“I cannot say that there is any reason to fear death; I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been through it come back to complain about the experience” – Colin Gorman
The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. He should have been beaten soundly about the head and neck by the calloused hands of angry 5th Century B.C. Chinese peasants for that. Instead we marvel at his Iron Age profundity and still quote him, proving conclusively that there is no justice in the universe. Through the millennia, most of us simply figured out what we could do that would put food on the table, a roof over our heads, clothes on at least the kids we liked, and avoid the nastier aspects of death or dismemberment. Not dying horribly has generally been the major career goal for our species. Along came the so called Age of Enlightenment in 17th Century A.D. Europe, and we all started singing the praises of individualism and self-actualization, with learned philosophers and the landed gentry puzzling over why we all hated our lives so much, since obviously we had selected our own paths and could opt for something more intellectually or spiritually invigorating if we just put our minds to it. This is also why most people, for most of history have hated both philosophers and aristocrats. But it’s not an impossible dream. A few people out there love what they do. And some even make good money doing it. It’s just statistically unlikely. Most of us are wage slaves who would sooner be chasing our hobbies, be you a shift worker, salaried employee, small business owner, or contractor. If you are not, odds are you are independently wealthy, slowly starving while you live with ten hipster roommates, or lying. If we could all spend our days tinkering at what we love, the species would never have invented heavenly paradise, that is, the ultimate retirement package in one neatly wrapped up celestial pension plan, your final reward for not going on a shooting spree after decades of digging canals, harvesting crops, assembling widgets, selling snake oil, or praying for death in a cubicle. Across religions and cultures, the insistence has been that we dutifully suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous employment here on Earth, but if we keep our noses to the grindstone, in death we can rest, relax, and recreate. While this may seem a bit unfair, be assured that the unintended consequence of loving your job might just be that you have to keep doing it after you’re dead as in the case of undead Orthon and his posthumous services for Raymond, Lord of Corasse.
It may surprise some that Portugal was once a serious contender for world domination in something other than fortified wine, chouriço, or the Fado genre of music. In the 14th Century A.D., Portugal was so important on the world scene that England and Portugal signed a 1373 mutual defense pact and one of the longest standing alliances in history (identified by many scholars as the model for NATO), solidifying strong cultural ties, geo-political and military cooperation, and generally agreeing to put their heads together on how to defend their overseas possessions and put the hurt on their common rivals and enemies, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch. Unfortunately, Portugal had a few internal problems with dynastic succession. The neighboring Crown of Castile (essentially Spain) invaded Portugal in 1383. King John I of Castile had the foresight to marry ten-year old Princess Beatrice, the only surviving child of King Ferdinand I of Portugal, and therefore claimed to be the rightful king of Portugal upon the death of Ferdinand. The Portuguese nobility rejected this logic as practically it would reduce Portugal to a subject state of Castile. Hostilities culminated at the bloody Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, where the Portuguese forces of General Nuno Álvares Pereira, with the support of English allies, handed a decisive and catastrophic defeat to the Castilian, Aragonese, Italian and French forces aligned against them (almost 10,000 casualties to less than 1000 Portuguese), solidifying the independence of Portugal and the rise of the royal dynasty of the long-standing House of Aviz. This fateful battle was how the ghostly Orthon came to the attention of historians.
The forces of the Castilian allies included among them a significant contingent of troops from the Aquitaine region of Béarn (at the time a little independent fiefdom in the Pyrenees who we can thank for Béarnaise sauce), spitting distance from the Spanish border. Several days before news of the trouncing at Aljubarrota had made it to Béarn, the regional Big Cheese named the Count de Foix fell into a deep, dark depression, refusing to speak to anyone and sequestering himself in his private rooms at his Castle in Orthez. Finally, calling for his brother and knight Sir Arnold William, he confided to him that he knew that Béarnaise forces had been brutally mauled at Aljubarrota, a strangely cognizant declaration, given that reports of the disaster would not arrive until ten days later. Medieval historian Jean Froissart (1337-1405) just so happened to be in Orthez at the time and made some inquiries as to how the Count came by his prescient awareness of the defeat at Aljubarrota, was taken into the confidence of a squire, who shared a secret, well-known amongst court intimates, that the Count de Foix received regular intelligence reports from a local Baron named Raymond, Lord of Corasse, who himself gathered this information through a familiar spirit (some say ghost, some say demon) named Orthon. How Raymond and Orthon established this business relationship is a curious tale, and the squire related it thusly.
It is well twenty years past that there was in this country a baron called Raymond lord of Corasse, which is seven leagues from this town of Orthez. This lord of Corasse had at the same time a plea at Avignon before the Pope for the dimes of his church against a clerk curate there, and the priest was of Catalonia. He was a great clerk and claimed to have right of the dimes in the town of Corasse, which was valued to a hundred florins by the year; and the right that he had he shewed and proved it, and by sentence definitive Pope Urban the Fifth in consistory general condemned the knight and gave judgment with the priest; and of this last judgment he had letters of the Pope in his possession, and so rode till he came into Bearn, and there showed his letters and bulls of the Pope’s for his possession of his dimes. The lord of Corasse had great indignation at this priest, and came to him and said: “Master Peter,” or “Master Martin,” as his name was, “Thinkest thou that by reason of thy letters that I will lose mine heritage? Not so hardy that thou take anything that is mine: if thou do, it shall cost thee thy life. Go thy way into some other place to get thee a benefice, for of mine heritage thou gettest no part, and once for always I defend thee.” The clerk doubted the knight, for he was a cruel man, therefore he durst not persevere. Then he thought to return to Avignon, as he did: but when he departed, he came to the knight the lord of Corasse and said: “Sir, by force and not by right ye take away from me the right of my church, wherein ye greatly hurt your conscience. I am not so strong in this country as ye be; but, sir, know for truth that, as soon as I may, I shall send to you such a champion, whom ye shall doubt more than me.” The knight, who doubted nothing his threatenings, said: “God be with thee: do what thou mayst, I doubt no more death than life: for all thy words I will not lose mine heritage.” Thus the clerk departed from the lord of Corasse and went I cannot tell whither, to Avignon or into Catalonia, and forgot not the promise that he had made to the lord of Corasse oer he departed: for afterward, when the knight thought least on him, about three months after, as the knight lay on a night abed in his castle of Corasse with the lady his wife, there came to him messengers invisible and made a marvelous tempest and noise in the castle, that it seemed as though the castle should have fallen down, and strake great strokes at his chamber door, that the good lady his wife was sore afraid. The knight heard all but he spake no word thereof, because he would shew no abashed courage, for he was hardy to abide all adventures. This noise and tempest was in sundry places of the castle and endured a long space, and at last ceased for that night. Then the next morning all the servants of the house came to the lord when he was risen, and said: “Sir, have you not heard this night that we have done?” The lord dissimulated and said: “No, I heard nothing: what have you heard?” Then they shewed him what noise they had heard and how all the vessels in the kitchen was overturned. Then the lord began to laugh and said: “Yea, sirs, ye dreamed: it was nothing but the wind.” “In the name of God,” quoth the lady, “I heard it well.” The next night there was as great noise and greater, and such strokes given at his chamber door and windows as all should have been broken in pieces. The knight started up out of his bed and would not let to demand who was at his chamber door that time of the night, and anon he was answered by a voice that said: “I am here.” Quoth the knight: “Who sent thee hither?” “The clerk of Catalonia sent me hither,” quoth the voice, “to whom thou dost great wrong, for thou hast taken from him the rights of his benefice. I will not leave thee in rest till thou hast made him a good account, so that he be pleased. “Quoth the knight, ” What is thy name, that art so good a messenger?” Quoth he, “I am called Orthon.” “Orthon,” quoth the knight, “the service of a clerk is little profit for thee; he will put thee to much pain if thou believe him. I pray thee leave him and come and serve me, and I shall give thee good thank. ” Orthon was ready to answer, for he was in amours with the knight, and said: “Wouldst thou fain have my service?” “Yea truly,” quoth the knight, “so thou do no hurt to any person in this house.” “No more I will do,” quoth Orthon, “for I have no power to do any other evil but to awake thee out of thy sleep or some other.” “Well,” quoth the knight, “do as I tell thee and we shall soon agree, and leave the evil clerk, for there is no good thing in him but to put thee to pain: therefore come and serve me” (Froissart, Chronicles, p352-353).
Why Orthon was so fond of Raymond, Lord of Corasse was never clear, but presumably the nasty, money-grubbing clerk curate from Catalonia was a terrible boss, since Orthon was all too willing to immediately seize upon an alternate offer of employment. After all, who would have the brass balls to demand a non-compete clause from a disembodied spirit? This providential arrangement turned out to be of great benefit to Baron Raymond, Lord of Corasse beyond his wildest expectations, as Orthon proved to be a Medieval version of a 24-hour news channel, communicating the latest breaking news from the four corners of the globe to Raymond. Both Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Irish poet Michael Joseph Barry (1817-1889) rendered delightful versions of the details, based on Froissart’s Chronicles, of this curious business relationship in verse.
Night after night,
This singular sprite
At the baron’s bedside would, at midnight, alight;
And speak in his ear
What took place far and near;
And often, by these means, the baron would hear,
In a day, what his friends might not know in a year.
In fact, through this Orthon he learned, in a word,
All that happened, almost at the time it occurred;
And, throughout the whole province, his quick information,
Of whatever took place, caused profound admiration.
(Barry, 1875, p142-143).
Raymond, Lord of Corasse took his feudalism and chivalric codes seriously, thus he dutifully kept his liege lord, the Count de Foix apprised of his latest communiques from Orthon, which is of course, how the Count came to know about the results of the Battle of Aljubarrota, and was oft himself heard in court to muse about the strategic value of having his own Orthon. Unfortunately, curiosity got the better of the Lord of Corasse and he began demanding that Orthon show him what he looked like, despite the protestations of the disembodied critter, who maintained that such a request would ultimately be destructive to their arrangement. Some accounts suggest that the Lord of Corasse’ demands were made at the instigation of the Count de Foix, who longed to understand what exactly this unearthly messenger was. Orthon acceded, an appeared as two intertwined pieces of straw tumbling on the pavement one morning, but so insubstantial was this manifestation that it did not satisfy, and Orthon reluctantly agreed to appear in a more substantive form.
And so Orthon departed, and the next morning the lord arose, and issued out of his chamber, and went to a window, and looked down into the court of the castle, and cast about his eyes. And the first thing he saw was a sow, the greatest that ever he saw, and she seemed to be so lean and evil favored that there was nothing of her but the skin and the bones, with long ears, and a long, lean snout. The lord of Corasse had marvel of that lean sow and was weary of the sight of her, and commanded his men to fetch his hounds, and said, “Let the dogs hunt her to death and devour her.” His men opened the kennels and let out his hounds, and did set them on this sow. And at last the sow made a great cry and looked up to the lord of Corasse, as he looked out of the window, and so suddenly vanished away, no man wist how. Then the lord of Corasse entered into his chamber right pensive, and he remembered him of Orthon, his messenger, and said, “I repent me that I set my hounds on him. Perchance I may never hear more of him, for he said to me oftentimes that if I displeased him I should lose him.” The lord said truth, for never after came Orthon to the castle of Corasse. The knight died the year next following (Stephens, 1909, p269-270).
At a tender young age, we often hear about retirement, and have trouble conceiving how such an odd mode of existence would be possible without dying from boredom. Then we spend a few decades working thankless jobs to pay the bills, squeezing our interests and predilections in where we can. And as we age, we realize that few individuals get paid for their passions, we note the growing queue of unwatched television shows on our digital video recorders, the books we’ve never had time to read, and the endless hours of basketball or videogames that would swell the hearts of our children, and suddenly the whole proposition sounds a lot more reasonable. What they fail to mention is that if you truly love your work, you might not be able to give it up and explore something more fulfilling in the afterlife. I don’t know what your eternal hereafter looks like, but I’m hoping for a well-lit, expertly curated library, scotch aged for eons, and comfortable couches.
Barry, Michael Joseph, 1817-1889. The “Kishoge Papers”: Tales of Devilry and Drollery. London: Chapman and Hall, 1875.
Froissart, Jean, 1338-1410. The Chronicles of Froissart. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1904.
Stephens, Kate, 1853-1938. Stories From Old Chronicles. New York: Sturgis & Walton Company, 1909.
Your post bodily death sanctum sounds wonderful, but I would need the occasional excursion to the mountain top in storm, to the sea under sail in blasts of unpredictable winds, and a beach backing up to thick groves of palm, hardwood, vines and hidden caves, to high mountains and falling water in abundance. Wonder lust satisfied, I would retreat to the place of mind and peace, boat anchored safely in harbor for a time, and then take myself to the sanctum where lurks the knowledge, replenished nightly by silent, wise and friendly spirits, there to learn what I do not know, and continue my eternal quest, every answer bringing a new question Then, perhaps you and I sharing portion of that wonderful single malt, and comparing notes.