In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby | An excerpt from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel The Corner That Held Them

In 1194 a wandering scholar, very old and shrill, came begging for a meal. As he sat munching his bread and a salt herring he talked to the wicket-nun about the properties of numbers, and of how Abbot Joachim, analysing the arithmetic of the prophecies, had discovered that the end of the world was at hand. He himself expected much of the year 1221, a date whose two halves each added up to three. In such a year, he said, one might look for the reign of Antichrist to be fulfilled, or else it might betoken the coming of the kingdom of the Holy Ghost, as the number six expressed a completion of two-thirds of the Trinity. Something, at any rate, he said, might be expected. Under his arm he carried a monochord. To make himself clearer to the nuns (for several of them had gathered to pity the old man, so wise and so witless), he explained to them about the Proportion of Diapason, the perfect concord which is at once concord and unity, and showed them how, by placing the bridge of the monochord so as to divide the string into a ratio of one and two, the string will sound the interval of the octave. Thus, he mumbled, was the nature of the Godhead perceptible to Pythagoras, a heathen; for it lies latent in all things. He sat on a bench in the sun, but overhead the wind howled, tormenting the willows along the Hog Trail and clawing the thatch, and the nuns could scarcely hear his demonstration of how the Godhead sounded to Pythagoras. It was really no loss, for his hand, shaking with cold and palsy, had failed to place the bridge correctly, and the diapason of the Trinity was out of tune. Then, brushing the crumbs out of his beard and plucking a sprig of young wormwood to stick behind his ear, he sang a lovesong to entertain the ladies and went on his way toward Lintoft. The lovesong had a pretty, catchy tune: for some days every nun and novice was humming it. Then Dame Cecilia began to have fits and to prophesy. This infuriated Richenda de Foley, to whom any talk of the end of the world after she had worked so hard and successfully to put the convent on a good footing for the next century seemed rank ingratitude. But the itch is not more contagious than illuminations, and throughout that summer Oby resounded with excited voices describing flaming bulls, he-goats of enormous size floating above the lectern, apparitions of the founder and shooting pains. In a fury of slighted good intentions and outraged common sense Richenda de Foley packed up and went away, but as she was generous as well as authoritarian she left a great deal of household stuff and provisions behind her. The community, after one universal gasp at finding itself unclasped from that strong and all-arranging hand, settled down to enjoy an unregulated prosperity and comfort; and prosperity and comfort wielding their usual effect, the spirit of prophecy flickered out, and by the close of the year they were looking for nothing more remarkable than improvements to the fish-pond.

In 1208 came the Interdict.

In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary.

In 1257 the old reed and timber cloisters fell to bits in a gale. It was decided that the masons who came to build the new should also build on a proper chapter-house. When it was half-built a spring rose under it. Rather than throw money away, the head mason suggested, why not finish the new building as a dovecot, a wet floor being no inconvenience to doves, and convert the old dovecot, so solid and weatherproof, into a chapter-house? This suggestion, too hastily accepted, led to discomfort all round. The pigeons refused to settle in their new house. Some flew away for good, the others remained in the lower half of the old dovecot, whose upper storey, remodelled with large windows and stone benches, made a very unpersuasive place of assembly. However, the arrangement was allowed as a temporary expedient, and as such it became permanent.

In 1270 there were disastrous floods, and this happened again seven years later. In 1283 hornets built in the brewhouse roof and the cellaress was stung in the lip and died. In 1297 the convent’s bailiff was taken in the act of carnality with a cow. Both he and the cow were duly executed for the crime, but this was not enough to avert the wrath of heaven. That autumn and for three autumns following there was a murrain among the cattle. After the murrain came a famine, and the bondwomen of the manor broke through the reed-fence into the orchard where the nuns were at recreation and mobbed them, snatching at their wimples and jeering at such plump white breasts and idle teats. For this a fine was laid on the hamlet, and the last remnants of the pax Richenda broke down. Tithes and dues were paid grudgingly or not at all, and going along the cloisters to sing the night office the nuns would strain their ears for the footsteps of marauders or the crackle of a fired thatch.

In 1332 a nun broke her vows and left the convent for a lover. Misfortunes always go in threes, was the comment of the prioress: they might expect two more to play the same game. But after a second apostasy there was a painful Visitation by the bishop, when the prioress was deposed and Dame Emily, the novice-mistress, a better disciplinarian, nominated to be her successor. Unfortunately Dame Emily was unpopular, being both arrogant and censorious. Dreading the rule of such a prioress, the nuns refused to elect her and chose instead, out of bravado, Dame Isabella Sutthery, the youngest and silliest nun among them. The young and silly can become great tyrants. Dame Isabella proved fanatically harsh and suspicious, scourging the old nuns till they fainted for anguish and inventing such unforeseeable misdemeanours that no one could steer clear of offending. The convent waited, languishing, for the next Visitation, when each nun in her private interview with the bishop could make her report. But though the bishop came and heard, he was still nursing his wrath about their rejection of Dame Emily whom he had nominated, and though Dame Emily herself was the greatest sufferer under Prioress Isabella he answered every plea for a fresh election by saying that the convent having chosen must abide by its choice. It was not till 1345, when Prioress Isabella choked on a plum-stone, that peace and quiet returned, followed by four ambling years of having no history, save for a plague of caterpillars.

In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby.

From the first chapter of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel The Corner That Held Them, newly reissued by NYRB.

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