I wrote this in college, in one of my medieval lit classes. I hope you enjoy it. Stay tuned, next I will post a review to Stella Deleuze’s novel, No Wings Attached.
Eleanor the Wise
Eleanor the Wise
Long ago, in a place far away, there was once an Abbey where women could seek refuge in times of need. Although many did not choose to stay forever, there were a few who had forsaken their former worldly lives, choosing instead to live a holy life under the direct shadow of Christ. So here it was that, a long time ago, a group of unlikely women all came to gather under this most holy roof, to speak their minds, in that Abbey, where they did not have to fear reprisal from their male counterparts.
Juette, who upon the death of her husband, had escaped her fate of becoming trapped by another marriage she despised, had sought the solitude she longed for at the Abbey. The day that this story begins, she had received a letter from Merri, an old childhood friend from back east. She ran to share this letter, this most sad letter, bereft of hope, to Dhuoda and Drusiana, who had been visiting from a town not far from the Abbey. Dhuoda was the eldest of the group, save Eleanor, who had yet to arrive that day. Drusiana, Christianly and chaste, took great pride in her position at the Abbey, and hoped one day to become an Abbess.
“Merri writes of the grief that her solitude has caused her, as her Lord is absent. She also fears intrusion due to conflicts between her warring neighbors, and she has little ability to defend herself,” Dhuoda remarked once she had read the letter in its entirety, her wizened eyes a bit forlorn.
“Why a woman would suffer from the lack of a man’s presence is beyond me,” Juette said, her voice vehement. Juette detested men. Often she was chastised by the more dutiful, matronly women in the Abbey whose soul focus was to ensure that the ways of the past, that is, the male oriented societal bonds with which they lived, were kept in place.
“A woman’s only power comes from being a virgin, a nun, or a widow,” Drusiana agreed. “Their power is given to them by Christ. The right way for women, who do not desire an earthly marriage, is to wed Christ and forsake all worldly desires.” Drusiana wanted Juette to join the Abbey, and Juette, knowing what could befall her if she did not, saw the option as desirable. Compared to submitting to a man’s whims, that is.
Just then Heloise, having been married to her love, Abelard, and subsequently sent to the Abbey by him, came into the room after her daily devotions. Unbeknownst to most of the women, with the exception of Juette, Abelard had gotten her pregnant and forced her to marry him.
Then, Abelard had shunned her. Faced with the prospect of losing face in the eyes of the Church, he had forced her to cloister herself within the Abbey walls, doomed to know his love no further.
Heloise shared her lamentations with Juette, who sat in wonder, for she had never viewed the act of sex in quite the same way.
“You liked it?”
“Yes,” Heloise sighed. “Yet never shall I experience it again, I fear, as Abelard wants me to become a bride to Christ, rather than remain his wife.”
Catherine followed Heloise’s path from the chapel, intent on going to her room to write poems to her beloved. But on her way there, she overheard the conversation and sat down with the other women, a bit apart from the rest.
“Catherine, why don’t you read us the poem you wrote last night?” Dhuoda asked, indicating that she should move closer to the group. Edging in so as to close the gap between them, Catherine removed a slip of parchment from her robe, took a deep breath, and began.
“Of late I long to lie beside my love,
To feel the pulse of your skin beneath mine.
Although you are loyal to no one, I cannot glimpse another way.
My heart cries out, for I am betrayed.
You love me not.
It is her you pine for.
If I could but choose, I’d set my path straight.
Hateful are the days I cannot see you.
Long are the nights we do not speak.
My body is weak.
My mind’s eye is aware of the danger.
Yet still I persist.
If you would but give me a chance,
I would be content to share my life with you.”
After heaving a large sigh, Catherine announced she was finished. She reached up to her cheek and swept away a tear, then hung her head low.
“Oh, Catherine, that was beautiful,” exclaimed Heloise. She reached out to Catherine and drew her into her arms in a sisterly embrace, glad to have found a comrade in the game of love.
Iseult and Fenice glided into the room like two angels upon a cloud. They were sisters, but unalike as can be. Iseult was to be married to King Mark in two weeks time, and although she loved Tristan, she could see no way to escape the destiny laid out for her. Fenice was to marry Alis shortly thereafter, yet she had devised a way to be with the one she loves, Cliges.
