Our Lady of the Herbs

 

Bunting girdled the twisting high street and swags of foliage festooned every public house, café and shop front. The maypole had been erected in the community park and trestle tables set up in side streets.

The parade would begin under the banner bearing the legend, “Our Lady of the Herbs”, which straddled the mediaeval arch leading to the parish church of Weaving Todbury.

The Reverend Tina Palmarsh was busy polishing the altar candlesticks while church helpers garlanded the mediaeval windows with the ivy which annually tried to choke the trees in the cemetery. The fruiting yew branches would have made a better show, but the poisonous berries were too tempting for the fingers of infants able to reach from the pews. As the saviour who bestowed the miraculous herbs that prevented the mediaeval town from being ravaged by the plague, green was Our Lady of the Herbs colour. The tomb of the cleric who had witnessed the miracle being celebrated was decorated with marigolds and lavender, and the huge alabaster font large enough to baptise a baby hippo, festooned with rosemary.

Nobody really knew why Our Lady had appeared at the very moment of need, strewing the aisles of the church with the medicinal herbs responsible for purging the local population of the blight sweeping the rest of the country.

Joining the enthusiastic crowds gathering to watch the parade was a bespectacled young man with an unruly quiff which flopped over his eyes at the slightest nod of the head. Every inch of his elegant six foot declared that he was a scholar. Not even the casual combat jacket with notebooks in every pocket or self-conscious tattoo of a spider on a slender neck could dispel any doubt that he had passed through the best universities collecting honours degrees and a reputation for studious expertise in his subject. He caught the eye of Rev. Palmarsh as she bustled past to organise the gaggle of unruly choristers competing to toss soft drink cans into a waste bin at 20 paces. Scholar and woman of God nodded in recognition before turning to focus on the matters in hand. He took out a camera to record the proceedings and she herded the girls and boys into formation for the parade which would be led by local dignitaries, followed by floats with several brigades of cadets bringing up the rear. There would be no jazz band in this procession for the patron saint of Weaving Todbury. It was a holy occasion, even for non-believers - a day to commemorate a miracle for Everyman and Everywoman.

This was also a celebration of Flora as well as Our Lady of the Herbs. The floats, costumes and instruments of the marching bands were decorated with leaves, vines and flowers, while banners flapping in the sea breeze advertised the curative properties of modern herbal supplements. Free samples were being handed out like sweets, with pamphlets of how the overpriced products could be purchased. Rev. Palmarsh would have banned the blatant promotions, but somebody had to fund this annual excess.

Once the hullabaloo, street parties and maypole dancing were over, the vicar of Weaving Todbury poured two glasses of sherry, relieved that she wouldn't have the bother of it for another year and the ivy could be taken down before it was shrivelled by the church's antiquated heating system.

The bespectacled scholar took the glass she offered and settled in the vestry’s armchair. Dr Stephen Joy was expecting her to reveal some profound historical nugget about the festival.

 He had not been prepared for the cleric to announce, ‘Actually, “Our Lady” is wrong. It should really be “Saint Sarah”. The Sarah the people of this town stoned to death.’

The young man took a sip of sherry to give himself time to digest the implication. ‘”St Sarah”?’

‘The Sarah who actually supplied Father Ronald with the exotic herbs to cure this “plague”.’

‘You really doubt that it was the plague as well?’

‘Could you imagine bubonic or pneumonic plague being contained by herbal remedies, however exotic?’

The sparkle in the eyes of the small sixty-something woman of the cloth suggested that an element of mischief vied with the solemnity of her calling.

‘You do know that I'm Jewish, don't you?’

‘So was Sarah, and you’re not practising, just a pragmatist. I’ve read your papers and think this is something which will interest you. Apart from that, my ability with mediaeval Latin is very limited.’

‘What do you expect of me?’

‘If you are interested, to investigate the legend created by a population guilty of murdering a good woman. My ministry wouldn't survive the fallout if I tried to do it. As the first woman vicar of this parish I've been accused of being a killjoy and hedonist, and much worse. Destroying belief in the only local legend that unites the town’s squabbling community would also be the death knell of what sweet content this annual celebration encourages.’

‘Then why reveal the truth?’

‘Penalty of being a Christian. You're a non-believer so I wouldn't expect you to find it such a problem.’

Dr Joy took another sip of sherry. ‘But as a historian, I’m still bound by the truth.’

