A bright shaft of sunlight shone into the crowded public house through the open door, heralding the knight's arrival. "Good day to you all, my fellow Christians!" he called out, raising both of his hands in a thumbs-up greeting.
All eyes in the dimly-lit tavern turned towards the handsome nobleman as he strode purposefully across the length of the room.
"And God's blessings be upon you, my good man," the knight added, tipping his hat to the publican. He pulled up a stool and took a seat at the bar.
The publican dipped his head towards his patron in a slight bow. "Welcome to my humble establishment, Sir. To what do I owe the honor of your presence?"
"I'm on my way to Canterbury, to seek the martyred saint's blessings before I take up my next Crusade," the knight replied. "Though I could use a nice libation to refresh my spirits before I tally forth," he added with a wink.
"Mead or ale?" asked the publican.
"I'd choose the ale, if I were you," said the rail-thin customer sitting on the stool at the knight's right side. "It was brewed from locally sourced whole grains, so it's far more healthful, and it fits into the macrobiotic diet that I enthusiastically recommend and subscribe to myself."
The knight laughed. "Pray tell me, my emaciated friend, are you, perchance, a physician?"
"I am indeed," answered the stranger. He squared his shoulders and met the knight's eyes with an inscrutable stare. "I am Doctor John Winston of Mendips in Woolton, and like you, I am on my way to Canterbury to seek the martyr's blessing. And you are Sir…?"
"Sir James Paul of Allerton, in Merseyside," the knight answered. "But I never stand on ceremony, especially not with a fellow Scouser. You may call me simply Sir Paul."
The publican placed a fresh tankard of ale in front of his newest customer. Paul lifted it towards the physician and said, "To your health!" before taking a sip.
John sighed. "Alas, if only our good health could be secured by drinking toasts to each other in dim, crowded bars. But there is so much more work we must do to keep our humors in check."
Paul nodded and rested his tankard on the bar. "Indeed, you are no doubt correct. Though my personal physician, Doctor Robert Freymann of York, assures me that my constitution is sanguine through and through, so I need not worry unduly about either of my biles or my phlegm."
"I have heard of this Doctor Robert," John replied with a thoughtful nod. "His 'Special Cup' is of great renown throughout the kingdom."
"His cup floweth over, indeed," Paul replied. "If ever I'm down, he picks me up with a nice, large draft of his special brew, and I'm a new and better man in the blink of an eye." He took another large drink of his ale, then turned his face towards the door as a new customer walked into the pub.
"Friar George!" called a large-nosed, well-dressed man sitting at a table strewn with half-filled dishes in the far corner of the room. He stood up from his meal, threw his thickly brocaded cloak onto his chair and walked towards the door to embrace the equally well-dressed clergyman.
"Ringo!" laughed the friar. He hugged his friend and laughed heartily. "What a lovely surprise! I didn't expect to find you here. I figured you'd be up to your ears in work, minding your estate in Dingle."
"I've come to Canterbury to offer my prayers of thanksgiving to St. Thomas à Becket for doing such a marvelous job watching over me," Ringo replied. "My annual grosses have tripled since my last pilgrimage to the Cathedral to seek his intercession on my behalf."
"Your offerings to the Cathedral's vicar have no doubt played a part in your good fortune as well," George replied, his voice growing serious. "I always say, a prudent investment in the providers of religious services consistently yields an abundance of earthly rewards."
Ringo chuckled. "Yes, you do always say that, don't you, George! Come, now, let me buy you a drink." He draped his arm over his friend's shoulder and led him to the bar.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Ringo announced as he approached John and Paul. "I am Richard Starkey, a humble franklin from Dingle, in the Northern Countries. Though my friends call me 'Ringo,' for obvious reasons." He wiggled his fingers in front of his chest, revealing six golden signets set with large jewels. "And this is my dear childhood chum, Friar George."
"I am Sir Paul, and this is Doctor John Winston," Paul replied, shaking their hands. "We are from the Northern Countries as well, Franklin Starkey,"
"I hail from Wavertree, east of the Mersey River," George announced. "Though I recently purchased a home just outside of London, in Henley-upon-Thames, from an order of nuns who were down on their luck. I renamed it Friar Park. Also for obvious reasons."
John cast a disdainful look at George. "What opulent vestments you're wearing, Friar," he sneered. "I imagine they must have cost you a pretty pfennig. And you purchased a house as well? Your Order must not take their vows of poverty very seriously."
