Love in Plague Time

‘Joy’; from an eleventh-century medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad, circa 1390
National Library of Austria
‘Joy’; from the Lombardy edition of the Taqwim as-Sihha, an eleventh-century medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad, circa 1390

It is 1348. Berna has stolen a book from her father’s library, and now she is getting the gardener to cut her a rose from the grounds of their manor house in Gloucestershire. These crimes, she explains to her cousin Pogge, are nothing compared to the one she had been planning, which was to take her own life by throwing herself into the moat. “Your moat’s not profound enough for drownage,” her cousin points out drily. And anyway, she has a new plan, to which the book and the rose are accessories. Her father is forcing Berna, who is fifteen, to marry a man of fifty. In exchange, Berna’s father will be gifted the groom’s daughter as his new young wife. But Berna won’t be sold. She has read the allegorical poem Le Roman de la Rose, or part of it, and she recognizes true love in the form of the real-life Laurence Haket, a young squire in the king’s army who, like the Lover in her stolen book, has been pierced by Love’s five golden arrows. More prosaically, Haket has distinguished himself at the Battle of Crécy, two years earlier, and been granted land in Calais as a reward. Berna is determined to elope with him to France. She has not yet communicated this information to Laurence Haket.

Meanwhile, in another part of the garden, eighteen-year-old Will Quate (who cut the rose for Berna) is bargaining for his freedom with Berna’s father, the lord of the manor. Will’s father, who was killed at Crécy, was a free man, but his mother is bound. Will doesn’t know his own status—bound or free—and as Berna points out to her cousin, this uncertainty is a deliberate strategy: “My father prefers him to be unsure. He tells him he’s at liberty, then offers him villain land to farm.” Now the manor is required to provide an archer to defend the garrison at Calais, and Will agrees to go in exchange for his deed of freedom, to the disappointment of his fiancée, Ness, a farmer’s daughter, who wants to get married right away. Will is a catch—good-looking and sweet-natured—but strangely behind-hand when it comes to courting. This reluctance may or may not have something to do with his friendship with Hab, the pigboy. In an attempt to egg him on through jealousy, Ness herself has been dallying, with unfortunate consequences. She has recently returned from a visit to an apothecary in Bristol, where she has managed to get rid of the baby she was carrying by Squire Haket. No one has yet communicated this information to Berna.

So the journey from Gloucestershire to Calais begins…

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