I HAVE JOURNEYED LONG AND FAR to arrive here at the foot of Montségur — the well-named Safe Mountain, for it is indeed a long and rugged climb to the fortress atop. It is many years since my feet have touched the soil of my homeland, many years since that tumultuous summer of 1212 when thousands walked in a great mass through the fields and towns of Europe, in fevered search of a new world, the world to come.
Now I walk alone, following the way of that great pilgrimage on my return to the place of my childhood. For the moment, I pause here in my journey, propelled by the dream that will not loosen its grip on my soul.
Is this the mountain of my dream? Will it be the face of the one I hope to see as I round the final bend in the path? Her figure appearing above the juniper bushes? I will not know until I make my way to the summit. Now, as I begin my ascent, the memories of that time come flooding back into my mind, as clearly as if they happened yesterday …
As SHE BIT INTO THE PLUMP, GOLDEN PEAR, it felt to Blanche as though the wet sweetness of the entire Languedoc harvest was exploding in her mouth.
Just moments earlier she had been walking through the market with Perrine when she spied a basket of the rose-tinged fruit. She tugged the maidservant’s skirt excitedly.
“Perrine, look! The rousselots have come in!”
Perrine was busy haggling over the price of a chicken with a man at one of the poultry stalls. She didn’t bother looking in the direction Blanche was pointing.
“Don’t try to fool old Perrine,” she said, rapping the child lightly on the top of the head. “It’s far too early for rousselots”
“They are rousselots!” Blanche insisted, pulling her toward the fruit stall and pointing to the lush, shiny skins. “See?”
“So they are,” Perrine agreed, picking up one of the pears.
“Can we take a basket homer1” Blanche asked. “Mama would want us to if she knew they were in already.”
“Not a chance, old girl,” said the man, holding out one of the pears to Blanche. “Here, let the young one try it. She’ll tell you they’re at their peak.”
Blanche nodded eagerly as the sweet juice cascaded through her mouth.
“He’s right, Perrine. It’s delicious!”
Now the stallkeeper held out a pear to the maidservant.
“See for yourself,” he said with a grin. “Two deniers a basket.”
Perrine took the fruit warily. She prided herself on her bargaining skills and hated being taken for a too-easy sale. But as soon as she tasted the fruit, Blanche could see the maid’s annoyance evaporate. Clearly there was no use in haggling over price. The pear was superbly ripe and such early, wonderful fruit would be quickly snatched up at any price.
They walked away, Perrine carrying the basket, Blanche sucking on the core of her pear till the juice covered her chin.
“I love rousselot pears!” she said to Perrine. “I think they’re my favorite thing in the whole world.”
“That’s what you said the other day about cassoulet,” the maid replied tartly.
“I love cassoulet too!” Blanche cried.
While Perrine went to look at bunches of white turnips, Blanche wondered how it was that anyone could willingly give up eating the flesh of animals — especially the tasty pork sausages and rich duck confit in cassoulet. She especially loved the smells wafting from the kitchen when Perrine was preparing the duck — rubbing the legs and breast with salt and garlic, then putting them in the big pot of shivering fat to simmer for hours.
Blanche knew, of course, that like all Good Christians she would eventually take the consolamentum and renounce the world, including the eating of meat. She had secretly decided to wait until she was an old woman so that she could go on eating cassoulet as long as possible. At the dinner table her parents often stressed that Blanche and her sisters should not enjoy the things of this world too much. It was coming up to harvest time, and Blanche knew that though they dutifully spoke the words of renunciation, her mother and father would bite into the rousselots with as much relish as she did.
When she and Perrine arrived home from the market, Blanche was disappointed to find that no one showed much interest in her bounty. Her uncle Guilhabert was at the house, and he and Blanches father were deep in animated conversation about the town meeting earlier that day.
“Raymond Roger says the papal forces are less than a day’s march away,” Guilhabert was saying. “He saw them with his own eyes. Thousands bivouaced just outside Montpellier.”
Blanche sighed inwardly when she heard the name of the viscount, Raymond Roger Trencavel. It meant that yet again the grown-ups were talking about the soldiers coming down from the north. For weeks, it seemed to Blanche, people in Béziers had talked of nothing else.
