed Doctor Hereford. ‘But pray continue, Master Shephard.’

Emboldened by this confirmation given, William was able to tell them of his experiences with the miraculous, without hesitation.
They listened intently and sat silently for a moment when William finished his tale. 

Then Master Smith commented to his colleagues, ‘Doctor Ashton had a like call, had he not? Yet he hath not wrought the miraculous that here we have heard. Even without them, I would cast my vote for this man’s admittance to our league of disciples. What sayest thou, John?’

‘Amen! So I do, and thy pardon I beg that I doubted thee, Nicolas,’ said the other. ‘Thomas the Doubter hath been schooled. But what sayeth this godly man? Will he join us indeed?’

‘Well, so we must ask it of him. And our tale we must tell also, that he may choose aright with understanding,’ declared Nicolas. 
He began by speaking glowingly about Doctor John Wycliffe, Head of Balliol College, the greatest mind in the whole of England, and a personal friend and mentor. 
They shared the same concern for the deterioration of morals, the poor morale throughout the land, the despair and suffering of the common people, and the profligacy of many of the hierarchy of Holy Church
Wycliffe and his men had become more and more impatient with the established church hierarchy, its arrogance and failure to address the ‘manifold iniquities’ within herself, while ignoring the sufferings of the people. 

The Wycliffeites had begun to pray earnestly and study the Latin Scriptures to find answers. Wycliffe had pointed out that the church in the apostolic age was so much simpler in her lifestyle, yet far more powerful and effective than the complicated and corrupt system of the present day.
He had become more and more outspoken in his criticism of the bloated and ungodly princes of the church, who demanded tithes and sold indulgences to build both their own wealth and huge cathedrals, while common people starved.

The eyes of the three men kindled as Hereford spoke of Doctor Wycliffe’s vision for the church and the nation, where the church functioned as God intended and the common folk found hope and comfort in the scriptures, in the same way as they had.

Master Nicolas spoke of the labours that Doctors John Wycliffe, John Purvey and himself had done over the years, translating the scriptures into the common tongue.
God had stirred the hearts of many of the Masters, students and even some Doctors who heard John Wycliffe proclaiming the Word of God in their own tongue, for they felt as though God was speaking directly into their hearts.

Master Nicolas went on to describe how a great movement had begun amongst these academics to study the scriptures more closely. Many ‘disciple gatherings’ came together to study copied portions of Wycliffe’s scriptures, and in doing so, had discovered wonderful truths that had been hidden or ignored for many years.

‘In very sooth,’ said Master Smith fervently, ‘‘tis a wondrous journey of discovery into the very heart of God! The love of God is, at last, clearly revealed in the Blessed Pages of Holy Writ. To feel Him come nigh and quench the thirsty soul when thou dost read the Psalms thou hast translated into the mother tongue, Hereford, my friend, what a priceless gift!” 
For a moment he forgot where he was; it was as though he was back in his own daily devotions in his study. 
‘“They that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall dwell under the shadow of the Almighty.”’ he quoted with a rapt look on his face.

Parker smiled as he turned his grizzled, bearded face to William to add his own perspective.
‘A time there was when I would have mocked them that be like to my mystical friend here, Master Shephard. But I have beheld with mine own eyes the power of God at work in the lives of those who have found God through the Holy Scriptures. ‘Twas not the traditions of men that turned loose-living profligates into humble, generous, holy men. Many of them that be drunken, or went a-whoring or fought in the riots at Merton Square, now find hope and instruction in the scriptures read at the disciple gatherings. Long have I observed the lives of them like to Doctors Wycliffe and Hereford here also, and seen the truth take root and bear fruit mightily. Logic alone brought me unto conviction that he that studieth the Living Word with his whole heart findeth the life-changing power of God. When one hath seen the results thereof, how can one think other?”
He shrugged his shoulders and added, ‘Quod est Demonstratum!

Hereford smiled at how the two men approached the truth in different ways.
‘Much more could we speak of all that God hath done in our midst, but we must now turn to thine own calling, Master Shephard, for it concerneth us also. Of late, the name of William Shephard hath come to mine heart when I have sought the face of God in my times of devotion. Then Master Smith received that self-same message that the holy brother at the Abbey of St Bartholomew did dream. But winter cometh on a-pace, and as our office here be in abeyance for this season, my friends and I sallied forth to our havens at Leicester. But this morning at prayers, Master Smith and I felt in our heart to tarry -- yea -- against reason!

Mea culpa!’ interjected Master Parker ruefully. ‘Mine was the reasoning to continue our journey north, and so I persuaded them. But even in mine own heart was there the still, small voice -- but I heeded it not. The call of the hearth, the fire and the feast of mine own hovel was stronger, I confess. But the conviction to turn back could not be stayed in my colleagues. They resolved to turn back and seek thee at the Bull and Book, for so did they feel it in their hearts. In mine unbelief, I fleered and I challenged them, wagering my copy of Hereford’s works against Smith’s copy of the New Testament that thou wouldst not so be found thither. But the scorn hath come upon mine own head, and much to learn have I. Strange doth it seem, that the more one learneth, the less doth one understand!’

Credo ut Intelligam.’ quoted Hereford, and as William looked mystified, he translated, ‘“I believe in order that I may understand.”’ 

He looked at his colleague and friend with approval.
‘But thus do we have deep respect unto thy scholarship and humility, Master John, that thou hast so learned of God cheerily and hardened not thine heart, as have many a proud master.’

He clapped his friend on the shoulder, then turned once again to William.
‘And so merrily do we meet, Master Shephard. Students all in the School of God are we all, not exalted fonts of wisdom. We would also learn of thee, for thy schooling hath been both stern and harsh, yet hath God spoken unto thee face-to-face.’

Impressed by the wisdom and humility of the men before him, William said, ‘Hither have I come to learn what I must to fulfil my calling, good masters. Proud would I be to be schooled of such men as ye be. But I wot not whither nor what I must do to be enrolled as clerk*, neither do I have the means anon. Also if classes be in recess for Yule-tide, I must winter me somewhither. I will not beg for my meat, but have resolved me to work for it, or starve. Wilt thou give me good rede³ in these matters?’

Master Hereford turned his keen gaze upon him and appeared to come to a decision. ‘I perceive that the hand of God is upon thee, Master Shephard!’

He leaned forward and put his goblet aside.
‘Thou’rt a lettered man, if I err not. It is custom and privilege for a Doctor of College to take unto himself a novice clerk that sheweth good promise as intern of his household. There that clerk doth assist the master in his labours and will, in turn, eat at his patron’s board and find shelter, hearth and bed until he complete his studies. I am in need of a skilled scribe, one who will copy and aid in my translations and lectures, yet with spiritual understanding. But a man of character and godliness he must be. What sayest thou? Wilt thou be Nicolas Hereford’s apprentice?’

