Telling Tales

Telling Tales

Robert Toogood

When the noise of many voices was less raucous and those who had eaten the evening meal at the baron’s long table were replete, relaxed and tired, a harpist would strike up a vibrant note and a well-loved voice would be heard proclaiming:

“I sing a song of ancient times,

of brave deeds done in wond’rous rhymes,

relating sagas of the Norse,

of monsters overcome by force

of the stout arms of heroes brave,

so your attention now I crave.”

Then would those tired eyes open wide and a smile of pleasure break out on every face, as both men and women fell silent with anticipation, their bodies lounging in their seats.

The bard-cum-storyteller would look for instruction from the baron’s table on the dais. Then would come the demand to hear one of the well-known and well-loved ballads or drinking songs, or perhaps a recitation from the Viking Sagas, ‘Beowulf’ being popular, although there were others too, beside stories translated from the Greek of the ‘Odyssey’ and the ‘Illiad’. Nor were tales of England itself overlooked, for there were legends of King Arthur and his round table knights, along with popular ballads, unfortunately now lost to us, of Duke William’s arrival and conquest of England, (tactfully not sung in Saxon halls); the ballads and tales of exploits and successes of Hereward ‘the Wake’, or of the freak accident of that caused King William Rufus’s death in the New Forest (very popular among the English, but never sung in Norman keeps).

In the long, dark winter evenings the only entertainment available was the hearing of the songs and sagas the hearers knew by heart, and woe betide any minstrel or bard that dared to change or omit any detail, for in the days when only the priestly caste could read, and that in Latin, people learnt through the ear, not the eye.

The elderly minstrel in this Norman keep had no use for his eyes, as Gilbert of Rouen was now blind and so Alan of Abingdon was to all intents and purposes his eyes, accompanying his master everywhere and leading him about. Gilbert ‘the Bard’ was popular and sure of a welcome in every Norman moated castle and Saxon fortified manor south of the Trent, in those far-off days, when there was still a cultural divide between the ruffianly Norman barons and the Saxon manorial lords, because Gilbert could sing his ballads, or relate his sagas in Norman French, or Saxon English according to his audience. Time, alas, was taking its toll, for he was growing old and frail, not travelling as far as once he could. Besides, after King Henry I had died in the year of our Lord 1135 and his nephew King Stephen ascended the throne, the country had been in almost continuous civil war, for his right to rule was being contested by King Henry’s imperious daughter Matilda, so if anyone actually reigned it was King Anarchy. With baron against baron, it was dangerous to travel much in those lawless times.

Yet times do change, generations pass away and new ones arise in the nature of things, and so, in the nature of things, Gilbert ‘the Bard’ died at Ludlow Castle. His faithful carer, Alan, went to tell their host, the Lord of the Marches, who resided at the castle from whence he controlled the English border against Welsh incursions.

“I’m sorry to hear your sad news,” the Lord Marcher told him. “Your devotion to Gilbert was laudable, but what will you do now?”

“Well, my lord, when I’ve laid to rest my master, I will take over his role, for I’ve heard the old sagas and ballads so often, I can recite them all by heart. It is the only way I can earn a living, being somewhat lame from a leg wound received in King Henry’s wars.”

“We will lay your master to rest and then allow you to leave with our blessing,” the Lord Marcher told him.

When a mound was raised over Gilbert ‘the Bard’ in Ludlow Churchyard, Alan of Abingdon left the town making his limping way southwards and stopping to sing for his supper at the manors and castles along his route. Everywhere he was welcomed, his master’s death commiserated and Gilbert’s repertoire, as rendered by Alan, enjoyed.

So the years passed and King Henry’s grandson, another Henry, succeeded to the throne in 1154 and with him an element of greater stability arrived, as he sought to reduce the barons’ strongholds, although these nobles tried to retain some of the independence they had gained and learnt to love. Meanwhile, Alan of Abingdon continued singing and storytelling from place to place, accommodating his material to suit the interests and bias of his audience, thus achieving popularity and a welcome should he revisit there again.

Obviously, the years took their toll on him: his hair grew grey, his walking slower and his limp more pronounced, yet when seated on a stool, his voice was as clear and vibrant as ever, so that he seemed to shed the years and become young again. Yet his journeys became less frequent and where he found a ready welcome and received generous gifts, he stayed longer, although careful never to wear out his welcome. Thus by slow stages, he reached Norfolk and made his way to the great lord who held the mighty Norman keep at Norwich. That evening in the great hall, lit by the great fire and many torches, although he had begun to feel tired and ill, he made an effort to sing and tell his tales to the baron’s and his retainers’ great delight. That night he slept so soundly that he never did wake and the castle steward, finding him dead, sent off to the cathedral for a priest.

“What’s his name?” the priest asked viewing the corpse.

“Alan.”

“His clothes are finer than a mere servant’s. What was he skilled?”

The steward replied, “Yes, in singing and telling tales”.