“Thousands?” said her father. “Where did the pope get all those troops?”
“The Capetian king, of course,” replied Guilhabert, speaking of the current sovereign from that French royal house. “Philip Augustus was all too eager to help out, the better to get his dirty paws on our rich southern lands!”
“I heard the bishop demanded that all the Perfects be turned over to Amaury, his legate,” her father said. “Along with the Jews.”
Guilhabert threw back his head with a vigorous laugh.
“Oh, yes!” he bellowed. “Turn over the heretics and the Jews! Their own neighbors, and the most illustrious citizens of Béziers. The town council all but laughed in his face!”
Blanche had been hearing the word heretic more and more lately. She wanted to break in to ask what it meant, but the men went on talking animatedly.
“If the pope thinks we’re about to knuckle under to those northern bumpkins, he’s in for a surprise,” said her father. “The town is well fortified. We can hold out for a month — longer if we have to.”
“By then the fools will have dropped their swords and run home to their fields,” Guilhabert added. “They won’t so much as stick a toe in to cross the river.”
“As usual, Amaury’s threats carry about as much weight as a peeled apple!” said her father, and both men broke into hearty laughter again.
“If you ask me, it’s you two who are the fools!”
Blanche whirled around and saw her mother standing in the doorway. Her father glowered.
“Who are you calling a fool, woman?”
“You, husband,” said her mother, stepping forward forcefully. “And you too, brother, and the rest of the men of Béziers. Look at you all, strutting around like peacocks itching for a fight.”
“Dear sister,” said Guilhabert, softly touching her Shoulder. “I know this talk of siege is frightening, but that’s what it is, talk. The bluster of Amaury and the bishops. Nothing will come of it…”
Blanche’s mother pulled away sharply.
“Don’t patronize me, brother,” she snapped. “You don’t have any idea what they’re capable of. Which is why you are a fool.”
The vehemence in her mother’s voice shook Blanche. Both her parents had been on edge these past few weeks. Blanche had shrugged it off as the usual railing against the pope and the Church of Rome.
She’d never heard anyone use the term in Béziers, of course, but Blanche was aware that outsiders referred to her family and other Good Christians as Cathars, a term that in their eyes perpetuated the slander that they kissed the behinds of cats in their rituals. It was the Good Christians of Languedoc who held fast to the purity of the original faith. The Church of Rome, as Blanche’s parents had told her and her sisters since they were babies, had become corrupted by the world, fat and overblown like the cathedrals that were springing up all over Europe with their massive columns and arc-boutants. God never intended for His church to come to this — an institution indistinguishable from earthly kingdoms, obsessed with wealth and power, peopled by hypocrite priests and bishops who took women into their beds even as they preached the Fourth Commandment.
But recently, the tone of her parents’ talk had changed, with all the focus on what they called the “crusade,” Only a few nights ago she’d walked in on a heated discussion between them.
“The Jews have been expelled throughout the north, and in England too,” she heard her mother say. “Who’s to say it’s not going to be our turn next?”
Blanche knew that expel meant “drive out,” and she couldn’t fathom what her mother was talking about. Jews were among the most prosperous people in Béziers. Her father did business with Jewish merchants, many of whom had been fed and entertained in Blanche’s own house. Why, Bertrand Aton was Jewish, and he was the viscount’s bayle, one of the most powerful and respected men in Béziers.
Blanche had been about to ask her mother what she meant, but at the sight of her, both parents clammed up. She pretended she hadn’t heard anything, even though her head was more filled with questions than ever. Why would the northerners send Jews away? Where did they go? Would her family get sent away too?
Blanche could see that now was another of those times when she should hold her tongue. And yet she was so excited about the rousselots that she couldn’t restrain herself any longer. She went to her mother,
Blanche held up the basket to show her the beautiful rose-tinged pears. Her mother only stared at them, as if they were alien objects she had never laid eyes on before.
“Rousselots, Mama. They’ve come in early this year!”
To Blanche’s astonishment, her mother burst into tears.
That night Blanche slept fitfully. One time she woke up and looked around. Both her sisters were sleeping soundly on either side of her, but when she turned toward her parents’ bed she saw her mother on her knees beside the bed, her hands cupped over her face in prayer.