The other two men nodded in complete approval.
William’s voice was suspended as a lump formed in his throat. God had more than supplied his needs. This was a dream come true.
Finally, he mastered his emotions enough to say huskily, ‘Can any man refuse such generosity, such an honour? But is there none other more worthy amongst the body of clerks in Oxenford that ….”

‘If there were such a one, Hereford would have chosen him anon,’ smiled Master Smith. ‘And methinks thou hast begun thine apprenticeship already, from thine history that thou hast related.’

‘But art thou soothly of a mind and hardihood that thou wouldst serve such an hard taskmaster?’ quipped Master Parker jovially. ‘He would of a certes make thee to pour his wine and scour his floors, and if thou leeren not thy Latin, he would scourge thee sore!”

They all laughed and Hereford protested that his stomach could not handle wine and opted for ale instead. Then they made plans to leave for Leicester, with William, the next day.

So William began his academic studies under the aegis of one of the greatest translators of his time. Being both intelligent and diligent, he progressed rapidly through his studies, and Hereford encouraged him to complete his Bachelor of Theology over the years that followed. 

There was much to do in between his studies.
Hereford had a large capacity for work himself, for he was translating the whole of the Old Testament, and more. But William felt like he was in heaven.

From Hereford himself he learned principles of translation and hermeneutics. But more than that, he absorbed much from the spirit of the man and his vision to reach the poor with the gospel.

From Master Parker he learned the principles of exegesis, systematic study and logical thought.

From Master Smith he learned to develop his devotional life and prayer.

From Master Ashton he learned much of the dynamics of homily, although his confidence took a while to build, and it was not until his encounter with the Spirit of God that he truly began to preach with power and authority.

He threw himself into his studies and college life, but he avoided much of the trivialities that students often indulged in. His escape from the trammels of daily life was to walk out into the countryside he loved and chat to the villagers nearby, sometimes rolling up his sleeves, girding himself with a labourer’s smock and helping with the work.

Villagers got to know and love him. He still retained all of the animal lore he had learned in his previous vocations, and the local herdsmen and animal keepers frequently asked his advice or shared their own experiences with him.

William was of invaluable help to his mentor. He was quick with the quill and an excellent listener when Hereford needed a sounding board for his translations or when preparing his lectures or sermons. Eventually, Hereford began to ask William’s opinion on points of doctrine, exegesis and exposition of the scriptures.

Hereford and other preachers of Wycliffe’s persuasion occasionally travelled around Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Leicestershire proclaiming Wycliffe’s message of the gospel. A few of Hereford’s most telling lectures included some of William’s input.

Once the people realised that Wycliffe and his party truly had their interests at heart, they had invitations and acclaim wherever they went.
With William’s help, Nicolas Hereford worked tirelessly to spread the Word of God, and people wondered greatly to hear the scriptures in their own language. After their lectures and homilies, folk from all walks of life would approach them to ask questions.

Many of the common folk, that were able to hear him, found new hope, and this rejoiced William’s heart. Often he would chat outside the church with those who were interested, giving them portions of scripture he had copied -- often in his own time. He encouraged them to form discipleship groups that followed the same model as those at Oxford, and he occasionally attended the groups to instruct and shepherd them. 

Doctor Hereford commended him for this innovation, noting that he was developing his calling quite rapidly. 

William drank in every word that Wycliffe, Hereford, Ashton and others spoke in their lectures, and his diligence, devotion, insights and wisdom soon made him top student whichever class he attended.

He attended Wycliffe and Hereford’s disciple gatherings to discuss the deeper and more controversial matters of scripture as it was read in English. They would often follow this with prayer. Chiefly, they prayed for the nation -- that God would reach the people with His healing hand and open the floodgates of Truth.

William avoided some of the more extreme and political disciple gatherings, such as the fanatical Master Swynderby’s, although he admired the man’s courage and bold, outspoken railings against the abuses in the church and state. 

He once heard Swynderby’s intern, the fiery Father John Ball, deliver a tirade against the rich aristocracy, both secular and the church. He stridently advocated equality of classes and had aroused the wrath of the authorities against himself for it more than once.
His imprisonments and floggings only made him more embittered and determined.  

His battle cry was:

‘When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?’

William preferred to see social change by the power of God, than by the violent arm of the flesh.

......... to be continued.

*Clerk = Cleric. Also a student and lawyer.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Here's the next excerpt from my 1st publication: "The Poor Preachers". Second part of Ch 2: Oxford

He had very little time to ponder over the miracles that had just occurred, for down the road from Hungerford rode a company of men.
William stepped off the road and watched as they passed by. He enjoyed observing the colourful variety of humanity going about its business. 

This group was interesting, for at its head was a man richly clad, probably a merchant. He was followed and flanked by three huge men-at-arms on magnificent white horses, which cast the merchant’s dappled palfrey in the shade.
The soldiers themselves made their charge look insignificant, for they were all abnormally large, handsome, strong and well-disciplined. Their armour reflected the sun like a mirror. The merchant himself looked nothing out of the ordinary, except he had a crooked nose in the midst of a kindly face.

The group drew nearly abreast with William, when one soldier reached over, touched the merchant’s shoulder and muttered something.
The man raised his head and pulled up his horse. His guard did the same in perfect precision.
Looking around in a puzzled way, it was as if the merchant was unaware of his cortège. Then the soldier leaned over and muttered something again.
The merchant sat up straight in his saddle and looked in William’s direction.
William bowed respectfully and made as if to pass on, but the merchant called out to him in a friendly manner.
‘Hail, good fellow! Whither away? To Hungerford?’
‘Verily do I, good sir,’ replied William, feeling surprise at being noticed by a wealthy man, many rungs up the social ladder than he. ‘But I journey beyond and beyond for many a league yet.’
He came closer, encouraged by the stranger’s friendly manner.
‘I perceive thou’rt a goodly man, for I see it in thy demeanour,’ said the kindly merchant, ‘and also that thou’rt in great need, if thy raiment speaks sooth! Thy name?’
‘William Shephard am I, kind sir,’ William replied. ‘Great has been my need, but God hath been bountiful unto me, therefore I beg not for my living. He hath strengthened mine hands for honest toil.’ 
William was anxious to show the worthy man that he was not hoping for largesse. He had a certain measure of pride, without arrogance, after all.
The other man appeared pleased with his answer.
‘Then my heart hath not misled me! God hath prospered me greatly and given me His protection where’re I go. Hence, I fear not to journey alone, nor to address strangers. Wilt thou receive of a fellow servant of God a gift? ‘Tis my joy to give when the good Lord doth so prompt mine heart.’
He reached into his saddlebag and brought out a purse full of money.
‘A worthy man thou art, Master Shephard. Pray receive this small gift of the good Lord and so fulfil the joy o’ this fat chapman. Never do I feel so rich as when I give. In return, pray thou a blessing upon mine head and upon mine house, for God heareth the prayers of the lowly in heart.’

