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’s because she did not show 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’s 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’s 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’s 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 also 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.
We moved slowly through the quiet countryside under an overcast early-morning sky, my father riding at the head on a bay mare. His easy posture in the saddle betrayed his past as a crusader in the Holy Land before he retired to tend to our ancestral land. Riding alongside him was my eldest brother, Hugo, who had come down from Mainz for the occasion of seeing me off to the Convent of St. Disibod. My mother and I rode in a wagon pulled by two dappled gray cobs, hemmed in by several chests, including a carved cedar box that my father had brought from the East and that contained my monastic dowry of two hundred golden bezants.
It was still ten days to the Feast of St. Andrew, but the clean, sharp scent of winter already permeated the air. It had snowed a little in the last few days, the grayish patches melting over the shriveled autumn leaves as the winds turned milder again, and we hoped that steady snow would hold off until after our mission was completed.
Wrapped in a cloak, I observed the countryside with interest, especially when the thick forest parted to reveal a farm or a village. Most of these were small and made up of ramshackle huts, with thin wisps of black smoke rising from their chimneys. Among these abodes, skinny pigs and scrawny dogs mingled with children playing in the mud. The hamlets showed none of the prosperity that surrounded Bermersheim, with its whitewashed cottages covered in thatched roofs and abutted by vegetable plots. My father threw coins as we passed by, followed by watchful eyes staring from weather-beaten faces, dark with the perpetual tan of those exposed to the sun and wind all their lives.
In the early afternoon we stopped at an inn, a solid-looking timber structure with a tall column of smoke issuing from a single chimney in the middle of the roof. A small house, probably belonging to the innkeeper’s family, was attached to the back, and beyond the buildings a small area of the forest had been cleared for pasture. As it was November, the sounds of the meadow’s seasonal occupants were now coming from the nearby cowshed, which also apparently served as a chicken coup and a pig sty. The property had a modest but well-kept look.
The innkeeper, a stocky, black-bearded man in his thirties, emerged to greet us and introduced himself as Burchard. He bowed as he invited us inside and shouted in the direction of the stables, from which a boy of about sixteen, also short and starting to sprout a similarly black beard, came out to take our horses.
The establishment was neatly furnished with rough-hewn tables and benches, and there was a sizable barrel of beer in one corner, while the center was occupied by a large hearth. A cheerful-looking matron, plump and brisk, came out from behind the counter and called the kitchen maid to set a table. I took off my cloak and went to the fire to warm my hands. I wore a new frock of fine brown wool, and a short veil covered my hair, recently cut in preparation for my new life so that, instead of the thick braid that used to fall to my waist, ash-blonde strands were poking from under my veil, curling slightly. When the food was brought in, the matron was joined by a girl of about ten, whose gaze drifted toward me even as she helped carry the plates of boiled ham, pea soup, and bread.
“Are you taking the child to the Abbey of St. Disibod, my lord?” the innkeeper’s wife asked as she set a jug of ale in front of my father.
“Indeed,” he said, nodding proudly. “She was accepted as an oblate.”
I noticed the young girl’s eyes widen and her mouth open as if to ask a question, but her mother was already on the way back to the kitchen and beckoned her to follow.
We attacked the meal with great appetite, but when wine and fruit pies arrived I slipped out of the inn. A pale sun had come out, and I stood in the yard enjoying its light, if not warmth, on my face. After a while, amid the intermittent bleating and squealing coming from the barn, I heard the soft sound of footsteps in the mud and turned to find the innkeeper’s daughter walking toward me with a bowl half-full of grain. She seemed shy for a moment, then mustered her courage and said, “I’m Griselda.”
“My name is Hildegard.” As she continued to regard me silently, I asked, pointing to the bowl, “Are you off to feed the chickens?” though the coup was in the opposite direction.
“Yes.” Griselda blushed as she realized that I had seen through her ruse. “I do that sometimes when Warin is busy.” She pointed at the barn, where a lanky, fair-haired boy, clearly a hired hand, was busy with a pitchfork heaped with hay.
I nodded. I had sometimes accompanied my father and his steward as they inspected Bermersheim’s estates and had seen peasants at work in the fields and with livestock. It was hard work, but I envied them the chance to be outdoors and observe nature as it went through its endless cycle of birth, growth, and decline. I had once asked to be shown how to milk a cow, but my father had responded that ladies did not do that sort of work and, besides, I would not have to milk cows in a nunnery.