Just before dawn, Blanche finally fell into a deep sleep. When she finally awoke, the sun was high in the sky, streaming in through the window, and she was the only one in the room. She was surprised to have slept in so late. It was usually her job to help Perrine with the morning marketing.
When she went out into the big room, Perrine was still there. The maid and Blanche’s mother were packing a basket with bread, a large round of cheese, some jugs of beer, turnips and the rousselot pears. They were whipping around the room at such a hectic pace that the woodcocks hanging in the corner were swaying back and forth.
Her mother shook her head impatiently.
“No market today, Blanchette. We’re getting ready to go to the cathedral.”
The cathedral? Of course, Blanche thought. Today was the feast day of Saint Mary Magdalene! One of the few days of the year her family and the other Good Christians of Béziers deigned to set foot inside the great church. Much as they disapproved of the popes’ penchant for naming so many “saints” — to the point that they were becoming indistinguishable from a panoply of pagan gods — to the Good Christians Mary Magdalene was different: she was the most exalted among the apostles, outranking even Peter and his successors. According to the old legends, Mary Magdalene was the beloved of Jesus himself, the one to whom he first appeared after discarding his earthly body. So every year on the twenty-second of July, the Good Christians joined with their more orthodox brethren to attend the mass in her honor, though of course at the Communion they declined to take the wafer in their mouths.
But why were Perrine and Mama packing all this food? And where was Papa?
“Your father is at the ramparts, with the rest of the men,” said her mother.
“What’s he doing there?”
“There’s no time to explain now, Blanchette. Go and pack some things to wear. We may be gone a few days.”
“Gone?” Blanche objected. “I thought you said we were going to the cathedral.”
“Shut your mouth and do as your mother says!”
Blanche ran quickly into the bedroom, stung and humiliated by Perrine’s harsh tone. As she went through her clothes, she fought back tears. What was Papa doing at the ramparts? Why were Perrine and Mama so irritable? Why wouldn’t anyone tell her what was going on?
She heard a commotion and looked out the window. Clusters of people — mostly women and children — were streaming up the street, carrying bundles of clothing and baskets of food, Blanche realized they were all making their way up the hill, toward the cathedral.
A shiver ran down her spine. Hurriedly she went back to her packing.
They all left the house, Perrine going on ahead with the two younger girls, Blanche watched as her mother lowered the heavy latch on the door, then turned to catch up with Perrine, A hand grabbed her shoulder and she whirled around.
Her mother was looking at her with a strange ferocity and terror that Blanche had never seen before.
“Remember, Blanchette,” she said, squeezing her daughter’s shoulder even harder, “You are named for Blanche de Laurac, a great holy woman and staunch defender of the faith. You must never, ever forget that!”
“I wont, Mama,” Blanche murmured, but by now she was terrified beyond words at her mother’s erratic behavior. Why would she say such a strange thing at a time like this?
“Philippa!” Her mother called out.
“Alazais!” Philippa exclaimed. “Have you heard news from the ramparts?“
A voice called out from behind them.
“The enemy has broken through the gates! They’ve begun crossing the bridge and they’re not far behind.”
They turned to see a sentry racing up from behind them. His words brought shouts of consternation from the crowd.
“God help us!”
“How could that happen?”
“Some boys went out to heckle the crusaders and left the gate down when they scrambled back in,” the sentry called back as he continued up the hill.
Philippa clutched her baby tightly to her chest. Blanche saw her mother put a hand on her cousin’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Philippa. Bernard and the men will beat them back down the river. Even if some have managed to enter the city, we will be safe in the cathedral.”
Blanche felt reassured by her mother’s words. And things were starting to make sense now. The pope’s crusading army had arrived at the city gates, as her parents and uncle had been speculating all these weeks. So while the men fought them off, the women and children would take refuge for a few days in the churches of Béziers, for no soldier would commit sacrilege by bringing arms into the house of God.
Blanche wondered about her father. Surely the men would be safe on the battlements surrounding the city. She looked down toward the river, hoping to see something, but there was nothing but the distant zing! of mangonels and trebuchets, followed by a barrage of shouts.
