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The Witch's Brat
Witch's Brat
UK first edition cover

Publication

1970

Length

Novella

Audience

Children

Historical era

Norman

Illustrations

Robert Micklewright (UK), Richard Lebenson (US)

The Witch's Brat is a novel for children published in 1970 by Oxford University Press, illustrated by Robert Micklewright (UK) and Richard Lebenson (US). Lovel, an orphan with a twisted back and foot, is driven out of his village and taken in by Benedictine monks. He discovers a gift for healing, and later becomes involved in the building of St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London.

In the dedication, Sutcliff wrote "For Margaret, who was trained in Saint Bartholomew's Hospital, and who only likes my earlier books, because she says the later ones are too bloody. Here is another of the earlier kind, with my love." The Witch's Brat is a short novel that seems to be aimed at younger readers.

PlotEdit

Lovel is an eleven-year-old orphan with a hunched shoulder and a twisted leg, and according to his late grandmother, a respected and feared herb woman, a gift for medicine. A neighbour accuses the now-unprotected Lovel of cursing her sick cow, and he is driven out of the village (1). Afraid to go near people, Lovel walks west along the Sussex Downs for many days, until he runs into a swineherd in the forest, collapses of hunger, and is delivered to an abbey hospital (2).

He awakens in the hospital ward of the New Minster outside Winchester, and overhears Brother Eustace the Infirmarer telling his apprentice Brother Peter that Lovel's feudal lord does not wish for the return of a useless villein. Lovel is left to do odd jobs in the Minster household, until one wet evening a traveller with the intriguing title of "the King's Jongleur" stops for the night, and Lovel determines to get a sight of him (3). He is caught by the fantastic and fascinating Rahere, who draws Lovel out and swiftly determines that he is bright and not well-used, and asks if Lovel would like to come away with him someday. The next morning he departs (4).

When Lovel has been at New Minster for more than two years, Brother Anselm the Precentor notices him looking at an herbal in the library, discovers his considerable knowledge of medicinal herbs, and decides to teach him to read and get him a position as assistant in the physic garden and still-room. About a year later, Valiant the stable-master's dog breaks a leg running under a wagon, and Lovel determines that the break can be mended instead of putting Valiant out of his misery. Brother Eustace the Infirmarer, having watched him splint the leg, sanctions the experiment (5). When the cast is removed, Lovel's treatment proves correct, and gradually he becomes an informal assistant in the Infirmary. Late in 1121 [Note: historically 1120], England is rocked by the death at sea of the heir to the throne, Prince William, and New Minster's attentions are occupied by services for him, but the following autumn the Chapter proposes that Lovel become a novice of the order. Lovel knows that his only calling is that of a physician, not really a monk, but for a man without money for training it comes to the same thing. Deep down he is also still a little afraid to leave the shelter of the monastery, unless it were to follow Rahere, and so he takes his vows as a novice. His benefactor Brother Anselm takes ill, and Lovel nurses him through the winter, when Rahere returns (6).

Rahere has become a monk, an Austin Canon, since the loss of the prince and the young courtiers he had seen grow up. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, nearly died there from a malarial fever, and vowed to found a hospital for the poor in London, his home. During a relapse, he had a vision of St. Bartholomew advising him to do it on the king's land at Smithfield, with a priory that will sweeten the deal for the king. He asks Lovel to come with him, but Lovel cannot leave Brother Anselm (7). Brother Anselm dies a week later, but in late summer, Rahere writes asking Lovel once again to come, and this time, Lovel is free to go (8).

After an weary walk from Winchester to the bewildering city of London, Lovel arrives at Smithfield, the open space outside the city walls where the hospital and priory church are building. He is welcomed by Rahere, who tells him that not leaving Anselm when Rahere asked him to was the right thing to do (9). As builders and devout volunteers raise the hospital, Lovel breaks ground for the physic garden, and begins to treat unfortunate patients. In the spring, he takes his final vows as an Austin Canon (10).

After three years tending mostly the elderly and dying, Lovel begins to doubt that he is doing all he is meant to. That autumn, Lovel meets a boy named Nick Redpoll doing odd jobs for the builders, whose lame leg and lack of a fixed place remind him of his own early days at New Minster (11). Lovel's next conversation with Nick is interrupted by a near-accident, and Lovel realises from Nick's reaction that his leg was crippled in a fall on a previous building site, not from birth. After examining his leg, Lovel pleads with Rahere to let him treat the leg, and perhaps give Nick back his vocation and his livelihood (12). That autumn and winter, Lovel feels his way through a painful course of physical therapy for Nick's leg, loosening the stiff tendons with massage and stretching them straight with an iron splint, but Lovel remains in doubt whether the straightened leg will bear him. At Christmas, Nick reveals a gift for wood-carving, but though he could make a living at it, it doesn't compare to the grandeur and endurance of building in stone. In spring, they test his leg: it will carry him (13).

