Summary: It’s my toughest case yet: An apparent 14th-Century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, only the 2nd ever discovered. Genuine or fake? It’s my job to find out. There’s the issue of Medieval parchment, possibly stolen from a Croatian monastery, which led me to Bologna, Venice, and now to that monastery on a remote island in the Adriatic. For earlier episodes, see below.
The young man who’d piloted the small launch to the island of Kosljun helped me climb out onto the dock. The water was calm, but he certainly didn’t want this odd American to end up in the Adriatic and complicate his return to the marina at Punat.
I used two of my ten words in Croatian to thank him, looked at my watch and with eyebrows raised, confirmed our return time with two more ─ “Dva sata:” two o’clock ─ and started up the stone walk to the Samostan Monastery.
Kosljun island is an extraordinary place: a 16-acre island in a bay of a much larger island ─ Krk ─ on the coast of Croatia.
Its only inhabitants are the monks of the Franciscan monastery.
I’d had an interesting 24 hours since leaving Venice. There was, to my dismay, no ferry service across the Adriatic in the winter, which was how I’d planned to reach Croatia.
A train to Trieste had been the first step. Trenitalia got me to Trieste Centrale station in a little over 2 hours, which I spent planning how to reach Kosljun. I eliminated a train (the Hapsburgs declined to build railroads along the Adriatic coast), or bus (difficult interconnections) and I’d ended up making a picturesque drive in a rented Fiat Panda on the well-maintained 2-lane Route E61 through Slovenia to Rijeka, rolling through the beautiful countryside past small villages.
I gritted my teeth at how brief a time I’d have in either of two countries I’d never visited. I pulled off the road at the village of Gradišče Pri Materiji and drank a coffee (kava in both Slovenian and Croatian), just to say I’d been in Slovenia, rather than driving through without my feet touching the ground.
I’d reached the old port city of Rijeka just before sunset and stole a couple of hours to stroll around the city that had been Celtic, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish (under Charlemagne), Croatian, Venetian, Austro-Hungarian-Hapsburg, Yugoslav, German, Yugoslav again and now independent. I had to get back to the hotel room to assemble my notes and scraps of knowledge into a sensible plan for the visit to the monastery the next day. I needed to find Udo Vaht.
I entered the 16th-Century monastery, and found I was expected, as I’d hoped. I was led to a small paneled office, where I met Brother Cyril, the chapter’s equivalent of a public relations official.
Dressed like a businessman rather than anyone’s image of a monk, Brother Cyril was middle height, mid-fifties, balding, with a dark bushy unibrow above a full aquiline nose: a serious-looking man.
I’d told Brother Cyril on the phone that I was researching Medieval parchments for the British Museum. That was at least half-true. I simply didn’t explain that I was really looking into what had been written on a specific set of parchment pages, and that they were probably forgeries.
With an archive of over 50,000 ancient books and manuscripts on parchment, vellum and paper, the monastery was accustomed to visits from scholars. I was a scholar, but with a hidden agenda.
I told the monk that the museum and I were particularly interested in reports of a large cache of 15th Century parchment reportedly removed ─ perhaps stolen ─ from the monastery in recent years.
“You have impressive credentials from the BM and Professoressa Notastere, Mr. Blaknissan,” Cyril told me. “She contacted us yesterday to advise us that you’d consulted her.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. One more reason to relish the acquaintance with my long-ago fellow student.
“Yet you’re incorrect. That parchment has never been missing. It was removed from the archives for use in our manuscript restoration program.”
I had to question the truthfulness of a monk. I’d interviewed a man in Los Angeles who claimed to know the stolen parchment had reached there, as well as Leopardo in Venice, who thought the same thing.
“I see you doubt me,” he said, and explained that the monastery trained conservators in restoring ancient manuscripts. Aspiring conservators worked under skilled curators and visiting scholars who were responsible for textual accuracy. They were using that very parchment in their work.
“Our current visiting scholar, in fact, is in your field of Medieval English and Germanic languages. Perhaps you know of him: Professor Vaht.”
I managed not to roll my eyes, choke or simply laugh out loud. “Professor Vaht,” indeed. I’d been right. Vaht was there. It was the consummate con of a lifelong swindler: passing himself off as professor of anything. Vaht wasn’t qualified to direct a high school language class, let alone a scholarly enterprise involving ancient languages.
When I asked about “Professor Vaht’s” current project, Brother Cyril suggested we go to the “scriptorium” so I could see for myself.
“Unfortuately, Professor Vaht is away, but you can speak to his assistant, Ms. Valerian.”
Brother Cyril stood up and led me at a brisk pace down a series of hallways, across an inner courtyard, through a low doorway into a tall-ceilinged room with stonework arches above, limestone pillars along the sides, and about a dozen work tables occupied by mostly young people writing on slanted work surfaces. It was, indeed, the modern equivalent of a Medieval scriptorium, perhaps in a room that had served the same purpose 500 years earlier, only with artificial lighting and, judging from the sound, forced air heating.
Brother Cyril gestured and a petite, slender woman dressed in black came toward us.
“This is Ms. Valerian, Professor Vaht’s assistant,” he said, and introduced me to the young woman, who might have been in her late twenties.
“Central Casting?” I thought, “Get me an archetypal Serious Beautiful Female Aesthete:” straight black hair, thin long nose, kohl-black eyes, black turtleneck sweater under a gray herringbone jacket, black pencil skirt, red beret. That beret slew me.
Cyril excused himself, saying he had an appointment, leaving me to start at the beginning with Ms. Valerian, explaining my interest in the 15th-Century parchment “we at the British Museum” (pulling out all the stops) had thought was stolen and perhaps on the open market.
“Why would that concern you?” she asked.