She turned back and resumed walking up the hill. She was surrounded by people, but her mother and Perrine were nowhere to be seen. They had to be farther ahead, she decided, and scrambled to catch up. After running a way up the hill, she stopped to catch her breath. Still no sign of her mother, Perrine and her sisters. Perhaps she was mistaken about having fallen behind herself. Maybe her mother was back in the crowd below, still talking with cousin Philippa and the other women.
She spied a woman carrying a baby. Philippa! Her mother had to be nearby.
“Aunt Philippa! Do you know where my —?”
The woman turned toward her, and Blanche saw it wasn’t Philippa at all. Then she surveyed the crowd: not a single familiar face among them. She realized that as small as her own world seemed, Béziers was in truth a large city, with many people she did not know.
“Mama! Mama, where are you?”
Blanche ran back down the hill, a growing sense of panic gripping her. The crowd was thinning out now. Most of the women and children had mounted the hill and turned toward the cathedral.
She was high up enough to look down on the river Orb, and as they scrambled across the ancient strong bridge she could see they wore tunics with the figure of the cross roughly stitched onto the front. Many were brandishing swords high over their heads.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing out here alone?”
She whirled around and looked into the face of a man, one she thought looked familiar.
“Why aren’t you in the cathedral with the others?“
Blanche sniffed fearfully,
“I’m looking for my mother. I don’t know where she is.”
She realized now that the man was someone her father did business with. She couldn’t remember his name, but she recognized him as one of the Jewish wool merchants.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re Bernard D’Alayrac’s daughter.”
Blanche nodded, but the man was looking away from her, toward the lower town and the bridge. Hundreds of soldiers were streaming across it, and it was clear from the commotion that they’d gotten through the gate and were making their way into the heart of the town.
“There’s no time to get to the cathedral,” he told her, “The soldiers will be here soon.”
“What should I do?”
“Come with me,” said the man.
He led her around a corner to his shop. Out front sat a wagon piled high with bales of wool just arrived from the countryside. The man slit open one of the bales and pulled out several large balls of wool.
“Here,” he said, pointing to the open space inside the bale. “You can fit in there. Climb in.”
“Inside the wool?” said Blanche, uncertain whether that was what he really meant.
The man nodded and shoved her quickly into the bale, pulling the sack down to cover the opening he’d made.
“There. Now stay here and don’t come out until I or one of your parents comes to get you.”
“Here?” Blanche said. “Why can’t I hide in your shop?”
The man shook his head firmly.
“The soldiers will be searching everywhere. Except here. Now be quiet. Don’t stir. Don’t even peek out. I’ll be back for you when I can.”
The man closed the flap over the bale, and Blanche was almost completely enclosed in the soft wool. She expected that it would be hot inside the bale, but the wool had recently been washed and was still damp and cool.
Was the merchant going to the cathedral with the others? If so, why didn’t he take her with him? Everything had happened so fast that she hadn’t thought to ask him. She called out after him, but her voice was smothered by the growing clamor of the advancing soldiers.
Had they come to “expel” her family and the other Good Christians? The thought chilled her. What if they forced her mother and sisters to leave right away? Where would they go? How would she find them?
The thundering of feet pounding up the hill grew louder and louder. Blanche heard shouts and the clang of metal. The soldiers were not far from where she lay ensconced in the wool bale. There was a narrow crack where the man had slit the bale, and despite what he’d told her, Blanche couldn’t keep herself from peeking through it.
A cluster of foot soldiers surrounded a horse. Astride it was a man in gray metal armor. In one hand he carried a long spear, in the other a shield bearing a crest of what looked like a lion with a forked tail. The visor of his helmet almost completely covered the upper part of his face, except for a narrow slit for his eyes.
Blanche had never seen a knight in armor before, and the sight of him was unsettling. Encased in all that metal, he looked like some alien, not-quite-human being. As she watched him, Blanche recalled the melody of a popular riddle song about a boy who meets the devil disguised as a knight:
“Has your mother more than you?” said the False Knight on the road.
“None of them’s for you,” said the child and he stood.
“The men are wondering what to do, sire,” she heard one of the soldiers say. “The people have all taken sanctuary in the cathedral.”
“But, sire, there are hundreds packed in there, heretic and faithful alike. How will we tell them apart?”