William was overwhelmed.
‘Churlish would I be to refuse such a gift from such a generous heart, kind sir. And may God’s richest blessings be upon thee and thine house. For God’s blessings maketh rich and doth add no sorrow to it.’
‘Ha! ‘Tis the very words that good young Master Ashton uttered at Mass yestermorn,’ said the good man, bridling with pleasure. ‘Now wist I that God hath given me the gift of giving. Go forth unto good fortune and thy destiny, whatever it be, good William the Shepherd, and God speed!’

He threw the bag to William, waved farewell and passed on.
His escort bowed their heads toward William in respect, something that men-at-arms normally did not do to common folk. They also smiled at each other in deep satisfaction.

William watched the retinue trotting down the road, his mind in a whirl over the accumulated wonders he had experienced that day. But there was yet one more.
As he watched, the three soldiers faded into thin air, leaving one solitary rider diminishing into the horizon.
‘Holy angels! A day of miracles has this been, O Lord, and I thank Thee for this grace,’ he breathed.
He looked down at the purse and counted out the golden coins. It was more than twice the amount he had found in his pocket and emptied into the aspiring young hermit’s bowl one hour earlier.
‘And thou didst not fear to ride alone, nor to accost strange men?’ he muttered to the tiny dot disappearing over the horizon. ‘Yet thou wert not alone, master chapman. May God keep His warrior angels guard over thee alway, that thou mayest ever be a ready vessel of His bounty.’

Pocketing his wealth, William strode on to Hungerford, rejoicing. Now his resources could be stretched comfortably through Marlborough, Wantage and Abingdon, without the need to stop and work for his faire.
Occasionally, he even indulged himself by sleeping on a real bed, rather than a pile of hay, as was his wont. He made rapid progress, which was fortunate -- or God’s provision -- for winter was rapidly approaching.

Finally, he saw the towers of Oxford in the distance. Oxford -- the greatest centre of learning in his day, and he was to study there!
He crossed the little bridge over the river Cherwell, passed through the neglected and crumbling stone walls, and walked along the streets of Oxford town, barefoot and weary, but happy. He had no idea where he would find Nicolas Hereford, but he was sure that God would show him the way. His faith had been strengthened by the events of the week before, which still sent a tingling feeling down his spine when he thought about them.

That faith was about to be tested.
Walking up St Aldate’s Street, William saw the sign of a cosy-looking tavern called the Bull and Book, reflecting both the rural and academic nature of the town. He walked in, hoping to find information concerning his quest as well as sustenance. 
Looking around, he saw two groups of men, sitting at opposite ends of the main taproom. One group, dressed in clerical garb, was obviously made up of students.
They drank, chatted and laughed cheerily, heedless of the dark looks thrown at them by the townsmen at the other table.

William had heard rumours of the recent riots and fighting between the students and townsfolk before Merton College, and there were still simmering tensions between both parties. However, these did not concern William personally, so he bought his tankard of ale from the gruff draper and approached the student group. Surely intelligent young scholars would befriend and guide him to his goal.
‘Good morrow, good sires,’ he said, as they turned to look askance at this ragged commoner coming boldly into their midst. ‘Prithee tell me, if ye will, whither can one find Master Nicolas Hereford?’

The supposedly good sires exchanged derisive glances with each other. One bold-faced fellow, who appeared to be the peer-leader, sat back and stared at him in an insolent manner. ‘Eheu, condiscipuli,*’ he drawled at last, addressing his grinning comrades. ‘This poor specimen of  Homo sinsapiens** hath mislaid the good Doctor Hereford. ‘Twas careless of him, dreadless.’ 
Laughter greeted this sally, and also William’s confusion and embarrassment. He was made to feel rustic, uncouth and unlettered. 
Nevertheless, he was used to put-downs, so stood his ground.

One of the students, a lively yet tolerant fellow sitting on the outside of the group, took pity on him and said, ‘Good fellow, one doth not find Doctor Hereford. He hath much to do with weighty affairs and abideth not for any save the King’s messengers. A man of his position findeth thee, if he hath occasion thereto. If thou’rt a message-bearer, leave it with the porter at University College in Logic Lane.’
‘But it would avail thee not, Master Ragamuffin,’ piped in the bold-faced student.  ‘The good Master left for his home in Leicester, yea, even yester-eve. Alas and alack! Build thou thy mud-hovel against his return in the spring, but not inside the town walls, I beg of thee.’ 
More laughter and they all turned away from him, considering the interview over. They had little time for ignorant peasants in rags.

Bowing his thanks to the more helpful of his informants, William retired to an empty table, crestfallen and discouraged. God had led him this far. How could it end in apparent futility like this?
Then he remembered the other seemingly impossible situations where God had miraculously intervened. He breathed his favourite prayer, ‘Lord, aid Thou me,’ and felt peace settle on his heart.
If he had to find shelter over the winter on short commons, so be it. But God may work another miracle yet.

And God did.
A short while later, the door of the tavern opened and three men in academic gowns, proclaiming the distinction of Masterhood, strode inside.
With one glance at the newcomers, the students jumped to their feet, respect and astonishment written all over their faces. Even the townsmen at the other table turned and bowed in respect at the three men.

The tavern-keeper bustled forward obsequiously, wishing to know their Worships’ pleasure. It was seldom that such great dignitaries honoured his hovel with their presence.
The foremost Master held up his hand and looked around the room. He had an air of authority as a leader among men and accustomed to commanding respect, yet flattery was wasted on him.

Although only five summers older than William, his responsibilities made him look older. He had fine features, a broad brow and intelligent, piercing, grey eyes.

With a clear and cultured voice, accustomed to addressing crowds, he addressed the room in general.
‘Pray tell me, gentlemen all, is there one William Shephard in your midst?’
He brought his gaze around to where William hesitantly rose to his feet, and a kind of strange recognition flashed in his eyes.
For a few heartbeats, there was a pregnant silence in the room.
‘Indeed, Master, I be that same,’ William said quietly at last, feeling humbled in the presence of the great man and astonished that he was so looked for.

The great man turned around to his colleagues with a look of triumph.
‘Ha! Thanks be to God! Said I not so? “Follow thine heart’s still small voice, liefer than thine head,” quoth Doctor Ashton. Thy wager is lost, Master Parker.’
He was apparently continuing an ongoing debate with his colleague, and Master Parker smiled, bowed his head and lifted his hands in a good-natured gesture of defeat.
A true scholar admits it when he is proved wrong, and he was such a man.

