This is one of a series of short stories I had intended to record as a Podcast. Then I went and lost my voice which is currently reduced, temporarily I hope, to a frog-like croak. So, Plan B, post them here. At some point, maybe, the voice will get better and I'll be able to go back to Plan A.
Jean Buridan was a 14th century French philosopher who gave his name to a philosophical conundrum, Buridan’s Ass - the nature of which need not concern us. Though among the philosophical community his work is still fairly well-known, details of his private life - he was allegedly something of a libertine - are patchy but can be filled out nicely if you make stuff up.
Because he preferred logic and reason to piety and superstition, by the way, Buridan is sometimes regarded as a forerunner of the renaissance, hence the title of this story - Renaissance is Futile.
Imagine a warm summer's evening beside a river on the outskirts of a town in northern France.
A crowd has gathered to watch a street performer, a young chap by the name of Jean Buridan, smart, good looking, and possessed of immense charm and beautiful chestnut hair. During the day he was a student at the local academy, but to make a bit of extra money he’d trained himself to be possibly the worlds first underwater escapologist.
Now, escapology had probably been around since Roman times, but as far as anyone knows, Buridan was the first to introduce the drowning jeopardy.
He’d start by laying out his props - the ropes, chains, padlocks, blindfold and sack - and he'd invite volunteers to come up and test them to make sure there was no jiggery-pokery going on. A few burly-looking chaps would have a tug of war with the ropes. Then he’d get a blacksmith and a locksmith, if one was available, to examine the chains and fastenings to make sure they were sound and secure. Then, the best bit, he’d pick out a couple of saucy looking wenches, or sniggering old ladies, or best of all a blushing nun, to come up and examine his person - ‘every nook and cranny, now’ - to make sure he wasn’t concealing any lock-picks or other devices.
And all the time he was doing this, he’d keep up a stream of banter. He was ever so good at the banter.
Then, the main part of the act. Somebody who knew about knots - a sailor or some such - would be invited to tie him with the ropes and other volunteers would shackle him with the chains, blindfold him, truss him up in a huge sack and chuck him as far as possible into the deepest part of the river.
He was seventeen, in the peak of good health and blessed with huge lungs. Most lads of his age can hold their breath to a slow count of 150 or maybe 200. Buridan had schooled himself, mentally and physically, to go to 500. His record was 687.
Practice, together with a bit of double-jointedness and a few tricks with the chains meant that he could release himself from everything in a matter of seconds, but he knew that the longer he stayed underwater the greater the excitement. So, he’d stay down at the bottom, keeping himself calm and still to conserve wind for as long as he could. Meanwhile the audience on the bank would grow anxious. Nobody wanted him to drown. Of course they didn’t. Young chap like that, his whole life in front of him. Lovely chestnut hair. But on the other hand, if was going to happen anyway, they wouldn’t want to miss it.
Still their relief when he finally popped up, unbound, smiling, with weed in his hair, was audible. They would rush help him land, cheering and applauding. And when he passed the hat round, sometimes one or two of the coins were gold.
Buridan usually had five lovers on the go at any given moment: one he was saying goodbye to, one he was saying hello to, and three somewhere in between. His current favourite was Bertha the cobbler’s wife, a woman with a big red face and an open-hearted lustiness. She loved Buridan more than any of her other lovers. As soon as he came near she’d start to wriggle and the wriggling wouldn’t stop until long after he had left her bed and gone home - or more likely to some other bed. Thankfully, Albert, her husband, the cobbler, was often away on leather buying trips which sometimes took him as far as Spain.
One night, as Buridan and Bertha they lay side by side on the floor of the cobbler’s workshop, in post concupiscent bliss, they heard somebody coming through the window of the store-room next door.
They knew it wasn’t Albert. If he came home unexpectedly he’d come in the side door, off the yard where he stabled his horse. And besides, they’d have heard the horse clattering on the cobbles a quarter of a mile away.
A burglar then.
They lay still and silent and heard a voice next door whisper, 'Bertha, it’s your Boopsie, come for num.'
Both recognised the voice as that of Clement, one of Buridan’s fellow students, a gawky lad with a badly assembled face, always in trouble with the teachers for his inability to grasp the most fundamental principles. ‘Are you an idiot, boy?’ they would ask, and the only rational answer was, ‘Yes.’