Hint of an accent: Slavic? Nearly perfect English, though.
“Good question.” I gestured to indicate the activity in the room. “A skilled forger could use it, just as you seem to be, to create an extremely valid-seeming and hard to detect forgery of an ancient manuscript.”
That got precisely the reaction I expected: Valerian bristled.
“We aren’t forging documents. These are students in the first phase of training, learning the basic techniques of creating and applying inks that they’ll use in their careers to restore damaged manuscripts.”
“So they’re practicing forgery of a sort, differentiated only by the fact that, presumably, it’ll be done under the auspices of a museum or a collection.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way. Conservators aren’t forgers.”
“Okay, so much for conserving. What role do you and Udo play here?”
“Ud … Professor Vaht?”
“He’ll always be Udo to me. I was at school with him: Göttingen … before you were born.”
She recovered from her obvious surprise.
“The document they’re practicing on,” indicated the people in the room, “Is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Professor Vaht’s an authority on the text, and it’s also my field of study. I’m finishing my PhD. in philology.”
My turn to conceal surprise.
“These people are copying Gawain? From what source?”
“The reproductions U. of Calgary has online. We print high resolution copies with their permission.”
That left me with a lot of questions.
“Do they all work on the same page, or do they work on separate pages and do you ever end up with a completed MS?”
To her credit, Ms. Valerian raised one dark eyebrow. I’d be willing to bet she practiced that in a mirror.
“If you’re suggesting these get assembled and make their way to the black market or something, I’m through talking to you.”
“You didn’t answer my questions.”
She lost her concentration and forgot about the eyebrow, squinting at me, instead. Less attractive.
“Most of them are repeating one of about a dozen pages. We created one entire set of sheets early on to serve as an example.”
“Could I see it?”
“Professor Vaht has it. He’s traveling. A conference, I think.”
I didn’t think Professor Vaht had that “example” manuscript. Maybe he had at one time. I rather thought that I, in fact, had it, right in my briefcase. I had a big choice to make. I stalled.
“So all the copies of all the pages are identical to the original Cotton Nero MS. in the BM?”
“Tell me, Ms. Valerian, since this is your field of study, are there examples in the bob and wheel sections of final e’s being pronounced in order to scan correctly?”
“I hardly think so. It simply wasn’t the idiom.”
“What about in lines 1686 and -7 on folio 113/117 verso?”
“I hardly know it from memory, but I doubt it.”
I’d decided. There was an empty work table near us. I stepped to it, set my briefcase on it and opened it. I lifted out the manuscript and opened it to the page I wanted without looking at her.
“Look at this version with me, then,” I said
When I turned to her, Ms. Valerian had lost her veneer of practiced sophistication, retained that squint and added an open mouth, gawking at me.
“Where did you get that?”
“It was sent to me.”
“What the hell!”
She bent over, scrutinizing the page. Only a small number of trained people can actually read that faded, unfamiliar writing. She, apparently, was one of them.
I asked, “Are you looking at those lines that are distinctly different from the original MS?”
“And does their presence there tell you anything?”
She straightened up and looked at me.
“We inserted those lines as a safeguard that the manuscript could never be represented as an original. Like cartographers who put a spurious place name in a map to prove that a work is theirs … prevents copying.”
“So this is likely the manuscript you believed Professor Vaht had with him?”
“I know it is.”
She paused. I might’ve made a mistake, showing her the book. She was obviously a smart woman. She might be capable of getting herself ─ and Vaht ─ out of the spot they were in, if she could concoct a believable enough story.
“I did that page, myself. I put it in the assembled manuscript, for the reason I told you.”
“You wrote those lines … not Vaht?”
Now she looked ─ I swear ─ sheepish, looking at a damned manuscript written on sheepskin.
“I thought it would be funny. You know, ‘The Big Sleep’ … like a mystery?”
Holy saints and sinners, I thought. Vaht had just been caught out by his own assistant’s innate honesty.
“So, you intentionally made the lines scan incorrectly?”
“Probably overkill, but just to make it obvious.”
“Obvious,” I thought. Maybe to about ten people in the world. Fortunately, I was one of them.
“Ms. Valerian, do you know how to reach Udo? It’s extremely important that I speak with him.”
“Email. I don’t have a mobile number for him.”
I closed my eyes and thought. Which day? I’d have one shot.
“Please tell him there’s an urgent need for him to be in Nice on Tuesday. His former colleague, Luciana Notastere, is giving an address at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, and needs to consult with him in person. I’ll write down the particulars for you.”
“You know Dr. Notastere?”
“Another former classmate of mine.”
Suddenly the learned, accomplished and polished-seeming Ms. Valerian looked young and scared.
“Am I in trouble?”
“No. You’re not. You’re actually one of the good guys today. You’ve done me a big favor, and you did it in the most admirable possible way. And, by the way, nice joke. I get it. One of my favorite books.”
I packed up the manuscript and headed for the dock. I had three days to get a lot of things accomplished. I had to let Luciana know that she’d have unexpected auditors for her presentation. I was happy I’d seen the notice for her conference in the hallway outside her office in Bologna. If there was anything that would get Vaht and me in the same room, it was the incomparable Professoressa. And I thought there should be one other person present, too ─ if I could find him.
Before my boat got me ashore at Punat, I was on the phone. I had to get to Nice, and a lot of other things needed to happen, too.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Photograph of Samostan Monastery © Berthold Werner via BY-SA 3.0 via creative commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40398522. No other use or copying permitted without citing Mr. Werner’s ownership. Maps © Google.
Special thanks to the readers who voted in the previous poll and sent me to Croatia. An extremely productive suggestion!
If you’re interested, you can access the Calgary Gawain facsimile by clicking here.