It was a cold Sunday in January, and the rising sun cast a yellow glow on an apron of thick cloud. In a cottage on the edge of a field, one man was awake, moving briskly with the chill and with a sense of urgency. Briskly but quietly, too.
As he fastened his cloak to go out, his wife stirred upstairs. “Where are you going?” she asked, her voice still heavy with slumber.
“To be executed,” he replied, hoping to forestall this and all future conversations.
“To be executed,” he called, shutting the door behind him. In his hand was a sheet of paper, expensive for the time, on which he had been writing since just after midnight.
Later that day, as the village priest removed his cassock after another quietly satisfying Mass, the sexton shuffled up to him.
“Vandals, sir. We got to do something about them vandals.”
“Vandals, sir. That be three weeks now somebody’s been damaging this door. Look at that. Good Saxon wood, that is. They don’t make them like that no more.”
“It’s a very small mark…”
“Small but deep. And I’m not filling that in. ‘Cause you can’t get wood like that no more. Catch ‘em and hang ‘em, that’s what I say.”
“Youngsters will get carried away…”
“Not so young so’s they can’t write. Ruddy great sheet it was, nailed to this door. If they’d just kicked it, it wouldn’t do so much damage. Good Saxon wood, that is. But they will nail it in. You’d have thought they never wanted it to come off.”
“Paper, nailed to the door? Do you think someone is trying to send us a message?”
“Anyone with any intelligence knows he can just come up to you, don’t he? Ruddy great idiot we’ve got here. And a vandal. Whatever he says, can’t be up to much. Diseased mind, if you ask me.”
“Have you got it?”
“I had it, but I thought, why bother God’s vicar with a diseased mind? So I gave it to them that’d appreciate it. Just over there, look.”
On the green opposite the church, some sheep were studiously ignoring the sheet of paper that lay in their midst, tattered now with hooves and rain.
“I reckon they ain’t hungry enough. It’s been a good year for grass.”
“And a bad year for paper,” muttered the priest.
A few days later, the priest borrowed a horse, and rode 10 miles to see the bishop.
“Afternoon, old boy,” burbled the bishop. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“Someone’s been nailing papers to our church door,” explained the priest.
“Nothing obscene, I hope?”
“I have a copy here,” said the priest, and passed it over.
“He doesn’t look after his papers very well, does he?” remarked the bishop, holding the tattered, stained document at arm’s length.
“It was the sexton, sir. By the time I got to church in the morning, he’d already fed it to the sheep.”
“Excellent! The key to survival, as a priest, is to have a sexton who gets up before you do.”
“But what do we do about this man, sir?”
“The writer? Nothing. What business is it of ours?”
“Well, the contents of the paper, sir. They do seem rather—religious.”
Wrinkling his nose with mild distaste, the bishop inspected the paper closely. “I see what you mean. 17 Christs, 23 Gods, and a set of tooth marks that are clearly from an herbivorous creature. Aristotle.”
He smiled and leaned back. “What we have here is a religious maniac. And my advice to you is to do nothing at all. Just congratulate your sexton on his Godly habits, and, if his cockerel is eaten or dies of natural causes, buy him a new one, pronto.”
“But isn’t religious mania a matter for the church?”
“Nothing at all is a matter for the church,” replied the Bishop, “so long as God chooses not to make it public. It strikes me,” he said, as he showed the priest out, “that some Providence is protecting our friend.”
A week later, the harried priest intruded on the bishop’s silence once more.
“Tricky journey,” noted the bishop kindly. “If we were in Constantinople I’d offer you some tea, but we don’t have any here, I’m afraid. We could learn a lot from the Heathen…”—the priest raised an eyebrow—“in terms of hot drinks, at any rate.”
“”So,” sighed the bishop as they sat down, “what can I do for you? Church door all right?”
“Oh yes,” sighed the priest. “The church door is all right…”
“But that’s because he’s taken to preaching in public.”
“Oh dear. So you know who it is.”
“It’s the local doctor.”
“Doctor? Of theology?”
“A physician! I suppose they do go to university these days, although I don’t suppose you can call that learning. Still, keeps people happy, I suppose. But what is your doctor doing pronouncing on Christ? I thought they were all worshippers of Galen?” the bishop twinkled slightly.
