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The Novice England 1152
St. Frideswide’s Convent sat atop a hillock with a fine view of the surrounding countryside of Hereford, and across the hills into Wales. Its high stone walls enclosed themselves about a quadrangle on the south side of which was a church. From the church four sheltered walks went around the quadrangle connecting with the refectory, where the nuns and their female guests ate, the chapter house, where they met guests or did the business of the house, and the dormitories. There were special places for the students and nuns to study, and a kitchen, a bakery, a brewery. St. Frideswide’s, though small, had a storehouse, a barn for its farm animals, a henhouse and dovecote, not to mention an infirmary to treat the sick, several workshops for metalwork and illuminating manuscripts, and an herbarium.
Within the convent each day was carefully ordered. At midnight, Matins, the first holy office of the day was said, followed shortly thereafter by Lauds. The nuns would then go to their sleeping quarters. Prime was said at six during the summer months, and seven in the dark months of winter. It was then that the young girls in the convent’s charge joined the nuns for the first Mass, which was followed by a breakfast of oat porridge, a slice of buttered bread, and a small cup of cider, or ale for the nuns. The children then returned to their dormitory to make their beds and sweep the rooms. They emptied the common night jar, and opened the windows to air the space.
It was during this time the nuns met together in the chapter house. Convent business was discussed, announcements, if any, were made, letters read, and finally discipline was dispensed to those miscreants who had earned it. Terce was the next office said at nine o’clock of the morning. A High Mass was sung. It was then the nuns went to their daily tasks, which might involve personal study, teaching, household duties, the workshops where skilled illuminations and simple, beautiful metalwork were done. Some of the nuns did heavy farmwork, caring for the convent’s flock of sheep, its smaller herd of cattle, or its milk cows, pigs, or poultry. At noon the office of Sext, at three, Nones, and at four, Vespers, were conducted, and attended by those nuns whose other duties did not prevent it.
From midmorning until five in the afternoon, the young girls in the convent’s care were taught. All of them learned how to read and write and keep simple accounts. They learned Latin, French, and English, for both of the latter languages were spoken in England, but not all the convent’s students could speak them when they came to St. Frideswide’s. The girls who were eventually to become nuns were taught to do needlework and fine tapestry work. Those who showed a talent for it were taught the art of illumination and scribing. When a girl showed her competence in administration, she was taught the work of supervising the convent and its lands so that should Mother Eunice, the convent’s abbess, be away, or too ill to do her duty, there would be someone able to pick up her burden. Maidens prepared for the church were also taught the arts of healing.
The young girls destined for marriage took a slightly different path, learning how to play on some instrument, do pretty needlework, oversee the kitchens; which meant they must learn to cook, make conserves, and salt foods to be stored for a time. They must know how to make soap for bathing, and soaps for cleaning. They learned how to manage an estate in the event their husbands should be away, how to manage their own households, care for the sick, and tend the wounded.
Frightened and lonely as she was, Elf quickly adjusted to life at St. Frideswide’s. Sister Cuthbert, the nun who had carried her away from her brother and into the convent, was enormously kind. It was she who was in charge of the six young girls currently boarding in the cloister. She was plump beneath her robes, and had a round face with rosy cheeks and warm brown eyes that twinkled more often than not. She was sympathetic over her newest charge’s sadness, but she would not allow the child to wallow in her misery. Bustling into the girl’s dormitory, she set Elf down upon the floor.
“This is where you will live with your new companions,” she said brightly. “Come now, maidens, and meet Eleanore de Montfort, who is called Elf. She is five.”
“She doesn’t look five,” the biggest of the girls said. “She is very petite. Matilda FitzWilliam is five, and she’s far bigger.”
“I am bigger than Isabeaux St. Simon, and she’s six,” Matilda said, glaring at the older girl, who was ten and an earl’s daughter. “Nature makes each of us differently.” She held out her hand to Elf. “You may call me Matti, for we are going to be friends, little Elf.” She had round blue eyes and yellow braids.
Elf looked shyly at the other girl from the safety of Sister Cuthbert’s robes. “I was five on Mary’s Day,” she said as if to reinforce the fact. “I am called Elf because I am so small. My brother named me.”
“I have six brothers,” Matti said, “which is why I was sent here to St. Frideswide’s to be a nun. There wasn’t enough monies to dower me into marriage. I came when I was three, and my mother died birthing the last of my brothers. You’ll like it here. Are you going to be a nun, too?”
“I don’t know,” Elf said.
“Yes, she is,” Sister Cuthbert said. “Now, Matti, you will have someone to go to your special studies with, my child.”
“She’s going to be way behind us,” the earl’s daughter said.
