Abbey of St. Disibod, September 1143
I folded the letter and rose from my desk, intending to go find Volmar in the scriptorium to share the long-awaited news. It was a reply from Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom I had sent a chapter of my new book some months earlier in hopes that he would look favorably on my writing. He was such a famed cleric that I feared my effort would go unnoticed or ignored, but he had written back, and the response was positive. It stopped short of outright praise, for the ascetic French monk would have considered that an extravagance, but he told me I had a gift that it was my duty to nurture, and he sent me his blessings. It was enough. It would help pave my way for leaving St. Disibod and the monks who had made my life increasingly difficult, and to establish my own foundation. I could not wait to tell Volmar, my oldest and dearest friend.
But I did not make it halfway to the door of the surgery before it squeaked in its hinges, and Brother Fabian poked in his head. He had been scarcely more than a child when I had persuaded the late Brother Wigbert, my tutor and predecessor at the helm of the infirmary, to take him on as our assistant, but now his hair was threaded with gray.
“We have a patient with a hand injury you should see,” he informed me.
Putting the thoughts of Bernard of Clairvaux aside, I followed him, immediately assuming the mantle of physician.
“Second bed on the right.” Fabian pointed as we entered the ward. “He lost two fingers doing fieldwork. I washed the wound with warm wine and vinegar, but it does not look right. It’s a few days old, and I fear corruption has set in.”
The patient was a man in his thirties of strong peasant stock, but he looked pale and drawn as he held his left hand gingerly in his lap. The end of it was lightly swathed in a clean bandage, while a pile of dirty rags smelling faintly of barnyard lay on a nearby table. When I got closer, I saw that his face was covered with a film of sweat.
“What is your name, my good man?”
“Egbert, Sister. I come all the way from Weiler, near St. Rupert.”
The name of St. Rupert was vaguely familiar. “Is it farther down on the Nahe?” I began to take off the bandage.
“Aye. Just at the point when it flows into the Rhine.” His voice was strained, and he flinched when I touched the inflamed skin. The tips of his index and the middle fingers were gone, sliced clean off.
“Scythe?” I had seen this type of injury often, especially at harvest time.
“Near a week ago.”
“Had anyone cleaned the wound for you before you came here?”
“My wife made a poultice, but the bandages started smelling and getting warm. She made another, but it got worse, so I came up here with a merchant who was passing through our village on the way to Disibodenberg. He said you know how to treat such wounds.”
I sighed. I could have treated it if he had come quickly and avoided his wife’s ministrations. Judging by the smell of the old bandages, she had used animal dung, a practice that persisted in the countryside despite my efforts to make people aware of its dangers. As it was, the edges of Egbert’s wound had turned purple-blue, a sign of dangerous corruption. If unaddressed, it would move up the fingers, the hand, and the arm, blackening them and killing him in an agony of fever and pain. The only way to stop the progress was to perform an amputation.
Egbert’s lower lip wobbled when he heard my diagnosis, and I knew it was not from fear of pain—his livelihood was at stake.
“You are not the first man to lose a finger or two in this way.” I sought to console him as I rinsed the knife in vinegar and ran it over the flame of a candle. “With time and practice, you will learn to use the remaining three as if they were a full hand.”
After the procedure, which I completed swiftly, having been well trained in the art of surgery by Brother Wigbert, I cauterized the wound and made a poultice of mugwort, sanicle, and lovage to relieve the inflammation.
“You will stay here for three days so we can observe your progress,” I said and directed Fabian to reapply the poultice alternating with plasters of betony to bring down the swelling, which would help the wound to start knitting. Luckily, there were still fresh leaves available at that time of year; their effect was stronger than that of ointments or salves made from dried ingredients in wintertime.
Leaving Egbert in my assistant’s capable hands, I headed for the scriptorium.
On the way, I allowed myself a small fantasy of what my new life of freedom would be. I would be able to practice medicine as I saw fit, and write and share my work with whom I pleased. I had saved enough money from the income from our endowments, and from my medical guidebook that Volmar had copied and Ricardis had illuminated before they were sold to abbeys across the land.
But Abbot Kuno was an old man now; it was only a matter of time before Prior Helenger replaced him, and all of that would come to an end. Despite the convent’s wealth and my reputation as a physician, I could only hope to relocate over the monks’ objection if I had the endorsement of a great man of the Church. Abbot Bernard had unquestionably been one since he had helped to confirm Pope Innocent’s right to the throne of St. Peter against the usurper Anacletus in the year 1130. He was now considered one of the most powerful clerics in Christendom.
The day had started sunny, promising long hours of good light, but banks of gray clouds were now visible in the east. That worried me because it meant that Volmar and Ricardis would have to strain their eyes. They created beautiful books that had made the convent rich, but it was hard work, especially in autumn and winter when darkness fell early, and they had to labor with stiff fingers in dim candlelight. But they never complained. Ricardis never looked less than enthusiastic, eager to show off the imaginative drawings with which she decorated each page.
