Biographies & Memoirs


IT WAS the twenty-eighth day of Wintarmanoth in the year of our Lord 814, the harshest winter in living memory.

Hrotrud, the village midwife of Ingelheim, struggled through the snow toward the canon’s grubenhaus. A gust of wind swept through the trees and drove icy fingers into her body, searching the holes and patches of her thin woolen garments. The forest path was deeply drifted; with each step, she sank almost to her knees. Snow caked her eyebrows and eyelashes; she kept wiping her face to see. Her hands and feet ached with cold, despite the layers of linen rags she had wrapped around them.

A blur of black appeared on the path ahead. It was a dead crow. Even those hardy scavengers were dying this winter, starved because their beaks could not tear the flesh of the frozen carrion. Hrotrud shivered and quickened her pace.

Gudrun, the canon’s woman, had gone into labor a month sooner than expected. A fine time for the child to come, Hrotrud thought bitterly. Five children delivered in the last month alone, and not one of them lasted more than a week.

A blast of wind-driven snow blinded Hrotrud, and for a moment she lost sight of the poorly marked path. She felt a swell of panic. More than one villager had died that way, wandering in circles only a short distance from their homes. She forced herself to stand still as the snow swirled around her, surrounding her in a featureless landscape of white. When the wind let up, she could just make out the outline of the path. Again she began to move forward. She no longer felt pain in her hands and feet; they had gone completely numb. She knew what that could mean, but she could not afford to dwell on it; it was important to remain calm.

I must think of something besides the cold.

She pictured the home in which she had been raised, a casa with a prosperous manse of some six hectares. It was warm and snug, with walls of solid timber, far nicer than their neighbors’ homes, made of simple wooden lathes daubed with mud. A great fire had blazed in the central hearth, the smoke spiraling up to an opening in the roof. Hrotrud’s father had worn an expensive vest of otter skins over his fine linen bliaud, and her mother had had silken ribbons for her long, black hair. Hrotrud herself had had two large-sleeved tunics, and a warm mantle of the finest wool. She remembered how soft and smooth the expensive material had felt against her skin.

It had all ended so quickly. Two summers of drought and a killing frost ruined the harvest. Everywhere people were starving; in Thuringia there were rumors of cannibalism. Through the judicious sale of the family possessions, Hrotrud’s father had kept them from hunger for a while. Hrotrud had cried when they took away her woolen mantle. It had seemed to her then that nothing worse could happen. She was eight years old; she did not yet comprehend the horror and cruelty of the world.

She pushed her way through another large drift of snow, fighting off a growing light-headedness. It had been several days since she had had anything to eat. Ah, well. If all goes well, I will feast tonight. Perhaps, if the canon is well pleased, there will even be some bacon to take home. The idea gave her renewed energy.

Hrotrud emerged into the clearing. She could see the blurred outlines of the grubenhaus just ahead. The snow was deeper here, beyond the screen of trees, but she drove ahead, plowing through with her strong thighs and arms, confident now that safety was near.

Arriving at the door, she knocked once, then immediately let herself in; it was too cold to worry about social courtesies. Inside, she stood blinking in darkness. The single window of the grubenhaus had been boarded up for winter; the only light came from the hearth fire and a few smoky tallows scattered about the room. After a moment, her eyes began to adjust, and she saw two young boys seated close together near the hearth fire.

“Has the child come?” Hrotrud asked.

“Not yet,” answered the older boy.

Hrotrud muttered a short prayer of thanks to St. Cosmas, patron saint of midwives. She had been cheated of her pay that way more than once, turned away without a denar for the trouble she had taken to come.

At the hearth fire, she peeled the frozen rags from her hands and feet, crying out in alarm when she saw their sickly blue-white color. Holy Mother, do not let the frost take them. The village would have little use for a crippled midwife. Elias the shoemaker had lost his livelihood that way. After he was caught in a storm on his way back from Mainz, the tips of his fingers had blackened and dropped off in a week. Now, gaunt and ragged, he squatted by the church doors, begging his living off the charity of others.

Shaking her head grimly, Hrotrud pinched and rubbed her numbed fingers and toes as the two boys watched in silence. The sight of them reassured her. It will be an easy birth, she told herself, trying to keep her mind off poor Elias. After all, I delivered Gudrun of these two easily enough. The older boy must be almost six winters now, a sturdy child with a look of alert intelligence. The younger, his round-cheeked, three-year-old brother, rocked back and forth, sucking his thumb morosely. Both were darkavised, like their father; neither had inherited their Saxon mother’s extraordinary white-gold hair.