She told the women her secret and Iseult stared at her in horror. Fenice stood up. “Although you love Tristan, you would rather let him die than betray your elders. You accept the fate handed to you as if you have no other choice. I choose not to accept it. I will not be like you, my dear sister.” With that she took her leave, only to return moments later.
“There is a woman outside, disguised as a male minstrel, singing her heart. Come!”
The women rushed to the window, where sure enough, there stood a fair woman, a trifle mannish by her get-up. She was one whom they had never laid eyes upon before, singing of a land and love far away.
She spread her arms out wide, opened her mouth, and crooned:
“Over hill and over dale, I have traveled far.
Seeking my mate, Aucassin the Great.
Whom I love more than anything,
And for whom I hold such high esteem.
Aucassin and me, we pledged with a ring.
To seek each other to the ends of time,
Thus, I am here singing this rhyme.
So ever more, I will plod wearily,
And repeat my story as necessary,
Until I meet him.”
Upon the end of her song, the woman announced, “I am Nicollette, daughter of Carthage. Lo! I have been through many crises and tribulations during my journey, yet still I cannot rest. I must find my beloved Aucassin. Have any of you, my good women, seen or heard of him hereabouts?”
“Nay,” the women chorused.
“Forgive me, but I must take leave of you good women. Good day!”
Thus the fair Nicolete passed on, still singing songs about her love of, and search for, Aucassin. She came upon Eleanor, an elderly matron who was still a bit of a rebel. Thereby Nicolete repeated her tale of woe. Eleanor shook her head and bid the woman good fortune upon her travels, then she continued on to the Abbey.
“I must set these young women straight,” she muttered to herself as she drank in the view of the Abbey. Once Eleanor had reached the main entrance to the Abbey, Dhuoda met her upon the steps and led her inside.
“Here you will find peace and comfort, my dear Eleanor.”
“I hope so,” Eleanor replied as she stared at the women who surrounded her. She knew their stories, each and every one, for many times did Dhuoda write to her and share the news of the Abbey and the surrounding area. Releasing her hair from its hooded shelter, she said, “I desire rest for now, but later, I would very much like to meet with the girls.”
Dhuoda led her to a room, where Eleanor and her maid rested for a bit. Later, they joined the others for supper, and afterwards, retired to the drawing room for tea.
Once all had gathered, Eleanor stood.
“Dhuoda has shared your stories of woe and chagrin with me, my dear ladies. Know where your discomfort lies. It is men who have done these things to you, and you allow it to happen.”
“It is unwise to rebel against male authority; it is a sin against God to do so.” Quite distraught by Eleanor’s treachery, Dhuoda had stepped in to admonish Eleanor.
Dhuoda began to instruct Eleanor on the way in which women should behave, especially when it came to being submissive to men. Heloise chimed in, showing her support of Dhuoda’s statements.
“I would rather die than ever submit to a man again,” Juette declared.
A chorus of disagreement ensued. The entire room was in turmoil, one woman pitted against the next, until finally, shouting over the uproar, Eleanor broke in and stopped them all in their tracks.
“Have you ever gained a single thing from men?”
The room became hushed as the girls pondered this question. Dhuoda opened her mouth to object, but was silenced by Eleanor, who held out her palm.
“Our children,” Dhuoda said.
“Your children, whom you have never seen in your entire life?”
Dhuoda bowed her head and nodded, “Their life was not for me to lead. They were male children. If they had been female…”
“If they had been female, their futures would have been even more dreadful. Iseult, Fenice, the two of you know something of this. Both of you are to be married to men whom you don’t know and even despise. Is that not true?”
They nodded their heads in unison.
“Each of us loves another. Yet there is little hope,” Iseult said, her eyes filled with tears.
“No hope? Is that so?” Eleanor asked as she stared hard at Fenice. “What say you, Fenice?”
Fenice blushed, “There are ways.” Her face brightened as she added, “Ways that women can resort to, without having to betray herself or her husband, as well!” Her enthusiasm was catching; many of the women in the room leaned in, intrigued.