“This one used to be a priest. But he left because he felt it wasn’t his calling. Retrained as a physician—and you know the rest.”
“A priest who retrained as a doctor—well, there aren’t too many of those. Not around here, anyway. Jan Lau, I presume?”
“The very chap.”
“But what the d—…. What on earth is he doing, writing religious tracts? He seemed quite stable as a physician.”
“He lives a pretty miserable life. Camped there on the edge of a field, with just his wife—no children.”
“Wife a difficult woman, is she?”
“It has been rumoured…”
“Thank heaven for the joys of celibacy! But difficult wives alone don’t make men preachers. If they did, not one town would ever be silent.”
“He’s telling people that the church is corrupt. That we’re not giving enough money to the poor. That priests are not good servants of Christ.”
“It’s always the same,” sighed the bishop. “People go to the seminary, commit some sin or another, can’t cope, and spend the rest of their lives taking their guilt out on the rest of the world. People criticise the church—all right, we are a bunch of hypocrites—present company excluded.” He turned and smiled in the general direction of the priest. “But where would we be without our hospitals, our libraries, our care for the poor, the abandoned, the outcast? Believe me, young Wünscher [for that was the priest’s name], a time will come when kings will tax people to provide hospitals, and people will think they should be grateful.”
“Shall I bring him in, sir?” asked the priest.
“Have to, I suppose. Now that he’s preaching in public. It doesn’t have to be punitive. After all, if you’re worried about the church, who better to talk to than your local bishop?” He snuffled good-humouredly.
“What if he doesn’t want to come?”
“Tell me,” said the bishop. “Who is the biggest man in your village?”
Less than a week later, a knock at the bishop’s door revealed the Reverend Alex Wünscher and Dr Jan Lau. The bishop bade them enter. To Dr Lau’s left stood an enormous, hulking, bearded man. To his right stood a young sheep, nibbling delicately at a piece of paper.
“The village blacksmith, Ron.” Reverend Wünscher gestured at the human colossus. The blacksmith nodded and smiled slightly. “Your reverence,” he addressed the bishop.
“Excellent,” said the bishop. “Do sit down.” Encouraged by the blacksmith, the doctor sat down with a thump.
“What a pleasure it is,” said the bishop, “to have a physician in these quarters. It’s a while since we’ve had a physician here. In fact I’m surprised you can find enough business in this area.”
“I wanted to live in the city,” said the doctor, “but my wife…”
“Say no more,” said the bishop. “A good deed done for one’s in-laws is a good deed indeed.”
“You seem like a good man,” said Dr Lau, “and I’m prepared to believe you. But there’s many in the church,” he said, glancing at the priest, “that aren’t.”
“Well, only Christ and his immaculate Mother are wholly good. The rest of us—well, we just muddle along as best we can.”
“Then why are some of us priests?”
“Interesting question. What do you think?”
“I think priesthood is an imposture and the work of Satan.”
“An interesting point, well made. Not one I can concur with, however. Is that what you’ve been preaching recently?”
“I’ve been preaching that priests actually are Satan.” Reverend Wünscher shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“You do realise,” said the bishop, “that that kind of talk can get people in an awful lot of trouble.”
“In the world, yes,” said the doctor. “But I will do only what pleases God. And I am perfectly happy to die a martyr.”
“But I don’t want you to be killed.”
“But I am perfectly happy to be killed.”
“It sounds like we have a few differences of opinion. Would you be happy to pop in every now and then for a chat?”
“And stop your preaching until we can sort out a few things?”
“Oh, dear.” The bishop sighed and clutched his forehead.
“Begging your pardon, sir.” A low rumble emerged from next to the doctor.
“Yes?” The bishop looked up.
“It strikes me, sir,” said the blacksmith, “that you and this gentleman here can’t agree.
“Well, me and my brother—sometimes we can’t agree.” (“Is he big?” mouthed the bishop to the priest. “Immense,” came the reply.)
“And when we can’t agree, sometimes my wife—well, she can sort it all out. ‘Cause she listens.”
“And you trust her,” said the bishop.