The great man turned back to William and offered his hand.
‘Thou’rt right welcome to Oxenford, Master William Shephard. Strange dreams and portents have I received concerning thee, but more of this when thou hast supped with us, if thou wilt. Is the name of Nicolas Hereford aught of significance unto thee? For so I am.’
Grasping his hand gratefully, William replied, ‘Of great signification indeed, Doctor Hereford, for so have I been sent, and a strange tale do I tell, and a strange road have I walked to meet with thee.’
‘Thou’st the manner of a natural scholar, Master Shephard, rough though be thy raiment. Haply we can amend the latter.’ 

Turning, Hereford noticed the stupefied group of students.
‘And I trust that this good man hath been comely welcomed to Oxenford, as becometh worthy clerics and gentlemen?’ 
He looked sternly across the group, and many of them paled and quailed, the bold-faced one not the least. A flogging for grossly unscholarly behaviour was still in force -- also expulsion, which was a worse punishment for many impoverished students.
They waited, quaking, for William’s inevitable condemnation of his recent treatment at their hands, but it never came. William remembered how much God had forgiven him and felt, instinctively, that he had no right to condemn.
He was human enough to enjoy their discomfiture, but would not take advantage of it.
‘Indeed, indebted am I to this gentleman for information, Doctor!’ he said, bowing toward the tolerant youth. That worthy flushed with gratitude and smiled; the rest breathed an almost audible sigh of relief.

‘But no joyous feastings at thy coming, methinks,’ said Hereford dryly. ‘Very well. Be ye seated gentlemen, and be thankful for one that cometh amongst us who hath natural chivalry. Learn ye from such an one.’ 
He spread his arm out invitingly to William, and smiled.
‘Come and sup with us at our board. There is much we would speak on with thee.’

So saying, he shepherded William into his capacious carriage with the other masters. be continued..

*‘Eheu, condiscipuli,’ = "Alas, fellow-students"
** Homo sinsapiens = Witless man

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Continuing excerpt from "The Poor Preachers: The Adventures of the First Lollards.

Chapter 2: Oxford

 William had to sit for a while, still cradling the sleeping lamb.
An immense lightness and sense of freedom, unlike anything he had ever experienced before, flooded his being. He felt clean. He felt more alive than he had ever been. The greatest Being of the Universe loved him.
He jumped to his feet and gave a loud laugh of pure joy, much to Prodigal’s startled annoyance, which he vehemently expressed as he tumbled off William’s lap.
Lifting the protesting wanderer, William ran back to his flock, laughing and weeping. There he put the lamb down so it could run to its relieved mother for a long overdue feed.

But would he ever see that blessed face in this life again?
 He continued his duties for the next day, and the next, still in his exalted state, wondering what his next step would be.
Could he just abandon his post and head north? Surely not. The Great Shepherd Himself would have forbidden it.

William was thinking on this when none other than Brother Joseph approached him. The good brother was looking a little bemused, for some reason, but gave him a kindly greeting.

Brother Joseph was not like his fellow Brethren of St Bartholomew’s.
With all his faults, he had a heart for people, especially the younger ones.
 ‘Well met, and God save thee, William Shephard! Many a time and oft have I seen thee at the back of the schooling room and the vault of archives, but thou wert a student at heart, I trow, so I minded it not.’

 ‘And so do I thank thee of thy kindness, Brother Joseph.’ William responded, touching his forelock respectfully.
 The brother looked keenly at the young man before him. ‘Wherefore this glow that is upon thee? Almost it would seem thou’st seen heavenly visions.’

William wasn’t sure how even this kind brother would take the news of his calling, so he just smiled and said, ‘I but rejoice in the goodness of God, Brother Joseph!’

 Recalling his errand, Brother Joseph knit his brows and looked down thoughtfully. ‘Ferly¹ days of wonders these be,’ he uttered cryptically, and William only just stopped himself from saying, ‘Amen!’

‘Strange dreams and portents came to me a’ nightertale last,’ continued the brother. ‘I saw thy face, William, glowing as I see it now. Thou didst mind the sheep and thou didst hold a common shepherd’s crook in thine hand. Then a great hand stretched forth from the heavens toward thee. Thou gavest thy crook into the hand and, in return, received a rod of authority. Simple in fashion it was, but held great power. Yea, even infinite more powerful than the crozier of the Pontiff himself. With that staff, I saw thee go north to a great place of learning, like unto the great University in Oxenford, of which I once beheld in my youth. Then thou didst go forth westward and south. Whithersoever thou goest, and didst raise that staff, many sheep gathered unto thee.’

He paused, looking at the young man before him, who was nearly bursting with excitement.
 ‘So clear was this dream, it hath haunted me sorely since. What sayest thou to this?’

 ‘Indeed, this be my calling Brother Joseph!’ William burst forth eagerly.
Then he stopped and thought a moment. ‘But wherewithal can I forsake the animals if none else care for them? Young Wilfred, perchance?’

Pleased with the responsible answer, the brother smiled and said, ‘Thou hast learned thy lessons well, William. I will see they are cared for. Go forth! And take this with thee.’

He handed him a small purse with jingling coins.
William’s eyes glinted when he felt the riches in his grasp, but then he realised that many things that would have seemed acceptable two days ago now seemed vain and worthless.

He looked guiltily at the generous gift, then shook his head.
 ‘Mine hearty thanks, Brother Joseph, but I confess that I owe somewhat unto the Abbey. I pray ye that it should pay for what hath been already eaten. Let it be my penance if thou wilt. I will henceforth earn my bread by the labour of mine hands.’

Impressed by the young man’s honesty and integrity, the brother was moved to say, ‘I perceive that God hath His hand upon thee, William! Honesty and wisdom beyond thy years sitteth upon thy brow. Would that there were others of higher estate that had such goodness! Wherefore needest thou to tarry then? Go forth, my son, and God speed thee!’

 This was how William found himself setting forth to Oxford, forsaking everything he had known and stepping into the unknown. But he was embarking on a new life, a quest and a God-given mission.
As he shouldered his very few possessions and took to the road, it felt as though he was walking into a dream.

 But even newborn believers need food in their stomachs, so he began looking for work along the way, and God provided for him at each turn.
 The Black Death had decimated so much of the rural labour force that farmers and landlord’s stewards were now thankful to find a willing and honest worker, even if he was only passing through.
The old feudal system was passing away, and the age of the paid itinerant worker was dawning.
 Some of the stewards even offered him a well-paid post, but although this was very attractive to a man who had been paid next to nothing, the vision and call on his life made him politely decline.

Later, he realized it was the enemy of his soul trying to distract him from his destiny.
 He harboured enough of his earnings to keep him in health and strength, but gave liberally to destitute widows and other poor folk along the way. God rewarded his giving many times over. William felt like a wealthy man.

