A Step Forward


The day seemed long to Tom as he impatiently herded the pigs toward the shed near the stables. When he had been made swineherd he was happy because he felt he was growing up, but he soon discovered that it was often lonely work.

At first he enjoyed beautiful daydreams about becoming a knight and performing great deeds that would make him a hero. But he had grown tired of dreams he knew could never come true.

He was a serf just as his father had been at his death. Tom belonged to the land of the rectory in the village of Lutterworth where he would remain until he died unless his owner freed him.

The warmth of the stable felt good as Tom opened the door to get fresh straw for the pigs. As he passed the dairymaid who was milking, he said, “Give us a sip, please. I’m about to perish from thirst.”

“Open your mouth,” laughed the dairymaid, and she squirted milk into Tom’s mouth until it ran down his shirt.

“Stop yer tomfoolery—wastin’ milk like that—or I’ll give ye both a clout,” shouted Jack the reeve (overseer) as he rubbed down a horse.

Tom noticed that the horse Jack curried was not one belonging to the rectory stables. “Who’s come on the strange horse?” he asked.

“The master, Mr. Wyclif himself,” replied Jack. “You’d better mind yer manners because Master says he’s here to stay this time. And there are others with him for the night. Hurry up, Tom, yer mother wants you in the kitchen to turn the spit.”

Tom sighed and filled a basket with straw and carried it to the pigs. There will be a lot more work with Mr. Wyclif here all the time, he thought. Why didn’t he stay at Oxfordwhere he has been teaching?

Delicious smells and warmth from the fires greeted Tom when he opened the kitchen door. “I’m glad you’re here, Tom,” his mother, who was in charge of the kitchen, told him. “Now be a good lad and turn the spit. It’s too heavy for Hannah and I need her help with these mince pasties.”

Before long Tom felt as though he were being roasted along with the chickens. His arms ached and his stomach growled. He hoped there would be food left after the master and his guests had eaten.

Tom’s mother placed the chickens on a trencher (wooden platter) near the hearth to keep warm and said, “Tom, you’ll have to help the house lads carry the food upstairs and serve it.”

“Has Master left the school for good?” Tom asked.

“He was let out,” his mother replied in a whisper. “Jack says it’s because his ideas on religion are wrong—but that’s not so. I’ve heard he just wants to take the mystery out of religion so simple folk like us can understand the gospel.”

Hours later when Tom was at the kitchen table having his supper, he was still puzzling about what he had heard upstairs. “Mother, would you believe that Master is changing the Bible from Latin into English. He calls it translating. Those other gentlemen will help him. I’ll never forget what Master said: ‘The salvation of a peasant’s soul is as important as the salvation of the king’s soul.’”

“That’s true but I never heard it said so beautifully before. I believe we’re all equal in God’s sight but here among men we are unequal,” his mother answered.

Tom reached for a chicken wing. “But what’s the good of making the Bible into English if most of us can’t read?”

“Well there’s many an Englishman can read,” Mother answered. “Maybe we’ll be able to have it read to us.”

“Do you think I might even learn to read it myself?” Tom asked.

“No, son, I’m afraid that could never be,” she said sadly.

Quick tears of disappointment filled Tom’s eyes and he hurried from the room.

The next morning when he went to light a fire in Mr. Wyclif’s library, the black-robed scholar was already standing at his tall slanting desk. Tom could hear the scratching of the quill pen on the parchment, but the master did not seem to be aware that the boy was in the room.

A few mornings later, Tom found the library empty when he arrived before day-light to make the fire. Laying his armload of wood on the hearth, he lit candles on the table near the desk. He held one up so he could look at the writing on a large sheet of parchment. To Tom it was all just black marks on white, but he enjoyed looking at them just because he knew they were words. Suddenly the word Jesus stood out from the rest. He had seen it often, carved in stone at the foot of a statute of Christ in the church.

