A French Medieval Tale
etween Normandy and Brittany, in a faraway place and time, there lived a lord of awesome renown. He possessed a castle near the sea that was so strong, so fortified, and so well defended that he feared no king or prince, duke or count. He was rich, and of great stature and handsome bearing. Despite his distinguished noble lineage, however, he was vain, cruel, treacherous, and proud, fearing neither God nor man. He spread terror about the land, ambushing and killing pilgrims and merchants on the roads and byways. He observed no fasting or abstinence, attended no Mass,
and heard no sermons. No one had ever known another person as wicked as he.
One Good Friday, having awakened in a jovial mood, he summoned his cooks, shouting, “Prepare the game I hunted yesterday, for today I want my dinner early.”
Upon hearing this, one of his knights exclaimed: “My Lord, today is Good Friday, everyone is fasting and abstaining, and lo, thou wishest to eat meat! Believe what we say: God will eventually punish thee!”
“By the time that happens, I shall have assaulted and hanged many people!” replied the lord scornfully.
“Art thou so certain that God will continue tolerating this much longer?” inquired the knight. “Thou shouldst hastily repent, beg for pardon, and weep for thy sins. A man of great sanctity, a hermit-priest, dwells deep in the neighboring woods. Let us go there for confession.”
The lord reacted sharply: “I? I go to confession?” Then swearing, he remarked, “I would go there only if he had something I could despoil him of.”
His vassal responded patiently, saying: “Accompany us, at least.”
Smiling ironically, the lord protested: “I acquiesce for your sakes. But I will do nothing for God.” And so they took to the road.
Arriving at the hermit’s retreat, in the heart of the quiet and solitary forest, the knights entered the abode of the holy man. But their lord remained outside on his horse.
After confessing their sins as sincerely and diligently as they could, the knights pleaded with the hermit: “Father, our lord, who remained outside, is not in a good state of soul. Please entreat him to come in for confession.”
Leaning on his staff, the hermit went out to meet the lord. Addressing him with calm dignity, he said: “Welcome, Sir. Being a knight, thou must surely be courteous. Accept my invitation, then. Dismount, and let us go inside to speak.”
With a churlish oath rising to his lips, the lord answered impatiently: “Speak with thee? What for? Speak about what? We have nothing in common! Besides, I am in haste and wish to take my leave.”
Undismayed, the hermit insisted: “For the sake of the order of chivalry, please come in to visit my chapel and my abode.”
Overcome by the hermit’s insistence and especially by the forcefulness of his personality, the lord grumbled to himself: “What a misery I fell into agreeing to come hither this morning!” Very much against his pleasure, he conceded. Hoping he would somehow succeed in quickly ridding himself of this bothersome hermit, the lord dismounted.
The hermit took him by the arm and led him into the chapel. When they were before the altar, the man of God said to him: “Sir, consider thyself my prisoner. Kill me if thou wishest, but I shall not freely let thee go from hence before thou hast told me all thy sins.”
The lord, almost beside himself, glared at the hermit with incredible fury. After a few alarming moments of suspense, the lord exclaimed: “I will tell thee nothing! Moreover, I do not see why I should not slay thee right here and now!”
The holy hermit risked his life once again. “Brother, tell me, then, just one sin, and God will help thee confess the others.” Swearing anew in exasperation, the lord barked, “Wilt thou not leave me alone? All right, I will confess. But I shall repent of nothing, absolutely nothing!”
With mighty arrogance, he told all the sins of his stormy life at one fell swoop.
Heartbroken at the sight of such callous impenitence, the hermit began to weep. Then he ventured another request. “Sir, give me at least the consolation of allowing me to subject thee to a penance.”
“Penance? Art thou trying to make a fool of me? What penance wouldst thou give me?”
“In atonement for thy sins, offer God a fast on every Friday for the next three years,” the monk stated.
“Fast? For three years?” protested the lord. “Hast thou taken leave of thy senses? Never!”
“One month, then,” the holy man said indulgently.
“Then, for the love of God, go to a church and recite a Pater Noster and an Ave.”
“I would find that very boring,” scoffed the lord, “and a waste of time as well.”
“For Almighty God’s sake, do at least one kind deed. Take this little barrel to the nearby brook, fill it with water, and return it to me!”
“Hah! If I can so easily rid myself of thee, I consent. Give me the barrel. On my word, I shall fill it to the brim and quickly bring it back, and then I can be on my way at last.”
With great strides, the lord hastened down to the stream and dipped the barrel in the clear water – but not a single drop went in. Puzzled, he tried again, first one way, and then another, but the barrel remained completely empty. “What!” he exclaimed. “What is this supposed to mean?”
Again he dunked the barrel in the water, but to no avail. Baffled and gritting his teeth in anger, he sprang to his feet and ran swiftly back to the anchorite’s dwelling. Upon finding him, he exclaimed: “By all the saints in Heaven, thou hast placed me in a great predicament with this accursed barrel! I am unable to put a single drop of water in it!”