It occurred to him that many of the survival skills he had learned were no longer needed. He was a servant of the Most High, and in His service there was no need to merely survive. This faith in God’s provision helped him many times when food or money became scarce. God always provided for him just in time.
 On his journeys William learned to pray, in his own fashion. Rightly disregarding the pious ostentation that Friar Harding displayed in his style of prayer, he spoke from his heart. He had learnt that these were the prayers the Lord loved the most, and often answered in quite remarkable ways. After all, this was how he had come face to face with the Great Shepherd Himself.
 Often his prayer was a simple, ‘O Father God, aid Thou me!’

 The most remarkable instance of God’s answers to prayer was on the road to Hungerford. William saw a hooded leper sitting cross-legged at the side of the road, ringing his clapper and crying, ‘Alms! Alms! Will ye not aid a stricken and weary pilgrim? I die ere I find an almshouse nor hospice!’

 William was ashamed of all the times he had indulged in self-pity over his own situation.
Here was one cursed with a living death that made his own sufferings pale in significance. But what could William do? He had spent his last coin at the previous village, to fill his belly and give him a bed for the night. He had just eaten his last apple and was hoping to find a farmer who could give him half a day’s work, feed or pay him and send him on his way. This poor wretch did not have that kind of freedom.

 William instinctively walked up to the poor man, who saw him and cried out, ‘Unclean! Unclean! Good master come not nigh! If thou’st a coin, prithee cast it forth at my feet and I will pray thee God’s blessing upon thy head!’

Moved even more with compassion, William ignored the warning and touched the startled beggar’s hood, praying aloud, ‘O God, would that I had a pocketful of coins I would give it him. Have mercy O God! Yet I would that Thou didst heal the leper, even as Thou didst in the days Thou dwelt amongst us. Art Thou not the same God?’

He spoke out of the promptings of his heart, but he cursed himself for the inadequacy and apparent futility of his words. Was he giving the poor man false hope?

The beggar held out his withered hand to keep William from coming too close, but suddenly gave a shout and leapt to his feet. ‘‘Tis a fire upon mine head! A fire in my limbs! By all the holy saints! Mine hand is whole!’

He began to inspect all his limbs, looking for the familiar scars and missing digits he had learned to live without, but he was completely made whole, with even the toes and fingers that had fallen or broken off restored.
Sensation was returning to his extremities also.

 So stunned was William by the result of his spontaneous prayer, he stepped back unwarily, tripped and sat down hard.

The ex-leper jumped for joy. His hood fell back, revealing a young face with thinning hair on top and a wispy beard. He had burning, intense eyes, now filled with almost incredulous joy at his change of fortunes.
‘O blessings abundant be upon thine head! Sickerly thou’rt a holy saint, good master. Yea, God verily be the same God, as thou hast said.’
 He was so overwhelmed, he sat down and wept.

 Still overcome, William came and knelt next to him, since his posterior was too sore to sit upon. ‘Nay, I be no saint. A sinner that hath found cleansing for his sin be I. But God can send his blessing through the vilest and dirtiest of vessels. William am I called, and Shephard also, although a shepherd of the flock of God do I hope to be. What be thy name, my friend?’

 ‘Good humble shepherd, when a man of worth I was, Richard Rolleton was my name,’ he said, overcoming his emotions. ‘Of a good family came I, until this curse came upon me, and my family cast me forth. Long have I contemplated my life if ever I returned from this living death. How vain are riches! How vain is fame! How vain is life indeed!’
 The intensity of his eyes shone out strongly with a fanatical brilliance.

 ‘Well then, good Master Richard Rolleton,’ said William, warily observing the fanatical look, ‘a happy chance or the Hand of God it be that we have met. And whither away anon? Wilt thou return unto the house of thy kinsfolk?’

‘Never!’ swore Richard. ’God, Mother Mary and thyself alone hath been my friends and my kinsfolk. I curse them not that they cannot come nigh and suffer like fate as I. But to cast me ever forth and speak to me no more? Nay! I have vowed me a vow before God, the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Angels that if ever I returned to the land of the living again, I shall ever live as a hermit -- even as I have been these last seven years. A life of contemplation, where I seek the blessed Face and the Grace of the Holy Virgin Mother Mary!’

 He turned to William, grabbed him by both shoulders and stared at him compellingly.
 ‘Had I not so vowed, good Father Shephard, mayhap I would become thy disciple and follow thee whithersoever thou leadest!’

 William began to feel a little uncomfortable about his new friend, even though he honoured his devotion.
‘Nay, my friend, thou must follow thy calling. What canst thou learn of a common shepherd and herdsman withal? I have mine own calling to follow.’

 William instinctively felt in his pocket to give the man a few coins to help him on his way, forgetting that he had spent his last coin.
To his surprise, he found his pocket was filled with money. Had he earned it all and forgotten that particular pocket?
Then he remembered his prayer over Richard. He picked up the man’s alms bowl and, before he changed his mind, quickly emptied his pocket into it.

 Then he leapt to his feet, gave a parting benediction to Richard, who sat there gaping at his newfound wealth, and walked on.

 The intensity of the young man had been a little suffocating to him, so William thought it was just as well they parted company.
But he would sadly miss those coins, wherever they came from. He sighed, but still felt very happy. He had seen the mighty power of God in response to his simple and foolish prayers.
He was learning many things, and learning fast.

 William was not comfortable with the notion of being thought a holy saint, however, since he had heard these saints lived impossibly ascetic lifestyles.
William was fond of a good meal, when he could get it, and shuddered at the very thought of voluntary fasting.
He struggled with his libido as much as any other man, having had the odd fling in the woods with loose women. He did not consider celibacy was the calling for him, unless the Great Shepherd insisted upon it.

  1: "Ferly" (Middle English) strange
2: "Sickerly" (Middle English) surely

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Second Excerpt from the First Publication: "The Poor Preachers -- The Adventures of the First Lollards."

Continuing from Chapter 1: "The Two Shepherds."

William grew to be a man -- tall, thin, hardened of muscle, but not hardened in heart.  Nonetheless, his future seemed rather bleak. Was there anything beyond his purposeless existence? He loved his sheep and his friends, but would he be a shepherd forever?
Because of the bitter disappointment in his youth, he had set his face against the church as a profession -- the only avenue of success open to intelligent, young men and women amongst the lower classes in those days. 

