Biographies & Memoirs


THE classroom, a small, stone-walled chamber adjacent to the cathedral library, remained cool and moist even on this warm fall afternoon. Joan loved its coolness and the rich smell of parchment that permeated the air, an enticement to explore the vast holding of books that lay just next door.

An enormous painting covered the wall at the front of the room. It was a picture of a woman dressed in the long, flowing robes of the Greeks. In her left hand she held a pair of shears; in her right, a whip. The woman represented Knowledge; her shears were to prune away error and false dogma, her whip was to reprimand lazy students. The brows of Knowledge were sharply drawn together, and the corners of her mouth curved down, creating a stern expression. The dark eyes glared from the painted wall, seeming to focus on the observer, their look hard and commanding. Odo had commissioned the work shortly after assuming the position of teaching master at the schola.

“Bos mugit, equus hinnit, asinus rudit, elephans barrit …”

On the left side of the room, the less advanced students chanted monotonously, practicing simple verb forms.

“Cows moo, horses neigh, donkeys bray, elephants roar …”

Odo motioned rhythmically with his right hand, setting the pace of the chant. Meanwhile, his eyes swept the room with practiced skill, monitoring the work of his other students.

Ludovic and Ebbo huddled together over one of the psalms. They were supposed to be memorizing it, but the tilt of their heads toward each other indicated that they had ceased to concentrate on their work. Without letting his other hand miss a beat of the chanting rhythm, Odo smacked both boys sharply on the backs of their heads with a long wooden rod. They yelped and bent over their tablets again, models of industriousness.

Nearby, John was working on a chapter of Donatus. He was clearly having great difficulty. He read slowly, painstakingly forming each vowel and consonant with his lips, stopping frequently to scratch his head in puzzlement over some unfamiliar word pattern.

Sitting apart from the others—for they would have nothing to do with her—Joan was intent on the task to which Odo had set her, preparing a gloss of a life of St. Antony. She worked quickly, her stylus traveling across the parchment with confidence and precision. She did not look up, nor did her attention waver for an instant. Her concentration was absolute.

Odo said shortly, “That is enough for today. This group”—he gestured toward the novices—“is dismissed. The rest of you will remain at your seats until I have checked your work.”

The novices rose excitedly from their desks, exiting the room as quickly as decorum permitted. The other students put down their styluses and watched Odo expectantly, eager to be released to the pleasures of the warm afternoon.

Joan remained studiously bent over her work.

Odo frowned. The girl’s zeal had admittedly surprised him. His hand itched to use the rod on her, but so far she had given him no occasion. She actually seemed to want to learn.

Odo walked to her desk and stood over her pointedly. She stopped working then, her expression registering surprise and even—was it possible?—disappointment.

“Did you call on me, sir? Pardon me; I was concentrating on my work and did not hear you,” Joan said politely.

She acts her part well, Odo thought. But I am not deceived. Oh, she pretended respect and submission whenever he addressed her, but he read the truth in her eyes. In her soul, she mocked and challenged him. That Odo would not tolerate.

He bent to examine her work, shuffling the pieces of parchment in silence.

“The hand,” he said, “is not sufficiently fair. See here—and here”—he stabbed at the parchment with one long, white finger— “you do not round your letters sufficiently. Child, what explanation can you offer for such sloppy work?”

Sloppy work! Joan was indignant. She had just glossed ten pages of text—far more than any of the other students could have done in twice the time. Her explanations were accurate and complete—even Odo did not try to deny that. She had seen his eyes flicker as they scanned the passage with her elegant handling of the subjunctive.

“Well?” Odo prodded her. He wanted her to defy him, to answer him boldly. Arrogant and unnatural creature. He knew she sought to violate the God-given order of the universe by usurping men’s rightful authority over her. Go ahead, he willed her. Speak your mind. If she did, he would have her where he wanted her.

Joan fought to keep her emotions under control. She knew what Odo was trying to do. But no matter how hard he provoked her, she would not oblige him. She would not provide him with a reason to dismiss her from the schola. Keeping her voice flat, she replied dryly, “I have no excuse, sir.”

“Very well,” Odo said. “As punishment for your indolence, you will copy out the passage from First Timothy, chapter two, verses eleven and twelve, twenty-five times in a good hand before you leave.”

Dark resentment boiled inside Joan. Nasty, narrow-minded man! If only she could tell him what she thought of him!

“Yes, sir.” She kept her eyes lowered, so he could not read her thoughts.

Odo was disappointed. Still, the girl could not keep this up forever. Sooner or later—the thought made him smile—she would give herself away. When she did, he would be waiting.

He left her and went to check on his other students.

Joan sighed and picked up her stylus. First Timothy, chapter two, verses eleven and twelve. She knew it well enough; it was not the first time Odo had levied this punishment. It was a quotation from St. Paul: “I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must a woman domineer over a man; she should be quiet and listen with due submission.”

