A few days ago I found out on Irish Medieval History Facebook Page that “Irish monks invented the space between words”. This is a short story about an unusual Viking, a young, smart Irish monk and that invention…
Inis Mór, Aran Islands, Imbolc, Anno Domini 797
It was his fourth winter in Cill Éinne and it was the coldest and worst so far. Dunan’s home was quite close in bird’s view from Cill Éinne’s graveyard, where he was now: Gaillimh was on his right. But, right now, what Dunan could see on his right was nothing. The sky was giving the impression of having been collapsed over Conamara hills. It was so dark! The monastery had a sundial, but it was quite useless in Cill Éinne.
Too many clouds, too much rain. Sundials are for Africa, not for Éire! If Africa exists. Right in those days Dunan was copying a Latin text, the Physiologus. It was about strange animals like phoenix and elephants, living in a sun burnt land: Africa. It was difficult to think that those animals exist, and even harder to think that such a warm land could exist!
It was so cold in Cill Éinne. It was low tide and an Trà Mhòr, the big beach at the foot of the monastery’s hill, was a little big desert of sand. White patches of ice were staining the dunes’ straw.
– It’s not so bad. –
Dunan jumped. – Colum! God’s… I mean… You got me scared! –
Colum was a dean, the dean of Dunan’s brethren, and Dunan’s teacher of grammar, logic and rhetoric or, quoting brother Arnulf, the German monk, the Trivium. Colum was bringing a steamy quaich in each hand. He handed a quaich to Dunan. The peaty flavour of the uisce beatha made Dunan’s nose pinch.
– Hot uisce. Perfect for these icy days! Almost… – Dunan’s took the quaich, the large wooden bowl.
– God, it seems horse manure… –
– Indeed, brother Dunan – Replied Colum – But, you know: when Abbot Ultan came back from Iona he brought with him the Scottish way to make uisce beatha… –
– Horse manure… –
– Do you know what I think, young brother Dunan? I think that in ten years nobody else will make uisce beatha in the Scottish way. Except Abbot Ultan… It will be, you know, like… –
– History? – Told Dunan.
– Yes. History! By the way, are you ready for tomorrow’s lesson? –
– Ready? The book! It’s such a mess! Why the monks who preceded us were writing so badly? Too much uisce? Moreover, in the cell it’s too dark and out here it’s too cold. How do you suppose I could study Caesar’s battles for tomorrow? –
Colum was sipping his uisce from the quaich.
– Do not complain too much about the bad weather, brother Dunan. You know that summers can bring upon us something worse than mist and snow… –
Inis Mór, Aran Islands, two months later
Abbot Ultan stormed in the scriptorium. You would have said that he had seen the Devil.
– Colum! – The Abbot shouted – Come with me! Immediately! –
Dunan’s brethren would have appreciated leaving for a while the rules of Latin gerundium atque gerundivum, but not with the Abbot in such a state! Only Sedulius took advantage of the situation and he sneaked out, probably going to feed his cat. And Colum didn’t realize anything about Sedulius when he had come back, because he told: – Come with me, Dunan. Immediately! –
Dunan had never been in Ultan’s cell before. It was… Well, different. Warmer. Of course: there was a fireplace, there… And Dunan would have sworn to sniff a peaty smell. There was a desk in the cell. The Abbot threw a parchment on it.
– What is this!? – He shouted to Dunan. Dunan took the parchment.
– It is… It is just my last copy of the De Bello Gallico. What’s wrong with it..? –
– And you have the nerve to say what’s wrong? How do you dare!? –
Behind Dunan’s shoulders Colum spoke: – The… Voids, son. The… empty spaces… –
– What’s wrong with them..? – Asked Dunan. Dunan didn’t like the Romans. He was puzzled about their mania to hang-up about building… What? Water-bringers. Yes: aqueducts. Dunan thought it was completely stupid. If in a place there is no water, simply you shouldn’t live in that place, why bringing water where there is none supposed to be!? But Dunan loved his work. His copy of De Bello Gallico was great. Dunan should be an awesome copywriter, nowadays.
– What’s wrong!? – The Abbot shouted again.