“What’s an oblate?” Griselda asked. Curiosity shone in her green eyes, which were made even more striking by the whiteness of her skin and her dark hair. She was stocky like her father and had a heart-shaped face with a sharp chin that gave her a determined look.
“It means ‘a gift to God,’” I replied proudly. “Someone who lives in a nunnery until she becomes old enough to enter the novitiate, which is when she learns to be a nun,” I added with an air of authority.
Her eyes lit up. “My father once took me to the market at Disibodenberg,” she said. “It was a feast day, and there was a Mass in the Abbey church that all the townspeople went to, and we went with them. I still remember the bells and the singing and the incense.” She flushed at the memory. “It was beautiful!”
A shiver ran down my spine. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to be there.
“I wish I could become on oblate too,” Griselda said wistfully.
“Then why don’t you ask your father to take you there?”
She looked sideways at the inn. “Papa says girls must help their parents with their work and care for them in their old age.”
I was mystified. I knew that parents cared for their children, but the other way around? I looked at Griselda, whose face darkened as she added, “Papa says my dowry will be barely enough to marry me off to the baker’s son.” She jerked her chin toward the forest, presumably in the direction of the baker’s cottage, and set her jaw. “But I will never marry that oaf!”
I did not know what to respond to that, but Griselda’s thoughts were already running along a new track. “It would be so nice to spend time only with girls!”
I felt a tinge of sympathy, realizing that the innkeeper’s daughter must have had little female companionship, apart from her mother. “There are monks at St. Disibod too,” I said, as if that were a consolation.
Griselda shrugged her shoulders. “They have separate cloisters and do not mingle.”
That authoritative-sounding statement made me frown. Nobody had explained to me what life would be like at the Abbey, except that I would pray, work, and—this I had added myself, for it could not be otherwise—study with the other oblates. The prospect of studying especially excited my imagination, conjuring an image of a vaulted schoolroom full of pupils. I was about to share it with my new acquaintance when the sound of voices coming from the doors of the inn signaled that it was time to continue the journey. My mother waved, and I ran to her; together we climbed onto the wagon. As it wobbled back toward the road, I waved to Griselda, who was still standing where I had left her, a look of envy and admiration on her face. I turned again just before we entered the forest, but she was gone.
I wrote The Greenest Branch, which is a fictionalized version of the life of Hildegard of Bingen, because I have been fascinated with this historical figure ever since I first learned about her in college. She lived in the German Rhineland in the 12th century and was a writer, philosopher, and composer, as well as one of the first female physicians in the Western world. She left an impressive body of work: treatises on medicine, natural philosophy, and theology, and a voluminous correspondence with bishops, popes, and even an emperor. Yet, she is hardly a household name, even among history lovers. My goal in writing the book was to bring the achievements of this exceptional woman to the attention of a larger audience.
As a woman in a medieval society, Hildegard faced enormous obstacles to studying, practicing medicine, and charting her own course in life, with the opposition coming in large part from the Church. That struggle is a major theme in the novel, in addition to an internal conflict between vocation and desire. In tracing Hildegard’s path towards independence and recognition, it occurred to me that many women today (and men as well!) can still learn from and be inspired by her strength and perseverance in the face of adversity, intolerance, and human failings.
I was also excited to craft a story told from a perspective that we rarely see in medieval historical fiction. There are many superb novels out there by authors like Ellis Peters, Ken Follett, and Elizabeth Chadwick, but these are usually written from a male point of view, feature a female voice that is just one of many (often for romantic purposes), or focus on the story of a privileged woman—typically a queen or a princess. My novel is entirely narrated by Hildegard and offers the perspective of a person who belonged to one of the most underprivileged social groups in the Middle Ages, namely a woman born without power.
The field of historical and women’s fiction is rich and dynamic, but as fascinating as Marie Antoinette or the seven wives of Henry VIII are, we need more voices and more stories of what I call history’s forgotten women.
P. K. Adams is the pen name of Patrycja Podrazik. She lives in Boston and has a Master’s degree in European Studies from Yale University, where she served as an editor of Palimpsest, Yale’s literary and arts magazine. Her professional background includes working in book PR and being a copyeditor for a marketing company. She also has a blog where she reviews historical fiction.
Embark, Issue 2, October 2017