Chapter 1 Take nothing for the journey: neither staff, nor haversack, nor bread, nor money; and let none of you take a spare tunic.
It was on a frozen mud road in France, one day in the winter of 1116, when Louis VI was king and Stephen de Garlande his chancellor, when Galon was Bishop of Paris and Paschal II our most Holy Father. It was a time of commonplace woes. I was twenty years old but I had seen more than my share of full moons.
My father fought at Hastings against the Normans. It had left him with a real horror of conflict and a good deal of respect for his new king--as my Christian name, William, indicates. When, as a child, I used to dream of tournaments, he was exceedingly persistent in forcing me to study. He handed me over to teachers who knew nothing, and I was beaten for getting the better of them. For months I stopped listening and was tempted to feign stupidity.
Every Latin translation was drummed into me; to avoid further toil I had secretly learned a little Greek. My father would not allow me to duel, even with a wooden sword, even with children who were less robust than me. As far as knowledge of weapons was concerned, I escaped with a few scratches from bushes. Under stormy skies, I confronted springs and the shadows of oak trees.
I would not be a knight.
My only friend was called Stephen. He was an errant priest who sometimes shared the bed of one of our servants. He told me about the world and encouraged me to seek God on my own.
He said with a smile that there was nothing more terrible and more beautiful than man.
It was he who told me the secret of my birth--my illegitimacy --and in doing so he did me a great favour as well as much harm.
The habit of telling the truth at an early age in a world full of lies is a weapon as well as a hindrance. I continued to respect the person I called my mother, a pale woman with cold hands who never gave me a name, thereby hoping no doubt that I would cease to exist. She did not touch me or so much as glance at me.
Not being noticed by those one wants to be noticed by teaches you more about life than do ferulas and beatingsCÎyou learn to know that you are not loved, unless by chance or accident.
I would not be a father.
When everyone is desperately trying to make his presence felt and to leave some trace of himself, it is soothing to the soul to make of one?¦s absence a cloak for all seasons. It was my own way of fleeing to the absolute on one?¦s ownCÎand without delay.
I would be anybody. Or rather, with the secret and limitless pride which made a difference that only I was aware of: nobody.
Father Stephen used to tell me that the Ulysses of a thousand wiles and the heinous Ulysses were actually the same man and, by extension, all men. He knew the animals and the stars, the courses of rivers and the composition of the love potion from which Tristan had drunk. He told me love stories and he would say (though in a low voice) that at certain hours of the night, in rivers and forests, in churches and solitary places, Love was at one with woman and with God. As regards religion, he had a preference for superstition and accounts of miracles; he even used to say that these were the only things he believed in. He didn?¦t care for the great mysteries.
Knowing his tastes, peasants and poor monks from our part of the countryside would come and relate their stories, telling him about swarms of devils and armies of angels, of voices from heaven. He collected them in a little book and I sometimes helped him fold the pages.
We roamed along our English lanes, and my feet felt the softness of our hills and our hump-backed bridges. He took me to our squat country churches to see the ancient relics: the sword which a certain lord, upon his return from the wars, had sunk into a stone as he made a vow never again to resort to violence; the face of a prostitute that had been carved into the wood of the cross when she vowed to sin no more. Furthermore, he had strong hands with which he soothed pain, and he had the rare ability to be patient and say nothing when people spent too long recounting their tribulations to him.
When I was twelve years old, he was discovered dead, his legs broken, his eyelids sewn shut. Such violence and mystery were not in keeping with this good man who was not in the least corrupt, and whose only crime had been to love the warmth of a woman?¦s body too much.
I would not be a priest.
All I was good for was living in my dreams.
At the age of sixteen I told my father that I needed a horse and wanted to see the world. He gave me several gold sovereigns which were stolen from me after just a few days . . . Take nothing for the jouurney: neither staff, nor haversack, nor bread, nor money; and let none of you take a spare tunic . . . I was seasick on board a ship, imagining they were abducting me to sell me as a slave to some Moors (such nightmares afflict you on pitch-black nights when your heart is down). I crossed France without stopping, and I studied in Rome with a monk who knew Augustine by heart. I remember the bewildering melancholy that seized me when I heard him say these words: My childhood died a long time ago, but I, I live . . . I witnessed a sect of Pythagoreans who ate nothing but grass and met at night to talk in low voices about the true significance of numbers.
Although my father hadn?¦t given me a horse, I found some along the way, as well as dogs, unicorns and all sorts of wondrous animals that I recognised, but whose names I didn?¦t know.
I spent a year in Salerno with a woman physician who tended bishops and princes from all over Europe. We travelled by boat and slept on a blue island with white rocks where only birds and snakes lived. She showed me her gifts and invited me to share them. She gave me a golden chain which some minor king had bestowed on her. When I told her that I was leaving, a sad expression came over her brown eyes (she had brown skin, too, from which I used to lick the salt, and those eyes would close, and there was a rumbling sound in her rising breast when I entered her, and afterwards, resting and perspiring, I would see that sweet smile that made her whole body unwind, and mine as well). Then she recited these ancient and very simple lines, which made me want to look away:
Go and be happy, for nothing lasts.
But always remember how much I have loved you.
I wore out my arse on ships?¦ benches, on horses?¦ saddles. I had some leather shoes that turned up at the ends and made children in villages laugh?Xwomen?¦s shoes!--and I walked barefoot over sharp stones.
I scoured the earth. I knew the shores as well as the open sea. I knew how light the air and the heart feel when you reach the summit.
I read few books, remembering that Socrates mistrusted them but that words are our only means of learning. I liked the rigid expressions on the faces of men who believed that they knew all things, and I liked to frequent taverns and drink a light white wine that simplified all thought.
I travelled through Spain, to Cordoba, where I acquired a little Arabic and some Hebrew, as well as new names for God: Elohim, Allah the Merciful, the terror of the Infidels. I discovered that there were other holy books, and no doubt still more across the seas and beyond the mountains.
In order to eat, I served others and took unexpected pleasure in allowing myself to be mistreated. And I taught and I sang; I could play the rote, as well as the three-holed eastern flute, the sound of which made children mill around me, clapping their hands and asking for more. I also picked fruit and corrected Latin verbs with rather more gentleness than had been used on me. When I arrived in a remote place where men spoke with pebbles