– What’s wrong! If you were a good student you would know what horror vacui is! And you are putting a lot of vacuum in my parchments! –
– But, Abbot, I realized that with spaces between words we’ll make fewer mistakes! I’m almost sure that even Caesar made mistakes because he didn’t use empty spaces. You see, Abbot, in the second paragraph? The name Orgetorix? I’m almost sure it’s a mistake. I think it should be Orgetus Rex, king Orgetus! – Dunan didn’t mention aqueducts…
The Abbot became even more furious: – So you are just telling to me that you write Latin better than Caius Julius Caesar!? Get out of my sight! Penitentia! Penitentia! Colum! Bring this impertinent brat in his cell! –
In the dark corridors Colum whispered to Dunan: – So, what will you do? –
– Bring me parchments and ink, Colum. I have to copy the whole of the De Bello Gallico. With spaces!
Mainland Éire, a few days after Beltaine
The two peasants tried to face þegn Eystein with their pitchforks. Þegn Eystein broke the pitchforks with his war axe, then he killed the peasants.
Screams of children and women.
Þegn Eystein was brooding by himself: kids and women. And a bunch of warriors, less trained and worse equipped than us. Too easy. You can’t go to Valhalla with this… By now I am almost thirty… By now I’m old! It’s all because of Konungr Gandalf. He and his hocus pocus name! Not a proper Viking name indeed. In ten years nobody will remember him and his cursed name!
– Well done, my þegn! – Konungr Gandalf had come alongside Eystein. – But, where are the monks? –
– Hail, Konungr. They are burning in the tower, I suppose. –
– Burning? –
– Yes, Konungr. They are useless. They don’t even fight! –
– I didn’t give you that order, Eystein… –
– But… –
– But? How do you dare, þegn!? How many times I must tell you that it’s not just a matter of gold and treasures!? –
Eystein tightened the axe’s handle. Gandalf said: – The Saints’ Island will be your last chance, þegn. Do not disappoint me again… –
Þegn Eystein was brooding by himself, again: You and your bloody name. You and your bloody name will be… Be… But Þegn Eystein didn’t know the word he wanted to use: he was a man for swords, not for words…
Inis Mór, Aran Islands, nine days later
They usually came at night. But, for some reason, not this time. It was dawn. Arnulf was the first to see the long ships. He started screaming while jumping the steps of the bell tower. The bells started to ring in a while. Dunan was in his cell. He had already returned to work in the Scriptorium, but he had started to get up earlier to make his “special” copies. People from the village were running, looking for protection within Monastery’s walls.
We would need Julius Cesar, thought Dunan. Then he remembered he was, almost, a man of Faith. We would need God.
On the deck of the admiral ship Konungr Gandalf was speaking to his þegn Eystein: – Here we are, my þegn: Cill Éinne monastery. They say that it is a lighthouse of civilization in this age of darkness. And we don’t like darkness, Eystein, do we? –
– Uh… No, my Konungr. – Eystein was trying to find in his mind the meaning of the world “civilization”. He was a man for swords, not for words…
– My þegn? –
– Yes, my Konungr? –
– No bullshit this time, or I’ll personally chop your fucking head off. – Then Gandalf shouted: – Men! Land out! –
– It’s odd. They are not attacking. It’s a trap? –
Abbot Ultan was looking down from a narrow window in the bell tower. There were only two Vikings getting closer to the monastery’s gate. They were both huge. The younger one was bringing a banner: a red crow over a wand, on a black background. The elder Viking started to speak.
– What the Hell that boy is doing there!? – Shouted Abbot Ultan when he saw Dunan in the courtyard. So Ultan couldn’t realize that Gandalf was speaking Latin.
But… It’s Latin! Well. Almost… Realized Dunan. That Gandalf is speaking about… Books! They are not the usual Vikings! They are here for the books! And anyway we are in God’s hand. And it is completely stupid to entrench yourself in a bell tower where they can smoke you like malt for uisce beatha… Dunan opened the gate, ignoring the screaming Abbot.
It’s just a boy. You don’t go to Valhalla killing boys. Anyway… Eystein dropped the banner and wielded his war axe. Dunan screamed. Gandalf realized what was happening and chopped Eystein’s head off with his sword.
– Tu es historia – Told Gandalf to the beheaded Eystein’s corpse.
– Libri – Gandalf told to Dunan.
– Libri – Repeated Dunan. And he added: – Libri. Civitas. – He couldn’t wait to speak about his invention to the Viking. And he would ask if they use to build aqueducts…
Dedicated to my favourite copywriter: my wife, on the occasion of our 26th anniversary.
By the way: do you think it’s a stupid invention..? Try to read this short story in this way…