George threw back his head in laughter, then offered a more courteous reply. "I no longer belong to any religious order, my dear doctor. When I was newly ordained, my Superior used to send me into the countryside to perform sacraments for the remotest parishes under his watch, and I would collect the customary fees for my services. But each time I returned to my rectory, the bloody wanker would take nineteen shillings of every twenty I earned, and leave only one for me. So I decided to branch out on my own. I am a friar-for-hire now."
"And you apparently make a good living at your new job," Paul chuckled.
John continued to eye George suspiciously. "So are you on your way to Canterbury now, to seek ablution for your greed?"
George furrowed his thick eyebrows and glowered at John. "No. I've come to pray for my clients' intentions. I travel to the Cathedral twice a year, and carry with me the prayers of my customers who can't afford to make the pilgrimage themselves."
"But they can afford to pay you a small fee for rendering them this favor," John surmised.
"Well, I don't know if 'small' is the word I would use," George replied with a wicked laugh. "I incur rather significant expenses each time I make the trip. I do like to travel in comfort."
John's sneer slowly curved into an impish grin. "I applaud your business acumen, if not your piety, my good friar. And your honest testimony serves to strengthen my growing conviction that Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink."
John noticed that Paul's face had blanched white at his remark. He turned his gaze towards the knight and locked eyes with him. "I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. Jesus was all right, but his disciples are thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
"You heathen!" Paul protested. "How dare you speak such blasphemy?" He stood up from his stool and reached for his hilt before remembering that he had left his sword with his squire. He reluctantly sat back down, his cheeks blushing with fury.
"Back off, boogaloo, back off," Ringo stated calmly, forcing himself into the narrow space between the knight and the doctor. "To each man his own beliefs. Let us put aside our differences and set our thoughts on peace and love." He reached for the purse tied to his leather belt, pulled out some coins and threw them on the bar. "Drinks for the house, on me!" he shouted, loud enough for all of the tavern's occupants to hear. A loud whooping of cheers filled the room as the patrons hurried to the bar to collect their drinks.
Paul took a deep breath to calm his thoughts, then turned to face Ringo. "Your generosity puts me to shame, Franklin Starkey. I should have made that gesture the moment I stepped into this tavern."
"Nonsense, my good knight," Ringo said. "It is my pleasure to share my fortune with those who, like me, like to indulge in eating and drinking. Just as it is your pleasure to defend our faith in the Holy Father's Crusades. I recognize the emblem you have embroidered on your tunic. You've been to Algezir, I believe."
Paul's smile returned, and he fondly patted his patch. "Indeed I have! I have been on three Crusades already, fighting against the Spanish Moors, the Saracens, and the pagans of Eastern Europe. And it is my dearest desire to travel to the Holy Land this summer to defend the site of our Savior's Sepulcher against the infidels. That is why I am journeying to Canterbury. To ask the martyr's blessings before I embark upon my next Crusade."
"That's a lot of traveling," George noted. He picked up one of the cups of mead the publican had laid on the counter and took a small sip. "Don't you ever get tired of all the wayfaring?"
"Never," Paul replied. He took a drink from his tankard and shrugged his shoulders. "I love touring. And I have a large troop of squires who travel with me, to do all the heavy lifting, so to speak, so that I'm always at my peak performance when it's show-time."
Ringo laughed. "You make crusading sound like a job for traveling minstrels, always on the road, putting on shows."
Paul shrugged. "There is a similarity, I suppose. Knights and minstrels both lead transient lives. Waking up in the morning at one hostelry and going to bed that evening in another."
A dreamy look filled John's face. "That's always been my fantasy," he admitted. "To be a traveling minstrel."
George downed his cup of mead, slapped it back on the bar and turned towards John. "Come now, good doctor. You look like a man of means. Why would you want to throw away your fortune to live the life of an itinerant musician?"
John smiled meekly at George in return. "You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. I think many a man has seen the effect a good lute player has upon the comely maidens who gather at his feet, and wishes he could have such luck as well."
"Luck has nothing to do with it," George replied haughtily. "It takes years to master the lute."
"I know," John agreed. "I practice every night when I am home from my rounds treating patients."
Paul sighed. "I play the lute as well," he admitted. "I always bring one with my on my Crusades."
George threw up his hands. "Well, if this is a group confession, then I should collect a fee for dispensing penance to you both. But alas, I am probably a greater offender than either of you. I play my lute every morning and evening when I should be praying Matins and Evensong."
Ringo picked up a cup of mead and raised it in salute. "To Friar George of Friar Park. The priest who puts the 'song' in Evensong!"
