Princess Spurga was famed throughout the land for her charm, goodness and beauty. From remote hamlets to fishermen’s villages to bustling town markets, everyone spoke of her with affection and admiration. Once, while riding through Vilnius in a carriage to attend the marriage of her cousin, she saw a beggar drop to the ground and start convulsively shaking. Several witnesses screamed “demon!”; a courier (whom some said was touched) LOUDLY PROCLAIMED the mendicant a prophet. The princess commanded the coachman to halt and, hoisting the hem of her gown up (exposing a flash of regal flesh to the shocked crowd), went to help the man. She cushioned his head with one hand, held his hand with the other and whispered reassuring sweet-nothings until he returned to his senses. When the beggar looked up and saw none other than Princess Spurga peering down at him, he fainted on the spot!
Princess Spurga knew the beggar was racked neither by devilry nor the power of divination. She had been educated by her grandmother, a worldly woman of exceptional intelligence who had been a close friend and confidante of the German abbess and polymath Hildegard von Bingen. Spurga knew that cause begat effect; disease and illness materialized when the four humours (choler, blood, phlegm and melancholy) fell out of harmony. Spurga, whose bounteous bosom had been created to accommodate her ample-heartedness, did not want to believe that death, disease and misery was divinely ordained. She suspected that some other fiendish agency was at work but could not grasp the invisible mechanism by which it operated. She lay awake at night besieged on all sides by unanswerable questions. Until in time she lost her mind to phantasmagorical imaginings. The wind was a conveyance of cosmic perversity trying to sneak a peek up her skirt; gnarly old oak trees were trying to lecherously grope her with their boughs; storms left her sodden from overexcitement.
Once-upon-a-time, Spurga had been confident and carefree in her virtuousness. She was chaste, wrapped up in lace: that was that. But her flirtation with philosophy felt dangerously erotic. It made her tingle, it bade her fill the cavernous void it had awoken. Spurga’s life had forked into two antithetical directions. The first was that of her piety; the other was her voracious appetite for knowledge. Spurga’s sensitive young mind couldn’t cope with the deluge of contradictions and flagrant absurdities that passed for truth and knowledge. Her erratic behaviour alarmed the court; tongues were wagging at market. She flagellated herself with flowers, she tickled herself with quills. She was overheard lamenting in private: “Oh, it’s so hard to be a princess. Everybody expects you to be a paragon of perfection and rectitude. When will these dark ages ever end?” Rumours began circulating that she was playing nug-a-nug with the devil. But, dear oh dear, we are getting ahead of ourselves; in those halcyon days Spurga was a kind and comely wench in search of her Prince Übermensch.
She was only five when her mother died. The queen was taken by Dropsy of the Brain after spending a day picking mushrooms in the forest (Spurga never failed to lay a bouquet of gladioli on her mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death). Her father, King Adomas, was devastated by the loss of his beloved queen. He retreated to his private quarters where he remained for many years doing god knows what (he could be heard ribbiting like a frog). Rather than send Spurga off to a convent for her education, as was the custom, the queen mother took it on herself to raise and educate her granddaughter. She received tutelage in medicine, philosophy and theology, as well as learning etiquette, embroidery, dancing, riding and archery (which she loved). When she got into her four-poster bed at the end of a long day, Spurga would spurt out a relieved “Phew!”. Then she would turn over the events of the day before they started turning her over.
Suitors from across the land sought Spurga’s hand in marriage; her beauty was unrivalled, her kindness legendary and she was an outstanding archeress (some dubbed her Cupida because of her voluble cup size). Yet she could not wed without her father’s approval. The king (what the fuck had gotten into him?) was still ribbiting away behind closed doors. Spurga turned twelve. Then thirteen. Then fourteen. She hit a roll with fifteen, sixteen and seventeen. She was fast becoming a spinster but the king refused to grant anyone an audience. Then one day he received a letter from an old friend of his, a Scottish chieftain who had heard about the king’s loss of his wife, retreat into solitude and dubious dabbling in batrachian babbling. The chieftain and the king held each other in the highest regard: they had drunkenly flyted together, a bond so strong it could cower a papal bull into retreat. The chieftain did not mince his words: he counselled the king to walk off his funk, stomp it out of him, trample it into the ground. The king heeded his dear friend’s advice; he walked for three whole days without rest or repast. He walked until he crawled. He crawled until he writhed. He writhed until he arrived back at a foetal state of mind. Hear ye, hear ye, the king has returned to his senses!