“No point in trying,” said the knight offhandedly. “They’ll protect one another anyway. Kill them all. God will know His own.”
The soldiers looked at one another, unbelieving.
“You have your orders,” said the knight brusquely. “Now go.”
As the soldiers hurried off, there was a commotion. Blanche looked over to see another group of soldiers leading a man toward the knight. He walked slowly, with an air of defiance, despite the fact that his hands were bound behind his back. Blanche recognized him instantly as Aimery Golairan, one of the Perfects, a holy man of the Good Christians
“See this prize we got!” one of the men was shouting. “One of the leaders!”
“He came out of the cathedral,” said another. “Offered his life if wed spare the ones inside.”
“That’s noble of you, heathen,” said the knight.
Aimery Golairan stiffened.
“Nobility has nothing to do with it,” he said calmly. “I have no fear of death.”
“Why?” said the knight. “Because you’ve taken your blasphemous version of last rites?”
The holy man didn’t blink an eye.
“Your corrupt doctrines twist the truth beyond all recognition. I am not going to hell, I am leaving it. Hell is here, on this earthly plane, created by Satan himself. Eternity is the creation of the God of Pure Love. You do me a kindness to dispatch me there.”
“A kindness we won’t bestow,” said the commander. “Until you’ve been made to see the error of your ways.”
Blanche saw the knight bend down from his mount and gesture to one of the soldiers. The soldier nodded in return, then took a knife from the sheath on his belt and raised it close to Aimery Golairan’s head. Then, with a great flourish, the knight on the horse lifted the metal helmet off his head and threw it on the ground beside him.
“Here, heretic!” he cried, leaning down and putting his face close to Aimery’s “Behold the face of God’s avenging angel!”
Blanche watched the scene in terror, scarcely daring to breathe.
“I think I hear a bell,” said the False Knight on the road.
“It’s ringing you to hell,” said the child and he stood.
In that instant, the knight’s face burned itself onto Blanche’s memory. She felt herself gripped by waves of fear and nausea.
The last thing Blanche heard as she lost consciousness was the pounding of horse’s hooves as the knights voice rang out:
“If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out!”
She was being carried in a pouch, something like the sling her mother used to tote her and her sisters when they were babies. It was dark and warm and safe. Then on one side of the pouch she noticed a long slit in the fabric. Through the slit she thought she could make out a pair of eyes, looking at her. She turned away, not wanting to look back at them. Outside the pouch there was a low growling sound, as if a small animal was trying to gnaw its way through the fabric. She had the sense that there was something terrible out there on the other side of the pouch, something she didn’t want to see.
Blanche started awake, still encased in damp wool. How long had she been asleep, she wondered. Minutes? Hours?
She lifted the flap of the bale with one finger and peeked out. The sun had passed behind the cathedral spire. It was well on into the afternoon. Carefully she poked her head out of the bale and looked around. No sign of any living thing. An eerie silence seemed to envelop the whole city.
There was a faint smell of something burning in the distance. She craned her neck and looked up the hill. Curls of black smoke wafted up into the air. What was going on? Where was everyone? Would the merchant come back for her? Had he found her mother and told her where Blanche was hiding?
She wriggled out of the bale and climbed down from the cart. She had been hunched up in the bale for so long, her limbs felt like jelly, and her legs almost buckled underneath her.
Suddenly she heard the clatter of horses’ hooves. Soldiers! Frantically, she tried to clamber back onto the cart but only managed to overturn it completely.
The bale tumbled open and spilled out bundles of soft wool, covering her face. She couldn’t see who spoke or tell which direction the voice came from. Blanche put her head down and prayed silently, keeping utterly still as the pounding of the hooves drew nearer and nearer to the overturned cart. Then, abruptly, they stopped.
She felt the wool on top of her being pulled away.
“What in the name of heaven …?”
Blanche looked up. A young knight was standing over her. He wore a hood and hauberk of chain mail, covered partly by a loose cloth tunic stained with patches of blood.
“What are you doing here?”
She was too frightened to speak. All she could do was shake her head helplessly.
“You’ve been hiding here all this time, little Bitteroise?”
“Stay there,” he hissed at her. “Don’t move!”
The pounding of the horses’ hooves came to a halt. Blanche heard a man’s voice.