He noticed some torn scraps of parchment on the floor. Putting the candle back in the holder, he picked up the scraps. Then he went to the fireplace and rummaged around in the ashes until he found a small piece of burnt wood and hurried back to the desk. With great pains he tried again and again to copy the word Jesus on a scrap of parchment. A broad smile crossed his face when he made the word look almost like the one he was copying. Tom was so absorbed in what he was doing that he did not hear the master come into the room and almost jumped out of his skin when a quiet voice at his shoulder said, “You copy well, my son.”

Tom’s cheeks were scarlet when he whirled about to stammer, “I—I’m sorry, sir. I’ll make the fire at once.”

He started toward the fireplace, but Mr. Wyclif caught him by the arm.

“What is your name, lad?”

“Tom Brinton, sir.”

“You do not know how to write, do you?”

“No, sir, I was just trying to copy a word.”

“Do you know how to read?”

“No, sir.”

The old man bent down to look into Tom’s sad eyes. “You would very much like to do both, wouldn’t you?”

Tom looked up into the gentle faded gray eyes of Mr. Wyclif. “Aye, that I would, sir. But I’m the swineherd. The pigs are waiting to be taken to the forest and the reeve will beat me if I’m late.”

“I will go with you and tell the reeve he must find another swineherd. Today you will start learning to read and write at the village school. I need many boys and men to make copies of the Bible, and you have talent for it.”

Tom swallowed hard. “You mean, sir, that you will let me copy words that God has spoken if I learn to read and write?” he asked, not believing such good fortune.

“Yes, lad. People are already clamoring for copies. An eager Englishman came to see me yesterday. Because he had no money he offered a load of hay for a few pages. We’ll never be able to make enough copies for everyone who wants them. Why it takes me a whole day to copy a page. But I should tell you, Tom, that the work could become dangerous. Many of the clergy feel that there is no need for people to read the Bible and that only priests can explain sacred matters. However, I believe it’s the right of all men to read God’s word for themselves.”

Happy days, weeks, and months rushed by for Tom because his time was filled with books and slates and chalk. Finally he learned to write on parchment with pen and ink. Mr. Wyclif had the great hall in the rectory made into a scriptorium like the ones in monasteries. Each boy from the school had his own tall standing desk.

At Christmastime the rectory was gaily decorated with mistletoe and holly. On Christmas Eve the yule log was carried into the large library with the singing of carols. Before a blazing fire Mr. Wyclif read the story of the nativity to all the servants. It was the first time they had heard it read in English and its beauty held them spellbound. After enjoying roasted apples, chestnuts, marzipan, and mince pasties, they thanked Mr. Wyclif and left for their cottages.

Tom stayed to tidy the room. “Sit by the fire, lad,” Mr. Wyclif said. “I would like to have a word with you.”

Tom sat on a stool. The master took a piece of parchment from his desk. “My boy, you know that I have already been on trial twice for my beliefs. It was only because the common people raised such a commotion at the trials in London that I was allowed to go free. Now more trouble is brewing over this work we are doing. The clergy cry aloud that it is heresy to permit the common people to read the holy scriptures in English. They say the sacred book is not for ignorant people. Today the church is full of wealth and greed. I want to urge people to return to the simple life and faith of the first Christians who knew our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But how can people know Christ unless they have a Bible they can read or have read to them in a language they understand?”

Mr. Wyclif sighed heavily and then handed Tom a parchment. “My Christmas gift to you and your mother,” he said.

The boy’s eyes grew wide with surprise as he read the document. It had been made by a man of law and bore the seal of Mr. Wyclif’s signet ring. It stated that Tom and his mother were free. “Why—why—are you giving us this great gift?” Tom asked.

“All the other boys in the scriptorium are freeborn. If trouble comes, they can choose to leave or stay. I want you to have the same privilege.”

Tom rose from the stool in a daze. He could scarcely choke words from his tight throat but finally he managed to say, “I’ll never leave you as long as you need me. Never! I know that every page I copy is a step forward to help other boys like me learn about God.”

The master put his arm around Tom’s shoulder. “You have just given me the finest Christmas gift you could possibly offer—your loyalty to our work. Now go and read the paper to your mother.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Craig Fetzer