Chapter 1

Bermersheim, Rhineland
September 1115

The night I learned that I would be leaving my family home, the sounds of talk and laughter took a long time to die down. Finally, a growing chorus of snores from the hall told me that the guests from Sponheim were asleep. But there was a murmur of voices close by, and a faint light was coming from behind the partition that separated my parents’ bedchamber from ours. Despite the late hour and the warmth of the bed I shared with my two sisters and a brother, curiosity got the best of me and I slipped out of it, stepping silently across the rush-covered floor. I pulled my nightgown closer about me, for the autumn night was chilly, and put my eye to a chink through which the light was seeping.

On the other side, the hearth was burning low, the reflection of its flames dancing sluggishly on the walls, and my parents, Mechtild and Hidelbert, sat facing each other across it. Their voices were low too, but they came clear and distinct through the crack in the wood.

“She is still a child, husband, only ten winters old.” My mother’s voice was sad.

“Almost eleven,” my father countered.

With sharp strokes my mother pulled a comb through the long strands of her graying hair. Normally, during her nightly combing ritual, those strokes were slow and deliberate.

After a lengthy silence, my father spoke again, “Oblates enter monasteries at all ages. Some spend years there before they are old enough to begin their novitiate.”

“You know as well as I do that it is not a common practice.”

“The opportunity the count has offered tonight to recommend Hildegard to his daughter’s convent is not to be passed over lightly.” Count Stephan von Sponheim and his wife Sophia, in whose honor our feast had been held, were old family friends visiting Bermersheim on their way back from Speier, where the count had had a landholding dispute to settle. I had never met their daughter Jutta, but, like everybody in the Rhineland, I knew of the famous beauty whose abrupt decision to take monastic vows had dashed the hopes of eligible bachelors from Trier to Mainz.

Silence descended on the chamber, during which my mother gazed straight at her husband with her big blue eyes – like mine, everyone said. This often had an unnerving effect on him, and the clipped tone of his next words indicated that it was so this time, too. “Hildegard was pledged to the Church on her birth.”

“I know,” she replied impatiently. As their tenth offspring, I belonged to the Church in accordance with a custom known as the tithe, a time-honored tradition that was a source of pride and prestige for families. So the question they disagreed on was not if, but rather when, I should enter the cloistered life.

“The count’s offer is generous indeed, and there is no doubt that Jutta von Sponheim would be a fitting teacher to Hildegard. But you heard what Countess Sophia said – their daughter founded the convent and took the veil when she was eighteen years old, a grown woman.”

“That is because she had not shown signs of a deeper sensibility of spirit before then, but Hildegard—”

“Shouldn’t she be allowed to reach womanhood and take this step with full awareness?” my mother interjected, in a tone that showed she did not care to hear that argument again. “We have been preparing her for it since she was born; she knows her destiny and will follow that path like the dutiful daughter she is. But to cut short her carefree days seems so harsh.”

My father ignored the interruption. “Hildegard has shown signs of a holy vocation since that day in the chapel—”

I knew the story well; in fact, I remembered it vividly, although it had happened when I was only three years old. One day I wondered into the family chapel out by the orchard and was dazed by the sunshine streaming through the narrow windows on both sides of the altar, like two swords of light. It illuminated the wooden figures of the Apostles that my grandfather had ordered at Worms many years ago in honor of Pope Gregorius’s reforming efforts. The brightness of that light caused my head to ache, but it also made me feel weightless, as if I were lifted off my feet, like a feather in the wind. Apparently, I stayed there for hours as the entire household searched for me frantically. It was my father who finally found me, and it was to him that I described my strange sensations in my tremulous, childish voice.

But there was one thing my family did not know about, a remembrance of a command the meaning of which I did not understand at that time.

Such reveries happened to me on several occasions after that, especially when sunlight flooded the dim interior of the chapel during Mass, and always ended in strong headaches that would send me to bed for days.

“—It’s a manifestation of the touch of the Holy Spirit!” My father’s voice rose enthusiastically, prompting my mother to bid him keep it down.

“They are just spells.” She rolled her eyes wearily.

“It is a gift.”

“Another two or three years would prepare her better for the rigors of the cloister.”

“The best way to prepare for it is to leave this world behind and devote oneself to the sacred duties of the contemplative life.” He added in a softer tone, perhaps sensing my mother’s desire to hold on to her youngest child for as long as she could, “Hildegard will be happy, and the Abbey of St. Disibod is only a day’s journey from here. She will be close, and we will feel it.”

