The army approached with anticipation – Rome, the Eternal City, sunny and welcoming to those who’d never seen it. The Aurelian Walls had been safeguarding the city for 800 years with its internal alleyways connecting 18 formidable gates. A barrier between us and them. But no wall could keep them out. Them, forcing changes, yet them as they are. To them, they are not them at all, but an us. And Rome once an open city. The Romans of those days drank wine from cups lined with lead. Is what is Roman now would be Roman to them? Pax Romana . . . Many of its emperors were foreign people. An emperor – power in the hand of one and state religion – the arbiter of all religions, and Rome had religions as Poppaea had beautiful hair, all welcomed, all equal, and honoured the state. A god among gods Caesar, just requiring his due . . .
Though Rome was a whore, lounging on her seven hills ramshackle and smelling of decay. Those who’d been there before knew it. The once great beauty turned upon by her suitors and defiled time and again, till now her comfort lay in her much-maligned servant, the Church. But it too abused her, stripping her temples and salting her pagan grounds. The divine phallus no longer the symbol of power in their homes; the cross adorns the parlors. Blood and semen. What virtuous Roman house would foul itself with an emblem of hideous execution? What good Christian home would display a winged prick on the wall; though young Norman wives wore phallic necklaces to aid in fertility. Talismans of contradiction, like Rome herself – she who slew the martyrs now venerated their bones. Rome, the old harlot – sacred now. If Jerusalem be God’s seat, Rome was His footstool. The nature of Christ in two cities – divine and human. Rome was most human. So, the army thrilled at her sight – gray and beaten with her pillars thrown down – like them, pagan by history, but chosen and redeemed.
But the classic city of circuses and Caesars, of the teaming happy masses was no more. The forums now cattle grounds and Rome itself a pasture. What once was, was a distant memory, if remembered at all. Did they ever know, these mongrel Romans, with their huts and wood houses upon lost foundations? Only churches were afforded stone. All these Romans knew was the Church (such a lazy narrative rendered in broad strokes . . .).
So, if Rome was the heart of the Church, why did Urban wander? If filioque (how the Holy Ghost proceedith) divided Christendom East from West, Roman from Greek, Investiture split Church and from the Holy Roman Empire. For all its barnyard smells, Rome was still a seat of power. Who may appoint bishops: the anointed of God – the Holy Roman Emperor, and not merely bishops, but the pontiff himself; or the Vicar of Christ whose authority extended both over the promotion of bishops and the emperor? Both pontiffs and emperors were ardent reformers. Church and State. Which the higher Religion? We are a species of Religion. Religious in our anti-religion . . . Conserve or progress. Conserve and progress . . . Urban’s predecessor, Gregory VII, excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV twice for appointing clergy. Henry disposed Gregory with bishops of his own, appointing a new pope, Clement III. Henry also invaded from the north. Bloody, bloody battles. The Italian Normans sieged Rome on Gregory’s behalf to clear the anti-papal invaders, but the sack was horrendous to friend and foe alike. Rather than liberating Gregory as the true pontiff, he was driven into flight and died within the year. Anti-pope Clement retained the Vatican and St Peters.
So, with this preamble, as the Milites Christi approached, Rome was not Pope Urban’s town. Both he and his pilgrimage to save Jerusalem and aid the Greeks was anathema and his adherents mindless papal ruffians. And what need to save the Greek Church? In truth, there was no such thing as the Greek Church. Nothing Greek about it save usurpation? Greeks full of trickery. And Constantine had been most Roman of emperors and Constantinople a most Roman city. The See of St Peter even had primacy among the patriarchs – first among equals, but not, not the Vicar of Christ. It was the Greeks who had lost Jerusalem four hundred years hence and have been losing Christian lands ever since. Byzantium was a shrinking empire on all sides.
“Send to me, if you will, a hundred or so Frankish knights to fortify our army against the heathen Turk who ravish our boarders,” wrote Emperor Alexius I from Constantinople to Pope Urban wandering about southern France.
