Yesterday I posted ‘Homeward Bound’, a riddle in short story form. Here, as promised, is the answer.
The narrator of my story – and the answer to my riddle – is a very special book: the Textus Roffensis. Written in the Benedictine Priory of St Andrew which was adjacent to Rochester Cathedral, the Textus Roffensis dates from the 12th century.
Apart from a few later additions, this unique manuscript was the work of a single scribe. It consists of 235 leaves and is written on vellum, that is, sheets of specially-prepared calf-skin.
The manuscript not only records a number of charters relating to Cathedral lands (very useful for proving ownership in cases of dispute) but, more importantly, it is thought to provide one of the most complete records of Anglo-Saxon law. These include the Laws of King Aethelbert dating from 604 AD as well as the laws of other Kentish kings from the 7th and 8th centuries.
Among the ancient laws recorded by the Textus Roffensis are those grouped together under the title Iudicia Dei or Judgements of God. These refer to the ordeals by which the guilt or innocence of those accused of crime was put to the test. Most commonly these ordeals consisted of holding red-hot iron, immersing one’s hand in boiling water or of the individual being totally immersed in water.
However, there is one ordeal that has perplexed historians for centuries. It is that of barley bread and cheese: an ordeal known as corsned in Old English. How this ordeal was supposed to have worked and who was subjected to it is still a matter of conjecture. While some commentators maintain that it was reserved for members of the clergy, there is also a famous example of it being applied to a layman.
Godwin, earl of Kent, the father of King Harold, was accused of murdering his own brother. He elected to take the ordeal of barley bread and cheese to prove his innocence. Before submitting himself to the ordeal, he was supposed to have cried: “May this bread choke me if I am guilty!”
A rash challenge for Godwin choked and died.
This unusual ordeal provided both the title for a collection of short stories which includes ‘Homeward Bound’ and also the inspiration for an eponymous story in which a young historian finds a novel application for an old test of truth.
When reading a history of the Textus Roffensis, I was struck by the book’s extraordinary adventures. It was lent to various scholars and travelled up to London on a number of occasions for re-binding and copying. It became the subject of at least two custody disputes, one of which led to a legal battle in the Court of Chancery.
To add to the excitement, the book was accidentally ducked in a river (either the Thames or the Medway). Its survival on that occasion was thought to be largely due to brass clasps which bound its pages so tightly that water could not penetrate beyond the outer margins.
For many years, this wonderful old book was kept at Medway Archives at Strood. It was, undoubtedly, a safe environment; but, from the old book’s point of view, it must have been somewhat dull, devoid of adventure, abduction and life-threatening episodes.
When writing this story, it seemed appropriate to compare the Textus Roffensis to an old person dreaming of the past and a much-loved, former home: in this case, Rochester Cathedral.
Little did I know that a new chapter of the Textus’s extraordinary history was about to be written. Last year, my short story collection Barley Bread and Cheese was launched at Rochester Cathedral with ‘Homeward Bound’ as one of the readings.
It was an unforgettable evening but the high spot for me was the announcement that next year, the Textus Roffensis will be returning to its original home at Rochester Cathedral. 2015 will be a particularly appropriate date for that event as the Textus contains a copy of the Coronation Charter of Henry I, a forerunner of Magna Carta which celebrates its 800th anniversary next year.
But there is also something to celebrate this year.
Manchester University has announced the completion of a project to convert this ancient tome to a thoroughly modern format. Scholars and bibliophiles around the world will now be able to study a digital version of the document at their desks.
Not quite as romantic as vellum perhaps, but far more accessible to lovers of history and the written word.
At last this venerable old book is waking from its slumbers and shaking the dust off its pages, ready to greet a vastly increased audience and win new admirers.
The story ‘Homeward Bound’ appears in a slightly different version in my book Barley Bread and Cheese. It is one of a selection of short stories inspired by Rochester Cathedral, its history and works of art.
Barley Bread and Cheese is available in both hardback and ebook format from Amazon. The Kindle version is available for free from Kindle Unlimited. For more information, please click here
Hardback versions of the book are also available from Rochester Cathedral bookshop and the Medway Visitor Information Centre.