18 July, 1209
Eva was happy to see the painted wicker basket was almost cram-full. The fruit of one more tree would complete the day’s bounty. The hollow rumbling in her belly gave reminder that the midday meal was swiftly approaching. She could afford to indulge her appetite with one pear at least.
Setting down the basket, she plopped herself unceremoniously on the ground. Not a soul stood within sight. Snatching the most attractive pear from the mounding pile, she bit into the fleshy fruit. A single drop of its juice dribbled lazily down her chin, clinging to her jawline. She allowed the drop to plunge to the grass below. What a blessing to have solitude this morn.
It was hot. The breeze floated lazily across the bluff, a welcome respite from the fiery white of the late morning Provençal sun. The wind gently prodded the oblong, pointed leaves of the pyramid-shaped, evenly spaced pear trees into subtle movement, swaying the flimsy tops back and forth. The leaves rubbed together in cadence, like an orderly, slow-moving chain dance in a massive open hall. Eva leaned back her uncowled head, allowed her dark brown hair to fall to the middle of her back, shut her expansive, rounded eyes of the same color, and listened to the motion of leaf and branch. The sound was restful, tranquil, like her orchard.
Her very orchard.
Eva’s eyes opened, dark long lashes separated, she searched the landscape from cliffside to grassy slope. Breathing deeply, she drew the faintly sweet scent of the orchard into her slender nose, set evenly between high, rounded cheeks, and formed her unadorned red full lips into the type of contented smile that barely raises the corners of the mouth.
She finished consuming the pear, wiped her hand on her mouth, on her sleeve, raised slowly her slender, feminine frame until she stood fully upon her leather sandal-shod feet. Casting aside the uneaten core, she resumed filling the large green basket.
She moved to the next tree at the east end of the orchard, started to claim its ripe fruit with long elegant calloused fingers. Eva looked beyond the grove to the edge of the bluff, which dropped off in a vertical cliff, gave way to the valley of the River Rhône and distant lands beyond. She focused for but a moment on the far marshy bank of the broad, swift-flowing Rhône, but swiftly she looked away. The ground still appeared trampled, war-pounded, invaded.
The memory of what she had witnessed three days ago was still a raw wound, and she winced. Soldiers, knights, horses, wagons, barges, banners, overlords, rotiers, camp-followers, mercenaries, death.
She turned away, gaining the more pleasing view of the community of Beguines, her home. She gazed upon the city of women from the cliff’s edge, thinking of when she first arrived at age ten. That marked the midpoint of her twenty-year existence.
Eva felt the mid-July sun bringing warmth to her gray robe of wool and she smiled. Truly, she was a blessed woman. She was a Beguine, a member of the guild of carpenters, and the holder of her own lands.
She was thankful for her life as a Beguine and the freedom it brought, such incomparable liberty for a woman that had redeemed her days, afforded her the opportunity to put off marriage. Without the community of Beguines, she would have felt bound to wed one of the suitors who had sought her at age fifteen. A stream of marriage seekers that had gone dry by her sixteenth summer, for word had spread among the knights of the Prince and other men of means in Orange that her beauty was exceeded only by her fire of spirit.
Yet a decision to spurn suitors generated no lack of detractors. Simple minds who believed a nubile woman of her age, one capable of bearing children, should be under the strict authority of husband or convent. How could women, weak-willed as they invariably were, maintain the vow of celibacy outside of the monastic enclosure? How could they live without the lordship of men apart from the Rule of St. Benedict?
Eva smiled at the oft-raised query. Her motion did not cease as she dragged her wooden stepladder clacking across exposed roots. Stopping at the next tree, she continued filling her basket with ripe fruit. Such an unwitting attitude toward women was far less common in Provence than in the North. Yet many times she had faced such rhetorical questions.
Never had she even heard the term Beguine until age ten, until her mother had explained that they were entering a new residence. Eva had just returned from playing boule in the market plaza with other children. She was wiping the grit off her carved spheres of wood.
She had returned through the arched limestone tunnels that combed the underbelly of Orange, where she encountered her mother.
Her mother, with her dark hair and eyes that burned with blackened intensity, was radiant, even in the simple clothes that ever adorned her. Lydia had been still a handsome woman, even at the age of thirty-five.