He had to admit, however, that among the clergy there were a few good men and women who had a genuine love for God and for people. Brother Joseph was such a man, for all his struggles with his vows of celibacy. William had once seen him in the woods with one of the loose village girls, but he thought nothing of it.  Brother Joseph was a kindly man, in spite of it all, and would often stop and talk to William when he could. If the village gossipers were right, there was hardly a brother at St. Bartholomew’s that had not either had secret affairs or even a concubine in keeping.
William shrugged his shoulders and accepted the situation. After all, he was far from guiltless himself and had the common English resentment for the imposition of the foreign Norman-Romish rules, such as mandatory celibacy for the clergy. It was only when the same lecherous brothers spoke scathingly of the decaying morals of the poor laity, while doing little to relieve their sufferings, that his old resentment surfaced.

So he pondered and he thought deeply about the world around him. Sometimes despair drove him to drink, but he began to see that it did him no good at all. Realising this, he turned instead to the only one who could really help -- God Almighty.

He began to pray as his godly mother had taught him, pleading for relief from the hardships he and the poor people faced.
And God heard his prayer.
While out in the fields minding the flocks one day, he cried out to God for the miseries of his life and the poor of his world. 
‘O Great God in Heaven!’ he cried. ‘Thou knowest all things! Wherefore then is this curse upon our land? Have we sinned so grievous that we must be struck down with sword, famine and plague?’   
Then he pondered on his own situation. Raising his face to the skies, he wondered aloud, ‘And wherefore was I not slain as were my mother and my father, yea as also were my kinsfolk by the Black Plague? For what reason am I thus preserved?’ 

He heard a voice from behind him saying in a gentle yet strong voice,
‘´Tis the calling upon thy life. Thou shalt indeed be a tool fashioned of God to ease the sufferings of many in this generation.’
Embarrassed at being overheard in his private soliloquy, yet not alarmed, William turned in surprise to see one who seemed like a travelling friar, seated behind him. He wore a plain, russet-coloured clerical gown with his hood up.  His face was in shadow. 

William normally had little respect for the wandering friars, many of whom were living immoral and profligate lives, often favoured by the rich, and lately having little regard for the poor. But there was something so mysterious yet wholesome about this man, that William somehow felt drawn to him. He wore no jewellery, his habit was plain, his shoulders were broad from heavy toil and he looked all muscle, with little spare flesh. Although he kept his head bowed, the hint of a beard showed. An indefinable air of kindness mixed with sorrow hung about him.
‘Wherewithal knowest thou this, good brother friar?’ asked William, looking at the stranger with nervous respect. ‘Art thou a prophet?’

‘So some hath said,’ replied the stranger. 
There was a quality in his gentle voice that yet had the power to shake mountains.  But what William noticed most were the dried bloodstains on the strong, work-calloused hand that held his staff. The back of his habit was also stained with dried blood.
‘Art thou a flagellant, then?’ He had heard of the groups of fanatical folk that wandered the countryside, publicly lashing themselves with whips in an attempt to earn their salvation, never satisfied until they drew blood.

‘Nay, for these wounds were delivered unto me in the house of my friends.’ came the strange answer. ‘Once was I an artisan, a carpenter, but now am I a shepherd, like as thou art. But my sheep I would raise up as shepherds also. Wilt thou also shepherd the flock of God?’

‘I understand thee, good friar,’ said William, wondering whether he really did understand. ‘But in my youth, I swore never would I be a holy man. For such as I have seen oft have seemed unholy indeed, saving thy presence.’

A hint of anger came into the tone of the stranger’s voice.
‘Verily thou hast said, for many that be called shepherds are no shepherds. Rather are they as wolves, sparing not the flock. But God looketh upon the heart, not the outward piety, and whatsoever God maketh holy, call thou not unholy. For He hath seen thine heart, William the Shepherd, and so thou hast been named. He hath seen thy pain and sorrow, for so also His great Heart hath been broken for the sorrows of His people. Therefore he seeketh for them that will stand with Him to slay the demon-wolves of evil that would devour the flock. This desire is hidden within thine heart, for so hath God formed thee. ‘Tis thy destiny, William the Shepherd, if thou wilt so choose!’

Astonished that the stranger knew so much about him, and spoke with such authority and power, William gaped at him, deeply moved and overwhelmed. Had God sent one of the Holy Saints to speak to him? Or an Holy Angel? But who was he, a lecherous drunkard and a thief, to be spoken to so graciously by this truly holy Man of God? He was so used to being treated with contempt by supposed holy men. He sat down and hid his face in his hands, shaking. It all seemed like a dream.

‘Nor angel nor saint of old am I, William the Shepherd.’ said the stranger, answering his unspoken thought. ‘´Tis sooth that thine heart doth need cleansing e’er thou dost pursue thy calling, but abundant cleansing there be in God if thou wilt turn unto Him.  But mark: ‘tis cleansing without mediation of unholy priests.  Think well on this thy choice.’ 
And his voice faded into the distance.

William turned around too late. The stranger had gone.
He ran into the wood behind the man calling, ‘Good Stranger! Holy Friar! Await me, I beg of thee!’ 
Then he stopped. Where had he gone so quickly? It was impossible for him to have melted into the woods without a trace. But at that moment, the mysterious disappearance didn’t seem as important as the stirrings of his heart that the stranger had begun to stir.

He knew he had spoken of his future, for it had fanned the sparks of something that had lain dormant in his heart ever since his parents had prayed with him in his youth. Yes, this was his destiny, and it seemed as though the stranger was giving him time to count the cost.
But who? Who? Who was the stranger?
He walked slowly back to his flock, his mind in turmoil. How could God use him, only half educated, on the lowest rung of the social ladder, a sinner of sinners?
But did not Brother Joseph once speak of the disciples that came from humble beginnings?  Was not Christ Himself born in a manger?

He could not sleep that night. So many thoughts went through his mind. If he did follow this amazing new path that had been opened up to him, he would have to leave the life he was used to. He would leave his lowly friends, including his beloved animals, who gave him so much unconditional devotion. 

And where to begin? Must he become like those fat priests that had no interest in serving the people? Never! Yet the stranger called himself a shepherd of the flock of God, and William knew instinctively, though irrationally, that he could trust him with his life and follow him to the ends of the earth. 

But who, and where, was he?
If a shepherd of the flock of God he must be, he would model himself on that humble, gently-spoken stranger, whoever he was. Surely, if he had given him such a challenge, he would return to hear his answer. William prayed fervently that he would find the man again. It felt as though he had known him all his life. No, he was no stranger. He personified that whispering voice in his heart that had pursued him from his earliest memories, even through his most sinful, drunken moments.
Yes! He would do whatever it took to become like that man.

He rose early the next morning to tend to his sheep. One quick count and he let out an oath of exasperation. The most wayward of his young lambs, which he had named ‘Prodigal’, had wandered off again. 
Leaving the others in a safe place, William went off in the direction of Prodigal’s favourite haunt, the woods, calling the lamb’s name as he went.