“Of course she is,” Sister Cuthbert said with a cheery smile. “She is the youngest and the newest of you, but I believe Elf will like her studies, and quickly catch on. You cannot expect her to know as much as you do, Irmagarde. After all, you have been with us four years now. As I recall you had no knowledge at all when you were six, and Elf is just five.”
What the good sister didn’t say was that she believed Elf would far outstrip Irmagarde.
Irmagarde Bouvier had departed St. Frideswide’s three years after Elf’s arrival to be prepared for her marriage to a knight some years her senior. She was to be his third wife, and he had children older than she. By that time Elf had indeed surpassed the earl’s daughter in her abilities.
“She was not the brightest of girls,” Sister Cuthbert noted shortly after Irmagarde had departed in pubescent triumph for her wedding.
Outside the convent’s walls, the war raged on. In 1139 the Empress Matilda had landed in England. King Stephen was captured by her forces in 1141, and the daughter of Henry I, the granddaughter of William the Conqueror, entered Lon- don. But the empress was arrogant, and immediately imposed exorbitant taxes on the populace. Stephen’s wife, another Matilda, drove the empress from London. Finally in 1147 Henry’s daughter departed England forever. Her cause was taken up by her son, Henry Plantagenet, Lord of Anjou and Poitou in his own right, and Lord of Acquitane by virtue of his marriage to Alienor, its heiress.
In 1152 Elf was fourteen, and a novice at St. Frideswide’s. It was planned she would take her final vows on the twenty-second day of June that year. This was the feast day of England’s first martyr, and Elf had decided to take his name for her own. She would be known as Sister Alban. Her best friend, Matti, would also take her vows that day and be- come Sister Columba. As for Isabeaux St. Simon, their other friend, she would be married in the autumn and would leave St. Frideswide’s in late summer for her own home near Worcester.
On a late spring afternoon the three girls sat out on a hillside watching over the convent’s sheep. Two were dressed alike in the gray gown all the convent novices wore. Isa, however, wore a red tunic over her deep blue skirts.
“I can’t believe,” she said, “that they’re going to cut your hair, Elf. Mary’s blood, I’ve always envied it.” She stroked Elf’s long pale red-gold hair. “What a sin!”
“Vanity has no place in a bride of Christ,” Elf said softly.
“But you’re not vain!” Isa protested. “It is a great pity you cannot be wed, Elf. I’ll wager there would be men of rank who would take you even with your small dowry. You are far more beautiful than either Matti or me.” She sighed. “I hate it that we’re being separated in a few months. I know I grumble a lot about the convent, but the truth is it has been a lot of fun for us over the years, hasn’t it?”
Matti giggled mischievously. “We’ve had a few small adventures.”
“Misadventures is more like it,” Elf said with a smile. “Keeping you two out of difficulties has been a full-time occupation. You are really going to have to change your ways, Matti.”
“Reverend Mother knows how impossible that will be for me,” Matti replied. “That is why I am going to remain with Sister Cuthbert, taking care of the little girls. Reverend Mother says that will help me to use up all my energies until I am too old to have any. She says we all serve God in our own way. Sister Agnes says if my voice continues to improve, I shall be a head cantrix one day. I would like that, for you both know how I love music!”
“But once Matilda FitzWilliam becomes Sister Columba,” Isa said wickedly, “there can be no more visits to the dairy barn to see Father Anselm swiving the dairymaid with his big poker.”
Matti chuckled. “It’s a shame you would never come with us, Elf. You can’t possibly know what you’re going to miss unless you can see it. I think I am making a big sacrifice now that I have seen a man and a woman together in the throes of passion. I am filled with regret that my family has not the means to marry me off to a big healthy fellow. Still, I have accepted my fate, and am the better for knowing the forfeit I make for our good Lord’s sake.”
“I can’t wait until Sir Martin and I can be joined in the marriage bed,” Isa said. “They say it hurts to lose your virginity, but afterward it doesn’t hurt at all. When Father Anselm puts his big, thick manhood into Hilda, the dairymaid, how she squeals with delight!”
“And waves her legs about until she wraps them tight about our good priest,” Matti noted with relish. “Then they bump up and down until the crisis comes. I like it when he pillows himself on her nice big breasts, and sometimes, Elf, he even suckles on her like a babe at its mother’s breast. It’s very exciting to watch.”
Elf put her hands over her ears. “Matti! Matti! You know I don’t want to hear such things. You are very, very wicked to gossip so salaciously. If you do not cease, I shall have to tell Reverend Mother, and I don’t want to tell. How I fear for your soul, Matti.”
Matti reached out and patted her friend with a plump hand. “Do not fret yourself about me, Elf. Once I have taken my vows, there will be no more visits to the dairy barn, alas. One cannot serve two masters, and my master is our good Lord, not the lord of lust and darkness.”
From the Paperback edition.