The hermit listened to him and then lamented: “Sir, what a sad state thine is! A child could have brought this barrel back to me brimful with water. But thou, thou hast not been able to fetch a single drop! This is surely a sign from God to thee on account of thy sins.” In an outburst of anger and pride, the lord retorted, “I swear to thee that I will not wash my head, or shave, or trim my fingernails until I have filled this barrel and fulfilled my word. Even if I have to go around the whole world, I will yet fill this barrel to the brim!”
With the little barrel hanging from his neck, the lord departed, taking with him only the garments he wore and having no escort – except for God and his guardian angel.
At every brook, river, and lake he encountered, he attempted to fill the barrel, but always in vain. In hot and cold weather alike, through wet and dry, he journeyed on, across mountains and valleys, through forests and fields, tearing and bloodying his skin on brambles and stones. His days were painful; his nights worse yet. Famished, he was reduced to begging for food. At times he unwillingly fasted for two or three days on end, not being able to obtain even a piece of stale bread to appease his hunger.
Seeing this man, so tall and vigorous, but so unkempt and bronzed by the sun, people were wary and fearful of receiving him. So, many a night he found no lodging and had to sleep exposed to the elements. In addition, he faced mockery and insults, but he stubbornly went on. Nothing and no one was able to curb his pride or to soften even slightly his cruel heart.
He journeyed through England and France, Spain and Italy, Germany and Hungary. There is scarcely a country he did not cross and virtually no waters he did not try in his efforts to fill the little barrel. But all was in vain.
Such long, arduous, and fruitless journeying gradually took its toll. He wasted away and became almost unrecognizable, with his hair disheveled, his skin clinging to his bones, his eyes sunken, and his veins protruding. So weakened, he needed a staff to steady himself. The empty little barrel had become an enormous burden for him, yet he continued to carry it tied about his neck.
Another Good Friday
After nearly a year of these fruitless efforts, he decided, in both anger and frustration, to return to the hermit’s abode. It was an exhausting journey, but at last he arrived, exactly on Good Friday!
The holy hermit failed to recognize the man who came to his door, but upon seeing the little barrel, he asked: “What has brought thee here, dear brother? And who has given thee this barrel? It has been a year now since I gave it to a fair lord. I know not whether he is alive or dead, for he has not returned.”
Enraged, the stranger replied: “I am that lord, and this is the state to which thou hast reduced me!” Then he told the hermit all his misadventures, still without showing any sign of repentance!
The man of God listened attentively and grew indignant at such hardness of heart. “Thou art the worst of men! A dog, a wolf, or any other animal would have filled this barrel! Ah, well do I see that God has not accepted thy penance, for thou hast done it without contrition.”
Seeing the lamentable state of that hardened soul, he began to weep. “O God, look upon this creature Thou hast made and that so madly gambles with the salvation of his soul. Ah! Holy Mary, obtain mercy for this man. Sweet Jesus, shouldst Thou have to choose between the two of us, unleash Thy wrath upon me, but save this creature.”
Mystified, the lord stared at the weeping and praying hermit, and he thought: “There is nothing linking me to this man but God. Yet he suffers and weeps at the sight of my sins. Indeed I must be the worst of men and the greatest of sinners, for he is desolate and ready to sacrifice himself on my account. Ah! Make me repentant, O God, so that this holy man may have at least the consolation of my contrition. O King of Mercy, I beg Thee, forgive me for everything of which I am guilty!”
Thus did God do His work in that soul. The lord’s hardened heart was finally moved, and his contrition was so deep that his eyes began to well up with tears. A large teardrop spilled from his eye, ran down his face, and fell right into the little barrel that still hung about his neck. Lo, that single tear was enough to fill the barrel to its very brim! It was a sign that God had forgiven him his sins.
At that, the hermit and the lord embraced, shedding tears of joy.“Father, if you permit, I want to confess again,” said the lord with unaccustomed but sincere meekness, “but this time with contrition for my many sins.” And so, falling to his knees, he confessed, deeply repentant and weeping abundantly.
After absolving the lord, the hermit asked him if he wished to receive Communion. “Yes, Father. But hurry, please, for I feel that I am about to die.”
Having received Holy Communion, the lord was completely purified and clean, no stain of sin remaining in his soul. “Father, thou hast done me all manner of good. In return, my whole being is thine. I am in thy hands. The end approaches. Pray for me.” Then the lord sank into the hermit’s arms and breathed his last. At that moment, the chapel filled with light, and angels descended to lead that soul to Heaven in a magnificent cortege, wonders the hermit could see on account of his exalted virtue.
Following this, there remained before the altar only the body of the lord, clothed in rags and with his little barrel hanging from his neck.
This account is based on the books Beauté du Moyen Age by Regine Pernoud (Gautier-Languereau, 1971), and Poetes et Prosateurs du Moyen Age by Gaston Paris (Hachette, 1921).The Little Barrel - Illustrated by Helene A. Catherwood & A. Phillips