Vézelay, the shrine of Saint Marie Madeleine, March 12, 1142; The Feast of Saint Gregory the Great, pope.
In hiis autem que dicturus sum nichil auctore Deo scribam, nisi quod visu et auditu verum esse cognovero, vel quod probabilium virorum scriptis fuerit et auctoritate subnixum.
In this which I intend to tell, with the aid of God, I will write nothing except that which I have seen and heard and know to be the truth, or that which was written by men of good character and supported by authority.
—John of Salisbury
Book I, Prologue
hroughout the bone-chilling night, the four men knelt motionless before the altar of Mary Magdalene. The lamplight reflected off three bald heads and glistened on that of Gaucher of Macon, whose hair had gone from blond to white at the siege of Antioch, it was said, but was still thick and full, with a streak of gold down the left side. They all wore pilgrim-grey mantles, but underneath, at least one of them still wore the mail shirt he had lived in for forty years. All of them had daggers hidden and even in this holy place, not one of them could have surrendered his weapon and felt secure.
Dawn was drifting down from the high clerestory windows to the nave far below before they finally rose. All of them were stiff from the vigil, and Norbert of Bussieres, the eldest of the four, had to be helped to his feet by the others.
The church was beginning to fill with pilgrims as they left. Norbert walked slowly in the rear, cursing his aging knees. At the entrance, he tripped on an uneven stone, fell forward and was caught by a young woman on her way in.
In the grey light, the blue of her eyes startled him almost as much as the fall. Not really pretty, he thought—too dark, her chin and nose too definite. He had always liked his women small and pale, with yielding features. Whoever had charge of this one would need a firm hand, he guessed. All the same, there was something about her that made him wish he were thirty instead of seventy and that they were not in the doorway of a church.
“Are you hurt, my lord?” she asked, all daughterly concern.
He pulled away from her supporting arm. “No, of course
not,” he said huffily. “The parvis of this church is very badly maintained. Some poor, infirm pilgrim could be seriously hurt. I shall speak to the abbot about it the next time I see him.”
She released him at once and backed away in embarrassment, bumping into the man who had come up behind her.
Norbert assumed that the man was with her from the way he caught the stumbling woman, as if used to doing it. The old knight grunted the minimal greeting required as he limped away from them. The woman’s companion was as odd-looking as she, he thought—tall and thin with hair almost as white as Gaucher’s even though the man was obviously still in his twenties. The old knight shivered, pulled his cloak closer and tried to move quickly enough to catch up with his friends. In another moment, he had forgotten the couple entirely.
Catherine stood at the church door for a moment, watching him go. “A very proud old man,” she commented to her husband, Edgar. “Look at how straight his back is.”
“And how bowed his legs,” Edgar answered. “He must have spent his life on horseback.”
“I wonder if he fought in the Holy Land,” Catherine said.
Edgar shrugged. Most of the knights of that age claimed to have followed Godfrey of Boullion and his brothers to Jerusalem. Now, almost fifty years later, how many were left to prove them wrong?
Edgar had other things to think about.
“We should be returning to Paris soon,
,” he said as they entered the church. “We’ve prayed here every day for a week. Our candles have all burnt down to stubs. Saint Marie must have heard us by now. We can only wait to see if she is able to intercede for us in heaven.”
Catherine knew he was right. Edgar had been more than patient with her determination to come to Vézelay to ask the help of Saint Mary Magdalene with their problem. But she had felt no sense of fulfillment during their visit, no sudden descent of grace.
Perhaps after all, Mary wasn’t the right one to ask this special favor of. The Magdalene had renounced carnal activities
and come to France to be a hermit after the Resurrection of Our Lord. Catherine and Edgar had renounced their plans for the cloister and the priesthood for a life of carnal activity. Not something this saint could be expected to approve of.
Catherine could feel the color rising to her face. What a thing to be thinking of at a holy place! She sighed. No wonder their prayers and offerings had been ignored.
“One more day, Edgar,” she begged. “Just one. It’s such a little miracle we ask for.”
Edgar looked down at her and smiled sadly. He had given up his patrimony in Scotland, his family’s plans to make him a bishop, and settled in France to live out of his country and his station—all for this woman. He had done it gladly. Perhaps being allowed Catherine was all that heaven planned to bestow on him. Even a little miracle might be too much more to expect.
Norbert of Bussières reached the inn at the bottom of the hill not long after his companions. They hadn’t waited for him, knowing how he hated them condescending to his age. He grunted as he pushed the door open. They weren’t all that much younger than he, but recently his years seemed to weigh more heavily. He could feel the icy breath of eternity on the back of his neck tonight, even through the fur lining of his hood.
There wasn’t much time left. They must go back to Spain this spring or never. Norbert had convinced the other three of that. But he hadn’t yet told all of them his real reason for making the trip.
Rufus of Arcy looked up from his bowl as Norbert entered. He shook his head slightly, then returned to his beer. The old man would never survive the journey, Rufus worried. If Norbert fell ill on the way, one of them would have to stay to care for him, then take his possessions back to his grandchildren. It would be better for them all if Norbert stayed behind.
But Norbert would never trust them to take care of this endeavor on their own. He had known all of them far too long for that.
Rufus was only sixty-one himself, and still felt capable of
hunting all day and occupying himself with a serving maid half the night. Once it would have been all night, but some concessions had to be made to time. He moved over on the bench to allow Norbert to sit.
The fourth man, Hugh of Grignon, poured a bowl of beer for Norbert and another for himself.