“Looks as if the knight from Lyon has found himself some nice Languedoc wool!”
Several other men’s voices joined in, with jocular laughter.
“Some loot you got there.”
“You’ll do much better in the upper town, my friend.”
“Their wool is already spun!”
Blanche heard the young knight shout over to the men.
“I have no interest in the wool. I just wanted to see what knocked this cart over.”
“Don’t be a fool,” one of the men called back. “There’s lots of good stuff in the upper town. Go on, help yourself”
“I thought we came to rid this city of heresy, not rob the Bitterois of their possessions.”
“What do you care? Or does your sympathy for fellow southerners carry more weight than your allegiance to the Holy Father and the king?”
“My actions today have shown clearly enough where my allegiance lies,” the knight responded sharply. “I don’t have to answer to the likes of you.”
Blanche heard more laughter from the men as they rode off. So it was true. Her mother and sisters and all the Bitterois had been driven out by the crusaders. But why was this young knight hiding her from the others? Surely they intended to send her away to join her family. Blanche hoped it wasn’t too far, wherever it was.
The gallop of the horses died away, and Blanche felt the wool being lifted off her again. She looked up at the young knight.
“Do you know where all the people have gone?”
A strange, contorted look came over the knights face. It almost seemed to Blanche that he was stifling sobs. He quickly turned his face away and murmured something.
“Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.”
Without warning, he lifted the empty bale bag, whipped it around Blanche and carried her over to his horse.
“Now do as I tell you. Keep your head down, be quiet and try not to move around.”
He hoisted her onto the horse’s back, then mounted behind her. He pulled the reins as the horse began to trot, then dug in his heels to make the animal go faster.
Blanche turned her head slightly and whispered/Are we going to where my mother and sisters are?”
“No.” His voice sounded strained.
If he wasn’t taking her to where her family and the others were, where were they going? What was he going to do with her?
The city of Béziers was in flames.
AS ABEL MADE HIS WAY DOWN from rue des Carreaux, he saw crowds of people streaming out of the church of Saint Frobert carrying what looked like slender green banners. Adults, children, even babies in their mothers’ arms were clutching them. As he moved closer, Abel could see they were olive and palm branches, and he watched in fascination as the people moved aside to form a passageway for a donkey with a roughly carved wooden figure on its back. Behind the donkey a man in dark robes carried a cross mounted on a long pole. There was a figure hanging from the cross, which was garlanded with flowers and more palm fronds.
He recalled what his father had said earlier about today being a Christian feast day. Abel had had little to do with the Christians of Troyes. All he knew was what he had learned from the rabbi at the yeshiva — that they worshipped a prophet called Jesus who had lived more than a thousand years ago. They believed that this man Jesus was the Messiah, which Abel knew was preposterous, because of course the world still awaited the coming of the Messiah at Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. Abel thought it likely that the suffering figure on the cross was Jesus. These Christians were an odd people, with their statues and palm fronds and garlands.
The crowd continued to spill out onto the street, and Abel soon found himself surrounded. He tried to blend into the throng as best he could, but he was carrying no branch, and with the black cap on his head he stood out anyway. For a few moments he was frightened, overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and his own sense of strangeness in it. He soon realized with relief that his size worked to his advantage, since only the children in the crowd seemed to notice him. As he took in their curious stares, it occurred to him that they had likely never laid eyes on a Jewish child before. Grown-ups had occasion to leave the Broce-aux-Juifs, the Jewish district, often enough — the men to do business in the rue du Chaperon, the women to shop at the markets. But young people like Abel rarely ventured out into the city proper. The yeshiva, the synagogue, his relatives, all the parts of his entire world were contained within a few steps of his home in the Broce-aux-Juifs.
Today he had been sent out on a special errand. His father was treating a patient with a high fever, and needed a special preparation of mandrake and gentian root to try to bring it down. Normally Abel’s mother would go to the apothecary to fetch it, but she was busy with the preparations for the Seder that night. His father decided Abel should go, over his mother’s protestations.
“That’s all the way over to the Grande Rue,” she said.