Lovel uses Nick's carving and his words about stonework to get him a new place among the builders as a course-setter, and perhaps someday a freemason. At the end of summer, the half-built priory church is consecrated. Nick confesses that he could not have gone through with the therapy if he had not known that Lovel understood what it was like to be disabled, and Lovel realises that he is both free of the hurt of his childhood ostracism, and bound to his patients and his true vocation. In after years, Nick's recovery becomes a miracle credited to St. Bartholomew's Priory (14).

ChronologyEdit

The two major historical events of The Witch's Brat are the founding of St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 1123 and the sinking of the White Ship, historically 25 November 1120. The novel shifts the shipwreck to 1121, apparently so that it can become the catalyst for Rahere's religious calling, with a year of pilgrimage in 1122 between taking orders and founding the hospital.

  • 1104: Lovel is born, sometime in early autumn (6)
  • 1110: Nick Redpoll is born ("about sixteen" in 1126, 11)
    • Lovel is 5; his grandmother begins teaching him about medicinal plants (1)
  • 1115: October, Lovel is 11 (1)
    • Lovel's grandmother dies
    • A week later: Lovel is stoned out of the village
    • Many days later: He flees to Winchester and enters New Minster (2)
  • 1118:
    • Just after Candlemas (February 2), Rahere visits New Minster (3, 4)
    • Shortly thereafter: King Henry, Prince William (6), and Rahere go to Normandy (7)
    • About May, "more than two years" after arriving, Lovel learns to read and begins working in the garden (5)
  • 1119, "about a year after he went to work in the physic garden" (5)
    • May: Lovel has his first patient, Valiant the dog (5)
    • June: "this day month" after, Valiant's splints are removed (6)
  • 1120: Lovel works in the Infirmary during an outbreak of illness, "the following spring" (6)
  • 1121: King Henry, Prince William, and Rahere have been overseas "for [almost] four years past" (6, 7)
    • "A little before Christmas": Prince William dies at sea [Note: historically November 25, 1120.]
  • 1122: Services for the dead of the White Ship (6); Rahere takes orders and goes to Rome (7)
    • Late summer: Lovel is nearly eighteen and has been in New Minster "more than six years" (6)
    • Autumn: Lovel takes vows as a novice (6)
    • November: Brother Anselm becomes ill (6)
    • Near Christmas: Rahere's vision of St. Bartholomew (7)
  • 1123: Rahere founds St. Bartholomew's (7, 8)
    • February: Rahere returns after five years (7)
    • A week later: Brother Anselm dies (8)
    • Late summer: Rahere writes to the abbot asking again for Lovel (8)
    • 3 days later: Lovel leaves New Minster for "the first time...in nearly eight years" (8)
    • August 23: Lovel arrives in London on St. Bartholomew's Eve
    • Building of the hospital has begun
    • August 25 or 26: Lovel begins his physic garden (10)
  • 1124:
    • Spring: the chapel roof is finished
    • The next day: Lovel takes vows as an Austin Canon (10)
    • Nick Redpoll falls off a spider-walk and hurts his knee, "More'n two year agone" from late 1126 (12)
  • 1126: Lovel is in charge of the dispensary; construction on the hospital and priory continues
    • Summer: Lovel suffers doubts about his vocation (11)
    • Brother Luke paints the chapel mural (11)
    • Autumn: Lovel meets Nick Redpoll, who is "about sixteen" (11)
    • A month later: Lovel decides to treat Nick's leg (12)
    • Before Michaelmas (October 11): Nick's treatment begins
    • Christmas Eve: a baby is born in the hospital
    • Christmas Day: Nick carves a lamb
    • Boxing Day: Nick begins an altar candlestick
  • 1127: Nick learns to walk again
    • Late winter: Nick walks without his crutch (13)
    • Easter (March): Nick returns to the building site, able to begin learning stonework again (14)
    • Summer: the tower of the priory church is begun
    • Late summer/early autumn: Richard de Belmeis consecrates the priory church

CharactersEdit

In West Sussex (1):

