I’ve made a new friend. They’re about six hundred years old.

They live—a bit like one-eighth of Voldemort’s soul—in a book, though I’d lose my job if I tried to write back to them. 

In life, they were a monk, tasked with copying an entire year’s worth of psalms, prayers, and songs onto 396 slices of stretched animal skin. It was a kind of prayer, the scholars say. But the kind of prayer, not so different from Jacob’s, where you end up with carpal tunnel at the end. The kind of prayer where your arm aches to reach the amen that’s still twelve pages away.

The fruit of my friend’s efforts? A boxy, unwieldy volume containing nearly everything the abbey at Kempten in southern Germany needed to worship their Lord. A breviary.

Despite my ostensible training in medieval studies, I didn’t know anything about breviaries when I started cataloging this one for the seminary’s Special Collections department. Nor did I know much at all about the rhythms of medieval monastic worship: the daily cycles of prayers, the yearly cycles of seasons and feasts, and the complex ways they interact based on the mood of the moon. My friend knew all of this, of course, and left clever little notes in red that allude to it without unnecessarily spelling it out. But if you know as little as I did a month ago, those little notes might as well be in ancient Hittite as in medieval Latin.

Slowly, though, my friend—with some help from the internet, which I haven’t tried to explain to them—has been teaching me about their world. I’ve been learning the hymns they knew, transcribing and translating them for the archive’s future users. I watch over my friend’s shoulder as they make mistakes and then correct them, reassured somehow that typos aren’t just a modern malady. I learn about the saints celebrated at Kempten—saints whose bones, according to legend, were buried within a stone’s throw of my friend’s scriptorium.

I don’t know my friend’s name. There is a name in the text, but it belongs to the monastic higher-up who ordered this book’s composition, not the monk who summoned it into existence with quill and ink. I don’t know how my friend felt about the monk working next to him, or about the quality of the abbey’s victuals, or about the God to whom they’d sworn their life. All I know is that once, centuries ago, an ocean away, in a world both different and identical, their hand rested right where mine does now, and their eyes squinted at the same squished line. It’s the least practical kind of empathy possible, but it’s still literally empathy,

According to a note at the end of the text, my friend finished their work on this breviary on January 5, 1463—my -533rd birthday. Maybe we’ll throw a party together next year. I’m sure Special Collections doesn’t have any rules about champagne.

1 Comment

  1. Jack Kamps

    Love this! Thanks for introducing us to this friend, Josh.


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