I am Richard and once was a monk of the Cistercian order at Boxley Abbey, north of Maidstone, Kent. It is now the Year of Our Lord 1389, and I am far from that life of poverty, contemplation, and silence that I lived for most of my years. Boxley was my home from near infancy until I had passed 35 years when I was ejected by an abbot who wanted rid of me. If I had imagined ever leaving Boxley before that day, I would have thought my life would end in a trice, that my skin would be mauled to ribbons by the claws of the devil. Yay, I must be blessed, for I have lived through times of terrible consequence and now wear a mantle of wealth far beyond the riches of Boxley Abbey itself.
Opening lines to The Song of Oswald
Thus begins “The Song of Oswald,” a novel I wrote four years ago and which remains unpublished. It’s a medieval adventure story about Richard, a monk who has been ejected from his abbey, and his brother. They undertake a risky mission from Boxley Abbey to France to steal the sacred remains of a long-dead English saint and return them to England. The corrupt abbot wants the relics to attract visits and financial inducements from pilgrims.
Oswald, Richard’s brother, is a sort of Robin Hood character, who is hired by the Boxley abbot to carry out this assignment. He’s a dangerous outlaw but has a benevolent reputation among the common folk: a hero and a villain.
A medieval adventure yarn
Richard, Oswald, and a young woman named Claire cross the English Channel in a medieval hulk 1, walk through war-ravaged northern France and encounter a fortified monastery where the sacred relics lie. They are the target of arrows, bullied by a vicious English knight who competes for the remains and the riches in the abbey. They flee the monastery, which is set ablaze by the English army. They never find the sacred remains of the English saint.
Writing The Song of Oswald was a culmination of a long-term fascination of mine with monks and monasteries. It was also the inspiration for the name of The Happy Monk Baking Company.
The monastic tradition was a grand experiment in building a utopian community. Simple at first: the rejection of all material concerns, removal from the secular world, and the devotion of one’s life to the sacred. Life was ruled by a daily/hourly ritual of prayer and simple works. The European movement thrived for hundreds of years, brought about innovations in farming, architecture and was the engine of unparalleled economic expansion and wealth.
A failed experiment in religious community
And in that, the utopian experiment faltered. How could the vast riches of the monasteries co-exist with the severe religious devotions of the monks, which was governed by a strict Holy Rule? Abbeys became corrupt money-lenders, owners of vast tracts of land, brothel keepers, and their priests preyed on the fears of people who sought divine protection from evil.
Power and enrichment gradually overtook the monasteries’ business and the common folk came to despise them. Finally, in the early 1500s, Henry VIII dissolved most of the 900 English religious houses and ended a way of life for 12,000 monks, canons, friars, and nuns. And with that, dissolved a way of life that had much to speak of: a protected, quiet way of life, spiritual devotion, good works in the communities, simple farming and the preservation of vast works of literature and religious writings.
Boxley Abbey was a real monastery, one of many destroyed by Henry VIII and his cold-blooded lieutenant, Thomas Cromwell. It wasn’t as grand as the one I created in the novel, which is based on the magnificent Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.
Jennifer and I visited Boxley in 2015. All that remains are some crumbling stone walls, a hayfield, and an old barn. An old mare crossed the field to the fence when we stopped at the gate. We fed it apples from a nearby tree. I asked the horse if she knew any monks. “More apples, please,” she said.
Boxley and the chalk hills of Kent
The Boxley grounds lie at the foot of the chalk hills of the north Kent countryside. The Pilgrim’s Road, used by pilgrims who traveled from London to Canterbury (including Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales), passes by not far from the site.
Richard, the main character of The Song of Oswald, loves his abbey and the monk’s life but is beset upon by the corrupt abbot, who wants to bring more riches into the abbey’s coffers. Richard mourns the loss of the monastic tradition, confronts the horrors of the King’s war against France, and is shaken by plague and death.
And yet Richard still lands on his feet. He inherits the vast wealth of his deceased parents, who died mysteriously when he was still a child. It’s not enough, though, to make Richard whole. He still pines for his simple monk’s life.
And, of course, he misses the love of the young woman, Claire, who accompanies the two brothers to France.
Claire, as it happens, becomes a bread baker by the end of the story. She uses a cob oven outside her aunt’s house in Maidstone. She sells her wares in the town’s market square and is working towards membership in the baker’s guild.
Claire loves Richard, but things don’t work out.
A sad monk becomes a Happy Monk
Poor Richard! He’s a bit of a sad sack, but I love him dearly. There’s more than a little of me in him. I wish him free of material concerns, to live a simpler life and not encumbered by the burdens of wealth and privilege. I want him to be free.
Thus, we named the company The Happy Monk Baking Company in honour of Richard and in the hope that he can live his life in pure devotion to nature, wholesome food, the good earth, cold water swimming, and the love of a good woman.
The Song of Oswald is still alive! It is far from being relegated to the bottom desk drawer. I have a strong desire to see it published and gracing the front window of the Talisman Bookstore here on Pender Island and many others! I’m making revisions when I have time from baking so that a literary agent can represent it to publishers. To learn more about The Song of Oswald, click here.
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
Happy Monk Tidings - November 2, 2022 🍞 - BAKER'S CHOICE: Cinnamon-Raisin Bread; BLOG: A Vancouver Neighbourhood; BOOK OF THE WEEK: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan [ See LinkTree in Profile ]...
Happy Monk Tidings - September 28, 2022 🍞 - Baker's Choice: The Approachable Loaf; Blog: This Island of Apples; South Pender Growers and Makers Market [ See LinkTree in Profile ]
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Introducing this bread, Raven Ring Bread (a take on Hapanleipä, a Finnish bread) a recipe borrowed from @ravenbreads. The stand is made by my neighbour, Ken, a gifted woodworker. See you at the South Pender Growers and Makers Market, if it don’t rain too hard!...
Happy Monk Tidings - September 2, 2022 🍞 - Baker's Choice : Volkornbrot (German Rye); Blog: The Golden Loaf of Gorsefield Rye; NOTE: We're closing two weeks for Mildrith Maintenance [ See LinkTree in Profile ]...
It was a dirty day, Wednesday. The sky hadn't been washed, the ocean was soiled, and the air was muggy and smelled oily. Then, moments before the rain started, the sun shone through and a glorious slash of colour opened up. And a rainbow! No unicorns, sadly....
Dog days. The beginning of summer mellowness. Baked in languor. But sometimes it's hard to let go. Shouldn't I be baking something? [See LinkTree in Profile ]
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This is James Morton, my father, who would have been 100 years old today if we hadn't lost him 36 years ago. I've surpassed him in living age and spent more years without him than with him, yet he still whispers in my ear and is a great listener when I talk to him. Taken at 14th Ave. and Burgess St., Burnaby, 'round about 1955. Handsome devil, ain't he?...