Much more lighthearted and unusual this week. I was reading the introduction to Cathy Newman’s book Bloody Brilliant Women and I came across an nun from the 10th century who wore golden gowns and argued with the male clergy. I loved the idea of a celebrity culture existing back then around kings and bishops, and thought she was just too interesting not to delve into a little more. Hope you enjoy it.
Pride Comes in Many Guises
The two thralls slopped through the mud. After a heavy rainfall, the animals would need helping back to the house.
“Never guess what.” Arth shook his hood to get the water off.
“What?” Dell wiped his nose.
“The Good Lady said words to me.” Arth stopped, waiting for a reaction.
“No.” Dell plodded on.
“I tell you.” Arth hurried forward, one foot slipping on the slop. The pig watched him from the trough.
“Never.” Dell grabbed the goat by the horns and dragged it away from the plants, nettles hanging from its mouth.
“Just yesterday. With young Brant, you can ask him. We were fixing the Thane’s fence and up she come.” He reached the pig and scratched between its ears. “Asked us how we were, if we had the pox.”
“Brant,” Dell snorted. “Frumbyrdling.”
“True, he got no hair on his face. But I tell you.” Arth pulled at the rope around the pig’s belly, struggling to keep up with Arth. “She said there was this new place.” He paused, face screwed up with the effort of remembering. “A horse-pit-all. We can go there when we get sick.”
“Horses?” Dell stopped under the awning by the house.
“Right enough, not sure about that. Maybe they give treatment to the horses then if there’s something spare, they give it us?” Arth had pictured a long trench next to the stone buildings of the abbey, the horses down in it, stamping and sweating with fever. It wasn’t a place he wanted to go when he was scratchy from another rash.
Dell was already hitching up the cloth that hung down the middle of the room, separating them from the animals. It would be a cold one tonight. The bed next to the pig was the favourite – heated with filthy warmth from her hide. Arth could tell he was losing his audience.
“She was wearing gold.” For a moment he thought Dell hadn’t heard. His hands continued to tie up the waxed straps.
“Gold.” The word almost got lost in his beard.
“Right enough. All glint in the sun and what with her being a nun and all I heard tell some think it’s a shame but you don’t get the likes of that over Ugford way, all their ladies in black and all serious and the like but Brant said she got an actual wolf in her house and it licks her hand.”
“Wolf.” Dell looked up, shaking his head.
“Like you say, he’s a frumbyrdling, but they do say how she still wears a hair shirt under all that fancy garb so she’s still holy and that. Anyway, ’tis a shame about her Pa flittin’ off what with him being king and all. Can’t say that over Ugford, can they? Actual princess coming and asking about your pox.” Arth tramped the mud of his shoes, surety in each stamp.
“Right enough.” Dell hunched down over the fire, blinking. In the flickering light you could almost see a twitch either side of his mouth, something like pride shining in his smoke-laden eyes. “Right enough.”
Edith lingered in her menagerie. A beast sat at her feet, tongue lolling in adoration. While not quite the wolf of Arth’s imaginings, there was a certain lupine cast to the shaggy grey fur and pointed ears. Overhead, birds of all sizes twittered.
“Sister.” One of the novices scuttled in, eyes to the floor.
“Yes, dearie?” She hoped this one wouldn’t be as dull as the others. All obedience and scratchy cloth. It really was most tiresome how dull most of the nuns were. Even with the white robes and gold trim her mother had designed, they somehow managed to make it seem like a penance to wear it.
“His Excellency the Right Reverend Bishop of Winchester is here to see you.”
“Fantastic.” This would liven up an otherwise dull day. “Aetherwold is always ripe for a good exchange of words.”
The young novice winced at the familiarity. Maybe not a protégé after all. She turned and shuffled away, robes trailing in the heaps of bird poo that collected frequently in Edith’s little zoo.
No doubt he was here about the new church. She scattered breadcrumbs on the floor, causing a flurry of wings to descend. A tawny rabbit lolloped into view from behind a bush.
“Mother Abbess.” A slight nod of the head.
“Ah, Arty, what brings you here?” Edith slapped the side of his arm. He shrank away, ducking from the wings that came at him from all sides. The small pile of bread lay just under his feet. Edith hid her smile at the delicious insult.
“We must discuss the chapel of the honourable St. Denis.” He waved his hands and the pecking presence around his head. “There are concerns about cost and design.”
“I’m sure there are.” Her meeting last week with the artists had been wonderful – how their faces had transformed when she invoked her vision for the interior. Each surface would be covered in beautiful images, the centrepiece a resplendent garden adorned with golden fruit.
“As you know, the spending of this parish is already quite high.” He flicked a feather from his shoulder – coarse robes, as usual. “It has been suggested that building work be delayed until such a time that a more prudent approach is secured.” He narrowed his eyes at a dark speck on his arm. “Perhaps cutting back on unnecessary projects.”
“I’m not sure I follow.” She picked up the rabbit, stroking its ears. There was no way she was going to make this easy.
“Those things that only benefit a small amount of the community.” He wouldn’t meet her gaze. “For the thralls.”
“Goodness!” The feigned surprise made the rabbit jump. “Surely the church doesn’t think a hospital and a school for those most in need is a waste of money?”
The bishop rubbed a sandalled foot in the dirt. “Well, the church then. In the spirit of piety, a simple stone construction is more fitting.”
“The glory of God is great. Surely the places to adore him must be also.”
“We must take care.” He nodded, drawing his shabby fur cloak around his shoulders. Now he met her eyes. “We must remember that we are earthly, and not saintly. That adorning buildings and the body,” he gestured at her sumptuous gown, “may reveal more of the pride of our hearts than the glory of God.” He signed the cross and looked upwards, the picture of holy piety.
“You forget,” she said, “that these things are for God to see, and not the mind of man. For pride may exist under the garb of wretchedness; and a mind may be as pure under these vestments as under your tattered furs.” She waved dismissively at his shabby clothing.
Silenced, the bishop stood at a loss, brow furrowed as he struggled to form an argument. As he mouthed silent words, a single dove flittered overhead, leaving a smear on his shoulder as it landed on her outstretched hand.