He was back to his good old majestic self (except for the occasional suppressed ribbit). When anyone asked how he was feeling, he would boom “EVERYTHING IS FINE!” with an imperious swipe of the hand, as if he was swatting away some (pesky) aporia-transmitting mosquito buzzing around him. His first order of business was to find a suitable husband for Spurga (she was a week shy of her eighteenth birthday). But who on god’s green earth would be good enough for her? King Adomas was too powerful to concern himself with forming a political alliance; let the other royal houses play their inbred flushes of demure blushes. His Spurga was going to get a love marriage! The problem was how to find the right man – an earnest, noble and skilled plumber of the heart. He knew that the suitors would be prone to sycophancy and platitude if he received them on his throne: the formal setting would bring out the worst in them. How could he find out what a man was really like? The king dreaded the idea of someone abusing or debasing his beloved daughter. Men were fickle, feckless creatures (despite their bluster). Women were (for most medieval men): trusty mirrors, absorbent sounding boards, (verbal) punchbags, humpback bridges to magical places that didn’t exist. The king loved Spurga more than life itself; he needed to find a man who would respect and honour her. The idea came to him as he took a meandering swig of mead.
“Ribbit!” he said, exceedingly pleased with himself.
The next day word was dispatched by pigeon and palfrey that Spurga was to be married off to whomever could satisfy the king during a private audience with him. Within a week, a line stretched from the castle to the Gates of Dawn. Millers, trappers, and jongleurs stood cheek by jowl with knights, friars and crofters. The king, drawing on a lifetime of experience, mercilessly separated the wheat from the chaff as the suitors filed past him on a red-carpeted catwalk. The men pranced, strutted and swaggered; the king leered, gawked and goggled. His method was simple. Those whose appearance and comportment pleased him were told to stand aside; everyone else was dismissed. By end of day, a group of four men remained: Mangailas, Mangirdas, Mantautas and Manfredas.
The king met with Mangirdas first. He was a spice merchant, a self-made man who had risen from poverty to relative affluence through the sweat of his brow. He was: handsome, confident, tactful, practical. The king poured him a glass of gorzalka (vodka). Then another. And another. No sooner had Mangirdas drained his glass than the king topped it back up to the brim. Let’s cut to the chase: the king wanted to get him blind drunk so he could get to the veritas.
To begin with Mangirdas showed deference to the king and asked (not very probing) questions about Spurga. After 250ml he was visibly more relaxed. He began talking about himself at length. When the king occasionally made a shrewd comment, Mangirdas would reply with a rambling monologue. Some might call it arrogance but the king saw through that feeble fortification of a word. By 500ml, Mangirdas was blowing his trumpet so loudly that the king couldn’t get a word in edgewise. When Adomas did (deliberately) interrupt him, Mangirdas was impatient for the old fool to shut up so he could carry on talking. By 750ml he was talking himself into existence. His rambling monologue was a desperate attempt to convert memory into meaning, to plug the void at the heart of him, to reconcile his baseness with the lofty version of himself he daily peddled on the wharves of Memel. Holes began appearing in his speech. The sea swirled ominously beneath his feet. His words tailed off into strange shapes. His stories dissolved into whirlpools that sucked him in and spat him out somewhere else. Now he was a child being whipped by his father for scrumping (lovely word, that). Now he was weeping into a whore’s breast. Now he was drinking with the king. The king? The king! By 1L he was on the floor sleeping like a baby.
