Biographies & Memoirs



IN THE shadowy predawn moonlight, the brothers of Fulda descended the night stairs and walked serenely in single file through the inner courtyard to the church, their gray robes merging seamlessly with the darkness. The quiet slap of their plain leathern sandals was the only sound to break the profound silence; even the larks would not awaken for several hours. The brothers entered the choir and, with the sureness of long habit, moved to their assigned positions for the celebration of vigils.

Brother John Anglicus knelt with the others, shifting knees with practiced, unconscious movements to find the most comfortable place on the packed earth floor.

Domine labia mea aperies … They began with a versicle, then moved on to the third psalm, following the form laid down by St. Benedict in his blessed rule.

John Anglicus liked this first office of the day. The unchanging pattern of the ceremony left the mind free to roam while the lips mouthed the familiar words. Several brothers were already starting to nod, but John Anglicus felt marvelously awake, all senses quickened and alert to this little world lit by flickering candle flames, bounded by the comforting solidity of the walls.

The feeling of belonging, of community, was especially strong this time of night. Daylight’s sharp edges, so quick to expose individual personalities, likes and dislikes, loyalties and grudges, were submerged in the muted shadows and the resonant unison of the brothers’ voices, hushed and melodic in the still night air.

Te Deum laudamus … John Anglicus chanted the Alleluia with the others, their bowed, cowled heads as indistinguishable as seeds in a furrow.

But John Anglicus was not like the others. John Anglicus did not belong here among this renowned and distinguished brotherhood. It was not through any defect of mind or character that this was so. It was an accident of fate, or of a cruel, indifferent God, that set John Anglicus irrevocably apart. John Anglicus did not belong among the brothers of Fulda, because John Anglicus, born Joan of Ingelheim, was a woman.

FOUR years had passed since she had presented herself at the abbey foregate disguised as her brother John. “Anglicus” they named her, because of her English father, and even among this select brotherhood of scholars, poets, and intellects, she soon distinguished herself.

The very same qualities of mind that as a woman had earned her derision and contempt were here universally praised. Her brilliance, knowledge of Scripture, and quick-wittedness in scholarly debate became matters of community pride. She was free—no, encouraged—to work to the very limit of her abilities. Among the novices, she was quickly promoted to seniorus; this gave her greater freedom of access to the renowned Fulda library—an enormous collection of some three hundred and fifty codices, including an extraordinarily fine series of classical authors—Suetonius, Tacitus, Virgil, Pliny, Marcellinus, among others. She ranged among the neatly rolled stacks in a transport of delight. All the knowledge of the world was here, it seemed, and all was hers for the asking.

Coming upon her reading a treatise of St. Chrysostom one day, Prior Joseph was surprised to discover that she knew Greek, a skill no other brother possessed. He told Abbot Raban, who immediately set her to work translating the abbey’s excellent collection of Greek treatises on medicine; these included five of Hippocrates’ seven books of aphorisms, the complete Tetrabiblios of Aëtius, as well as fragments of works by Oribasius and Alexander of Tralles. Brother Benjamin, the community physician, was so impressed with Joan’s work that he made her his apprentice. He taught her how to grow and harvest the plants in the medicinal herb garden, and how to make use of their various healing properties: fennel for constipation, mustard for coughs, chervil for hemorrhages, wormwood and willow-bark for fevers—there were curatives in Benjamin’s garden for every human ailment imaginable. Joan helped him compound the various poultices, purges, infusions, and simples that were the mainstay of monastic medicine, and she accompanied him to the infirmary to tend the sick. It was fascinating work, exactly suited to her inquisitive, analytical mind. Between her studies and her work with Brother Benjamin, as well as the bells that rang regularly seven times a day, calling the brethren to canonical prayers, her days were busy and productive. There was a freedom and power in this man’s existence that she had never experienced before, and Joan found that she liked it; she liked it very much.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you this, for it will swell your head till it no longer fits the cowl,” gossipy old Hatto, the porter, had said to her just the day before, smiling cheerfully to let her know he was only jesting. “But yesterday I heard Father Abbot tell Prior Joseph that you had the keenest mind of all the brethren and would one day bring great distinction to this house.”

The words of the old fortune-teller from the St.-Denis fair echoed in Joan’s ears: “Greatness will be yours, beyond your imaginings.” Was this what she had meant? “Changeling,” the old woman had called her and said, “You are what you will not be; what you will become is other than you are.”