The weather was still mild. Clouds or rain meant that the work would be more challenging than usual, yet as I approached the carrel we were renting in the scriptorium, I smiled. Ricardis and Volmar were bent over their work, light flooding their slanted desks under the round arch of a window. I considered them for a moment, my two most beloved people in the world. Ricardis was in the prime of her life at thirty, glorious with a cascade of black hair—covered with a veil outside the convent—that surrounded a smooth face that had lost nothing of its youthful rosy glow. She was no longer the plump girl I had first met at Sponheim, the result of the monastic diet, but her slimness gave her a more sublime look, like a saint fresh from under a painter’s brush.
Volmar’s chestnut hair had thinned somewhat, but it still curled above his ears in the way that I found hopelessly charming, and he still applied himself to every task with the passion I remembered from our childhood. I sometimes wondered if the passage of time had been as kind to my appearance as it had been to theirs—I had just turned thirty-nine, though I felt as vigorous as ever. Between the three of us, our viriditas was strong, and we were blessed indeed.
If only they got along with each other! That was the only thing that marred my happiness. Though he had never said it, I knew Volmar did not like Ricardis. I sensed that he found her attachment to me excessive, and her desire to please me and elicit frequent approval unseemly. I did not understand what bothered him so about her—she was devoted, beautiful, and talented, and I saw no reason not to indulge her need for recognition. She deserved it, and I gave my praise freely when she presented me with margins ornamented with floral motifs, biblical scenes, or imagery suggested by me to represent my own words. Her skill shone through the exquisite red, green, yellow, and blue hues, combined with gold leaf to create perfect harmony. I praised Volmar too, though he never sought it, and it pained me to think that he might be jealous.
God knew he had no reason to feel that way. I loved Ricardis like one loves an exotic bird with colorful plumage or a cherry tree in fragrant bloom. One gets used to such wonders over time; they still please, but they cease to thrill. Volmar was different. He had a place in my life that nobody could take, and each day I was amazed anew that he had once given up a post at the Cluny abbey and returned to St. Disibod to share this simple lot with me. Without him, who knows if I would have become who I was, or had the courage to reach for what was still possible?
Volmar heard me first. As he lifted his eyes, the crease of concentration on his forehead relaxed, softening his face. Today he was copying my notes for Scivias, a book I had been working on for the past few years, committing to parchment my thoughts on faith, redemption, and the mysteries of creation as my mind understood them. Not all mysteries, of course—for God would forever hide certain things from human comprehension—but the ones that were discernible to those who knew how to look at the natural world.
For a long time, I had struggled with doubts about making my thoughts known and risking condemnation from the men who ruled the Church. Then one day, when I was ill with a particularly strong headache, out of the shimmering light that hurt my eyes came the old familiar voice that seemed to resonate both within me and without, and it permeated my body like a warming flame. Write the things you see and hear.
So I did.
And then I sent what I had written to Bernard of Clairvaux.
Next to Ricardis’s desk was a table on which she laid out the finished sheets to let the paints dry. I picked up the one with the image of the Holy Trinity, verdant vine entwined through the initial letter S of the text, and studied the figure painted in deep blue, surrounded by circles of blazing red and radiant white. That was how I had wanted the triune God to be depicted—the luminous outer disk symbolizing the perfection of the Father, the glowing fire the Holy Spirit, and the image of the Son encircled by both so the three were one.
Ricardis stopped working and trained her dark eyes on me. They shone with anticipation, and her chest swelled with bated breath.
“It looks better than I ever imagined it,” I said appreciatively. Though my eyes were on the parchment, I could sense Volmar shaking his head, so subtly Ricardis probably missed it. I smiled to appease him, though he looked more concerned than angry. What was he worried about? He was the most brilliant man I knew, the abbey’s authority on the finer points of Latin syntax, and his transcription refined my writing so it matched that produced by any man.
“I would have a word with you, Brother,” I said.
We crossed the scriptorium and stepped out onto the cloister walk, where yellowing leaves crunched under our feet, blown over the wall by the strengthening wind. Volmar breathed in the ripe, earthy scent of the approaching autumn, welcoming the break as we began to pace the arcaded perimeter to the soothing sounds of water trickling into a marble lavatorium. It was a reminder—if I needed any—that with my convent still within the Abbey of St. Disibod, the monks were sitting on a pot of gold.
“I have something to show you.” I paused under an arch and took the letter from the folds of my habit.
Volmar read the few lines—as in everything, Bernard of Clairvaux was spare in his writing—and his eyebrows rose higher and higher. He gave me a puzzled look of his hazel eyes. In sunlight, they were flecked with honey. At thirty-seven, fine lines had begun to appear in the corners of his eyes, but now astonishment had smoothed them all out. “You sent Scivias to Abbot Bernard.” It was a statement more than a question, and there was disbelief in it.
