The Dead Hand

The peasant carpenters working in this house simply lie down on the floor at night.  My Midas landlady long ago threw up flimsy dividers in what was once a large dining room.  These are not true walls, but only partitions one board thick and pierced by knot holes and cracks.  Matthew Zell and I share this stall, only large enough for our beds and chests and one writing table.  Now the carpenters divide the room beside ours yet again.  I can hear their nightly talk from my bed.

Earlier today, I noticed Clovis’ boots, held together by string, were falling from his feet in pieces.  Tonight, he said, “I need new bundshuh.  But no.  The shoemaker has to have the money.  He’ll not trade for my wife’s lace.  So, I wait.  Because maybe we need the money.”

“The money ruins us,” the mouselike Ergot squeaked.  “Everyone wants the money now.   How can a tenant have the money, when all he gets for his labor is a small part of the crop?”

(Personally, I think this new use of money is a good thing.  Though perhaps not for those who do not have any.  I will say, though, that when Freiburg began to mint its own coins two years ago, I thought prices would stabilize.  But they haven’t.)

Then Clovis said, “To St. Margen’s monastery, my friend made a self-donation.  Himself, his wife, three sons and three daughters.  To forever serve the monastery for food.  Already his son Zorg runs away.  If he comes not back, the Prior will excommunicate both the son and the father.”

Ergot must have moved very near the wall, for his squeak grew louder.  “This self-donation is a bad business.  I pray to God I never get in such straits that I have to give myself to the Church.  It’s bad enough to be serf to a monastery.”

“Who’s your lord?” asked the sharp Fedor.

“St. Peter’s of the Black Forest.  But in winter, I am allowed to work in the city that I may pay more tithes.”

There were sympathetic moans from the others.  (Indeed, I know that Ergot’s lot is a bad one.  He is a true serf, tied to monastery lands.  He can never move or marry a woman under a different lord.  The law is absolute in declaring that a man belonging to the Church can never be free.)

“The monks,” said Fedor, “are the worst lords.  They show up, right on time, to collect every tax and tithe.”

Ergot listed them.  “I must pay the large tithe on grain, the small tithe on vegetables, flax, chickens, eggs, grass. . .And with a Cloister Lord, if you fail to pay, they excommunicate you.”

“Yeah, but when we die,” Fedor said, “every lord requires the Dead Hand, to repay him for the loss of our labor.  A man’s best animal, a woman’s best gown.  So, even in death they get you.  When my brother died, they took the widow’s only cow.”

I watched the tip of Ergot’s finger as he traced the crack in the wall.  “Pist!  He had a Cloister Lord, I wager.  Bloodsuckers.  When the stonemason’s wife died, he paid the Dead Hand with her best gown, and a fortnight later, the priest’s concubine wore it to the church.”


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Published in: on February 16, 2011 at 7:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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