That much is certainly true, Joan thought ruefully, fingering the small hairless spot at the crown of her head, almost obscured by the thick ring of curly white-gold hair encircling it. Her hair—her mother’s hair—had been Joan’s only vanity. Nevertheless, she had welcomed being shaved. Her monk’s tonsure, along with the thin scar on her cheek left by the Norseman’s sword, enhanced her masculine disguise—a disguise upon which her life now depended.

When she had first come to Fulda, she faced each day full of apprehension, never knowing if some new and unanticipated aspect of the monastic routine would suddenly expose her identity. She worked hard to mimic a masculine carriage and demeanor but worried that she was giving herself away in dozens of unsuspected little ways, though no one seemed to take notice.

Fortunately, the Benedictine way of life was carefully designed to protect the modesty of every member of the community, from the abbot to the lowliest of the brothers. The physical body, sinful vessel, had to be concealed insofar as possible. The long, full robes of the Benedictine habit provided ample camouflage of her budding woman’s shape; as an added precaution, however, she bound her breasts tightly with strong linen strips. The Rule of St. Benedict explicitly stated that the brothers must sleep in their robes and reveal no more than hands and feet even on the hottest nights of Heuvimanoth. Baths were prohibited, except for the sick. Even the necessaria, the community latrines, preserved brotherly modesty through the provision of sturdy concealing partitions between all of the cold stone seats.

Upon first adopting her disguise on the road from Dorstadt to Fulda, Joan had learned to contain her monthly bleeding with a thick wadding of absorbent leaves, which she could later bury. In the abbey, even this precaution proved unnecessary. She simply dropped the soiled leaves down the deep, dark holes of the necessaria, where they mixed indistinguishably with other excreta.

Everyone at Fulda accepted her unquestioningly as a boy. Once a person’s gender was established, Joan came to realize, no one thought any more about it. This was fortunate, for discovery of her true identity would mean certain death.

It was that certainty that kept her, at first, from any attempt to contact Gerold. There was no one she could trust to bear a message, and no way for her to leave. As a novice she was closely watched at all hours of the day and night.

She had lain awake for hours on her narrow dormitory cot, tormented by doubt. Even if she could get word to Gerold, would he want her? When they had been together that last time at the river-bank, she had wanted him to make love to her—she blushed at the remembrance—but he had refused. Afterward, on the way home, he was distant and remote, almost as if angry. Then he had taken the first opportunity to go away.

“You shouldn’t have taken him so seriously,” Richild had said. “You are only the latest bead in Gerold’s long necklace of conquests.” Was Richild right? At the time it had seemed impossible to believe, but perhaps Richild had been telling the truth.

It would be absurd to risk everything, her very life, to contact a man who did not want her, who had perhaps never wanted her. And yet …

SHE had been at Fulda three months when she witnessed something that helped her decide what to do. She was passing through the grange court with a group of fellow novices on the way to their cloister when a lively commotion near the porter’s gate drew their attention. She watched as an escort of mounted men rode through, followed by a lady, sumptuously arrayed in cloth of golden silk, as straight and elegant in the saddle as a marble pillar. She was beautiful, her delicate, rounded features and pale skin framed by a waterfall of lustrous, light brown hair, but her dark, intelligent eyes held a look of mysterious sadness.

“Who is she?” Joan asked, intrigued.

“Judith, wife of Viscount Waifar,” replied Brother Rudolph, the master of novices. “A learned woman. They say she can read and write Latin like a man.”

“Deo, juva nos.” Brother Gailo crossed himself fearfully. “Is she a witch?”

“She has a great reputation for piety. She has even written a commentary on the life of Esther.”

“Abomination,” said Brother Thomas, one of the other novices. A homely young man with a melon face, cleft chin, and heavy-lidded eyes, Thomas was convinced of his own superior virtue and seized every opportunity to display it. “A gross violation of nature. What can a woman, a creature of base passions, know of such things? God will surely punish her for her arrogance.”

“He already has,” Brother Rudolph replied, “for though the viscount needs an heir, his lady is barren. Just last month, she was delivered of another stillborn babe.”

The noble procession pulled up before the abbatial church. Joan watched Judith dismount and approach the church door with solemn dignity, carrying a single taper.

