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« KS GOP Laughs Off Young Voters | Main | Another Modest Proposal: A Satire »

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

By Larry James
February 15, 2008

Ken Follett weaves a marvelous tale set in 12th century England in his The Pillars of the Earth. Drop in for a moment to witness justice denied to a laboring girl and to see what happens when, just in time, relief arrives.

Next, two young men dragged a whole sack of wool up to the counter. The merchant examined it carefully. "It's a full sack, but the quality's poor," he said. "I'll give you a pound."

Aliena wondered how he could be so sure the sack was full. Perhaps you could tell with practice. She watched him weigh out a pound of silver pennies.

Some monks were approaching with a huge cart piled high with sacks of wool. Aliena decided to get her business done before the monks. She beckoned to Richard, and he dragged their sack of wool off the cart and brought it up to the counter.

The merchant examined the wool. "Mixed quality," he said. "Half a pound."

"What?" Aliena said incredulously.

"A hundred and twenty pennies," he said.

Aliena was horrified. "But you just paid a pound for a sack!"

"It's because of the quality."

"You paid a pound for poor quality!"

"Half a pound," he repeated stubbornly.

The monks arrived and crowded the stall, but Aliena was not going to move: her livelihood was at stake, and she was more frightened of destitution than she was of the merchant. "Tell me why," she insisted. "There's nothing wrong with the wool, is there?"


"Then give me what you paid those two men."


"Why not?" she almost screamed.

"Because nobody pays a girl what they would pay a man."

She wanted to strangle him. He was offering her less than she had paid. It was outrageous. If she accepted his price, all her work would have been for nothing. Worse than that, her scheme for providing a livelihood for herself and her brother would have failed, and her brief period of independence and self-sufficiency would be over. And why? Because he would not pay a girl the same as he paid a man!

The leader of the monks was looking at her. She hated people to stare at her. "Stop staring!" she said rudely. "Just do your business with this godless peasant."

"All right," the monk said mildly. He beckoned to his colleagues and they dragged up a sack. . . .

. . . "How many sacks have you got?" said the merchant.

A young monk in novice's robes said: "Ten," but the leader said: "No, eleven." The novice looked as if he was inclined to argue, but he said nothing.

"That's eleven and a half pounds of silver, plus twelvepence." The merchant began to weigh out the money.

"I won't give in," Aliena said to Richard. "We'll take the wool somewhere else--Shiring, perhaps, or Gloucester."

"All that way! And what if we can't sell it there?"

He was right--they might have the same trouble elsewhere. The real difficulty was that they had no status, no support, no protection. The merchant would not dare to insult the monks, and even the poor peasants could probably cause trouble for him if he dealt unfairly with them, but there was no risk to a man who tried to cheat two children with nobody in the world to help them.

The monks were dragging their sacks into the merchant's shed. As each one was stashed, the merchant handed to the chief monk a weighed pound of silver and twelve pennies. When all the sacks were in, there was a bag of silver still on the counter.

"That's only ten sacks," said the merchant.

"I told you there were only ten," the novice said to the chief monk.

"This is the eleventh," said the chief monk, and he put his hand on Aliena's sack.

She stared at him in astonishment.

The merchant was equally surprised. "I've offered her half a pound," he said.

"I've bought it from her," the monk said. "And I've sold it to you." He nodded to the other monks and they dragged Aliena's sack to the shed.

The merchant looked disgruntled, but he handed over the last pound bag and twelve more pennies. The monk gave the money to Aliena.

She was dumbstruck. Everything had been going wrong and now this complete stranger had rescued her--after she had been rude to him, too!

Richard said: "Thank you for helping us, Father."

"Give thanks to God," said the monk.

Aliena did not know what to say. She was thrilled. She hugged the money to her chest. How could she thank him? She stared at her savior. He was a small, slight, intense-looking man. His movements were quick and he looked alert, like a small bird with dull plumage but bright eyes. His eyes were blue, in fact. The fringe of hair around his shaved pate was black streaked with gray, but his face was young. Aliena began to realize that he was vaguely familiar. Where had she seen him before?

The monk's mind was going along the same path. "You don't remember me, but I know you," he said. "You're the children of Bartholomew, the former earl of Shiring. I know you've suffered great misfortunes, and I'm glad to have a chance to help you. I'll buy your wool anytime."

Aliena wanted to kiss him. Not only had he saved her today, he was prepared to guarantee her future! She found her tongue at last. "I don't know how to thank you," she said. "God knows, we need a protector."

Well, now you have two," he said. "God and me."

Aliena was profoundly moved. "You've saved my life, and I don't even know who you are," she said.

"My name is Philip," he said. "I'm the prior of Kingsbridge.

(The Pillars of the Earth, pages 389-391)

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