Hrotrud remembered how the village men had stared at Gudrun’s hair when the canon had brought her back from one of his missionary trips to Saxony. It had caused quite a stir at first, the canon’s taking a woman. Some said it was against the law, that the Emperor had issued an edict forbidding men of the Church to take wives. But others said it could not be so, for it was plain that without a wife a man was subject to all kinds of temptation and wickedness. Look at the monks of Stablo, they said, who shame the Church with their fornications and drunken revelry. And certainly it was true that the canon was a sober and hardworking man.

The room was warm. The large hearth was piled high with thick logs of birch and oak; smoke rose in great billows to the hole in the thatched roof. It was a snug dwelling. The wooden timbers that formed the walls were heavy and thick, and the gaps between them were tightly packed with straw and clay to keep out the cold. The single window had been boarded over with sturdy planks of oak, an extra measure of protection against the nordostroni, the frigid northeast winds of winter. The house was large enough to be divided into three separate compartments, one containing the sleeping quarters of the canon and his wife, one for the animals that sheltered there in harsh weather—Hrotrud heard the soft scuffle and scrape of their hooves to her left—and this one, the central room, where the family worked and ate and the children slept. Other than the stone castle of the Emperor, still unfinished and therefore rarely inhabited, no one in Ingelheim had a finer home.

Hrotrud’s limbs began to prickle and throb with renewed sensation. She examined her fingers; they were rough and dry, but the bluish cast had receded, supplanted by a returning glow of healthy reddish pink. She sighed with relief, resolving to make an offering to St. Cosmas in thanksgiving. For a few more minutes, Hrotrud lingered by the fire, enjoying its warmth; then, with a nod and an encouraging pat for the boys, she hurried around the partition to where the laboring woman was waiting.

Gudrun lay on a bed of peat topped with fresh straw. The canon, a dark-haired man with thick, beetling eyebrows that gave him a perpetually stern expression, sat apart. He nodded at Hrotrud, then returned his attention to the large wood-bound book on his lap. Hrotrud had seen the book on previous visits to the cottage, but the sight of it still filled her with awe. It was a copy of the Holy Bible, and it was the only book she had ever seen. Like the other villagers, Hrotrud could neither read nor write. She knew, however, that the book was a treasure, worth more in gold solidi than the entire village earned in a year. The canon had brought it with him from his native England, where books were not so rare as in Frankland.

Hrotrud saw immediately that Gudrun was in a bad way. Her breathing was shallow, her pulse dangerously rapid, her whole body puffed and swollen. The midwife recognized the signs. There was no time to waste. She reached into her sack and took out a quantity of dove’s dung that she had carefully collected in the fall. Returning to the hearth, she threw the dung on the fire, watching with satisfaction as the dark smoke began to rise, clearing the air of evil spirits.

She would have to ease the pain so Gudrun could relax and bring the child forth. For that, she would use henbane. She took a bundle of the small, yellow, purple-veined flowers, placed them in a clay mortar, and skillfully ground them into powder, wrinkling her nose at the acrid odor that was released. Then she infused the powder into a cup of strong red wine and brought it to Gudrun to drink.

“What is that you mean to give her?” the canon asked abruptly.

Hrotrud started; she had almost forgotten he was there. “She is weakened from the labor. This will relieve her pain and help the child issue forth.”

The canon frowned. He took the henbane from Hrotrud’s hands, strode around the partition, and threw it into the fire, where it hissed briefly and then vanished. “Woman, you blaspheme.”

Hrotrud was aghast. It had taken her weeks of painstaking search to gather that small amount of the precious medicine. She turned toward the canon, ready to vent her anger, but stopped when she saw the flinty look in his eyes.

“It is written”—he thumped the book with his hand for emphasis— “‘In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children.’ Such medicine is unholy!”

Hrotrud was indignant. There was nothing unchristian about her medicine. Didn’t she recite nine paternosters each time she pulled one of the plants from the earth? The canon certainly never complained when she gave him henbane to ease the pain of his frequent toothaches. But she would not argue with him. He was an influential man. One word from him about “unholy” practices, and Hrotrud would be ruined.

