| Our Little Norman Cousin of Long Ago|
|by Evaleen Stein|
|A story of Normandy in the time of William the Conqueror, giving a vivid picture of manners and customs through the eyes of two boys of the court. Describes castle life, dress, amusements, training for knighthood, and other aspects of feudal life. Also relates stories of William's early days, as well as tales of his Northmen forefathers, Duke Robert the Magnificent, Little Duke Richard, and Rolf the Ganger. Ages 8-10 |
BLANCHETTE AND MARIE
 The next morning Alan, Henri, and the other pages helped to
straighten up the hall by picking up form the floor the
straw-filled mattresses on which they had slept, and
while they were busy with this Lady Gisla took the
little girls down to the lowest story of the keep where
there was a storehouse for food. Here, with the keys
hanging from her girdle, she unlocked bins and closets,
giving out to the cooks supplies for the day, while
Blanchette and Marie watched all she did.
As they turned to go, "Mother," said Blanchette,
peering into a dark passage-way in the wall, "is
anybody in the dungeon?"
"I think not now," answered Lady Gisla, as she glanced
toward the passage which led to a dreadful cavern-like
cell burrowed under the paving-stones of the court.
For while castle folk were always guarding
 against some one else attacking them, they did not
forget that they themselves were quite as apt to make
trouble for other people and that they might sometimes
bring home prisoners from their many wars and quarrels.
So they always provided a dungeon or two in which to
keep them. And every one was so used to such things
that even if the one at Noireat had held some wretched
captive, neither the little girls nor Lady Gisla would
have thought anything of it.
As they left the storehouse, "Come, children," she
said, "we will go to the weaving-room now."
They followed her up the winding stair to the second
story of the keep in which were their sleeping-rooms,
and then up still higher to a large loft where a number
of the castle women were already hard at work. Some
held in their hands spindles and distaffs, little
wooden rods on which they were spinning and winding
linen and woolen threads; while others, seated at hand
looms, were weaving the threads into cloth.
"Oh, mother," said Blanchette, as she stood in front of
one of the looms from which hung a small square of
linen cloth, "see, I have finished
 my piece, and now mayn't I begin to work it? Henri has
drawn a pattern for me!"
"Yes, child," answered Lady Gisla, smiling at her eager
face. "Let me see the drawing. You have done your
weaving very well," she added, as she examined the bit
of cloth which the little girl had spun and woven
Blanchette hurried to a tall chest of drawers at one
side of the room and tugging one of them open, pulled
out a piece of parchment on which Henri had drawn a
little girl holding a flower in her hand. He hadn't
drawn it with a lead pencil, either, for nobody had
any; he had used instead a pen cut from the quill of a
feather and dipped in home-made ink.
As Lady Gisla looked at it, "Yes," she said, "this will
do very nicely for you to learn your stitches on, and
Henri has a pretty taste in drawing." She then showed
Blanchette how to fasten her square of cloth in an
embroidery frame, and with a needle and some colored
thread helped her to begin copying the figure of the
Meantime, Marie have a sigh as she seated herself in
front of another look where a small piece of cloth
like Blanchette's was waiting to be
 finished. "Oh, dear," she cried, "I wish mine was
ready to begin working, too!"
"Well, Marie," said Lady Gisla gently, "you know you
both began at the same time, but you have not worked
quite so industriously as Blanchette. But it is almost
done, and I think if you try you can easily finish it
Marie set to weaving with a will, and the little girls
were the picture of industry as they bent over their
work. They had on blue dresses made much like Lady
Gisla's, only of course their skirts were shorter and
they wore no girdles and keys. Their hair was arranged
in two braids with hung over their shoulders in front.
Now and then Lady Gisla looked at them with a smile as
they worked so busily they forgot to talk.
All cloth was they woven by hand, and every little
girl, even in the castles, was early taught how to spin
and weave; and, later on, those of gentle birth learned
to embroider. The cloth they wove was needed not only
for clothing, but also to hang on the walls of the
great stone castles in which so many Normans lived.
These castles were very cold in winter; and the woolen
tapestries, as they were called, made the lofty halls
 and sleeping rooms far more comfortable than they would
otherwise have been. Lady Gisla was finishing an
especially handsome piece; she had woven it herself and
on it she was working a hunting scene showing a forest
where men on horseback and shaggy dogs were chasing a
stag with branching antlers.
Presently, there was a knock on the heavy oaken door
and a page entered the room. Bending on one knee
before Lady Gisla, he said: "My lady, Mother Margot is
in the courtyard with a basket of herbs which she says
you asked her to bring."
"Why, yes," answered Lady Gisla, "they are medicine
herbs. Bid her come in, and bring her here to the
As the page hastened off, "come, girls," she said, "you
may leave your work for awhile, and we will see what
Mother Margot has brought."
In a few minutes the page again opened the door and
ushered in an old woman who made a courtesy as she
entered. She wore a black homespun dress and a white
kerchief crossed over her shoulders, and on her head a
white cap with a wide fluted border. Over her arm hung
a coarse basket made of osiers and in this
 were a number of bunches of green plants and leaves.
"Good day, Mother Margot," said Lady Gisla kindly.
"Have you brought the herbs I wanted?"
"Yes, my lady," answered the old woman, who was one of
the peasant folk belonging on Count Bertram's estate.
"Here is boneset, and camomile, and bitter-root and
tansy," and as she took the green bunches from her
basket and laid them on a heavy oaken table nearby, she
muttered over the names of each.
Blanchette and Marie had stood by watching with
interest as Mother Margot emptied her load, and when
she was gone they fell to examining the little bunches
"Oh," said Marie, as she took up one cluster "what
pretty leaves these are! Though the medicine they'll
make will probably taste nasty enough!" And she made a
"Yes," said Blanchette, laughing, "and here are some
whole plants, roots and all! And likely they are worse
"Those leaves you think so pretty, Marie, are from the
fever-few herb," said lady Gisla, "and are very good to
make medicine for
 persons ill of fever. And those whole plants,
Blanchette, are rosemary and elecampane, and it is the
roots that are the best part."
So taking up the herbs one by one, Lady Gisla explained
their uses in curing illness and how they must be
prepared. Some were to be dried, some boiled and the
juice carefully kept, while of still others the leaves
and roots must be pounded fine and steeped in various
Blanchette and Marie listened attentively, for they
knew that when they grew up they would be expected to
know how to attend their families or friends if they
fell ill. Doctors were few then and their knowledge of
medicine small at best. So most people, and
especially those living in the castles perched on
lonely crags, had to do the best they could for
themselves; and the girls of the family must learn how
to prepare and use the healing herbs in the fields and
forests about them, and also how to bandage wounds and
care for those hurt in battle; for the men did a great
deal of fighting about one thing and another.
Lady Gisla was very skillful in all these things and
had already taught the little girls a great deal. She
now showed them how to sort
 and arrange the herbs, and it kept them busy till
After dinner, "Lads," said Count Bertram to Alan and
Henri, "you, and the rest of the pages, get out your
ponies, and Hugh and I will give you a riding-lesson."
"Yes, sir count!" answered the boys delightedly, and
"Oh father," cried Blanchette, "mayn't Marie and I go,
"Yes, child," said Count Bertram, "if your mother is
"The children have been working all morning," said Lady
Gisla, "and I think a ride will do them good. And
then, of course, they must learn to be good riders as
well as the boys."
"To be sure!" answered the count. "Run along, girls,
and get your capes and bonnets and the boys will bring
Presently the merry little party clattered out over the
drawbridge and down the winding path to the fields.
Count Bertram kept his eye on the girls, giving them
man directions how to become graceful and fearless
riders. Hugh attended to the pages, who must learn not
only to ride with ease and fearlessness, but also to
spring to their saddles without touching the
 stirrups and to jump their ponies over streams and
walls. They must learn other outdoor things as well;
how to run and leap and swim and shoot with bow and
arrow, and all kinds of exercises to make them strong
When the riding lesson was over and they cantered back
to Noireat, "See!" said Marie, looking up the steep
bridle path, "I believe that is a minstrel going to the
"It surely is!" said Blanchette, gazing with Marie at
the man climbing on foot the path ahead of them. He
wore a dark tunic and a curiously fringed mantle of
flame color; on his head was a gay cap and feather, and
on one leg his hose was sky-blue and the other deep
green. Over his shoulder, hanging by a ribbon, was a
musical instrument with a few strings and shaped much
like a harp.
"Goody!" cried Marie. "We will have some music this
At this Alan turned to Henri, for the two were riding
just behind the little girls, and "Well, Henri," he
said banteringly, "that's a good thing for you."
"Why?" asked Henri.
"Because," said Alan, "I was going to beat
 you this evening at that draw game of checkers we were
"I guess no!" retorted Henri. "Anyway, if you did, I
can beat you any day at backgammon!" And the two boys
fell to discussing their favorite games and kept it up
till they found themselves once more in the castle
courtyard. Here the minstrel, as the wandering poets
and singers of the time were called, had already been
welcomed; for the songs of the minstrels were among the
favorite entertainments of the time.
After supper it was chilly, and the fire of logs was
lighted in the fireplace, and though the smoke curled
out into the hall and hung through the air in dim
wreaths, nobody minded it when the minstrel stood up
and striking the strings of his harp sang song after
song, most of them telling some brave story of war or
Everyone listened with rapt attention, and clapped
their hands when he finished. And no wonder people
liked to have minstrels come, for the only way they
knew about stories was for some one to sing or tell
them to them. There were no printed books then; all
were carefully written by hand, usually by the monks in
 monasteries who often painted and decorated the pages
in the most beautiful way, and these books were too few
and precious for most people to have. Then they were
not stories, anyway, but mostly religious books.
"Mother," whispered Blanchette, as she listened to the
minstrel, "do you suppose I can ever learn to play like
"I don't know, dear," answered Lady Gisla, who had
taught the children to play a little on musical
instruments at the castle. "Perhaps he will stay here
a while and give you some lessons."
But when Count Bertram asked him to do so, the minstrel
thanked him and "Nay, sir count," he answered, "not
now. This is bluebird weather, and I am on the wing!"
He as much as said, though, that when winter came he
would like to come back to Noireat. For while the
minstrels preferred to wander around through the
summer, they were glad enough to find some castle in
which they might spend the winter time. And welcome
they were, for with their songs they helped pass many a
long cold evening; also they could teach such music as
they knew to the girls and boys of the castle.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics