The Eighteenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
Close to the end of Easter Term 1358, the Colleges of the University of Cambridge are at war over the creation of a Common Library.
Scholars from the poorer hostels are delighted by the scheme, but others see it as a dangerous precedent, and demand that the project be abandoned. At a meeting of all the masters to discuss the matter, a book flies through the air, striking one of their number and leaving him seriously wounded. Matthew Bartholomew is called upon for his skills as a physician, but his experience is even more in demand when a body is found floating in the pond of the library’s garden on the eve of its opening.
Meanwhile, there have been three murders in the town: these victims have all had their throats cut, and the culprits are rumoured to be a force of dangerous smugglers who lie low in the Fens.
Alongside Sheriff Tulyet and Brother Michael, Bartholomew knows he only has a week to disentangle the threads of violence that link town to gown, academic to tradesman. To fail might mean the destruction of the whole town.
It was not often that the University at Cambridge called a Convocation of Regents – a gathering of all its masters – but one was certainly organised when Sir Eustace Dunning offered to finance a Common Library. It was a contentious matter, and while some scholars were delighted by the prospect of unlimited access to books, others thought the concept was fraught with dangerous precedents, and argued that the gift should be politely but firmly declined.
They began to arrive at the Church of St Mary the Great long before noon, when the meeting was scheduled to begin. As it was a formal occasion, they wore their ceremonial robes – scarlet gowns and hats for the seculars, and best habits for the monks and friars. Tensions were high, and spats had broken out long before Chancellor Tynkell called for silence, intoned some prayers, and declared the Convocation officially open.
There was an immediate clamour as virtually every man present strove to make his views known. Tynkell, a timid, ineffectual man wholly incapable of controlling hundreds of opinionated men, could only wave his hands in feeble entreaty, and it was left to his Senior Proctor, the plump, charismatic Brother Michael, to take charge. Once he had stilled the commotion, Michael indicated that Philip de London was to speak first.
‘Books are expensive,’ London began in a quiet, dignified voice. He and his brother were scribes, employed by the University’s stationer. ‘And only the wealthiest foundations can afford them. A Common Library will ensure that even our poorest scholars will see texts that—’
‘There are more important issues at stake here than the education of paupers,’ interrupted John Teversham, a Fellow of Bene’t College, whose exquisite robes suggested that money would never come between him and the tomes he wanted to study. ‘And I believe that such a foundation will endanger our University.’
‘How?’ asked London irritably. ‘Oxford has had one for the past thirty years, and no harm has befallen it. Indeed, its scholars say it is an excellent addition to—’
‘What that rabble does is not always sensible,’ interrupted Teversham curtly. ‘Besides, where will this collection go? We do not have a suitable building for it.’
‘Actually, we do,’ interjected Tynkell. He smiled nervously, knowing that his news would receive a mixed reaction. ‘Sir Eustace Dunning has given us Newe Inn in Cholles Lane.’
Half the scholars cheered their delight, while the others booed and hissed, and it was some time before Michael was able to restore calm again. Once the church was quiet, he let Principal Coslaye of Batayl Hostel speak first, because the man was scarlet with apoplectic rage, and Michael was afraid he might have a fatal seizure if he was not permitted to have his say soon.
‘The University cannot have Newe Inn,’ Coslaye bellowed furiously. ‘Dunning promised that building to us. To Batayl!’
‘I beg to differ,’ countered Prior Etone of the Carmelites, startled. He was a serious, unsmiling man said to be better at administration than scholarship or religion. ‘He promised it to me, and—’
‘Lies!’ screamed Coslaye. ‘Dunning would never break his word to us.’
‘Or to us,’ retorted Etone coolly.
‘Well, it seems he did both,’ said Tynkell, when Coslaye was too angry to form coherent words. He held up a document. ‘Because I have the deed of ownership here. Dunning gave it to me this morning, and if the vote goes as he hopes, Newe Inn will become the Common Library with immediate effect. He would like an official opening at the Feast of Corpus Christi.’
‘Well, he will not have it,’ roared Teversham, outraged. ‘Because only fools will favour such a scheme, and my fellow Regents will have more sense than to—’
The rest of his statement was lost amid cheers from those who opposed the ‘grace’ to found a Common Library, and catcalls from those who supported it.
‘I suggest we move directly to the vote,’ said Michael, once he had quelled the uproar a third time. ‘It is obvious that we have all made up our minds, so further discussion is pointless. All those who oppose the grace will move to the south aisle.’
There was an immediate stampede that included Teversham and Coslaye. They stood in a tight, belligerent huddle, hooting and jeering at those who remained, so that the ancient building rang with feisty voices.
‘Come over here,’ hollered Coslaye to the London brothers, his stentorian tones carrying through the din. ‘You are members of Batayl, so I order you to stand with us. It—’
‘And those who support the grace will move to the north,’ boomed Michael.
The remaining Regents hurried to where he pointed, and when the shuffle was complete, it was clear that the result was going to be close. Tense and heated, they continued to harangue each other as Michael and Tynkell counted heads. And then counted them again.
‘The grace is carried by three votes,’ announced Tynkell eventually.
There was a cheer from the north and a roar of disappointment from the south. The two sides converged in a fury of bawling voices and violently wagging fingers. And then something dark sailed through the air. It was a book with wooden covers, and its corner struck Coslaye hard on the side of his head. The Principal of Batayl Hostel dropped to the floor and lay still.
‘Who threw that?’ demanded Michael, in the shocked hush that followed.
There was silence. The University’s medical men – from both sides of the debate – hurried to the stricken man’s side, but their faces were grim as they inspected the wound.
‘He is bleeding inside his skull,’ said one. ‘I doubt he will survive. He has been murdered!’