SHE was halfway through the writing when she first sensed something wrong. She looked up. Odo was gone. The boys were standing in a knot by the door, talking. That was odd. Usually they rushed from the room as soon as lessons were over. She watched them warily. John stood on the outer fringe of the little group, listening. She caught his eye, and he smiled and waved.

She smiled in return, then went back to her writing. But a tiny prickle of alarm raised the hairs on her neck. Were the boys planning something? They frequently teased and tormented her—Odo did nothing to stop them—and though she had steeled herself to their abuse, she still dreaded it.

Hurriedly she finished the last few lines and rose to leave. The boys were standing by the door. She knew they were waiting for her. She lifted her chin determinedly. Whatever they had in store for her, she would walk past quickly and have done with it.

Her cloak hung on a wooden peg near the door. Making an elaborate gesture of ignoring the boys, she retrieved it, fastened it carefully round her neck, and pulled up the hood.

Something heavy and wet pooled on the top of her head. Immediately she tugged at the hood, but it would not come off. The sticky wetness oozed downward. She reached up and touched it; her fingers came away coated with a thick, mucousy substance. Gum arabic. A common material in schoolrooms and scriptoria, it was used, with vinegar and charcoal, to make ink. She wiped her hand on her cloak, but the gum arabic clung stickily. Frantically, she pulled at the hood again and yelped as her hair was yanked painfully by the roots.

Her cry elicited a shout of laughter from the boys. She walked quickly toward the door. The group parted as she drew near, forming a line on either side.

“Lusus naturae!” they taunted her. “Freak of nature!”

Halfway down the line she saw John. He was laughing and shouting insults along with the others. She met his eyes; he flushed and looked away.

She kept walking. Too late she saw the flash of blue cloth near the floor. She tripped and fell clumsily, landing heavily on her side.

John, she thought. He tripped me.

She got to her feet, wincing as a sharp pain shot down her side. The disgusting slime oozed from under the hood onto her face. She wiped at it, trying to keep it out of her eyes, but it was no use. It slid glutinously over her eyebrows onto her lids, gumming her eyelashes, making it impossible to see clearly.

Laughing, the boys crowded in, shoving her back and forth, trying to make her fall again. She heard John’s voice among the others, calling out insults. Through the thick film that covered her eyes, the room spun dizzyingly in alternating patterns of light and color. She could no longer make out the door.

She felt a sudden sting of tears.

Oh no, she thought. That was what they wanted—to make her weep and plead for mercy, to show some weakness, so they could mock her as a coward of a girl.

They shall not have that. I will not give them that.

She held herself straight, willing herself not to cry. This display of self-control only inflamed them, and they began to hit harder. The biggest of the boys struck her forcefully on the neck. The blow staggered her, and she fought to keep her feet.

A man’s voice shouted in the distance. Had Odo come at last to put an end to this?

“What is happening here?”

This time she recognized the voice. Gerold. There was a tone in his voice she had never heard before. The boys backed away from her so suddenly she almost fell again.

Gerold’s arm was around her shoulder, steadying her. She leaned into him gratefully.

“Well, Bernhar.” Gerold addressed the biggest boy, the one who had hit her on the neck. “Wasn’t it just last week I watched you at weapons practice, trying so desperately to keep out of range of Eric’s sword that you could not manage a single strike? Yet I see that you have no difficulty fighting when your opponent is a defenseless girl.”

Bernhar stammered an explanation, but Gerold cut him off.

“You may tell that to His Lordship the bishop. He will send for you when he learns of this. Which he will, this very day.”

The silence around them was absolute. Gerold lifted Joan in his arms. She felt with some surprise the rippling power of his arms and back. He was so tall and lean, she had not realized he was so strong. She tilted her head away so the disgusting slime that covered her would not mar his tunic.

Halfway to his mount, Gerold turned. “One thing more. From what I have witnessed, she is braver than any of you. Yes, and smarter too, for all that she is a girl.”

Joan felt the start of tears in her eyes. No one had ever spoken for her like that save Aesculapius.

Gerold was—different.

The bud of a rose grows in darkness. It knows nothing of the sun, yet it pushes at the darkness that confines it until at last the walls give way and the rose bursts forth, spreading its petals into the light.

I love him.

The thought was as startling as it was sudden. What could it mean? She could not be in love with Gerold. He was a nobleman, a great lord, and she was a canon’s daughter. He was a mature man of twenty-eight winters, and Joan knew he thought of her as a child, though in fact she was almost thirteen and would soon be a woman grown.

Besides, he had a wife.

Joan’s mind was a whirl of confusing emotions.

Gerold lifted her onto his horse and mounted behind. The boys stood huddled before the door, not daring to speak. Joan leaned back into Gerold’s arms, feeling his strength, drawing upon it.

“Now,” Gerold said, spurring the horse into a canter, “I will take you home.”

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