“Well,” laughed the blacksmith softly, “she wouldn’t be my wife if I didn’t.”
“A mediator,” smiled the bishop. “What an excellent idea! I’m sure a company of mediators moved into this town quite recently. Albertus Magnus Mediators, they’re called. Their symbol is the Square. I’m sure that’s not hermetic,” he added hurriedly.
“How can I trust them?” asked the doctor.
“How can you trust anybody?”
“But you must trust the apothecary who makes your drugs. And the patients who tell you their stories.”
“I look in their eyes to see if they are telling the truth.”
“So look in this mediator’s eyes. He won’t be biased—I don’t know him and nor do you. He can be relied upon to be confidential. And it’s so much less tiring than the church courts. Perhaps we will both learn something. By the way,” he said, looking to the left, “why did you bring that sheep with you?”
“I didn’t,” said Dr Lau. “It liked the taste of my argument.”
“A character witness! Very good,” said the bishop.
Dr Lau almost laughed.
An errand boy was sent running to the mediator, who said he was busy right now, but could make it on the Thursday, or indeed most days of the week so long as it didn’t interfere with the laundry. The physician, who did not make appointments in advance, said that Thursday would be fine, and the bishop agreed to postpone his review of the latest witch finding manuals (“A tiresome business,” he said, “but what can you do when so many people are practising this stuff?”).
“But that still leaves the question,” noted the bishop, “what do we do between now and Thursday?”
“If you don’t mind me saying so, sir,” said the blacksmith, “I need 24-hour medical care. For my hands,” he said, giving the doctor’s shirt an extra-strong tug. “Unfortunately I haven’t got the money to pay for it.”
“I’m sure the diocese can pass you a few gold coins,” said the bishop, and produced some small coins from a drawer. The doctor nodded. “Keep one for yourself,” said the bishop, passing the coins to the blacksmith. The blacksmith smiled. “Come on then,” he said, yanking the doctor’s shirt. “We’ve got work to do.”
Thursday came, and the bishop, priest, blacksmith, and doctor all assembled in the mediator’s office. “I’m so pleased to have you all here,” said the mediator. “Now, tell us more about what’s been going on.”
The doctor and the bishop told their stories.
“It strikes me,” said the mediator, “that what’s most important to you is to tell the truth.”
The doctor nodded.
“Can I ask you to do a thought experiment?” asked the mediator. “What if you were wrong?”
Just then, the door burst open and a somewhat dishevelled woman burst in.
“There he is, the toerag!” she cried. “I haven’t seen you for three days!”
“Ah, my love,” said the doctor, “I had to be with a very sick patient all that time.”
“My arse you had to be!” said his wife “You were at the blacksmith’s. Up to no good, I’ll be bound. Sorry!” she added, noticing the bishop and dropping a quick curtsey in his direction.
“Not at all, my dear. Can I get you some tea?” smiled the bishop. (“Fresh from Constantinople,” he explained to the priest.)
“I think we could all do with a break,” said the mediator.
“This is quite a paradoxical case,” he remarked, when the discussion resumed. “The bishop has no intention of making anyone a martyr, but will be obliged to defer to the church courts if Dr Lau continues preaching. Dr Lau is quite happy to be a martyr…”
“He’s not going to be no martyr,” averred Mrs Lau.
“Pardon?” came a small voice from somewhere in the room.
“He’s not going to be no martyr. Him, with his feet? And it’s not like I don’t need no man around the place. Scandal it’s been, the last three days. No wood, no money, nothing to keep his wife, no. But he thinks he can go swanning around with the blacksmith…”
“Sorry,” whispered the blacksmith.
“…who’s pretending to be ill. Ill? Look at him! He can lift a horse with his bare hands! What have they been up to, that’s what I’d like to know.”
“Madam,” said the bishop (“If I may,” he murmured to the mediator, who assented), “all shall be revealed. Eventually. But for the time being, I think we must defer to your wisdom. There are to be no martyrs here in Koblenz, are there?”
“No,” sighed the doctor.
“Not for the foreseeable future. And I think we have found, have we not, who in your household is the better preacher?”
The doctor nodded sadly.
“Time for tea,” said the bishop.