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Lizzy's Literary Life: " lapped up the intrigue, the journey into the past and Jerusalmy’s imagination, and I absolutely revelled in the sheer love of books and learning that infuses these pages."

Date: May 5 2015

Ballad of the Hanged Men by François Villon , (translated by Richard Wilbur)

O brother men who after us remain,
Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
God will the more incline to pity you.
You see us hang here, half a dozen who
Indulged the flesh in every liberty
Till it was pecked and rotted, as you see,
And these our bones to dust and ashes fall.
Let no one mock our sorry company,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

If we have called you brothers, don’t disdain
The appellation, though alas it’s true
That not all men are equal as to brain,
And that our crimes and blunders were not few.
Commend us, now that we are dead, unto
The Virgin Mary’s son, in hopes that He
Will not be sparing of His clemency,
But save our souls, which Satan would enthrall.
We’re dead now, brothers; show your charity,
And pray to God that He forgive us all.

We have been rinsed and laundered by the rain,
And by the sunlight dried and blackened too.
Magpie and crow have plucked our eyeballs twain
And cropped our eyebrows and the beards we grew.
Nor have we any rest at all, for to
And fro we sway at the wind’s fantasy,
Which has no object, yet would have us be
(Pitted like thimbles) at its beck and call.
Do not aspire to our fraternity,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.
Prince Jesus, we implore Your Majesty
To spare us Hell’s distress and obloquy;
We want no part of what may there befall.
And, mortal men, let’s have no mockery,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

Such is the power and sincerity of those words that you can tell François Villon (1431-unknown) was convinced that this would be his fate. For not only was/is he the best known French poet of the late middle ages, he was a criminal, sentenced to death in 1461. In 1463 the sentence was commuted to banishment and, thereafter, he disappeared from view.
brotherhood of Book Hunters

Translated from French by Howard Curtis

Such mysteries are inspirational to historical novelists and Jerusalmy “solves” this one with a conspiracy involving Louis XI, the Bishop of Paris, German bookmakers, secret Jewish societies, corrupt monks, the Inquisition, a double-agent slave girl and a French poet on an adventure that turns him into a kind of medieval Indiana Jones.

It starts reasonably enough, The condemned Villon is in prison when he is visited by the Bishop of Paris, with a message from the King. In return for his freedom he is to persuade the German bookmaker, Johannes Fust, to set up shop in Paris. France has no printing press of its own and the King wants that to end. Printing presses in those days conferred power on those who controlled their output and a way of weakening the power of the Vatican. So Villon, a man of letters, is to entice Just to Paris with the rare and forbidden books that the King will put at his disposal.

If only it were that easy.

Because in the days when knowledge was power and just beginning to reach the common man thanks to that new-fangled invention, the printing press, those books had powerful enemies. Soon Villon and his fellow brigand, Colin, are embroiled in plot and counterplot and danger to life and limb as they trek across to the Holy Land to bring more of the contraband to France. There they must prove themselves to the secretive Brotherhood of Book Hunters, an organisation with the mission to preserve the world’s knowledge by rescuing ancient books and manuscripts from the hands of those who would destroy them.

I’m not going to pretend that I kept up with the numerous twists and turns of the plot. I just went along for the ride. I’m not going to pretend that the writing is brilliant. Too much narrative, not enough dialogue but then, in mitigation, there was an awful lot of ground to cover. (France, The Middle East with diversions to Italy.) I can’t claim to know whether The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is/was real. There must be something in Jerusalmy’s theory because how else have ancient, and to the Inquisition heretical texts survived? Perhaps the Brotherhood is an amalgam of all the courageous individuals in history who have braved the wrath of the establishment to preserve mankind’s intellectual heritage?

I did enjoy the warts and all characterisation of Villon and his fellow Coquillard, Colin; heroes neither but scoundrels whose most pressing challenge is to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I lapped up the intrigue, the journey into the past and Jerusalmy’s imagination, and I absolutely revelled in the sheer love of books and learning that infuses these pages.

Recommended for fellow bookworms.