A curly-haired woman in a low-cut, tight-fitting gown approached the bar and raised her cup to the four men. "Friar George!" she exclaimed. "Funny meeting you here. I haven't seen you since you officiated my wedding service last year in Bath!"
George picked up a fresh cup of mead and raised it to her. "Mistress Sadie, the pleasure is all mine. Pray tell, how is your new husband?"
"Gone, like all the others," Sadie chuckled.
"You do seem to have a hard time holding onto them," George remarked.
Sadie stepped closer to Paul and sized him up. "Well, perhaps I'll have better luck the next time. Tell me, good knight, do you have a lady waiting for you in your castle back home?"
Paul crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Indeed not," he replied. "I have dedicated myself to the principles of courtly love. I have sworn my allegiance to the fair Blanche of Lancaster, wife of Prince John of Gaunt. Though I love her but pure and chaste from afar."
Sadie stepped closer still to Paul. "Pity, you're kind of cute. And what with Friar George here at the ready, we could probably arrange both wedding banns and a ceremony on the quick."
Paul frowned at her disapprovingly, though his twinkly eyes belied his appreciation of her lovely figure. "Need I remind you, my dear lady, of what I just said? I have got another girl."
"But she can't keep you warm at night, if you're just loving her pure and chaste from afar," Sadie pointed out.
"That matters not," Paul harrumphed. "Blanche is sweeter than all the girls I've met, and I have, indeed, met quite a few. And so I'm telling you, my much-married lady, this time you'd better stop."
Sadie shrugged and stepped away from Paul. "Suit yourself. I don't suppose we'd have much in common anyway. A godly knight such as yourself and a bawdy wench like me."
"I like bawdy wenches," John interrupted, catching Sadie's eye.
Sadie looked him over briefly, then turned back towards Paul. "Before we say goodbye, Sir Paul, perhaps you might do me the pleasure of playing a song on your lute. I do so like a good lute player."
"Alas, my lute is with my squire," Paul replied. "He has gone to the hostelry across the lane to arrange my lodgings for the night."
"I could call to him from the tavern door and have him bring your lute here so you could perform a small concert in the pub," Sadie suggested.
The patrons of the bar cheered at the prospect of hearing the handsome knight sing.
Then Sadie stepped closer to Paul and smiled at him seductively. "Or you and I could meet your squire halfway, and we could do it in the road."
John, George and Ringo laughed to see Paul's face blush scarlet with embarrassment.
The publican silenced them with an admonishing glare. He cleared his throat loudly and turned towards Paul. "The minstrels who perform here each evening left their instruments in my back room last night. I could pull out one of their lutes for you, if you'd like, Sir Paul."
Paul sighed in relief at the publican's kind gesture. "Are any of them strung for a left-handed player?" he asked.
"You're cack-handed?" Ringo cried, stepping away from Paul in horror. "I thought that was a mark of the devil!"
George rolled his eyes, then raised his right hand in blessing and made the sign of the cross in front of Paul's face. "I absolve you of all of your devilish, left-handed sins. That'll be five pfennigs."
"I have a hurdy-gurdy in the back," the publican interjected. "Could you play that instead, Sir Paul?"
Paul's face broke into a smug smile. "Of course I can. I am a man of many talents."
"I'll bet you are," Sadie laughed.
The publican brought the hurdy-gurdy out of his back room and handed it to the knight. Paul positioned it over his knees. The patrons of the tavern gathered in a half-circle around the bar to hear Paul play.
"This is a tune I learned when I was traveling through Greece on my last Crusade," he announced. "It's based on an ancient legend. It is a little bawdy, I fear, though perhaps it's an appropriate song to sing in a tavern." He turned the crank at the end of the instrument with his right hand, creating a loud droning sound, then began pressing the hurdy-gurdy's keys with his left to produce a melody. After playing a short instrumental introduction, he began to sing in a sweet, pleasing voice:
Two cousins went to Athens and
Were captured by a duke.
He locked them in a jail, where light
Shone in through just one nook.
But through that nook they spied a girl,
A bonny lass so fair.
The cousins lusted hard for her
And each fell into prayer.
"Oh, Venus!" begged the first, "Please help me
Put my love shaft through her!"
"Oh, Mars!" the other prayed, "Please help
Me kill my rival woo-er!"
And when the maiden learned of all the
Cousin's lusty urgings,
She prayed, "Diana, Hunter-Goddess,
Let me stay a virgin!"
The crowd laughed heartily. But Sadie put her hands on top of Paul's to make him stop.