Gudrun moaned in the throes of another pain. Very well, Hrotrud thought. If the canon would not allow the henbane, she would have to try another approach. She went to her sack and withdrew a long piece of cloth, cut to the True Length of Christ. Moving with brisk efficiency, she wound it tightly around Gudrun’s abdomen. Gudrun groaned when Hrotrud shifted her. Movement was painful for her, but that could not be helped. Hrotrud took from her sack a small parcel, carefully wrapped in a scrap of silken fabric for protection. Inside was one of her treasures—the anklebone of a rabbit killed on Christmas Day. She had begged it off one of the Emperor’s hunting party the previous winter. With utmost care, Hrotrud shaved off three thin slices and placed them in Gudrun’s mouth.

“Chew these slowly,” she instructed Gudrun, who nodded weakly. Hrotrud settled back to wait. From the corner of her eye, she studied the canon, who frowned in concentration on his book till his brows almost met over the bridge of his nose.

Gudrun moaned again and twisted in pain, but the canon did not look up. He’s a cold one, Hrotrud reflected. Still, he must have some fire in his loins, or he wouldn’t have taken her to wife.

How long had it been since the canon brought the Saxon woman home, ten—or was it eleven?—winters ago. Gudrun had not been young, by Frankish standards, perhaps twenty-three or twenty-four years old, but she was very beautiful, with the long white-gold hair and blue eyes of the aliengenae. She had lost her entire family in the massacre at Verden. Thousands of Saxons had died that day rather than accept the truth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Mad barbarians, Hrotrud thought. It wouldn’t have happened to me. She would have sworn to whatever they asked of her, would do it now for that matter, should the barbarians ever sweep through Frankland again, swear to whatever strange and terrible gods they wished. It changed nothing. Who was to know what went on in a person’s heart? A wise woman kept her own counsel.

The fire sparked and flickered; it was burning low. Hrotrud crossed to the pile of wood stacked in the corner, chose two good-sized logs of birch, and put them on the hearth. She watched as they settled, hissing, into the fire, the flames licking upwards around them. Then she turned to check on Gudrun.

It was a full half hour since Gudrun had taken the shavings of rabbit bone, but there was no change in her condition. Even that strong medicine had failed to take effect. The pains remained erratic and ineffectual, and Gudrun was weakening.

Hrotrud sighed wearily. Clearly, she would have to resort to stronger measures.

THE canon proved to be a problem when Hrotrud told him she would need help with the birthing.

“Send for the village women,” he said peremptorily.

“Ah, sir, that is impossible. Who is there to send?” Hrotrud raised her palms expressively. “I cannot go, for your wife needs me here. Your elder boy cannot go, for though he seems a likely lad, he could get lost in weather such as this. I almost did myself.”

The canon glared at her from under his dark brows. “Very well,” he said, “I will go.” As he rose from his chair, Hrotrud shook her head impatiently.

“It would do no good. By the time you returned, it would be too late. It is your help I need, and quickly, if you wish your wife and babe to live.”

My help? Are you mad, midwife? That”—he motioned distastefully toward the bed—“is women’s business, and unclean. I will have nothing to do with it.”

“Then your wife will die.”

“That is in God’s hands, not mine.”

Hrotrud shrugged. “It is all one to me. But you will not find it easy, raising two children without a mother.”

The canon stared at Hrotrud. “Why should I believe you? She’s given birth before with no trouble. I have fortified her with my prayers. You cannot know that she will die.”

This was too much. Canon or not, Hrotrud would not tolerate his questioning her skill as a midwife. “It is you who know nothing,” she said sharply. “You have not even looked at her. Go see her now; then tell me that she is not dying.”

The canon went to the bed and looked down at his wife. Her damp hair was pasted to her skin, which had turned yellowish white, her dark-rimmed eyes were hollow and sunken into her head; but for the long, unsteady exhalation of breath, she might have been already dead.

“Well?” prodded Hrotrud.

The canon wheeled to face her. “God’s blood, woman! Why didn’t you bring the women with you?”

“As you said yourself, sir, your wife’s given birth before without a speck of trouble. There was no reason to expect any this time. Besides, who would have come in weather such as this?”

The canon stalked to the hearth and paced back and forth agitatedly. At last he halted. “What do you want me to do?”

