The Witch's Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors when I was a child, but it’s been years since I read any of her books. I came across her children’s book, The Witch’s Brat after reading Mary Delorme’s novel, St Bartholomew’s Man about Rahere, the founder of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. I wanted to know more about Rahere and discovered that he featured in Rosemary Sutcliff’s book set in 12th century England.

The Witch’s Brat, first published in 1971, tells the tale of Lovel, a boy born crippled with a twisted leg and crooked shoulder, but also with a gift for healing. His grandmother was the local Wise Woman whom people feared thinking she was a witch, and after she died he was driven from his village in a shower of stones, both because he was her grandson and because he was a cripple. He is taken in by the monks at a priory and it is here that he meets Rahere, who encourages him to be a healer. This is how Rahere looked when Lovel first met him:

Lovel gazed with his mouth open in awed delight at this mad and magnificent man with the monk’s face and the cool mocking voice and long fantastic legs like a crane fly, who spoke English, but in such splendid and far-off words that much of it was as far beyond his reach as the Norman French spoken by most of the knights and wealthy travellers who passed that way, and by some of the brethren among themselves. (page 29)

It’s a beautifully written little book (112 pages), full of period detail, including herbal lore and vivid imagery. Like St Bartholomew’s Man it’s about the building of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, but seen through Lovel’s eyes instead of through Rahere’s. As well as being historical fiction, this book is about overcoming prejudice and and disability. Rahere is seen as a charismatic character, an inspiration to Lovel, a man who thought there must be more to life than entertaining a king and who vowed to raise an infirmary, a hospital for the poor sick.

This a ‘feel good’ book that is a delight to read.

St Bartholomew's Man by Mary Delorme

I was intrigued when I was asked if I would like to read Mary Delorme’s book St Bartholomew’s Man, about Rahere, a man who was a court jester to Henry I and who was also instrumental in the foundation of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1123. I was intrigued because it seemed an odd combination, that a jester and the founder of St Bartholomew’s should be one and the same person. And I wondered how that had come about.

It is historical fiction but as Mary Delorme clarifies in her Author’s Note it is based on fact with this proviso:

Almost nine hundred years lie between Rahere and myself; enough to blur historical facts, and leave room for doubt. Rahere is often described as a man of lowly origins, and a jester – something I find difficult to accept, bearing his mind his outstanding achievements and experiences. I therefore began my novel assuming that he was more highly born; not of the highest, but still an educated man. (Loc 26)

It seems to me that she has thoroughly researched her material, and managed to incorporate it seamlessly into her book. St Bartholomew’s Man follows the life of Rahere, from his childhood growing up as an orphan in a monastery, where he was one of the singing children, and he helped the monks in their healing work.

It is a book that left me knowing a lot more about the late 11th and early 12th centuries. It tells of the lives of ordinary people, of the monastic life and above all of the dangers and turbulence of life, moving through the oppressive reign of the irreligious William II (William Rufus), the more settled and peaceful reign of Henry I, followed by the violent conflict that ensued with the reign of Stephen and Matilda. I liked the historical setting and the detail both about healing and building methods. The plot kept me interested to read on to find out whether Rahere succeeded, despite all the suffering he endured and the challenges he had to overcome, in fulfilling his vow to build a hospital to care for the poor in London. The characterisation is good and I felt all the main characters came over as real people, who grew and developed throughout the book.

I enjoyed reading this book, which made me want to find out more about Rahere and St Bartholomew’s. St Bartholomew’s Hospital website outlines the history of the Hospital and St Bartholomew the Great’s website gives some information about the founding of the Priory church and Prior Rahere. Rahere’s tomb is in the church:

Rahere's tomb
Rahere’s Tomb (Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is Rudyard Kipling’s poem Rahere, based on the legend that Rahere founded St Bartholomew’s Hospital after suffering a bout of depression and seeing a family of lepers in a London street. I also see that Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s book The Witch’s Brat is set in the reign of Henry I and features Rahere – I’m hoping to read that one too.

My thanks to Jon Delorme for providing a copy of St Bartholomew’s Man for review, a book that entertained me and led me on to other sources of history and literature. I really want to know more about the 12th century. My knowledge is limited to schoolgirl history and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth!