Brother Hugo and the Bear

Sometimes I get asked questions that are hard to answer. If I know about the topic, I try to tell the kids what I know. Sometimes, I don’t know enough, so I honestly tell them that and offer to help them look it up. Then other times, the answer is just hard to explain. A student asked me why some books have a giant letter starting a paragraph.

I explained that it was a fancy way of writing that goes back to the time before machine printed books. Sometimes the letters and margins were even decorated or illuminated by the men who copied the books by hand. Yes, I explained it, but there was nothing to show them….until I remembered the story of Brother Hugo and the Bear.

Brother Hugo is a medieval monk who has borrowed the letters of St. Augustine, but cannot return the book because a bear ate the it, the words were so sweet to him.

The Abbot says Brother Hugo must borrow a copy of the Letters from another Abbey and then make a copy to replace what he lost. So Brother Hugo must travel to the other Abbey, explain why he must borrow the book and keep it safe from bears as he travels home to begin the long task of copying the text.

This layout shows great examples of the illuminated drop caps and it explains the process of making every single element of the book.

The book even mentions using a sharp pen knife to scrape away mistakes. The kids were blown away by this plethora of information.

Finally, he has finished the copy, within the season of Lent, and so he must return the original to the other Abbey. He is worried about that awful bear, but his Brothers give him poems and sermons on parchment to feed to the bear. When he has run out of parchments, Brother Hugo must face off with that word-hungry Bear once and for all.

It looks promising, but once you turn the page, you see that the bear ate the book anyway. The kids laughed at this turn of events, though they felt bad when the realized that Brother Hugo would have to repeat the whole process again.

This book is really a treasure. It could be used for studies on medieval Europe, or in an art class — these monks were truly amazing — or just for fun.

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