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The sad, true story of the Merle brothers

4th October 2013:  It’s peculiar the loyalties that form across the centuries. By far the most poignant story about children that I’ve come across, after ten years of working in museums, is the story of the Merle brothers in the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell in London.  And though they have been dead for nearly 500 years I still find them haunting my thoughts.

We came across their story when we were redisplaying the museum, which tells the story of the crusader Hospitaller Knights of St John who fought in the long struggle between Islam and Christianity that ranged for centuries across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem in the east to Spain in the west. The museum has a handful of letters written by the Merles, a Crusader family from the south of France, who sent their son Rostand to fight against the Muslims at the Siege of Rhodes.  Rostand was only 16 when he left, and was almost certainly a younger son;  no family would have risked their older sons in war.

One of the first letters is written by Rostand on the 7th August 1511 to his brother Francois.  Rostand is in d’Aigues Mortes (‘Plague-Death’),  a French port on the southern coast where he is waiting for a boat to Rhodes.  ‘Monsieur Monpere,’ he writes (‘Mr My Father’) in his beautiful, medieval French, and sends his respects to ‘Madame Mamere’ (‘Mrs My Mother’), telling them that a friend of the family has just given him figs and oranges for the journey.

Six months later comes another letter.  Rostand is in Rhodes now and is begging his family not to send out his little brother Claude, who is only 12.  Rhodes, says Rostand with real fear in his voice, is a bloodbath in which he’s never been hungrier nor his life in more danger. But his family don’t listen because next comes a letter from Claude in which he proudly describes to his mother what he is taking to Rhodes – boots and a robe of fine black cloth; a coat of mail armour;  material for shirts and a doublet and hose;  black ribbons;  and fine lace from Hainault.  Close your eyes and you can see the two of them, with their black jackets and their white shirts with lace trims, and the scarlet blood of which there was plenty.

Then comes another letter, this time dated 1518.  It is from Rostand again and in it he tells them that Claude is dead. He died in the fighting. What happened to Rostand we do not know.

The Merle family kept those letters for hundreds of years until they found their way into the museum.  If you want to know the dream that they were fighting for, take a look at the 17th century models (also in the museum) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Each one is made from wood and old mother and pearl, and represents a dream and an illusion.

The lives of children are threaded through the history of museums.  And that’s not surprising.  We shower the people we love with everything we value most, and after they die we cherish what they once owned.  Museums are full of the things that children once possessed and that parents could not let go of – dolls, clothes, toys, miniature armour, baby shoes, dolls houses, diaries – the list goes on and on, adding an extra layer of poignancy to the already considerable poignancy of museums.

Museums are conventionally about thinking, not feeling.  But we couldn’t avoid the emotions in which these letters are saturated.  We laid out them as simply as we could and supported them with illustrations taken from the book that William Caoursin wrote about the Siege of Rhodes, and which he published in 1482.  (The Museum has an astonishing collection of old maps, paintings and books, including a pilgrim’s manual, describing the journey to Jerusalem with illustrations of the animals that you will meet along the way.   They promise you giraffes, hippopotamuses, even a unicorn.)

The  Museums’ Conference, in Liverpool next month, takes the emotional museum as one of its themes.  Museums have changed.  It will be interesting to hear what they say.

Image:  by William Caoursin

The Museums Conference: 11th to 12th November, 2013.  In Liverpool.