Abbey of St. Disibod, September 1143
When I heard that the messenger had come from Burgundy, for a moment I could not breathe. Griselda handed me the letter with a quizzical look before she withdrew from the surgery. Had she heard my heart racing? Blood hammering in my temples?
I tore the wax seal impatiently—I had only sent the excerpt of my manuscript to France in February, but it had been twelve years since I had made a pledge at Jutta von Sponheim’s grave to relocate the women’s community. Since then, our situation had only become worse, even as the monks continued to profit from my medical writings, and from the reputation of the infirmary I was running.
The year before, Prior Helenger had finally persuaded Abbot Kuno to implement a fee for our use of the carrell in the scriptorium where copies of The Book of the Secrets of Various Types of Nature were illuminated before being sold to abbeys across the land. Kuno was an old man now; it was only a matter of time before Helenger replaced him, and I had to act. But although I finally had enough money, I could do it only if the letter—which bore the seal of the abbey of Clairvaux—contained the answer I had been hoping for.
I turned the parchment between my fingers, and when I finally unfolded it and saw that it was covered with even rows of small handwriting, a sense of disappointment welled inside me. The note was short—less than half a page.
To Hildegard, Magistra of the Convent of St. Disibod,
Forgive, dear Sister, the briefness of this letter as I am constantly kept busy in the service to Our Lord. He bestowed a great gift on you that you must nurture with humility.
Despite my anxiety, I could not help smiling—Bernard never missed an opportunity to admonish against sin.
I shall not advise you on things that are beyond any mortal man’s understanding. But I hope that the Holy Spirit continues to guide you so that those who listen to you may be strengthened in turn.
I keep you and your Sisters in my prayers, and send you my blessings.
Brother Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux
That was all.
I had saved enough for temporary accommodations where we could live while we built a new foundation, but money was only a part of it. My reputation as a physician was only a part of it. What I had to have was an endorsement from a great man of the Church; and ever since Bernard had skillfully built a coalition to help confirm Pope Innocent’s right to the throne of St. Peter against the usurper Anacletus in the year 1130, he had held an unquestionable position as one of the most powerful clerics in Christendom.
It did not matter that the response was brief, and that most likely it was Jutta’s reputation for extreme asceticism that had earned me Bernard’s favor. It did not even matter that he had been politic enough not to address directly the substance of my discourse on the Holy Trinity (perhaps his long-standing feud with Abelard on that very subject had made him cautious?), but it was enough. Just the fact that he had deigned to read my writing—and that he replied—strengthened my position mightily.
I sat back, exhaling, and reached into the pocket of my robe for the little box with the lump of salt my mother gave me on the day we had arrived at St. Disibod twenty-nine years before. I opened the lid and gazed at the dazzling whiteness of the piece. Both my parents had long since died, as had, more recently, my brother Roric and my sister Clementia, the last threads connecting me to Bermersheim fraying and breaking; but this heart-shaped stone was still with me, strong and pure, a silent witness over the years to my sorrows and hopes. And now, perhaps, a triumph at last.
Of course, none of this meant that things would go smoothly with Abbot Kuno and Prior Helenger. They had grown rich from their association with me, and I fully expected them to put up a fight. What I did not know was how fierce it would be.
The Column of Burning Spices, part 2 of the Hildegard of Bingen duology, will be out in January 2019. Part 1, The Greenest Branch, is available now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, UK, and several other marketplaces.