72:  A Young Skoller

Small close-up of Gib's face.I had told my niece that I would fetch her when I found pens, ink, and paper left readie.  I was not wholly truthful.

First, I writ a page or two of my diurnal [journal].

Then, having nowt else to write of, I went to the kitchen for refreshments.

There I saw my niece, sat bold-arst by the kitchen door.

“What do you here?” I arrkst.

“I have employment in the wash-house [laundry].  You told me to creep in by degrees, and so I shall.” 

A quill being trimmed with a small knife.
Cutting a quill – not a task for a cat. From Jan van Bijlert (c1597-1671) – St Luke the Evangelist.

I led her to the book room where she arrkst more fool questions, too tedious to set down here.  She sayt the pen was nowt but a feather, and feared the ink was poyson.  I bore this with patience.

Then I gave her a tap on the head, as my mother did when she wished me to take heed.

I took the pen in my mouth, thrust it in the ink, seated myself on the paper as I would to cleanse my belly, and put the pen between my toes.

“Many in this household speak of me as the young Earl’s Gib,” I sayt. “My lord calls me Bevis.  I will show you how I write the sounds for Gib and Bevis.”

I made the marks for Gib.  Slow.

She watched me at my work. “I see the worms come forth.”  Then she grew fearful, and arrkst, “Will they creep into my head?  And there grow wings, as you sayt when you showed me the book?”

I’m sorry I told her that, for she cannot conceive it.

How else could I explain the sounds turned into marks that change to images in our mind’s eye?

Title page of Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, published 1567.
Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis – one of Gib’s sources for his tales.

Metaphor, metamor, metamorphosis: one thing becomes another.  Fit matter for a sonnet.

But I fear I might confound myself.

So I sayt to her, “They worms will not enter your head unless you invite them.”

That cheered her, so I writ the marks for Bevis.  “Now,” sayt I, “Do you have a name?  Has any called you by one?”

“A wash-wench calls me Puss,” sayt she. “Though I may choose a better.”

A better name than Puss.  Did you ever hear the like?

“Puss,” sayt I, “will do very well.  It is one of the names of the Queen Cat of Heaven, and all cats may use it in her honour.  Now I will show you the marks for it.”

I writ it fair.  And then I told her to sit so I could put the pen between her toes.

“Now,” sayt I, “Make a mark with it.  Any will do.”

My little skoller [scholar] scratched a few.  But she became so eager of writing Puss that she had not the patience to wait for me to dip the pen for her.  She must attempt it herself, and splattered the ink.

When I reproved her she struck the ink-holder a blow that knocked it from the table.

I sayt, as I seized our paper and prepared to flee, “I’ll be blamed for that.”

“No,” sayt she. “I’ll make haste to catch a mouse or rat, and leave its corpse there.  All will think you knocked the ink while in hot pursuit.”

Oh, she is suttle.  I too am suttle, as was my lord when we were kits together.  A quality most needful in young skollers.

A drawing from 16th century France, by an anonymous artist. Held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A drawing from 16th century France by an anonymous artist. Held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The man at the table has a number of the necessities for writing: a knife for trimming pens, what looks like a spare pen in the ink jar, and a sand-caster for sprinkling sand over recent writing to dry the ink. (Not something Gib bothered with.)

Editor's Note. Small image of a quill pen.I’ve often wondered why Gib had such easy access to the library, books being the expensive items they were.  He wrote of causing a certain amount of what we would call damage when he was living in a different household.  (Cowdray House, belonging to the young Earl of Southampton’s grandfather, Viscount Montague.)

The answer is rats and mice who might have chewed the books. (This would have been an even more expensive problem in the days before books were printed.  Check out this delightful post on medieval cats with literary aspirations and notions of ownership.)

71:  Of Reading, Writing, and My Greatness

I was not born great.  I first oped my eyes in the old Earl’s stable.  That’s why I do love a stable.  A place of scents and sounds most dear to me.

But my lord’s stable was not so peaceful after my little niece lodged there.  She oft told me that she longed to be akwaynted with a book.  I believe it was our play that put this maggot in her head.

A row of books, jumbled on a shelf.

One day when my house was quiet (most gone to a fair or somesuch) I offered to show her the book chamber.