But my mother would have none of it. “You like the prospect of a smaller endowment,” she said accusingly. “You think that Jutta’s anchorite ways and the humbleness of her convent will allow you to pay less to secure Hildegard’s entry.”

“That is not the reason,” he protested. “Our daughter has a gift that it is our duty to nurture.” Then his tone became irritable. “But there is nothing wrong with economizing. You don’t care for it because it is not your responsibility to ensure the well-being of this household. But you know as well as I do that salt prices have been falling for the past four years, and we are not earning as much from the Alzey mine as we used to. Meanwhile, the costs of educating Hugo at Mainz are higher than I expected, and the girls will reach marriageable age next year…”

The draft was making my feet cold, so I crept back to bed to take comfort from the warmth of my siblings’ sleeping bodies. Roric turned over, and Clementia murmured softly in a dream; then all was silent again. After a while, the light in the bedchamber went out, and I lay in the dark listening to the screeching of mice in the rushes. Normally this familiar sound would have put me to sleep, but not now. My head was filled with too many thoughts.

Leaving the family home forever would be difficult. There was a chance, of course, that my mother would prevail and I would remain at Bermersheim a little longer, but it was not likely – I knew very well that when my father made up his mind, there was no changing it. Listening to the steady breathing next to me, I was sure that I would miss Roric, although his chief entertainment these days consisted of chasing us with lizards and aiming them squarely down the collars of our frocks. I might even miss Clementia and Margaret, even though I found the pastimes that absorbed their entire attention boring. Unlike my sisters, I had no interest in sewing or embroidering amid giggly, half-whispered conversations about neighborhood weddings, and I was mystified as to how the ability to make one’s chain stitch even and round would help attract a good husband. Instead – to their unending astonishment – I asked for reading lessons from our mother’s Book of Hours or helped in the vegetable garden, planting and weeding alongside the kitchen servants, heedless of the warnings that I would end up tanned like a peasant.

What I would miss most was the forest surrounding Bermersheim, full of ancient oaks and chestnuts and quivering with the droning of bumblebees, the song of the thrush, and the cuckoo’s calls on warm summer afternoons. And the times when I would climb to our governess’s loft to watch her sort and mix bunches of dried herbs for use in drafts or ointments. Uda was the niece of a healing woman who lived in the woods just outside the village and from whom she had learned the best times to pick leaves and roots, so they were swelled with juices at the height of their curative powers. Uda taught me to love and respect herbs, and it was in the heady atmosphere of her chamber, warm and rich-scented, that I had first begun to marvel at the unseen power that seemed to connect all things in nature, nourishing and sustaining them. I called it viriditas, after a word I had found in my mother’s small gardening book. It means weed in Latin, but also greenness, vitality and freshness, and it is the perfect way to describe the secret, life-giving force flowing through the world. The thought of leaving my beloved forest and Uda’s loft behind filled me with deep sadness, and I felt two tears roll down my temples and sink into the pillow.

Yet the prospect was also exciting. For one thing, abbeys ran schools: my brother Hugo had gone to one at Lorsch, before moving to Mainz to train for the priesthood under the tutelage of the precentor of the great cathedral there. I had always envied him and now I would study too! The thought gave me a shiver of anticipation. Also, the idea of traveling away from the village where I had been born – and which I had never left, save for one trip with my father to Bingen with a consignment of salt from Alzey – seemed appealing. The occasional visitors to Bermersheim brought news of the latest developments in the emperor’s long-standing quarrel with the pope about who should have the right to name bishops, and of the emperor’s expeditions to Italy while his dukes schemed against him at home. These tidings filled my imagination with castles and knights like the raven-haired, dark-eyed Rudolf von Stade with a battle scar on his cheek, who was part of Count von Sponheim’s retinue, or the heroes of Uda’s bedtime stories, Siegfried and Roland, who wooed princesses and vanquished enemies.

The Abbey of St. Disibod would be no royal court, of course, but still I imagined it full of pilgrims and visitors, certainly more populous than the sleepy valley of Bermersheim, with its ancient house and a cluster of peasant cottages hugging the small parish church. When considered that way, the prospect of moving to St. Disibod was quite intriguing, in fact.

The crowing of the first rooster filled the air, and the eastern sky became a shade less dark through the shutters. Before long, the guests would be rising to take their leave and continue on to Sponheim. With the arrival of dawn, I felt the turmoil in my head subside and the heaviness of sleep descend on me at long last.

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