So Urban did – seventy thousand on their way to save their Eastern brothers . . . Overwhelm them and draw them back into the fold. Filioque – the Greeks will accept it and end the Great Schism. The Holy Land will be back in Christian hands. The Holy Roman emperor will come to heel. And the Parousia – Christ’s second coming . . . Such a plot. Ambitious Pope Urban.
And Tìbald and Aile fleeing – he from his sin, for nothing in the world mattered but his sin and its expiation. And Aile heading for some destiny in a world far larger than she imagined it to be.
They entered Roman under a drizzling rain, though not a cleansing one. An overwhelming smell of hogs, wet and gamey, not that they didn’t know the smell of hogs, but Rome was a slaughter pen day and night.
On the old stone avenues, a constant clatter: iron horseshoes, cartwheels and jingling tact. Tìbald’s lance glistened from the raindrops and grew brighter, so he thought, from its proximity to so many sacred shrines amidst of pens and smokehouses. Despite Rome’s propensity for pigs, it had far more sacred shrines – little sacellum knocked into the walls whose demi-gods were replaced by images of martyrs.
Here they come, thought the Roman Jews, peaking from behind closed doors. The town is already occupied by Clement’s Christians who care for us not at all. And then these here, Urban’s zealous pilgrims, whose peasant contingent slaughtered our brethren in the Rhineland. And that the followers of the two Popes hate each other, what madness will erupt here? Them and their eucharist . . . Surely, we’ll be at the center of it . . .
But void was any warlike urge, at least for the moment. Such was in Tìbald who only wished to pray. He would pray for the soul of the beggar, pray for Rainald, for Ivo, for the soul of Nyneve. For Bayard . . . For Aile – long and hard for Aile. He would pray for all in his company, for their protection, that not one be lost. He would pray for the cause.
As he rode down the ancient streets, he tingled – ghosts clung to the city walls watching the pilgrim army. Their voices murmured in the clatter. Their outlines in the rain. His war-horse snorted, sensing danger. It strained at the bit. Bloody work ahead. Tìbald jerked the reins. The horse would not have it. Tìbald leaned forward and punched its neck. It was no more than a weapon.
Aile puffed through the chain mail ventil covering her mouth. She had no premonitions; her kite shield was buckled securely about her shoulder and pulled tight to her side. She held her javelin ready, its small, white pennant bearing a simple red cross sopped with rain. She faced the front, though her eyes tracked the roofs. For skirting along the tiles above were ghosts of flesh and blood, Clement’s men.
“Will they attack us?” she asked, her posture stiff. “We’re so many. What a foolish thing to do.”
“The world is full of fools,” answered Tìbald. “Especially the passionate.”
“And if they do?” Aile asked.
“We do nothing as the duke commanded,” Tìbald said. “We’ve come only to worship at the bones of St Peter.”
“God protect us,” Aile muttered. “Protect us to the bones of St Peter.”
A blur shot across her front and splatted on the leg of Tìbald’s destrier – human excrement. Her shield banged; a rock bounced off it. Her palfrey skidded into Tìbald’s warhorse, who banged it with its head and bit it. The palfrey reared. Aile pulled on the
reins to hold it back, her chest prickly.
“Ūrīna super te! (Pish on thee!)” cried a voice from above in Latin. “Nothi Urbani ex eius rectum orti sunt! (Urban’s bastards birthed from his arse!)”
Aile, struggling with her mount, looked up to see a rock sailing toward her head. She yanked up her shield and the stone flew back and banged against the top of a soldier’s helm while another rock struck his arm. Then from the rooftops, a hail of stones along with profanity. Up rose their shields as they closed ranks, the racket echoing through the narrow street.
Père Marin, without protection, threw his arms about Esmè. Tìbald called to them, then motioned Ugo and Fulk to ride over with their shields.
Hold steady – Robert Curthose’ order.
How the seigneurs bore it, these proud men of war. Their penance not just of behavior, but penance of the heart. They took it in silence, this hard contrition. With every rock, they broke. Something of Rome afflicting them. Enemies all about, and every strike confirmed their weakness. They were sinners in repentance. Even the most calloused warrior worried for his soul. For why come? O’ yes – for the riches. For the land. A kingdom for every man and wealth the size of your small toe and Death ready to swallow you whole.