My niece – unaccustomed to so great a house – was doubtful.  She crept in low-bellied, her eyes wide and dark.  I told her we would hear if any came.  She could hide herself while I feigned mouse-watch.

A close=up of the nose and squinting eyes of Gib's niece - a blacl, white, and orange cat.She whispered that she feared the books who sat so still.  “They mean to spring on us,” she sayt.

“They lack the power of motion,” I sayt, and plucked one from the shelf.

She sprang away, but then sat swivel-eared.  “It tells of nowt.  I cannot hear it, nor take its thoughts.”

When she grew bold enough to nose it, she sayt, “It tells of you, and of a man.  He had his hand on a dog not long since.”

I sayt, “Your nose tells who last pawed it.  If you could read, your eyes would tell of hawks.  This book is of falconry.”

Her innocent questions made me merry.  But I was mazed, too.

I entered my lord’s service before I was weaned.  I sat with him and his lady sister in the schoolroom and took my learning there.

I’ve lived long among great folks and forgot how strange all must seem to one reared in a barn.  I offered to show her another part of the house.  I arrkst if she would like to swing from a curtain, or see her self in a mirror.

She refused.  “I wish to know what reading is,” she sayt.

So I leapt onto a table where a soiled, sour thing lay.  Some knave had thumbed it in an alehouse before he left it here.  But it would serve.

“Now see,” sayt I, “these black marks?  Like to a host of little worms?  They are sounds imprinted.”

She joined me, and sayt she could see nowt.

“You’re too near,” sayt I.  “You must sit a way off.”

She drew back, then poked the page.  “They will not move,” she sayt.

“They’re not true worms,” sayt I.  “But they can creep from your eyes to your brain and grow wings there.  Look!  Here it says: tread on a worm and it will turn.  I believe that means a snake will bite you.” 

A page from Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit containing his famous attack on 'the upstart crow', generally believed to be Shakespeare.

I read a little more, and sayt, “Here it tells of a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.  I have a tiger’s heart, as do you, for all are cats.  But how came a mere player to have the heart of a cat? Perchance he thieved it.  We must read more to know. ” 

“Worms! Eyes! Tigers! Flies!” She struck the page four times.

“Have a care,” I warned her.  “If any page be clawed or torn, this chamber might be closed to me.”

Another lesson I learnt young.  But how learnt I to read?

Then it come to me.  First I learnt to write.  I listened to the sounds my lord made, and watched him make marks with his pen.

And after I could write these marks, I looked for them in books.

The marks in books are many, and oft unknown to me.  Some books are imprinted fair; others are foul and hard to read.

But I found a book of little tales I could read, and then I came upon the Bevis book.  From that I made my first tale.

I believe there are some in this world who can read what’s imprinted, but know not how to write. There are others who can hold a pen and make their names or another pretty mark, but cannot read.

I can do both.  “And that,” as I told my niece, “is why I achieved greatness as a poet.”

“And why my mother told me you never caught owt in your life save a jewel hung from our Earl’s ear,” she sayt.  “But now I know you watch for worm-words, not mice.”

I sayt, “If you are as witty [clever] as your mother was, I can teach you to write.  You need not trouble yourself with reading.”

“Good,” sayt she.  “For books are false.  I believe my nose, mine eyes, mine ears, and my whiskers.  And what my mother told me.  Nowt else.”

As I led her from the house I sayt, “I’ll fetch you when next I find all that’s needful for writing left readie.”

(She did not ask what was needful.  For which I offer thanks: I had not the strength to explain the use of quills, ink, and paper.)

She sayt, “Then I’ll have greatness thrust upon me.”

Saucie.  Like unto her mother.


Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe first book Gib read “of little tales” was probably a collection of Aesop’s fables.  We know he read some of these, because his tale of The Fox and the Cat is derived from Aesop.

The “sour thing” – he means its smell – that he shows his niece is Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, first published in 1592 and attributed to the playwright Robert Greene (1558-1592).  It’s famous nowadays for its attack on an actor referred to as an “upstart crow” who, owing his success to the work of writers such as Greene, thinks he can “bombast out a blank verse” and is “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”  This is almost universally accepted as an attack on William Shakespeare.

However, astute readers of this blog have spotted that Shakespeare appears to have pilfered some of Gib’s work.  Oh dear.  Who wrote what is just so complicated.