Abel hurried on through the crowd. As he passed the church, he stole a quick look above the main entrance. His father had told him that hidden behind the statue of Saint Frobert was a Star of David. Some years before Abel was born, when the Christians had seized the synagogue on the rue de vieille Rome, they had expunged all signs of its Jewish character, but as the Star of David was chiseled right into the stone archway, the best they could do was cover it up. Abel thought he could make out the outlines of the sacred symbol behind the statue.
He was glad to put distance between himself and the Christian crowd. As he went on, he approached the stone wall surrounding the old city, so old that it dated back to the days of the Roman emperors. As he passed through the Artaud gate, he took a deep breath. This was the very first time in his life that he had ventured beyond the wall on his own, and he felt a strange mixture of anticipation and dread.
“Who would like to comment on why Rashi does not refer to the Midrash in this passage?”
The rabbi posed the question to the class of boys studying the writings of Solomon ben Isaac, whose name — in its shortened form of Rashi — was revered in Jewish communities from England to the Rhineland to faraway Baghdad, more than a hundred years after his death. The Jews of Troyes were especially proud of their native son, and his commentary on the Torah was studied with great reverence in the yeshiva.
Abel was having trouble keeping his mind on what the rabbi was saying. His thoughts kept wandering back to his experiences in the city that morning. His head was a jumble of images and sensations: the vast halls of the cloth merchants in the rue du Chaperon, the knights casually chatting in their impressive garments on the steps of the Commandery of the Templars, the tilted buildings of Cat’s Alley, a street so narrow that the houses leaned against one another over it. Things that Abel had only heard of, that had taken on an oversized, fantastical quality in his mind, he was now seeing.
He passed the Abbey of Notre-Dame-aux-Nonnains and saw, by the canal, the ruins of the great fire that had destroyed so much of the city years before Abel was born. The sight of it made real the terrible times his parents had often spoken of, when within just a few years Troyes had suffered a flood, a severe famine and the great fire. At the time, some people had blamed the Jews, claiming that the presence of so many nonbelievers had brought God’s wrath on the city. Abel’s parents and the rest of the Jews of Troyes had watched helplessly as the city authorities stripped the synagogues of their sacred Hebrew symbols and remade them into churches for the Christians.
“That’s all in the past,” his father was always careful to emphasize. “Now are the good times. Here in Troyes we are showing the rest of the world that Christians and Jews can live side by side in peace.”
The rabbi’s voice broke in on Abel’s musings.
“Master ben Meir? Perhaps as the namesake of one of the subjects at hand, you have something to add?”
“Add? To what, sir?” Abel stammered.
“To our discussion of Rashi’s commentary on the passage about the brothers Cain and Abel. A discussion to which you, apparently, have not been listening.”
“I was distracted, Rabbi. I am sorry.”
The rabbi turned to the class.
“Master ben Meir apparently has the same cavalier attitude as his father toward the work of our great patriarch Rashi.”
Abel’s face burned with embarrassment. He was all too aware of what the rabbi was talking about. His father’s views had always been the subject of much discussion at the synagogue, but lately even more so. He had been championing the writings of a newer talmudic scholar, Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, which the rabbis of Troyes regarded as a slight to Rashi’s life and work. What was worse, some Jews considered Maimonides a heretic and dismissed his views because he had lived among the Muslims in Egypt.
All this bothered Abel’s father no end.
“I intend no disrespect to our great ancestor Rashi,” he insisted. “Rashi himself regarded the Talmud as a living document, to be questioned and pondered, not carved in stone for all time.
“We have much to learn from the Muslims,” he said to anyone who would listen. “Look at their advances in science, their innovations in numbers and mathematics. Even the Christians have great poets and thinkers, like Abelard of Nantes. We Jews cannot afford to build walls enclosing ourselves. There are wonderful new currents of thought all around us. We are on the cusp of the new age, the time foretold by the prophet Isaiah, in which the religions will not fear one another but learn from one another.”
Much as he admired his father’s independence of mind, Abel sometimes wished he wouldn’t be so vocal in expressing his views.
He turned back to the passage from Rashi, resolving to be a good student and make up for his fathers unconventional beliefs.
When he arrived home from the yeshiva, the house was filled with the aroma of roasting shank of lamb. His mother, aunt and sisters were bustling around the room, carrying sheets of matzo to the table and doing the final preparations on other Seder delicacies.