“You should not stare, Brother John,” Thomas remonstrated piously. He frequently curried favor with Brother Rudolph at the expense of his fellow novices. “A good monk should keep his eyes chastely lowered before a woman,” he quoted sanctimoniously from the rule.

“You are right, Brother,” Joan replied. “But I’ve never seen a lady like that, with one eye blue and the other brown.”

“Do not compound your sin with falsehood, Brother John. Both the lady’s eyes are brown.”

“And how do you know that, Brother,” Joan inquired slyly, “if you did not look at her?”

The other novices burst into laughter. Even Brother Rudolph could not suppress a smile.

Thomas glared at Joan. She had made him look a fool, and he was not one to forget such an injury.

Their attention was distracted by Brother Hildwin, the sacristan, who hurried to interpose himself between Judith and the church.

“Peace be with you, lady,” he said, using the Frankish vernacular.

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” she replied smoothly in perfect Latin.

Pointedly, Brother Hildwin addressed her again in the vernacular. “If you require food and lodging, we stand ready to accommodate you and your entourage. Come, I will escort you to the house for distinguished visitors and inform our lord Abbot of your arrival. He will doubtless wish to greet you in person.”

“You are most kind, Father, but I do not require hospitalitas,” she replied again in Latin. “I only wish to light a candle in the church for my dead babe. Then I will be on my way.”

“Ah! Then it is my duty, as sacristan of this church, to inform you, Daughter, that you may not pass through these doors while you are still”—he sought a suitable word—“unclean.”

Judith flushed but did not lose her composure. “I know the law, Father,” she said calmly. “I have waited the requisite thirty-three days since the birthing.”

“The babe of which you were delivered was a girl child, was it not?” Brother Hildwin said with an air of condescension.


“Then the time of … uncleanliness … is longer. You may not enter the sacred confines of this church for sixty-six days after the birth of the child.”

“Where is this written? I have not read this law.”

“Nor is it fitting that you should, being a woman.”

Joan started indignantly at the brazenness of the affront. With the force of remembered experience, she felt the shame of Judith’s humiliation. All the lady’s learning, her intelligence, her breeding stood for naught. The vilest beggar, ignorant and mud streaked, could enter the church to pray, but Judith could not, for she was “unclean.”

“Return home, Daughter,” Brother Hildwin continued, “and pray in your own chapel for the soul of your unbaptized babe. God has a horror of what is against nature. Lay down the pen and pick up a womanly needle; repent of pridefulness, and He may lift the burden He has placed upon you.”

The flush in Judith’s cheeks spread its color across her face. “This insult shall not go unanswered. My husband shall know of it directly, and he will not be pleased.” This was a piece of face-saving bravado, for Viscount Waifar’s temporal authority carried no weight here, and she knew it. Holding her head high, she turned toward her waiting mount.

Joan came forward from the little group of novices.

“Give me the candle, lady,” she said, holding out her hand. “I will light it for you.”

Surprise and distrust registered in Judith’s beautiful dark eyes. Was this a further attempt to humiliate her?

For a long moment the two women stood looking at each other, Judith the epitome of feminine beauty in her golden tunic, her long hair framing her face in a becoming cloud, Joan, the taller of the two, boyish and unadorned in her plain monk’s garb.

Something in the compelling gray-green eyes that met hers with such intensity persuaded Judith. Wordlessly she placed the slim taper into Joan’s outstretched hand. Then she remounted and rode through the gate.

Joan lighted the candle before the altar as she had promised. The sacristan was furious. “Intolerable cheek!” he declared. And that night, to Brother Thomas’s evident delight, Joan was required to fast in penance for her crime.

AFTER this episode, Joan made a determined effort to put Gerold from her mind. She could never be happy living a woman’s restricted existence. Besides, she reasoned, her relationship with Gerold was not what she had believed it to be. She had been a child, inexperienced and naive; her love had been a romantic delusion born of loneliness and need. Gerold had certainly not loved her, or he would never have left.

Aegra amans, she thought. Truly Virgil was right: love was a form of sickness. It altered people, made them behave in strange and irrational ways. She was glad she was done with it.

Never give yourself to a man. Her mother’s words of warning came back to her. She had forgotten them in the fervor of her childish infatuation. Now she realized how lucky she had been to have escaped her mother’s fate.

Over and over again Joan told herself these things, until at last she came to believe them.

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