I expected that a book set in 1158 which begins with the main character Marie on her way to the abbey where she has been sent by Eleanor of Aquitaine was going to be hard-going. And to be sure there were countless words I had to look up, but it was certainly worth the effort. The story was of an undervalued woman sent to an impoverished nunnery who overcomes many obstacles and brings wealth and security to it. Marie de France was an actual person about whom almost nothing is known. This novel has it that she was the illegitimate half-sister of Henry II, who was the king of France and the first husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was that amazing woman who married both a king of France and a king of England, led a crusade, and was mother of Richard the Lionheart. The fictional Marie was enamored of Eleanor and always longed to be with her.
A brief story about Marie’s horse is a metaphor for the change wrought by Marie on the abbey. She bought a horse cheap that was being sold for food because her owner had starved and beaten her. Marie put the horse in the care of Goda, one of the sisters, and “Within a few months, the horse’s skin shone and she was capable of bearing three stout nuns with ease, or a single giant abbess [Marie was large]. The mad light in her eye had become a near-human understanding.”
Marie’s reputation grows and “she appears as myth; some say saint, some say witch, the rumors mix and muddle; descendent of the fairy Mélusine….” That mythical figure is important in A.S. Byatt’s book Possession, and warrants some investigation. This European Studies Blog describes her in depth. There are multiple legends about her; the best known is that she agreed to marry Raymond on condition that she could have privacy for her weekly baths. They had happy years and had 10 sons and Mélusine oversaw the building of cities and castles in the Poitou region of France. Raymond of course was not able to honor his promise and discovered she was half serpent. When she learned of his betrayal, she turned into a dragon and flew off.
Marie’s efforts to build the abbey into a powerful institution revealed her great ambition and cunning. In one story after another she overcomes those who wish to control the abbey. One occurred when the abbey had become successful and was attracting many young women. One of them, Sprota, gained power among the young sisters with her apparent goodness; she “glows with the conviction of her own inner divinity.” Marie knew that her goodness was in service of gaining control. To overcome this threat, Marie announced a vision she had to create a home for the lepers in the nearby community and that after a night of prayer, she knew Sprota should be the one to be mistress of the house. Sprota fled in the night.
A disastrous fire in the community left the abbey with no one qualified to say Mass or hear the confessions of the sisters. When Marie heard this news, she concluded that the message of a recent vision she had was that she was to take on those duties. Her announcement of this was greeted with great anger and some of her friendships never recovered. She commanded them to stay for a Mass. “They, so used to obedience, remain. Confusion roils in their faces, for which is the lesser sin, to leave Mass or to hear it presided over by a woman?” Marie had at last created a community of women, with minimal control or intrusion by men.
A tale set in the twelfth century with these two ambitious, powerful, and heroic women is not to be missed.
Lauren Groff, Matrix, Riverhead Books, 2021, 260 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library.