A few nights earlier, on her way home from the tavern, Bertha, drunk and feeling generous, had encountered Clement, drunk and feeling sorry for himself in an alleyway. She had taken pity, given him comfort, and one thing had led to a fumbling nother, since when Clement, believing there was an unbreakable bond between them, had pestered.
'I’ll get rid of him,' Buridan whispered, and, in a rough, deep voice cried, 'Who the hell is that.'
To which Clement – emboldened by passion beyond all sense or reason – replied, 'Who the hell is that?'
'It is Albert,' Buridan said. 'Master of the house.'
By this time Clement was in the room. He recognised Buridan, cried out some oath, and lashed out at him with a stick he carried.
Buridan, seeking some solid object with which he could defend himself, reached out to the cobbler’s bench, picked up a clog and with it struck Clement a sharp blow to the head.
‘Now, pick yourself up and bugger off,’ Buridan said.
Clement did not move.
Buridan and Bertha exchanged a glance.
Bertha kneeled and listened for breath at Clement’s mouth then at his chest for the sound of a heartbeat.
She looked up with great sadness in her eyes.
'You must leave, now,' she said. 'I’ll try to get rid of the body, or perhaps blame the murder on my husband, but if I fail, if someone saw me let you in and saw him climb in, they’ll hang you. Or break you on the wheel. Or boil you. They boiled Mrs Ragnier’s son and he’d only stolen some fish.'
Buridan, seeing the sound good sense in her words, was already dressed. He let himself out of the back door and ran, in his stockinged feet to avoid making a noise, until he was out of town.
Five days later he was in Paris.
The story of Buridan’s great scholarship, of his brilliant mind, of how he became known to the professors at the university and earned their respect. of how he began to lecture, of how his lectures were always standing room only affairs, of how he, not ten years after he had arrived in Paris, was generally accepted as the 'cleverest man in France' - that story does not need to be told. Look up Buridan in any history of philosophy and it’ll be there.
Eventually news of 'the cleverest man in France' reached the King, and the King, universally acknowledged as 'the stupidest man in France' summoned him to court.
His Majesty took to Buridan. Everybody did. Men were as captivated as women and kings as well as commoners. Like a lot of stupid people, the King thought he was pretty clever and liked to engage Buridan in deep discussions about matters of philosophical import.
‘Is it true,’ he would ask, ‘that birds can fly because the eat the sky?’
‘Why did God, in his infinite wisdom. make swamps and muddy fields rather than covering the whole world in floor?’
And, ‘If God makes all things, how does he get inside the shell to make the chicken without breaking it.’
Buridan found it difficult to keep a straight face, but this was the King he was talking to, a man who had the power to have his head chopped off for insolence, so he remained a model of patience and forbearance.
The King had heard that Buridan’s speciality was ‘logic’. He knew that this was a method for getting at the truth of things, but had got it into his head that it was some sort of magic – like alchemy or divination – and Buridan was a wizard with special powers. He wanted to learn some of this ‘logic’, but after a whole afternoon spent trying to teach the basics of the syllogism Buridan was forced to say out loud that the King wasn’t really getting the hang of it at all.
'I can see that,' the King said. 'It’s the hat, isn’t it? I doesn’t work without a hat like yours. Please bring me one next time you come.
But on the next visit, the King was too preoccupied by other matters to worry about hats. He took Buridan into a small and very private ante-chamber and, in a low voice said, ’I need to kill the Queen. But there must be no hint of suspicion that her death was at my direction.'
Buridan nodded slowly. ’May I ask why you want her dead?’
'She has been unfaithful to her King. The ultimate act of betrayal. Treacherous adultery.'
'You have proof?'
'She is no longer amorous.'
Buridan looked the King up and down. He was not an attractive man. Unkind folk had used the word ‘repulsive’.
‘A woman can lose carnal interests for other reasons,’ Buridan said.
‘I was wondering whether you could cast a logic spell to drag the truth out of her.’
Buridan concealed a smile. ’Well, I suppose, if I were to meet her, I might be able to ask her some leading questions.’
'And could your logic also make her love me again? Because the love potion my physician made up did nothing at all.'
