“So it’s medieval queerness now, right?” Tim said, as we stepped from the tavern back into the bright sunlit morning, then he looked encouragingly across at me.
“I don’t see that at all,” I replied mildly. “I just don’t imagine gay behaviour in the medieval world, not really.”
Tim laughed, as if to say, “Boy are you in for a surprise.”
Next door to the tavern was a small stone chapel, a really ancient, solid, rough-hewn little box, no spire, no tower, just a stone cross on top of the gable end. We went through the big doorway and were within a tiny space: a few benches, a primitive little altar, not much more.
Two men were sitting on the step that divided the altar from the main body of the church. One was mild-faced, sad-eyed, pale, thoughtful, handsome in a simple, easy way. The other was florid, red haired and ruddy faced, fierce, dangerous, angry-looking, but with a strange sort of magnetism about his intense look.
Both men were staring forward as we entered, as if they were stuck, paused, caught in an uncomfortable silence. At first, they made no move, and I assumed that we were invisible to them, but then the more mellow of the two smiled at both Tim and me and said, “Perhaps one of you two travellers can talk some sense into this fellow, eh?”
“They are living their moment again, and we get to share in it this time,” Tim whispered to me. “And don’t ask me why, OK?” he added before I could say anything.
The red-faced man got to his feet and stalked towards us: “You know that I am king, I hope,” he said, pointing a bony finger in our direction.
The other followed him and put his arms around him to comfort or restrain him: “Do you think that kind of manner endears you to the people?” he asked. “They might be ones who would increase our loves, these fellows … let them.”
The choleric one spun round, released himself, turned on his companion: “They should do as I say; they should respect me, respect what I do. They hate me because of the passions I give vent to. They hate my passions. That’s all.”
“They don’t understand, William; they just don’t understand,” the other said.
“Philosopher, priest, lover: you have your role; you are permitted to be gentle, subtle, beautiful,” William spat, pacing between the benches in agitation. “But I … I have to be strong, powerful, in control. And … And I tell you what, Anselm … I will do as I please. It is my prerogative. If I wish to fill my court with handsome men, to indulge my fancies in any way I please, to take men to my bed and do as I would with them … If I wish to do any of this, I will, because I am lord of all these lands, by right and by God’s grace … No-one dare gainsay this, no-one …”
“The people are easily frightened. They have their fears, their doubts, their despairs. Life is hard and cold and wet and hungry so much of the time. They face starvation, the real prospect of starving to death, just about every winter. They have no time to consider the virtues of love. It was a foolish thing I suggested, but …”
“You wanted to protect us, protect what we were doing. To pass laws against sodomy and un-natural practices …” William laughed, his harsh face creasing into something like prettiness, momentarily. “Well, it was a screen, a cover …”
“And it was wrong, and I recanted the idea before it became law. It was an over-reaction. We can live and love as we please, after all. We should not need to hide behind any subterfuge.”
William stamped his foot at this, furiously. “But they plague me with their complaints, their petty objections, their bitter accusations. They plague me Anselm, plague me half to death.”
“They think your court is sinful, decadent, debauched,” Anselm quietly told him.
“They! They! Who are they to think anything? What is it to them what we do in our palaces and forts? We do as we please, I tell you. We will do as we please.”
“And love one another, I think,” Anselm said, calmly sitting on the front bench and looking up at the small altar. “We love one another, and do right by loving. That is what we must do, is it not?”
“Must!” Red William bellowed. “Must? I know no must …”
Tim tugged lightly on my sleeve and we retreated out of the chapel.
“You should read Anselm’s letters,” he said as we passed out into the light of day again. “He writes with such passion for his followers. He gives himself over in love for them. Some say that it’s queer, obvious and plain. Others say it’s spiritual love, higher, more noble than bodily desire. Either way, he was not afraid to express his passion for his male friends and companions. And that is what I take from his story – a willingness to express how he feels about those he loves.”
Close to the chapel was a large, wooden barn. Tim guided me towards it. The huge doors were slightly ajar and we slipped within, seeing the huge drift of hay and the strange shafts of golden sunlight that fell upon it through the slatted walls of the barn.
Perched on a stack of hay was a beautiful, sheer-faced, smiling, rippling, blond-haired, white-necked young man, wearing only rough peasant leggings, his smooth chest bare, fine and toned and welcoming. Before him, on his knees, a monkish man was prostrating himself, giving of himself, begging the boy for a response.
“I give myself wholly to the worship of you simple beauty. Let me touch that perfect flesh again, just one time, one touch, one breath of a touch upon you unspoiled loveliness. I would do all I could to please you, to delight you, to lift you higher and higher towards the ecstasy that you so long for. I know you do.”
The young beau turned his head slightly, smiling coquettishly, biting his lip as if contemplating the love that the other was offering. “I like to hear you spill such needful nonsense, Hilary. It excites my blood, boils me within, makes me grow and blossom and swell.”
Hilary laughed joyously. “Let me please every part of your body; let me be a slave to your need.”
The young beauty, slipped daintily down the hay stack and into Hilary’s waiting embrace. “Kiss me everywhere,” he cried, burstingly.
And Hilary tasted of his lover’s flesh, greedily. “Angel boy, angel boy!” he purred, as he ran his tongue over the pretty one’s full, muscular chest.
I stood and watched this delicious scene with wide eyed wonder.
“You see,” Tim whispered. “It is happening everywhere.”
In spite of my reluctance to leave this enticing sight, Tim led me from the barn to the green beyond. There, on small mound, raised above the rest of the grassy area, stood another monk, a tall, firm, energetic man, who was preaching to a small gathering of followers. We approached and heard his words.
“Spiritual friendship is possible, is real,” he said, warmly, givingly. “Once or twice in a lifetime, perhaps, you may encounter another who answers to all you need in a companion, for whom you are the answer to their every question too. You may find that your souls are as one, entwined together, knitted in steadfast bonds of involvement. You may share with this other every hope, every wish, every desire. Your understanding is complete and instant. You scarcely have to speak sometimes, just look, acknowledge, comprehend. You jest as one, completing the tale of the other with just the most fitting words. You hint, and the other responds, exactly as you had hoped. For him, you have the medicine, the balm, the tender support that he needs. For him, you have the ideas, the music, the words that he seeks. Together, you exceed the sum of your parts; you outdo the possible with your reaching, aspiring, mutual increase. You grow together, finer, purer, more loving, more delightful. This is the meaning of love: to be better with another than you are alone, better in every possible way. You improve one another; you make one another; you uplift together, uplift beyond the expectations of mundane life, uplift to a spiritual, excellent plain, uplift to a kind of paradise.”
I was stunned by these words.
“Aelred of Rievaulx – a good Yorkshire abbey, by the way, near to Helmsley. Have you been? You should?” Tim said, suddenly with a stronger northern accent than at any time before.
“I’m convinced by this whole scene, this whole sequence. What next?”
“Richard, of course,” said Tim and strode off across the village green, leaving the preacher, Aelred, to continue his sermon. The day was blooming into a hot, summerish delight, as if here only the best of times were possible. I wanted more, more, more.