  • Lovel, an 11-year-old boy, grandson to a wise woman. "[H]e was built crooked, with a hunched shoulder and a twisted leg that made him walk lop-sided like a bird with a broken wing. His bony face under the thatch of dusty dark hair was quick and eager and wanted to be friendly; but nobody had ever bothered to notice his face" (1).
  • Lovel's grandmother (1), died a week earlier, a wise woman, foster-mother to the Lord's son (1). "My grandmother had the Second Sight" (12)
    • Garland (1), their cow, now in possession of Gyrth's wife
  • Sir Richard d'Eresby (1), the Lord of the Manor
  • the Lord's son (1), killed at the battle of Tenchebrai, foster-son of Lovel's grandmother
  • Gyrth (1), the shepherd, Lovel's new host
  • Gyrth's wife (1), kind to Garland but not to Lovel
  • Osric (1), a ploughman
  • the bailiff (1), placed Lovel with Gyrth's family
  • Wulfgar (1), the hayward
  • Wulfgar's wife (1), thinks Lovel put the Evil Eye on her cow
  • Lovel's father (1), died of spring sickness when Lovel was 10
  • Lovel's mother (1), died at Lovel's birth

Nobility at large:

  • Rahere (3), the King's Jongleur or minstrel. "Dark hair...Long bony legs...his eyes in the darkness of his face were the greyest and brightest that Lovel had ever seen." "this mad and magnificent man with the monk's face and the cool mocking voice and the long fantastic legs like a crane-fly" (3). "I think you were a minstrel who was already half a monk. Now–I think you are a churchman who is still half a jongleur." (7).
    • Bayard (3), his twitchy-eared chestnut horse
  • King Henry I of England (3), whom Rahere calls "a fool in a crown" (3). "the king is not one for laughter these days." "mean, but devout" (7).
  • Prince William (6), his heir and lord of Normandy. Drowned in a shipwreck off Barfleur, late 1121 (6).
  • King Louis of France (6), Prince William's overlord in Normandy
  • William the Conqueror (7)
  • Richard de Belmeis père (7), a follower of the Conqueror, patron of Rahere's grandfather
  • Richard de Belmeis fils (7), his son, Bishop of London (7). Lovel takes his final vows before him in the hospital chapel of St. Bart's (10). Consecrates the unfinished priory church of St. Bartholomew's in autumn 1127: "his strong, rather harsh voice filled the tall building." (14).

At New Minster (3):

  • Benedictine monks
    • Brother Eustace (2), the Infirmarer, with "a bleak face" and a voice "dry and brittle like dead sticks" (2). "[D]o all that may be done for the sick; but stand well back while doing it. That way you don't break your heart. That is my way, Brother Peter, and I really think they sick recover just as well and as often for me as they do for you." (3).
    • Brother Peter (3), the future Infirmarer, "small and plump, and pink as a campion, with a hopeful expression, and a fringe of carrot-red curls round his head." (3)
    • the Father Abbot (3), "the lean, hawk-nosed man who always looked as though he should have been wearing mail rather than the black habit of the Benedictines" (6)
    • Brother Dominic (3), the Hospitaller
    • Brother Barnabas (4), has a droning voice
    • Brother Anselm (4), the Precentor, "who had charge of all the books in the Monastery library as well as all the music in the church", with "old, tired, blue eyes that must have been the colour of speedwell before they faded" (5). Falls ill November 1122 (6) and dies of old age February 1123 (8).
    • Brother Godwyne (4), the oldest monk, a big fan of King Alfred
    • Brother John (5), the physic gardener, "small and peppery" (5).
    • the Novice Master (6)
    • the Almoner (8)
    • novices (3), to be heard in the North Aisle
  • Servants:
    • Harding (3), the old man-at-arms, the stablemaster (3), with a "red, rough-hewn face" (6). [?] "An old man-at-arms once told me that a hurt to the knee or elbow is the hardest of all to bear" (12).
      • Valiant (3), his big mongrel dog (3), with amber-brown eyes and a taste for milk (5).
    • the Master Cook (3)
    • the Abbot's steward (3)
    • Jehan (3), the eldest scullion
  • King Alfred (3), before the High Altar

At St. Bartholomew's:

