It is a dark time for Oby. Blind Cecilia can hear it as much in the nuns, their sighs and foreboding at the prospect of choosing another Prioress. Yes it seems the routines of the convent have finally gotten to them. In the penultimate chapter, the many crimes against Oby have done their work, but the latest disappearance of Dame Adela with the embroidery is the one that tips them over the edge. It was less the material wealth of the thing but more the community that came with working on it together.
The poverty and ramifications of the Black Death are sweeping the land. Rising taxation and a lack of support gives many the courage to go directly to the king in London to state their case.
But in these darker moments, strange new priorities are making themselves known again, ones that perhaps may never have come back had it not been for the despondency of the times.
The girls take the battledore equipment out. Looking it up, the game seems to be a precursor to badminton, and the fun reminds them that there are pleasures that exist outside of religion and custom.
Sir Ralph, fully overcome with the beauty of the poem he has kept to himself all these years, has taken it upon himself to travel to London as well, not to protest the dire state of the land, but to spread the word about the Lay of Mamillion. His green staff is the support he’ll need to make the journey, and also happens to be the title of the chapter.
Dame Amy, described earlier as young and dumb, takes the opportunity of Sir Ralph’s absence to plunder his Latin texts. She knows how to speak Latin, but not comprehend it, and she would like more than ever to bridge those two.
Henry Yellowlees, realizing his lot in life at Oby, takes more risk with his opinions and berates those in charge of the music repertoire.
What is going on here? It seems as though, in the stillness provided by the hiatus of church politics and routine poverty, space opened up for pagan pursuits.
For some of these, the chance for enjoyment is self-evident. The battledore game is good, raucous fun.
But for Sir Ralph, it is too little too late. He collapses of a fierce headache on his way to London. He is brought back to die. Ironically, his dying is peaceful, compared to the hellish squealing that came from Bishop Walter. Leave it to a no-priest to show you how it’s done.
At what point does the godless pursuits begin and sacred tradition end? Many of these secular fancies by those at Oby seem innocent enough.
But other such enjoyments that go further, like previous accounts (true or false) of sexuality, are somehow not innocent.
The ladies of Oby must have fun within the context of their time, I suppose.
In the course of my life, deriving pleasure from reading like Dame Amy has been looked down upon as work, or praised for its intellectual labor. We seem to bring pain upon ourselves by having expectations at all for such pastimes. Granted, bomb making is not so innocent as others. We would do well to report people we observe who go to the shooting range with automatic weapons and lay the targets on the ground, in order to reinforce their school shooter dreams.
But what is Oby to do? The end of the novel is upon them, and in this penultimate chapter there are rumors of the Black Death returning.
Religion more than many other concepts keeps us rejecting the present, and it is what keeps Sir Ralph from spreading the word of the poem that has carried him through old age. He missed his chance. And when we look back on the morals of our stories, we learn just as much from what has been included as has been excluded.
The nuns of Oby forgot how to have fun.