He was familiar with many quaint local myths, and when asked to come and see the one celebrated in Weaving Todbury had been inclined to take its origins with the tablespoon of salt his mother stirred into a glass of water for the Passover table. Judaism had gone through many phases in British history, and the legend of Our Lady of the Herbs had been generated during one of its darkest. It was amazing a Jewish herbalist survived at all. She must have been very good.

Dr Joy knew what was expected of him. ‘You would like me to produce a treatise to dispel the myth?’

‘I would like you, as a pragmatic scholar, to decide whether it should be done.’

‘What would you do if it weren’t for that dog collar?’

‘Publish without hesitation. But funds being the way they are, we can’t afford to have bricks put through the stained glass windows.’

‘Does the truth really matter after all this time?’

‘I honestly don't know. It would only be for the benefit of the living and hardly matter to the dead.’

‘Is there something else you're not telling me?’

Rev. Palmarsh gave a resigned sigh. ‘It may not seem such a big deal now, but the local priests of that time could have been excommunicated. I for one would like to find out if they concealed murder to allow the legend to persist.’

‘Surely this is a Catholic matter?’

‘The C of E is Catholic, albeit with a small c.’

‘That small c enabled you to be ordained.’

Rev. Palmarsh swallowed her sherry. ‘Don't remind me. Half the congregation converted to Catholicism when I took up this ministry. Fortunately most of them preferred incense to sweet tolerance anyway. Bound to be the first picking up bricks to put through the windows.’

Despite a niggling thought that the venture could prove a waste of time, the young scholar was intrigued. ‘So where do you want me to start?’

The vicar took an ancient box folder from a shelf. Carefully wrapped inside it were letters by Father Asha, Weaving Todbury's magistrate during the time of Sarah.

Dr Joy tentatively turned the pages of brittle parchment. ‘Where on earth did these come from?’

‘A monastery in Scotland. They had originally been sent by Father Asha to the abbot of his old order. It is now due to close and the clerk charged with disposing of the library, like you, could read mediaeval Latin. He thought it best to return them to sender, albeit several centuries late.’

Dr Joy glanced through the pages. As the scholar read, it became obvious that this would not be a waste of time after all. Most magistrates' records from that period were dry, legal issues relating to land or property. These brittle, ink-faded sheets suggested conspiracy and murder.

‘As far as I can make out, he relates the sequence of events since Sarah's arrival… and it’s pretty inflammatory stuff. If these letters had been intercepted it could have meant more than excommunication for those involved.’

‘Evidently Sarah's murder played on Father Asha's conscience. His old abbot was the only one he could safely confess to.’

Rev. Palmarsh invited Dr Joy to take away the box folder of ancient documents and study them in his own time.

He found it impossible to refuse.

As he left to catch his train, all the bunting and swags of flowers that lined the way took on a sinister ambience. Many towns and cities about the world based their cultures on the unlikeliest of miracles. They would have resented some interfering scholar trying to disprove that they had happened. Until then, the historian had not anticipated joining those seekers of truth at any cost. The people of Weaving Todbury were honest in the celebration of their unlikely miracle, but harmless delusion was not at play here. Under his arm was the contemporary proof that could reveal murder. Would it have been right to saddle the town’s residents with the guilt of something that happened so long ago?

Dr Joy understood Rev. Palmarsh’s dilemma.

There was only one way to decide. After giving an early evening lecture on mediaeval iconography, he settled down in his quarters to start translating the fragile pages. Fortunately, being written by a scholar, they were dated, which enabled the sequence of events to flow. They were strange, even for those God-fearing, intolerant times.

Sarah had been the eldest daughter of a wealthy Sephardic spice merchant. After his ship was wrecked in a Channel storm she had been the only survivor. Found half-drowned amongst the jetsam washed up on the beach, she was given sanctuary by Father Ronald who was well aware of the locals’ suspicion of strangers. The magistrate, Father Asha, took charge of the spices that had been washed ashore and locked them in the loft of the church hall to dry.

During the following years, Father Ronald engaged Sarah to keep the church in order, scattering fresh rushes where the livestock came in to be blessed, and grinding potions with herbs and her spices for him to administer to the sick. He soon acquired the reputation as a great healer without understanding the antibacterial properties the herbalist was so familiar with.

Then a mysterious scourge descended on the town and it became necessary to confine the infectious sick in the church hall to prevent the epidemic from spreading. Father Ronald could no longer carry on the pretence of being the town's ministering saviour. Only Sarah had the knowledge to take charge and administer the necessary potions. The sickness was cured, and the population were grateful for her expertise. They called her “Ministering Angel of Moses” and “St Sarah”. Father Ronald and Father Asha were relieved that the extraordinary woman was at last accepted by the people.

The epidemic passed and Weaving Todbury returned to its normal activity. As a respected citizen, Sarah was now revered as a midwife, herbalist and wise woman.

Several years later, a travelling priest preaching an incendiary reading of the New Testament arrived. In his message was the tenet that the Jews killed their Christ. Despite Father Ronald's protestations that Sarah was a good woman who had saved them from an epidemic, the townspeople were incited to stone her to death. 

In their fury, because Father Ronald and Father Asha had tried to reason with them, the mob turned on the timber church which had given her sanctuary and burnt it to the ground. All that remained was the large alabaster font donated by the lord of the local estates, the intense heat cracking the effigies of the apostles carved into it. By the time his soldiers arrived the rabble had melted away. There was nothing left but the gutted church and incinerated remains of Sarah.

The Lord vowed to rebuild the church and punish anyone found responsible for its desecration and Sarah’s murder, but the people refused to stand witness against those involved and the radical preacher had long since left to spread his poisonous doctrine elsewhere.

The predicament confronting Rev. Palmarsh now became Dr Stephen Joy’s. The present day residents of Weaving Todbury could hardly be held responsible for the mediaeval atrocity, yet the achievements of a remarkable woman risked being lost to history if the crime was not exposed. Now facing the same problem, the history scholar wished he had never accepted the cleric's invitation to witness the celebration of “Our Lady of the Herbs”.

Fortunately his pragmatism enabled him to believe that fate always had a way of paying back the misdemeanours of presumptuous humans. It was probably living with that statuette of Nemesis, finger to her lips to warn mortals against attracting her attention to their clamouring. She had been standing on the mantelpiece of his study ever since he had taken over the rooms from the previous master. Not his choice of deity, she nevertheless seemed to be telling him that the citizens of Weaving Todbury had already paid for their crime.

Dr Joy was inclined to reveal all and compel the residents of the small town to face their hollow, reprehensible history, but a reluctant glance at Nemesis persuaded him to look at the matter from a different perspective. It took hours of research, but he eventually discovered that two years after Sarah's murder there had been another shipwreck off the shore of Weaving Todbury.

This time the only survivors were black rats.

The plaque they brought swept through the town.

The few left alive took this to be God’s punishment for murdering the only one who could have saved them and, to conceal their guilt, allowed Father Ronald to create the myth of “Our Lady of the Herbs”. Now the origin of the legend made sense. The only way of secretly honouring Sarah had been to claim that Our Lady had scattered the herbs along the aisle of the church to cure the first plague to visit the town. Any mention of Sarah could well have attracted the visit from another priest preaching a poisonous doctrine. Father Asha agreed and, as magistrate, authorised the annual festival which had taken place ever since.

As Dr Joy laid his findings on the vestry table Rev. Palmarsh brought out an ancient casket and placed it beside the neatly printed pages. ‘So Saint Sarah is actually being celebrated, but no one here realises it.’

‘What's that?’

She pointed to the faded inscription. ‘Sarah's mortal remains.’ The vicar gave a conspiratorial smile. ‘Father Ronald had them walled up behind the altar of the new church built by the Lord of the estates. The cavity was discovered when surveyors were checking the foundations.’

The scholar needed to touch the woman he had come to admire and laid both hands on the ancient wood. ‘The plague that swept through Weaving Todbury shortly after her murder took most of the population. So Nemesis was here after all.’

‘Well, it wasn’t Jesus.’

He raised an eyebrow.

‘She solved my problem of whether to reveal what happened,’ acknowledged Rev. Palmarsh.

‘I take it you’re not going to? People here celebrating Our Lady would be mortified to know what their forebears did.’

‘Crimes of the ancestors...’

‘And there is a corollary which adds a sting to the whole sorry affair.’

A sparkle entered the cleric's eyes. ‘Tell me?’

‘The name of the ship which brought the Black Death… It was called “Santa Sarah”.’