Down went an archer stuck by a melon-sized stone. A whoop from the rooftops and a hush by the pilgrims gathering him up. The attackers found this irritating. “Alteram maxilla vertens?” they shouted. “Ita est timidis.” But the column remained silent and pushed through the narrow streets and squares to the Basilica of Saint Peter.
The great Saint Peter’s on Vatican Hill, constructed over the ancient Necropolis – thousands upon thousands of tombs – of famous charioteers and their horses, of servants and merchant class, of patricians and saints. Nero’s circus buried under the portico and the basilica’s southern wall – on whose floor the martyrs burned and Saint Peter, himself, crucified. Rocked by earthquakes in its 700 years, the Basilica had housed great treasures ‘til the Saracens sacked it (Vatican Hill was beyond the protection of the Aurelian Walls when first built. But what was it then but a graveyard?). Now within the fold, it too matched the ancient city – tired and faded.
At the basilica steps, the army formed a gauntlet through which the bishops and great lords could safely pass. Odo, wheezing in his armour, waddled up the thirty-five steps, his mitre tipped precariously atop his head, pressing hard on his crosier while leaning on an unfortunate monk helping him along. Robert Curthose, reminiscent of Odo’s youth, followed amidst the entourage of nobles: Stephan de Blois, William of Ghent, Robert of Flanders – entrenched men of power.
As nobles crossed the portico, Clement’s men followed along the rooftops, and once in the church, they raced ahead along the alcoves. The barons ignored them. No violence here, not before the Holy Presence. For the moment, they were not seigneurs, but supplicants with sacks of coins for the bones of Saint Peter.
Beneath the great pergola, resting atop its six spiral columns, its canopy alight from fifty golden lamps – the high altar. The barons placed on it their offerings, then proceeded around its back to the staircase to the apostle’s tomb.
Outside, the soldiers prostrated themselves in the courtyard. What spectacle, hundreds of seigneurs facedown as if struck in a single moment. From the rooftops, more stones. At least the pilgrims had buckled their shields down their backs.
Tìbald, the nasal of his helm rested on his crossed hands, felt and heard a thwack in the center of his shield much like a strike in combat. Before he could move, a fist-sized rock struck the pavers inches from his face. He raised his head, in his limbs a hot river, but before him, housed in one of the compound’s buildings, the chapel of Saint Appollonia. The old wounds woke and tingled. “Pater noster,” he prayed and lowered his head. “Qui es in caelis, sanctificentur nomen tuum---”
“---adveniat regnum tuum,” Aile’s voice not far away.
“---fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo in terra---” Ugo and Fulk.
A pain shot through Tìbald’s leg like the bite of a serpent. He held fast. And the constant banging off pavers and bucklers like hailstones until they were spent.
“Deus lo volt!” a cry from the belltower on the portico’s southeast corner. “Deus lo volt!” A band of Urban’s supporters had rushed the steeple and barred themselves inside.
Clement’s men on the roof drew their swords and rushed the tower. A snap of a crossbow and an attacker flew off the ledge, the bolt passing through him to shatter the tiles behind. Again, Urban’s men cheered, but Clement’s men, in far greater number, stormed the belfry from above and below. A crash of weapons erupted from the tower, a faceless violent battle where sound was neither ally nor predictor. But hard after, the melee grew softer, the cracks and crashes fewer and far between.
Tìbald smelled the iron of blood. A headless corpse, thrown from the bell tower, hit the portico with a bounce. On its naked torse was carved the sign of the cross.
“Ugo,” Tìbald called to boy, for the corpse was not a foot away. “Ugo.”
The boy, facedown, did not move.
“Ugo,” Tìbald said and noticed Ugo hardly breathing. He reached and nudged boy’s shoulder. His breathing stopped as if touching made it so. Tìbald scooted over to find the side of Ugo’s skull caved in and bleeding.
A rock banged off Tìbald’s shield.
He felt cold but didn’t notice. Bile pressed to the top of his throat. Receive him, Tìbald wanted to pray, but couldn’t.