Next up was Mangailas. He was of English origin and perfectly charming. He wasn’t conventionally handsome like Mangirdas but his face was interesting and he had kind, sensitive eyes. BY 250ml he was still wholly focused on the king and Spurga (some of his questions were so probing that the king shuffled about uncomfortably in his chair). Mangailas showed an extraordinary attention to detail; the king nodded approvingly as he topped up his unsuspecting subject’s glass. By 350ml, things took a turn for the worse. Mangailas fixated on Spurga’s beauty. He abruptly became monomaniacal, possessed; his attention hovered like a hummingbird round her breasts. His speech was slurred but impressively eloquent as he circled the thing he was clearly desperate to talk about. The king could see he was drunkenly trying to control himself, to douse the passion within. He tried to help Mangailas out by changing the subject (“Did you see the joust the other day?”). By 500ml, all was lost:
“Wiff all dew respect, your honour, I mean your majesty, Spurger’s breasts deserve a religion…”
The king was sorry to reject him but reject him he must. A man so easily bested by breasts could prostrate himself at the altar of any old Venus. Adomas was seeking a man who would devote himself solely to Spurga, who would worship her, who would love her as though she were the only woman on earth. Mangailas, he suspected, possessed a magic wand that could transmogrify any old frog into a princess.
Like so much else in life, Mantautas began well. The king hadn’t laughed so much in years as Mantautas cracked joke after joke about stingy Jews, crackpot Russians, dimwitted Aesti, long-fingered Poles, and transubstantiation. He thought: This man is an idiot but Spurga will be well amused come the long winter. At 300ml the mood shifted, swerved. Mantautas started lapsing into long silences. His eyes, which only a short while before had been the life and soul of the party, turned into spooky wells, cautionary tales, where Jews got thrown and babies tossed. The king gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept pouring. He thought: the poor young man is overwhelmed by the momentousness of the occasion. But Mantautas only became more morose. Everything around him was an affront, a provocation. He felt indignant in his marrow that the king should live in such splendour on the backbreaking labour of serfdom. It felt wrong, wronger, wrongest, a dead-end, none shall pass, burn it down, raze it to the ground…
“A drink! A drink! My fiefdom for a drink!”
The king obliged. By 700ml Mantautas was raging against the throne, extortionate tithes, the church, the price of turnips, the decline in moral values. The king coughed loudly in the hope that his guards, posted outside, would stick their heads in to see if he was okay. The situation was becoming hairy. Mantautas was nothing more than a revolutionary thug, an idealistic hooligan. He was a peasant with a flair for language drunkenly waving his scythe about. At one point the king thought Mantautas was going to headbutt him. Mantautas dramatically tilted his head back: the king braced for his royal brow to be tilled by peasant plough. Nothing happened. The king opened his eyes: one first, then the other. Mantautas had nodded off in his chair. The king crept across the room, quietly opened the door, and had his guards escort Mantautas away.
REJECTED! (and beheaded)
Manfredas was an amiable chap. But the king was so shaken by the headbutt he had almost received that he couldn’t concentrate. Besides, Manfredas was saying all the right things in all the right places. Adomas didn’t need to listen; his attention could wander. He marvelled at the brutality of the headbutt. Head. Butt. Compounded. The forehead was a fortification to protect the brain, transformed into an offensive weapon. A wall as a weapon: a contradiction, surely? The headbutt unified the dichotomy at the heart of existence. Was it divine? Perhaps. The king’s head tilted back. At first because he wanted to know what it felt like to use one’s brain as a weapon, to cock it, so to speak, to lock and load it. But once his head was leaned back, he felt an immense sense of relief, as if his head had been removed from a pike, as if he were absolved of his humanity. It felt good. It felt right. Thenceforth the king fell asleep. Confused, Manfredas saw himself out.
The following day the king had to live with himself. He realised that he was not as astute as he had believed. He had woefully misjudged the four men; the narcissistic Mangirdas, the pervert Mangailas, the psychotic Mantautas, the criminally dull Manfredas. He would learn from his mistakes; he would be humbler and less quick to judge! He would henceforth be a better king. (He secretly planned to commission the finest thinker in the land to investigate the pheno-menon of the headbutt.)
Princess Spurga was furious with her father. She burst into the Great Hall as he was sitting on the throne, thoughtfully, tentatively caressing his brow.
“Father, I will find my own husband. You are to keep out of my affairs. I will see whom I want, when I want, how I want. Your only responsibility to me is to be civil when we meet in the hallways of the palace. You are a buffoon, a jester, a bad joke. If I want to work selling cockles in the market, I will. If I want to cavort with drunken soldiers, I will. If I want to be a nun, I will. I do not recognise your authority over me; are we clear?”
The king’s forehead started to feel strangely brittle, like it was made of glass or clay.