"That's a horrible song!" she chided him. "Two dirty men lusting after a young virgin! I suppose your story is going to end with one of them having his way with her?"
"No, my lady," Paul replied, resting his arm over the body of the instrument and smiling at Sadie condescendingly. "The duke releases the cousins from jail and allows them to joust for the hand of the girl, and she ends up marrying…"
"What right does the duke have to give that girl's hand in marriage?" Sadie challenged. "She should be the one who decides if and when she wants to marry!"
"Well, certainly, she should," Paul agreed. "But it's just a song and..."
"I agree with Mistress Sadie," John interrupted. "That was a horrible song. The lyric in the first verse is hopelessly contrived to force the rhyme. And no poet worth his mettle calls a prick a 'love-shaft'!"
Paul turned towards John and raised his left eyebrow. "I suppose you could do better, Doctor John?"
"If our publican would be so good as to bring me one of the lutes from his back room, I will sing you a much better song," John replied, crossing his arms in front of his chest in defiance.
The crowd tittered with excitement at the prospect of a singing duel. The publican fetched a lute and handed it to the physician.
John positioned the lute over his knee, plucked the open strings once, fiddled the knobs a little to adjust the tuning, then formed a chord on the lute's neck.
"This is also a bawdy tune," John said by way of an introduction. "But I think Mistress Sadie will be happier with the way my ballad ends." He strummed a quick rhythm on the lute and began to sing in a strong voice tinged with a subtle note of heartache:
A baron had a daughter who was
Aptly named Virginia.
And every time she went to town
The men cried, "Let me in ya!"
A dirty judge decided
He would take Virginia's cherry.
And so His Honor made a plan
That wasn't honorary.
The tavern patrons once again broke into a chorus of laughter. And Sadie once again placed her hands on top of the instrument to call the song to an abrupt close.
"How is your ballad any better than the knight's?" she challenged.
"My lady, if you will allow me to continue singing, you will discover that my song is fraught with morale and philosophical subtext," John insisted. "It is based on a tale transcribed by the ancient Roman historian Livy. I learned it from a scholar who had traveled to Oxford from the University of Salamanca in Spain. In my song…"
"Let me guess," Sadie interrupted. "The dirty judge deflowers Virginia."
"Indeed no," John replied. "Virginia's father beheads her before the judge can despoil her. But then the townspeople discover the truth behind Virginia's death and throw the judge into prison, where he hangs himself."
"How gloomy!" Paul exclaimed, frowning in disgust. "Nobody wants to hear a depressing ballad like that! But if you'd like, Doctor John, I could help you take that sad song and make it better. Just remember to…"
"…to take that misogynist crap lyric and throw it down a cistern!" Sadie exclaimed.
The crowd erupted into chortles and loud cheers. Sadie turned her head briefly to acknowledge her supporters, then looked back at John and Paul and continued her harangue. "I'm sick to death of hearing sorry sods like you singing songs about victimized virgins. Why don't any of you bards sing ballads about empowered women?"
"I know such a tune," Ringo interrupted.
The crowd whooped in delight. John sighed in relief. "Would you like to play my lute or Sir Paul's hurdy-gurdy?" he asked Ringo, offering him his instrument.
"Neither," Ringo replied. "I don't play those, 'cause they're too hard for me. But if our publican could hand me two of his wooden spoons, I could beat out a rhythm on Sir Paul's empty tankard to accompany myself as I sing."
The publican smiled and handed Ringo two spoons from his basket of cooking utensils. Ringo flipped Paul's metal tankard to its side and beat a quick drum roll upon it, then gently struck George's half-filled cup of mead with one of the spoons to make a sweet clank and call the raucous crowd to order.
"Gather round, one and all. Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song," Ringo began. "It is a happy tune, which should please Sir Paul. And it features a woman who gets the better of her tormentor, which should please Mistress Sadie." He started beating a steady rhythm on the tankard to accompany his deep, nasal singing:
Once there was a bloke from France
Who had a wife named Dory.
He left to take a business trip,
And there begins my story.
A suitor came to woo our girl.
She said she'd have none of it.
He asked her if she'd marry him.
She told him where to shove it.
"Hold it right there, Franklin Starkey," Sadie interrupted, grabbing the tankard out from under him. "You're singing another ballad about a beleaguered woman who has to put up with sexual harassment!"
"True," Ringo agreed. "But in my song, Dory takes matters into her own hands. She sets an impossible task for her unwanted suitor, saying she'll only marry him if he can dispose of all the rocks on the beaches of Brittany."