“So,” Hugh said. “We are resolved to begin our journey at last. We shall place our faith in the Lord and trust to the saints to protect us in our final great adventure.”
The other three stared at him in disdain. Hugh’s wife had been fond of wandering storytellers—too fond, some said. Over the years, Hugh had picked up their way of saying the obvious as if it were a new directive from Rome.
“I don’t know about you, Hugh,” said Gaucher, “but I have never trusted anyone but the saints. And even some of them can be duplicitous.”
“At this point in life,” Rufus added, “even a trip to the outhouse in winter could be my final adventure.”
Norbert simply glared.
Hugh ignored them. They had known each other all their lives. So well that sometimes he thought they only bothered to speak to each other to prove they were still breathing. He signaled the boy to bring more bread. It
be a great adventure, he told himself, and more than likely, the last for at least one of them.
Catherine stood outside the church, looking out over the fields far below to the dark forest beyond. Clusters of huts huddled together, the tilled land stretching behind, the vines in their tidy rows just beginning to bud. As she watched, she could make out a few pigs snuffling in the brush where the cleared area met the trees. A woman was going out to milk her goat, tethered in a field along with the others of the village. She swung the bucket at her side with a rhythm that made Catherine think she might be singing. Behind her followed a child of three or four. He stopped now and then to examine something that caught his eye, then ran to pull at his mother’s skirts. She lifted him to her hip with one arm and kissed him as she walked.
Catherine turned away, her eyes suddenly blurred.
Had she sinned so terribly? Master Abelard and Mother Héloïse said not. Neither she nor Edgar had taken final vows; there had been no canonical impediment to their marriage. There are many roads to heaven. Everyone told them that.
But then why were they given the promise of a child, only to have it taken away? First a stillbirth, then two miscarriages even before the babies quickened. It preyed on her mind. People reminded her that the queen of France, Eleanor, had been married longer than she and not conceived at all. That was little comfort to Catherine. The hope and then the disappointment, not to mention the pain and fear of her own death in childbed, were more than she could bear. Added to the rest was the guilt she felt for having taken Edgar away from his land, his family, his place in life, only for a wife who could give him no living children.
Someone touched her arm. Catherine jumped and nearly went over the edge of the low stone wall.
“Were you pondering the words of Saint Augustine?” the young man laughed. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
“Astrolabe!” Catherine hugged him in surprise. She had known the son of Abelard and Héloïse since her days in the convent, but hadn’t seen him for nearly two years. “I’m sorry. My thoughts were all too secular. I’m glad to be rescued from them. What are you doing in Vézelay?”
“Carrying messages, as usual,” Astrolabe explained. “The abbot of Cluny sends greetings to his brother, the abbot of Vézelay, and I am the one chosen to deliver them.”
“But I thought you had gone back to Brittany,” Catherine said.
Astrolabe nodded, his expression more serious. “The venerable Abbot Peter sent me a message as well, suggesting that I return as soon as possible,” he said. “I arrived at Cluny last month.”
“Is it your father?” Catherine knew the answer already. Peter Abelard had not been well the last time she had seen him, just after the condemnation of his work at Sens. “Is he …”
“Father has been moved to the priory of Saint-Marcellus
at Chalon,” Astrolabe answered. “After coming to Cluny and then reconciling with Bernard of Clairvaux, his health seemed to improve, but in the last month he has suddenly become much weaker. Abbot Peter felt that Cluny was too stressful for him. The priory is quiet, and the monks there care for him well.”
He took a deep breath, fighting to control his voice. “My father has made his peace with God and Abbot Bernard,” he said at last. “Perhaps that was a mistake. He was never one to tolerate peace for long.”
Catherine nodded. She took his arm and they started walking down the hill to the guest house where she and Edgar were staying.
“It will be very difficult for your mother,” she said.
That was a feeble statement for what Catherine feared Abelard’s death would do to Abbess Héloïse. It was only since she had met Edgar that Catherine had begun to understand the passion that Héloïse had felt for her former lover and husband. Twenty years in the convent had not, could not, diminish it.
“It will be,” Astrolabe answered. “But her daughters in Christ and her faith will help her.”
“And you?” Catherine asked. “What will you do after he is gone?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll become a priest and spend my life saying Masses for his soul. Mother would like that.”
There was a trace of bitterness in his voice that Catherine chose to ignore. “Will you dine with us tonight?” she asked.
“Yes,” he smiled. “You can tell me all the news from Paris. Is Edgar’s friend, John, still studying? When does he intend to stop learning and start teaching?”
“I believe he prefers the role of gadfly,” Catherine laughed. “He has said something about trying to get a position that will take him back to England so he can visit his family.”
They continued chatting of old friends and recent events. Peter Abelard was not mentioned again, but Catherine felt an emptiness opening inside her at the thought of the world without
the opinionated, arrogant, quarrelsome master, who had taught her logic with the patience of a father during her time at the convent he had founded.
After dinner, Catherine decided to return to the church.
“Just one more candle, Edgar,” she promised. “One more prayer. Tomorrow we’ll go home. You don’t need to come with me. I’ll walk up with the people from Orléans. Come fetch me when the bells ring for Compline.”
She had scarcely left when Edgar turned to Astrolabe. “I’m afraid for her,” he said.
Astrolabe nodded. He had seen the change in Catherine himself. She had always been thin, but now she was gaunt, her cheekbones pushing sharply against her skin. She moved too quickly, with random gestures. Astrolabe remembered that Catherine’s mother had driven herself mad with worry over sin and punishment. She was in a convent now, not far from the priory where his own father lived, totally unaware of anything but her own misery.