Hrotrud smiled broadly. “Oh, little enough, sir, little enough.” She led him back to the bed. “For a start, help get her up.”

Standing on either side of Gudrun, they grabbed her under the arms and heaved. Her body was heavy, but together they managed to lift her to her feet, where she swayed against her husband. The canon was stronger than Hrotrud had thought. That was good, for she would need all his strength for what came next.

“We must force the babe down into position. When I give the command, lift her as high as you can. And shake hard.”

The canon nodded, his mouth set grimly. Gudrun hung like a dead weight between them, her head fallen forward on her chest.

“Lift!” shouted Hrotrud. They hoisted Gudrun by the arms and began to shake her up and down. Gudrun screamed and fought to free herself. Pain and fear gave her surprising strength; the two of them were hard put to restrain her. If only he had let me give her the henbane, Hrotrud thought. She would be half-sensible by now.

Quickly they lowered her, but she continued to struggle and cry out. Hrotrud gave a second command, and again they hoisted, shook, then lowered Gudrun to the bed, where she lay half-fainting, murmuring in her barbarous native tongue. Good, Hrotrud thought. If I move quickly, it will all be over before she regains her senses.

Hrotrud reached into the birth passage, probing for the opening to the womb. It was rigid and swollen from the long hours of ineffectual labor. Using her right index fingernail, which she kept long for just this purpose, Hrotrud tore at the resistant tissue. Gudrun groaned, then went completely limp. Warm blood poured over Hrotrud’s hand, down her arms, and onto the bed. At last she felt the opening give way. With an exultant cry, Hrotrud reached in and took hold of the baby’s head, exerting a gentle downward pressure.

“Take her by the shoulders and pull against me,” she instructed the canon, whose face had gone quite pale. Nevertheless he obeyed; Hrotrud felt the pressure increase as the canon added his strength to hers. After a few minutes, the baby started to move down into the birth passage. She kept pulling steadily, careful not to injure the soft bones of the child’s head and neck. At last the crown of the babe’s head appeared, covered with a mass of fine, wet hair. Hrotrud eased the head out gently, then turned the body to permit the right shoulder, then the left, to emerge. One last, firm tug and the small body slid wetly into Hrotrud’s waiting arms.

“A girl,” Hrotrud announced. “A strong one too, by the look of her,” she added, noting with approval the infant’s lusty cry and healthy pink color.

She turned to meet the canon’s disapproving stare.

“A girl,” he said. “So it was all for nothing.”

“Do not say so, sir.” Hrotrud was suddenly fearful that the canon’s disappointment might mean less for her to eat. “The child is healthy and strong. God grant that she live to do credit to your name.”

The canon shook his head. “She is a punishment from God. A punishment for my sins—and hers.” He motioned toward Gudrun, who lay motionless. “Will she live?”

“Yes.” Hrotrud hoped that she sounded convincing. She could not afford to let the canon think he might be doubly disappointed. She still hoped to taste meat that night. And there was, after all, a reasonable chance that Gudrun would survive. True, the birthing had been violent. After such an ordeal, many a woman came down with fever and the wasting disease. But Gudrun was strong; Hrotrud would treat her wound with a salve of mugwort mixed in fox’s grease. “Yes, God willing, she will live,” she repeated firmly. She did not feel it necessary to add that she would probably bear no more children.

“That’s something, then,” the canon said. He moved to the bed and stood looking down at Gudrun. Gently he touched the white-gold hair, darkened now with sweat. For a moment, Hrotrud thought he was going to kiss Gudrun. Then his expression changed; he looked stern, even angry.

“Per mulierem culpa successit,” he said. “Sin came through a woman.” He dropped the lock of hair and stepped back.

Hrotrud shook her head. Something from the Holy Book, no doubt. The canon was a strange one, all right, but that was none of her affair, God be thanked. She hurried to finish cleaning the blood and birth fluids off Gudrun so she could start back home while there was still daylight.

Gudrun opened her eyes and saw the canon standing over her. The beginnings of a smile froze on her lips as she saw the expression in his eyes.

“Husband?” she said doubtfully.

“A girl,” the canon said coldly, not troubling to hide his displeasure.

Gudrun nodded, understanding, then turned her face to the wall. The canon turned to go, stopping briefly to glance at the infant already safely ensconced in her pallet of straw.

“Joan. She will be called Joan,” he announced, and abruptly left the room.



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