He had not gone far into the wood when he came into a small clearing and cried out, ‘Oh, My God, I thank Thee!’

There sat the stranger, cross-legged, with young Prodigal curled up asleep in his lap.
Forgetting all about the lamb, William knelt by the stranger.
‘Father! Good friar!’ he panted, ‘Whomsoever thou be. Wilt thou have a poor sinner as thy disciple?’

Laying the sleeping lamb gently aside, the stranger stood to his feet.
‘Gladly do I receive thee as my disciple, yea, as my friend, William, thou good shepherd. Thou wert a wandering lamb, but now thou’rt found. Behold the face of thy new master!’
He threw back his hood, and what William saw stayed with him for the rest of his days, and beyond.

Pure, unconditional love shone like sunshine from the eyes of the man, almost blinding him. Pure, unadulterated, unconditional love personified. Yet also there was an uncompromising holiness, strong and powerful, that shone from his face. It was both glorious and terrifying.

William fell forward on his face. He lay there quivering for a moment, dread -- and yet a strange joy -- coursing through his being. He wondered if he would die, yet hoped the sensation would never leave him.
How could he have been so blind not to know Who the stranger was? But it never occurred to Him that the Lamb of God Himself would come down to commune with the scum of the earth. The King of Kings! The Great Shepherd Himself! The Lord of the Universe! And He called him His friend!

All the hurt and bitterness was being washed out of William’s soul as he wept and renounced all his sin, his past life. He became a total slave of his Redeemer. This commitment gave him much of the strength for all the tasks he was called to for the rest of his life.

Presently, the Great Shepherd touched him, bidding him rise. There was healing and strength imparted in that touch.
‘Fear not, William the Shepherd. Arise! Old things have passed away. Behold!  Now thou’rt a new man. I am sending thee to gather and feed my sheep.’

William lifted his head, but did not dare to do more than kneel and fix his gaze on the sandalled feet before him. He was sure that if he looked into that Face again, he would fall down once more. 

But again the gentle thunder addressed him.
‘Go thou north unto Oxenford, and seek thou for my servant, a man called Nicolas Hereford, a disciple of one John Wycliffe. He will care for thee and thou shalt be instructed and shalt feed upon My Word for a season. Then thou shalt go forth and preach the gospel to many in this land, making them My disciples. Go forth! And I shall ever be with thee….’

Then He faded away from William’s sight.  

To be continued......

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Thursday, 28 December 2017

Beginning a new series of excerpts from "The Poor Preachers", Chapter 1: "The Two Shepherds".

Master Alfred Shephard gathered in and stored his final haul of fish for the day, and straightened his aching back.  He and his colleagues chuckled as they watched the valiant but unavailing efforts of his little son, doing his best to emulate the strength of his tall, gaunt father.

‘By the Rood, William!’ called another crewman from the other side of the boat, ‘Art better with staff and crook, minding the sheep than casting forth the fisherman’s net.  Thus fated art thou in thy name.’  He gave Alfred a broad wink.

‘Heed not the jobbard’s tongue, Will.’ said the tall fisherman, gathering the embarrassed little boy in his arm, and striding homeward.  ‘Take thou pride in thy name, lad.  Forget not that thou’st the blood of King Alfred the Great a-flowing in thy veins.  Yon Nicolas sayeth sooth in that thou’t a good shepherd boy, natheless -- yea -- the best in all Dorsetshire.  Art as kind of heart as thy sweet mother and twice as canny as Father Giles if I err not.’ 
He laughed, tossed him up in the air and put him down.

Little Will turned his back on the bustling port of Bournemouth, his birthplace, and pointed excitedly up the hill.  Four sheep, nonchalantly chewing their cud, were watching them with mild interest.  One seemed to recognise him and bleated with pleasure, as though inviting him to play.
‘Lo, Fa-fa!  It be Matthew, Mark and Luke and my good co’panion John.  Prithee to greet them, Fa-fa?  Prithee?’

‘On the morrow, my son, for much toil there is still for me to do.  From whence these names o’ yon lamblings?’

‘Father Giles telleth a tale o’ them, Fa-fa, as they be the great aposseless as a-preacheth the Gossapel.  I will preach the Gossapel someday.’

His father chuckled, but said seriously ‘Many a year and much fish must be netted ere thou canst walk that road, my son.  But if that still be thine heart’s desire, thy Fa-fa shall not turn thee from it.’

He marvelled once again at the brightness and intelligence of this affectionate little lad, barely six summers.  There was something special about him, as his wife often pointed out to him.  He took delight in doing good to others in the village, young or old.  He gleefully ran messages, and particularly loved bringing gifts or good news.  He would intervene in many of his peer’s quarrels and often restored harmony.  Smaller children often followed him around, and so did his four-legged friends.  The ducks and geese would often follow him if he passed by, and his mother called him her ‘little Saint Francis of Assisi’.  Needless to say, the whole of Bournemouth doted on him.  
No.  He was not destined to be a poor fisherman.  Perhaps his mother was right, mused his father proudly.  He had a special calling from God after all.

He also had a strong scholarly bent for so young a child.
In fact, they kept small copied portions of the Anglo-Saxon scriptures in a special clay jar in a corner of their cottage. It was an heirloom, secretly and faithfully passed down from generation to generation.  Alfred claimed that these were documents that the greater Alfred himself had translated. 
Little William would often peep at these portions with a sense of awe. He was not yet able to read properly, let alone understand the strange hieroglyphics of that ancient tongue, but just to feel that link with his illustrious ancestor, and his faith, inspired him. 

He pestered the parson to teach him to read and write, as it was his ambition to read the Holy Scriptures to his friends.
‘Read Holy Writ, my son?’ Father Giles said, surprised but not displeased. ‘‘Tis surely a long road, for the Vulgate is but for the learned holy priests that are schooled in that tongue. Even I wist but little o’ that sacred tongue.’

He taught him a little of what he knew.  William showed such aptitude and intelligence that Father Giles thought he would make an excellent scholar, if only he could get him to Oxford or Cambridge Universities when he turned fourteen.  But his family barely made ends meet.  It would be a miracle if the young man ever went beyond the borders of Dorsetshire.

His scholarly potential notwithstanding, William loved people and he loved animals. Though a quiet lad, he had the knack of making friends, and many would come to him and talk out their woes. Then he would go off and tell his own sorrows to the horses in the town stables, or even to the pigs.

All this changed suddenly and tragically when William turned seven. Once again, the horror of the Black Death raised its ugly head, especially in the poorer, rat-infested quarters of the towns. Bournemouth was a busy port, and it wasn’t the first time that plagues had been born in on foreign ships.
William watched in grief as one funeral procession after another made its sombre way down the streets, destined for the burial sites reserved for the poorest folk.