Sadie rolled her eyes. "Piffle! She's a married woman. She's already told him to shove it. Why doesn't the creep just take no for an answer?"
"Because he loves her!" Ringo answered, his patience wearing thin. "So he finds a sorcerer to help him gather the rocks. But then Dory's husband returns, and things get even more complicated. So the husband and the suitor and the sorcerer…"
"So it's back to the bloody men again, is it?" Sadie scoffed. "Who in the devil cares about that lot of oafs? The woman said no, didn't she? End of story!"
Ringo sucked in a deep breath and released it slowly while he gathered his thoughts.
George took the lute from John and held it against his chest. "Mistress Sadie, my dark, sweet lady, you are a hard woman to please. But I know a song that I think will meet your hard-won approval." He began plucking an elaborate melody on the lute. Paul raised his eyebrows in awe at the friar's intricate fretwork. John reached into the pocket of his cloak and pulled out a pair of round glass lenses joined together with a spring hinge. He held them in front of his eyes and examined George's sophisticated fingering on the instrument. The friar smiled at them smugly, then began singing in a thin, reedy voice:
Once there was a Beadle,
Who was wicked, night and day.
He summoned folk to court and never
Let them have their say.
But he would take their cash
To make the charges go away.
He set his sights on framing a poor
Hag with prostitution.
But Satan said, "This Beadle needs to
Offer some ablution.
I'll set my sights on framing him!
A cruel, but just solution!"
"That's enough!" Sadie shouted, calling George's song to an abrupt halt. "What more do I have to say to get through to you daft minstrels? Stop it with your sexist storytelling, already!"
"But this isn't a story about the fairer sex," George replied calmly. "It's about the Beadle, and how the demon tricks him. The hag hardly even figures in the…"
"The hag, you said? The hag?" Sadie spat back at him. "Why is it that once a woman grows out of her youth and is no longer fertile, you men start calling her a hag or a crone? You're not just sexist and misogynist! You're bloody ageist too!"
"What does 'ageist' mean?" Ringo asked, scratching his head and turning towards the physician.
John shrugged in bewilderment and mumbled, "Ism, ism, ism…"
Sadie put her hands to her hips and pointed at John, Paul and George, one by one. "I don't care how smart you are, or how cute you are, or how 'religious' you are." She stated George's attribute with obvious sarcasm, then turned towards Ringo and waggled her finger. "Or even how bloody loveable you are, buying rounds of drinks for the likes of us common folk. You're no better than that Beadle in the Friar's song, the lot of you. And I don't want to hear another word out of any of you, until you can write me a silly love song without all this chauvinist claptrap!"
She turned on her heels and stormed out of the tavern, leaving the pub's patrons dumbfounded in the wake of her fury.
"I can't believe that woman has been married so often," Ringo said after the awkward silence had stretched to its breaking point. "What man would want her?"
"I can see why her husbands keep leaving her," George replied. "What man could ever satisfy her?"
John cleared his throat. "Well, I don't know about that. Sexy Sadie may have made of fool of everyone just now, but she still boasts one fine pair of duckies, if you ask me. I'd be happy to put down my instrument and strum her instead."
Paul nodded unthinkingly in agreement, then realized what he was doing and quickly composed himself. He turned towards George. "Could you teach me how you do that fingering on the lute? I've never met anyone who plays as well as you do."
John smiled shyly at George. "I'm with the knight there. You play much better than I do, my good friar."
George lowered his head in embarrassment. "Perhaps I do, though my voice isn't as strong as either of yours' are."
"Well, it's better than mine is," Ringo interjected. "Whenever I open my mouth to sing, people tend to stand up and walk out on me." He picked up the wooden spoons he had laid on the bar and beat a quick rat-a-tat against Paul's empty cup. "Though I could keep a steady rhythm going while you three play your instruments."
Paul eyed John and George quizzically, then turned his gaze back towards Ringo. "I say, my good franklin, I like the way you're thinking. That Wife of Bath has thrown her gauntlet at the lot of us, and I wouldn't be much of a perfect, gentle knight if I didn't rise to her challenge. What do you say I send for my squire and have him bring me my lute? Then we could attempt to write some tunes together to perform for Mistress Sadie. I think between the four of us, we ought to be able to please her."
Ringo threw a quick glance at the publican. "I say, old man, did your minstrels leave behind a tambourine or a tabor drum in your back room?" he asked. Then he looked back at his companions and smiled broadly. "I think we 'Beadles' might be need to borrow it for the afternoon."
Inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" (written in 1392)