To disguise Buridan’s true purpose in interviewing the queen, they told her that the King wanted her to take a more active part in the affairs of state, so he’d appointed a tutor, Buridan, to instruct her.
The Queen received Buridan in her private chambers and was as enchanted with him as he was with her. At the first meeting, the Philosopher was able to establish with a reasonable degree of certainty that she was innocent of adultery, but by the end of the second meeting this was no longer the case.
Buridan reported back to the King that, though he was increasingly sure of the Queen’s innocence, there still was a fragment of doubt that only several more interviews could dispel.
They were careful. In public there were never any furtive glances, sighs or secret smiles. Only the most trusted maids of the bedchamber were allowed to come near before, during and after Buridan’s visits. Bedding was painstaKingly laundered.
Trouble was, Buridan had a rival at court. Mauclerc, the Compte de Braye, was a schemer who had not worked all these years to win the King’s favour only to be shoved aside by an upstart commoner from the university. He set his spies on Buridan. They listened at doors. They peeped through windows. They bribed those most trusted maids of the bedchamber, and when bribes didn’t work, they tortured them.
Buridan and the Queen were both arrested. The Queen was smuggled away to a convent where nuns. loyal to the King, strangled her.
Buridan rotted in prison while Mauclerc and the King considered the nature of his execution.
Mauclerc advised importing specialists from Spain, Milan and Florence, so that during the whole process of stretching, flaying, quartering, dragging and disembowelling there should be no danger of the victim accidentally dying until they were sure no more suffering could be administered.
The King, however, had a theological problem. On the one hand, he, like Mauclerc, wanted the execution to be as prolonged and as painful as possible. A fast and painless death was unthinkable. On the other hand, he was advised by the Bishop of Nantes that he should also consider Buridan’s afterlife. If he wanted to ensure the soul’s immediate dispatch to hell, with no chance of redemption, purgatory or, God forbid, paradise, then he should order a swift, sudden death so that the miscreant should have no opportunity to confess or recant. Otherwise, given God’s infinite mercy, who knows what might happen?
Confused, the King sent a letter to the Pope in Avignon asking advice. His Holiness was sadly indisposed, so sent, Cardinal Roger, his most able legate in his stead.
The Cardinal arrived in Paris and, having dined, slept and breakfasted, was appraised of the King’s dilemma. Wishing to learn something of the man’s conscience, he asked to see the prisoner.
At first Buridan thought that starvation was causing him to hallucinate, or that, more fancifully, he was already half way to the world of the dead, for Cardinal Roger was none other than Clement, the fellow he’d left for dead in the cobbler’s shop all those years before.
He groaned inwardly. His fate was to be decided by a man he’d – hypothetically anyway – murdered.
It took a moment for Clement to recognise Buridan, but when he did he embraced him like a beloved brother.
Buridan was confused. Clement laughed.
‘My old friend,’ he said, ‘do you not remember when we were students together? I was the dunce, forever confused by the lessons. But that blow, that mighty, blessed blow you gave to my head, shook something in my brain, it worked some miracle, such that, when I woke up, I found myself possessed of an extraordinary memory and that memory, especially when it comes to the indiscretions of fellow cardinals and his Holiness, has made me rich and powerful. I owe you everything, Buridan, and I although it is doubtful that my intercession in this case can win your freedom, I will do what I can to earn you a painless death.'
Back at court, Clement laid out his argument. It was, he said, a tricky one. As the Bishop of Nantes had so rightly pointed out, all the conventional methods of execution were designed either to give the miscreant time to repent, or to take him part of the way to heaven - hanging by raising the him into the air, beheading to allow passage for the soul to escape the body, burning to turn both body and soul into smoke that naturally rises upwards to God.
Buridan’s crime was so terrible, that the manner of his end must preclude any possibility at all that he might be admitted to heaven. Ever. Therefore would not a form of execution not designed for people at all be the most advisable? Would it not be better to treat him the way one would a soulless animal - which is, let’s face it, what he is? How would one dispose of, say, a litter of unwanted puppies or kittens?
The King and Mauclerc saw the sense in Clement’s reasoning.
And so, the following morning, Buridan was bound with ropes, shackled with chains, trussed in a sack and thrown into the river.'
Buridan went on to become one of the founding fathers of the University of Vienna. Clement became Pope.