One evening, when the epidemic was at its most rampant, his father staggered home coughing and bearing ugly, black sores, only to find his wife was the same, lying on her bed.

When little William came in from visiting friends at the end of town, he was faced with a horrible nightmare that scarred him for much of his life. 

‘Nay! Will, liefest! Come thou not nigh!’ his mother screamed. 

The father dragged himself from the bed to find his last remaining coins, threw the bag to William and, before collapsing, gasped, ‘Go, son! May God go with thee and bring thee better fortune than ours!’

‘Yea, go, my darling boy!’ wept his dying mother. ‘Go to thine uncle in Abbotsbury! With our last breath our prayers go with thee!’

Grieving, barefoot, hungry and frightened, he walked the many miles from Bournemouth town to find his uncle and aunt in Abbotsbury.

The couple were poor themselves and barely had enough to feed their nephew. So they took William to the local monastery, hoping the brothers would keep him amongst the other orphans. 

William was agreeable, for he had been told that holy men were meant to be like the good saints of old -- kind and compassionate. He could get the education that his soul craved for, and maybe become a holy man himself.

The rather portly and forbidding-looking brother who received them peered indifferently down at the scruffy piece of humanity looking pleadingly up at him. 
‘Nay, it cannot be done.’ he said brusquely, without any sign of compassion. ‘Stay thou with thine uncle and aunt. We have no room for dirty waifs that cannot give aid unto the abbey, in especial they that come of plague-ridden huts. Begone! Ye waste our time.’ 
With that, he stalked out of the room. He had forgotten that ten years earlier, the Black Death had laid low many of his fellows.

William was stunned, feeling rejected as though he was an abandoned child. He henceforth made a vow never to become a holy man, even if he died of hunger.
‘Come, boy.’ His uncle heaved himself to his feet and sighed as though he had expected this.

So his uncle, also a poor fisherman, and his aunt reluctantly adopted him, but seven years later, before William was fully grown, they also died in a recurrence of the plague.

The boy was then looked after by a friend of the family -- a gruff, drunken herdsman, who had noticed that young William showed some ability with animals.

William could not love the old man, but he did his best to learn as much of the trade from him as possible. He worked at it so hard that he managed to escape many of the clouts old Toothless Tom used to deal out when he was half sober.

When the old man died a few years later, poisoned by the cheap wood-ale he brewed in the forest, William began to wonder if he brought ill fortune on all those who raised him.

Eventually William became a shepherd and sty keeper for the local monastery, the Abbey of St. Bartholomew.

Although most of the brothers treated him like dirt, there were a few that helped to make his life tolerable, especially Brother Joseph. It was largely thanks to him that William obtained employment there at all, even though it was barely enough to feed him.

The Brothers had gone beyond the need to humble themselves enough to get their hands dirty, and share in the duties of mere peasants -- so said my lord abbot.  
They had ‘holier’, though unspecified, duties to attend to.
Times had changed since St. Benedict introduced the Rule, with its lofty ideals and Spartan lifestyle.

Driven to despair, William turned to wood-ale to ease the pain he felt at the state of his world, his need for acceptance and the aching emptiness he had within. A few times he had to be rescued from the ditch by his fellow labourers after a drunken rout. 

He was a personable young man, and occasionally a few of the village girls ran off with him into the woods. Having lost all sense of purpose, William was quite willing, and found a tiny degree of temporary comfort in their arms. 
But the sense of guilt that came from each of these romps drove him further into drink.

In some cases he stole food and drink from the monastery’s buttery, to help feed himself and other poor folk. The poor folk accepted him readily, a kindness which he never forgot. In his turn, William looked for ways to ease their sufferings.

It was through the hard times of those days that he learned how to survive. He and his younger friend Wilfred, another shepherd boy, became skilled in poaching, as many poor folk did, especially with the winter’s lean times. However, they never stole from the monastery’s flock, for they were his charge, and they trusted him.

Another survival skill was taught to him by old Dick Little, a soldier discharged from the army, due to a lull in the French war.
He was one of the last surviving bowmen that covered themselves in glory and won victory for the English at the battle of Grécy. But old Dick never spoke of that. His pride was in his lineage, for he claimed to be descended from John Little, the famed outlaw and right-hand man to the legendary Saxon rebel Robin of Locksley. His great grandsire had fled from the avenging arm of the law in Nottinghamshire and settled in Dorsetshire. Old Dick belligerently challenged any scoffers to a fight if they scoffed at his claim. Not many accepted his challenge because he was a giant of a man, an accurate marksman with the bow and also master of the art of quarterstaff combat.

William caught his attention when old Dick witnessed the lad stand up to a couple of poachers who were about to run off with a lamb from the monastery’s flock. They fled empty-handed when they saw old Dick Little approaching.

The big man roared with laughter, clapped the grateful William on his shoulder and wheezed out, ‘By Saint George, thou’rt a flightsome lad, then! Come thou into the wood, and we shall a-striken us a stout staff for thee to swing, so shall we.’

He then proceeded to teach William some useful strokes with the quarterstaff. The lad became so skilled at this, he was able to stand his ground against a group of bullies who had terrorised him and his friends in the past. This resulted in a few of these gentry staggering home with bruises and cracked heads. They never bothered him again.

During one long, bitterly cold winter’s night, William stood in the entrance of the sheep-pen and beat off a small pack of wolves that tried to attack the sheep. With a number of well-aimed blows, he cracked the skull of the pack leader. The others gave up and retreated. 

He cut up the beast, giving the meat to his friends, the monastery dogs, and making a fine coat of the skin.

‘Art thou not full courageous!’ cried an admiring scullery maid when he came in late that night wearing the wolf skin.
‘Nay. Say rather I be full drunken.’ he replied, his voice somewhat slurred.
She giggled and pulled him into a dark corner.

The wolf skin helped to keep him warm for many a cold night, until a generous impulse moved him to give it to a thin peasant child he found shivering, sniffling and coughing one exceptionally cold night. 
Sadly, the child died of malnutrition and consumption, but his last few nights were warmer. The child’s mother never forgot William’s kindness.

William never lost his desire to learn and would occasionally sneak in at the back of some of the orphan’s classes at St. Bartholomew’s to listen. The orphans liked him and pretended not to notice, for his sake. They even let him read some of their books.

Eventually, he found the ways and means of sneaking into the monastery archives when none but Brother Joseph was there. He would find one of the old tomes and read it in some quiet corner. Brother Joseph noticed him, but did not have the heart to expel him. So in this clandestine manner, his education progressed to a reasonably advanced state.

To be continued....

Note: I have attempted to reproduce the language of the day, but tried to balance it with readability.
If you need help with certain phrases or words, feel free to comment below and I will translate for you.
Those who purchase the complete work will receive the whole glossary.