Fulk, upon seeing, rushed to his brother’s side. The barons had finished their prayers and a line formed for the lesser ranks to enter St Peter’s. The stoning subsided. Tìbald took his place as the rest of his company gathered about Ugo. He thought to stay. He wished to, but Fulk’s cries cut him and cursed him without words. Tìbald must go, the saint’s remains demanded it. Besides, what miracle could come from St Peter if Tìbald could not kneel and pray? He would offer up Ugo. Plead to St Peter to raise him from the dead. A miracle to prove their faith – to show they’re not talking to the air. He would pray for Fulk too and stood in line, giving Fulk his back.
It took three days for the 20,000 pilgrims to kneel before St Peter’s tomb and three days until Ugo could be buried.
The fetor hung in pockets, forcing the burial party to hold their breath as they moved through the tunnels; it clung to the skin and infiltrated garments. But nothing in the catacombs smelled liked the remains they carried. From gallery to gallery, down flights of steps, Tìbald and Fulk hefted Ugo on a pallet. Through wrapped and scented with oil, little good it did. A Roman led the way completely unaffected, taking them deeper into the catacomb’s maze. Through signs and gestures, he indicated he was a follower of Urban’s and would bury the boy for a price. Little did they know when the army departed, Ugo would be retrieved and discarded in the Tiber.
Tìbald inhaled shallow drafts in flickering torchlight as he brushed against niches. Fresco after fresco – a young’s woman’s portrait, a husband and wife holding hands, a paterfamilias blessing his family. In the oldest sections pagan frescos: a Diocletian Mithras slaying a bull; the jackal god, Anubis, weighing the heart of the dead. Once passed these, were markers for Christian dead: Christ as the new Orpheus taming man’s animal nature; Jesu, the Good Shepard, clean-shaven, close-cropped hair with a Chi-Rho on his tunic. But Tìbald grew distracted as the walls closed in. He closed his eyes, Fulk leading from the front, and tried to imagine himself in the open night.
They stopped in a circular gallery with niches from floor to ceiling. In the shadows, a single vacant slot just above the floor.
Tìbald and Fulk, on their knees, pushed Ugo into the recess. Tìbald found himself partway in inches from Ugo’s face flickering in the torchlight, the skin blistered and peeling. Tìbald knocked his head against the top of the niche. He could not breathe. Ugo held him fast ‘til he jerked himself and fell backwards, a blackness swirling in his lungs.
Fulk with an instinctive grasp of Tìbald’s arm – to put a hand on his seigneur albeit caring. “Dómini,” he said fearfully as Tìbald sat back against the wall, gasping.
“L'ho già visto. Non tutti gli uomini possono sopportare le tombe,” the Roman said (I’ve seen this before. Not all men can bear the tombs). He turned to Fulk and simulated a choking sound. “Soffocare.”
Fulk knelt at Tìbald’s side. “Are you all right, dómini?”
Tìbald took the boy’s hand; Fulk assumed to pull him up, but Tìbald sat motionless amidst the torchlight and shadows. Above the niches was a fresco of Jonah – Jonah, the renegade fleeing from God and discarded like cargo; all in his company eager to be rid of him. And there the mouth awaited.
Jonah in terror. Jonah in remorse. Jonah redeemed and sprawled on the shore.
Tìbald lingered on this last image and his breaths deepened.
“Praise Him,” he whispered all the while holding Fulk’s hand.
Fulk pulled away.
“Praise Him,” Tìbald chirped again.
“Cosa c’è con lui?” the Roman asked (What’s with him?). “Ah – pazzo!” (Crazy!)
The army left Rome to the hooting of Clement’s men and made their way east to Campania and the Church of Saint Nicholas to pray for courage and strength. Then journeyed to the wealthy port of Bari to cross the Adriatic to Macedonia, but winter storms frightened the sailors hired to transport them. Only a cohort of Robert of Flanders was able to depart. More pilgrims to turn homeward. The remainder cantoned in Calabria where they were cold and hungry for those miserable winter months. Even on Italia’s most southern point, everyday found a soldier dead from exposure or a woman drowned by the fluid in her lungs. The local stores soon emptied. Thank God for Lent with its self-imposed rationing.