The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff
This is one of those books whose title will put off some readers before they even open the book or find out what it’s about. The story actually has almost nothing at all to do with witches and much more to do with monks. The title character is a poor hunchbacked orphan boy named Lovel who lives in a small village in Norman England and who end as a monk in London. He was raised by his grandmother who was an herb woman and healer. When she died the lord of the demesne where he lives asked a shepherd’s family to take him in and gave them his grandmother’s cow in compensation. But Gyrth the shepherd and his wife don’t like Lovel nor he them. Moreover, the villagers both relied on his grandmother for cures for themselves and their livestock but also feared her knowledge and power. Without the grandmother there to protect him, Lovel soon becomes a scapegoat for their long-suppressed fears of her and they chase him out of the village with harsh words and flung stones:
“Because his grandmother had had the Wisecraft, the Old Wisdom, and the Old Skills, they had come to her, all these people, when they had the toothache or a cow was sick or the butter wouldn’t ‘come’ in the churn. But because they did not understand her wisdom or her skills, they had been afraid of her too. And they had looked at Lovel himself sideways because he was her grandson and because he was crooked and for them the two things were linked together. So now that she was dead, they were letting loose on him the fear they had felt for her.”
Lovel runs off through the forest and after many days of walking he eventually collapses and is found by a swineherd who takes him to the New Minster at Winchester and consigns him to the care of the Augustinian canons. After spending some time in the infirmary, he eventually becomes a servant doing odd jobs for anyone in the monastery who needs a hand. Eventually he finds his niche in the infirmary, putting his grandmother’s herb lore into practice.
But before he finds his niche, while he is still the fetch and carry boy, he meets a visitor to the monastery, a jongleur, or minstrel, who has spent time at the court of King Henry II; they call him “the king’s jongleur”. This jongleur, Rahere, and Lovel have an almost instant connection. and a mysterious deep sympathy with one another. And so although Rahere leaves the monastery, he as much as promises that some day he will return and invite Lovel to come with him. And neither forgets the other or that promise of reunion.
When Rahere finally returns, years later, very much changed and having himself become an Augustinian monk, Lovel is firmly established as an infirmarian and well respected in the monastery community and has become a novice as well. Although he greatly desires to accompany Rahere on his quest to found a new hospital and monastery near London, he cannot leave the dying brother Anselm. But after Anselm dies, Lovel leaves New Minster and sets off on his own for London and a new life. Eventually he finds his place in the world as a healer, a mender of broken things. And reconciles with his own broken body.
The story reminds me very much of both Adam of the Road and The Door in the Wall, having elements in common with both novels. Like Adam of the Road, it has a minstrel, a dog, and a long journey as well as a boy who leaves a monastery to find a person he loves. Like The Door in the Wall it features a boy who is lame and who learns to be at peace with himself and to understand his place in the world.
While The Witch’s Brat takes faith seriously, it is not a deeply spiritual novel. But it does convey a sense of the importance of the Church and of faith to the inhabitants of medieval England, it does not minimize or belittle them. It also conveys something about medieval medicine and monastic herb gardens, which had a primarily medicinal purpose, even if the plants were often beautiful.
Highly recommended for readers 10 and up. As a read aloud for younger children. There is some violence in the beginning when Lovel is attacked by villagers throwing stones at him; but it is not very intense.