  • Monks and nuns:
    • Sister Gertruda (11), a terrible cook
    • Brother Luke (11), a former sign-painter, "a huge, quiet man; one of those people who seem to drift about like a cloud". He paints the mural of St Bartholomew on the wall behind the hospital chapel altar in 1126.
    • Brother Anders (11)
    • Brother Dominic (11)
    • Sister Ursula (13), "Sister Ursula and Sister Maudlin who had helped bring it [a baby] into the world, were as happy about it as though they had just been in the stable at Bethlehem."
    • Sister Maudlin (13)
    • Sister Aldis (13), sweeper-up-in-chief
    • Brother Philip (13)
    • unnamed brothers (11), "there were eight Brothers now, and four Sisters"
  • Builders:
    • Nick Redpoll (11), "a lanky red-headed boy of about sixteen" working as a cook and general dogsbody for the builders. "he grinned, showing a missing tooth, and then turned grave again. He had a grave face between the laughter." His "left knee was stiff and bent, so that when he stood up his foot could not reach the ground; and [Lovel] understood the odd sense of kinship he had felt" (11). Freckled, blue-eyed. He fell off a scaffold two years ago and the tendons in his injured leg tightened (12). "with nothing left of the old injury but a limp that showed when he was tired" "He had grown a lot during his time in hospital, and could look down quite a long way." (14).
    • Master Beornfred (10), the master mason, "my gentle flower of all master builders", exercised
    • Master Alfwine (10), who built St Giles' at Cripplegate
    • Serle (11), "one of the freemasons, whom [Lovel] had come to know a little", "small bent craftsman" (11). Lovel enlists him as a mentor for Nick on his return to the trade (14).
    • Barty (12), the near-fall. "They say the Devil looks after his own. And Barty couldn't fall off a spider-walk if he tried."
    • Hal (13), the blacksmith, made the iron splint for Nick's leg
    • Assorted volunteers of varying skill (10)

PlacesEdit

  • Unnamed village in West Sussex (1)
  • the Sussex Downs (2)
  • the Royal City of Winchester (3)
    • New Minster
  • Southampton, the port city south of Winchester (3)
  • London (7), Rahere's birthplace
    • London Bridge (9)
    • Fish Street, Candlewick Street, St Paul's Churchyard, the Folk Moot, the Shambles, the City Walls, the New Gate, the Church of St Sepulchre's, and turn right: the way to Smithfield (9)
    • Smithfield (7), the site of a horse-fair on royal land outside London walls, and St. Bart's pick for his hospital (7). "Smithfield, 'the smooth field', was the open land between London Wall and the Fleet River. Beside the great Saturday horse-markets, it was used for games and horse-racing. Part of it was a market, where people brought in their cattle and sheep and pigs, and in another part of it, criminals were hanged. And it was all cut up by feet and hooves and wheels until it looked like a marsh. Not a very likely place to be building a priory and a hospital, seemingly; but under the mud and the sour trample grass was good solid ground, and the water of the springs near the river was clean and pure." 10).
      • The priory church
      • Builders' and brothers' dwellings, of wattle-and-daub
      • The hospital (10), "two long wards with the centre hearth where they joined, and the little altar-chapel"
        • The physic garden (10), on the south side of the hospital, facing the city wall
  • Normandy, French territory given by King Louis to Prince William (6)
    • Barfleur, port from which the Prince William and the White Ship were lost (6)
  • Rome (7), pilgrimage site
    • [Abbey of] the Three Fountains, where Rahere was nursed through his illness (7)
  • St. James of Compostela, pilgrimage site (9)

Background and referencesEdit

Sutcliff credited Rudyard Kipling's panorama of British history, Puck of Pook's Hill and its sequel Rewards and Fairies, as one of the earliest inspirations for her own fiction. The figure of Rahere in The Witch's Brat (and also mentioned in Brother Dusty-Feet) is probably influenced by Kipling's portrayal in the story "The Tree of Justice" in Reward and Fairies.

  • "They say Rahere is more of a priest than a fool and more of a wizard than either."
  • "Rahere the King’s jester straddled the edge of the planks, and looked down on us, rubbing his chin. Loose-knit, with cropped hair, and a sad priest’s face, under his cockscomb cap, that he could twist like a strip of wet leather. His eyes were hollow-set."
  • "Rahere, flaming in black and scarlet among our guests, the hollow of his dark cheek flushed with wine—long, laughing Rahere, and the stricken sadness of his face when he was not twisting it about—Rahere I shall never forget."

Publication historyEdit

English editions:

  1. Oxford University Press, London, 1970, 1976, 1993. Illustrated by Robert Micklewright.
  2. H. Z. Walck, New York, 1970. Illustrated by Richard Lebenson.
  3. The Bodley Head, 1986. Illustrated by Robert Micklewright.
  4. Red Fox (Random House UK), 1990 (print), 2013 (e-book).

In translation:

  1. Heksens skarsunge, Sommer & Sørensen, 1986. Danish translation by Torben Nilsson.
  2. Das Hexenkind, Verl. Freies Geistesleben, 2004. German translation by Elisabeth Epple. Illus. by Robert Micklewright.

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