Drusiana shook her head, got up and walked over to Eleanor. “What are you doing, Eleanor? There are many ways in which a woman can live a satisfactory life while pleasing both her husband and her Lord above.”
“Great words from the ‘blessed virgin’ herself. But tell me, can a virgin live a full life?”
“Yes, if she is true to Christ.”
“There are some of us who would prefer a life of bliss within the marriage,” Eleanor said, her gaze resting upon Heloise. Heloise raised her eyes to Eleanor and as she did so, her face flushed a brilliant pink. “Is that not so, Heloise?”
“Yes, but Abelard does not wish my presence to bring him shame, thus, I am resigned,” Heloise said with a sigh.
“But you never really forget what you have once experienced,” Eleanor prompted.
“No, you do not.”
“That’s the truth of it,” Juette piped in, “I would rather die than ever be subjected to that misery again.” Memories of the sexual horrors she had borne while married ran through her mind even as she spoke, causing her to cringe.
“You enjoyed it not, for you were forced to marry someone you did not love. Perhaps if you married someone of your own choice, you would feel differently.”
“It is the truth,” Eleanor declared. She turned to Catherine, who had remained silent through all of it.
“Catherine, what say you? Your opinion on this matter is most important.”
Catherine shook her head. “If I had a choice? Why, I would be with the one I love. Yet he loves another. I do not see how my situation applies, Eleanor.”
“Ah, but it does, my dear child. Did he not promise to love you? Did he not betray that promise? A typical man,” Eleanor said, as memories of Henry’s treacheries came back to her.
Tears sprung unbidden to Catherine’s eyes. “Need you remind me?”
“Yes, I need to remind all of you. If you do not fight, you will never have any choices at all when it comes to your lives. Don’t bow down to authority. Stand up to them! Only then will you acquire what you need. Catherine, instead of relenting, and thus, agreeing to take what he will give you, stand your ground! Demand that he love you, or be willing to lose you. Tell him to let her go. If he does not, he is not worthy of you. There are other men who will treat you the way you need to be treated, and love you the way you desire.”
Catherine said nothing, but the spark in her eyes had come back; she seemed to sit taller, and her eyes appeared more brilliant than they had been before. She looked as if she were plotting something within her mind, yet she would not share whatever it was with the others. Instead, she rose and excused herself.
“Heloise?” Eleanor asked.
“Write your dear Abelard. Tell him how you feel about this situation he has subjected you to.”
“Yes, Eleanor,” Heloise said. She too got up and left.
“Iseult? What are you going to do?”
“Marry King Mark. Alas, there is no other way.”
Eleanor shook her head. “Some chose the way of folly, to their own detriment,” she said, then turned back to Fenice, “And you, Fenice? Are you going to go through with your marriage to Alis?”
“Yes, but I’ve got a plan. I shall not betray Cliges, nor Alis.” With determination written upon her face, Fenice rose to her feet and departed.
“I shall remain here. I do not desire another husband. Instead, I shall devote my life to Christ.”
Drusiana nodded her approval, took the arm of Juette and together, they exited the room, heads bent together as if sharing secrets unknown to the others.
Dhuoda stayed in the room with Eleanor, quiet and each alone with their thoughts for a time. They stared at the fire that was roaring within the hearth, its flames almost licking the stone above. At last, Dhuoda turned to Eleanor and spoke.
“You have offered advice to everyone else. What of me?”
“You have accepted your position in life, Dhuoda. Your sons are grown. Your husband is absent. What would you like to do?”
“I would ensure that my sons know who I am, even if I should never set eyes upon them.”
“Write, Dhuoda. Make sure that you are not forgotten, even after you have passed.”
“And you, Eleanor? What shall you do?”
“I am an old woman. I’ve lived my life the only way I could. I’ve rebelled. Now is the time for peace. I shall stay here with Juette.”
“And so it shall be,” nodded Dhuoda, who got up and helped Eleanor to her feet. Together, they traversed the length of the hall, carried their feet up the winding, stony stairs and ascended to their separate rooms, where they both retired.