“Only the chapter on the Trinity,” I said, a contrite note stealing into my voice. “I made the copy myself.” I held my breath. “What do you think of his response? He encourages me to continue.”
He opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head helplessly. I knew what he was thinking. The Trinity, of all things! Bernard of Clairvaux had been involved in a long and infamous feud with Peter Abelard on that very subject.
“It seemed presumptuous”—I wrung my hands, though I could not bring myself to feel any regret over it—“which is why I didn’t tell you earlier. I was afraid you would try to dissuade me.”
“What you sent . . .” Volmar rubbed his forehead. “You didn’t have Ricardis illuminate it, by any chance?”
I grinned as I shook my head, and his relief was visible. Abbot Bernard was famous for his fiery sermons as much as for the asceticism that went beyond the body and stretched to everyday objects, even the buildings surrounding him. Volmar had once heard him denounce the sumptuous church at Cluny, and the comforts of that abbey’s cloister and its guest quarters. I knew he would not have taken kindly to receiving anything colorful and expensive. I had been careful to send him only the plain text.
The frown returned to Volmar’s face. “You took a great risk. You know what clerics like Bernard think of women speaking on theological matters. Even with men’s writings, they scrutinize every word for dogmatic conformity.” I opened my mouth, but he spoke over me, his normally calm voice sharpening with an accusatory edge. “I thought we were going to keep Scivias at St. Disibod, not circulate it.”
I lowered my head, feeling guilty for the first time. It was true that when I had first told him about my idea for the book, he had been wary. It was around the time the conflict between Bernard and Abelard had flared up again, leading to another trial of the hapless Parisian theologian, during which the abbot of Clairvaux persuaded the council of bishops to condemn him for daring to apply reason to the effort of comprehending the nature of God. After that censure, Abelard had retired to the Priory of Saint-Marcel-lès-Chalon, where he died less than a year later.
Bernard’s numerous supporters were constantly on the lookout for heresy—or any departure from the orthodoxy, for that matter. What Volmar had worried about then, as now, was the charged atmosphere in the Church, so I had told him the book would be for the sisters’ edification.
“Sending it to Abbot Bernard is not the same as circulating it,” I countered. “Besides, you know there is nothing subversive in my take on the Trinity. It is about the imagery, not the essence. I use the senses and intuition rather than logical arguments.”
“What I know doesn’t matter,” he replied, but the edge had not quite disappeared from his voice. “The Church is in a frenzy, and if you attract attention, there are many who would not rest until they found something with which to charge you, and they would be impervious to all arguments to the contrary.”
Irritation began to rise within me, and I straightened my back. Lately, it seemed that Volmar disapproved of too many things I did. I appreciated that he worried about me, but I had to grasp opportunities without dwelling on the risks. I was responsible for a community of seven women, and our well-being depended on whether I had the courage to act.
Above the cloister, the clouds were fleeting across the sky, alternately flooding the quadrangle with sunlight and plunging it into a more somber shade. “I will be fine.” I pointed at the letter he was still holding in his hands. “It worked out. He could have condemned me, but he did not. He gave me his blessing. With this kind of endorsement, the abbot will not be able to refuse my request.”
“To release us so we can relocate the convent.”
His gaze darkened. We had not spoken about this for years. “Do not expect it to be easy,” he warned me quietly, handing the letter back. Then he was struck by a sudden thought. “Is that why you wrote to Abbot Bernard?”
I took a moment to respond. “Partly, but I also wanted him to read my work.”
Now that I had Bernard’s acknowledgment, I was going to continue to write no matter how many men of the Church it offended.
Later that night, when everyone was asleep, I sat in the chapel, reflecting. It had been twelve years since I had made a pledge at the grave of our founder, Jutta von Sponheim, to leave St. Disibod. I was finally going to honor it. It did not escape me that Jutta’s extreme asceticism—which had ended her life before its time, and which I had never been able to accept or justify—was most likely the reason Abbot Bernard had responded so favorably to me. He knew her reputation, and he admired her. It is curious the compromises life sometimes forces upon us. For under different circumstances, if I were not so desperate to move, I doubt I would have had much time for Bernard of Clairvaux.
I reached into the pocket of my robe for the little box with the lump of salt my mother had given 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 my brother Roric and my sister Clementia more recently, the last threads connecting me to Bermersheim fraying and breaking. But this heart-shaped stone was still with me, hard and unchanged, 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 Kuno and 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 just how fierce it would be.
The Column of Burning Spices, part 2 of the Hildegard of Bingen duology, will be out February 1, 2019. Part 1, The Greenest Branch, is available now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, UK, and several other marketplaces.
I am looking forward to it!