She had been waiting with that expectant look, an expression that meant she had news. “You have things to say maire?” Eva had always looked forward to hearing such news. The words to follow did not match her expectation.
“Eva, would you like to live in a new city with other children like you, girls and boys whose fathers were claimed also by war?” Her mother had spoken the words in a measured, soothing tone.
Eva had thought for a moment, looked heavenward, and scrunched her nose. “I do not think so,” she had replied. “I like it here in Orange, here in the house of the carpenter.”
“My little pera.” Her mother had spoken the words with a warm smile, folded Eva into her arms. “The little city is not far, only one-half league hence. We will return to Orange often. Prince Guillaume has built this new city for women and their children.” Her mother had taken Eva’s face in her hands and had looked her directly in the eye. Eva had looked away. “We shall have our own house.”
Eva had stopped seeking to avert the gaze of her mother. “Our own house? That would be better than this little room, I do suppose.” She had acknowledged the point thoughtfully and somewhat begrudgingly.
For as long as Eva had memory, she and her mother had made residence in the sparse back room of the shop of a carpenter. Her mother had run the household of the craftsman, Enric de Toulouse, while Eva, fascinated with woodworking, had sought to glean all she could about the trade.
She had even asked Enric if she could accompany him to a meet of the guild of carpenters. At first, he had simply laughed and tousled her hair, which had annoyed her. But she had been persistent and he had relented.
By the age of ten, she knew not only how to use the tools of a carpenter, to work the wood into realities that fit her imaginings, but had learned much of the economics of the trade as well, including the workings and politics of the guild.
Enric had been given the title de Toulouse in jest only because of his pompousness and not through any noble claim. He indeed hailed from Toulouse but possessed not a drop of highborn blood. Yet he could display a noble penchant for generosity. While Eva had bit her lip to hold back a smile, Enric had remarked more than once in a huff about the futility of standing between her and what she sought.
“Can I still carve wood in the new house?” she had asked of her mother with a pleading sort of hopefulness.
“That’s another thing I was going to tell,” her mother had replied, handing Eva a small, dull carving knife with a handle of graying ash wood.
“I have spoken with Enric, and he has agreed to give you some of his old tools, including a lathe.” Her mother had borne a triumphant smile, and Eva had known that inducing Enric to accede to such a request had been no easy thing. He would always acquiesce to help but needed persuading first, or perhaps pestering was a term more germane. “He says they need cleaning and are much in need of repair, but they are yours if you want them.”
“I do want them.” She had brought her hands to her face and was having difficulty giving rein to the excitement in her voice. “If it is the pole lathe, the fix will be simple. All I need do is replace the rope.” Eva had picked up a piece of scrap wood and started whittling off the rough edges.
“Then we shall find you a new rope, because in the new house you’ll have a room all your own for carving.”
“Can we move residence this week?” she had asked with a bright smile. Her change of mind had been complete, all reluctance dissipated, like mist succumbing to encroaching sunlight. The piece of wood had been taking the rough shape of a statue.
“I thought you wanted to remain in Orange.” Her mother had folded her arms across her chest and had looked at Eva with a smirk.
It had been Eva’s turn to do the embracing, and she had wrapped her arms around the slender waist of her mother. “I wish to go. This day if possible?”
Her mother’s look and voice tone had become matter of fact. “The house will be completed in a month and we will move in two. Yet there is a thing I must explain to you my little pera. Do you know what is a Beguine?”
Eva had shifted her weight and twirled a lock of hair round her finger. “A lady in the court of Prince Guillaume?”
“No, Eva,” her mother had laughed. “You must rid yourself of such notions as living in the Tor Mirmanda.” The Tor Mirmanda was the castle of Prince Guillaume, sovereign of the free principality of Orange. It was a chateau perched high on a hill, the Pog San Eutrope, towering over the city, the very heart of Orange.
The Prise de Orange, one of Eva’s favorite troubadour poems, was about another Guillaume, one who had retaken Orange from the Saracens some four centuries past. Orange had been under Christian rule ever since. As consequence, the city was filled with men who bore the name Guillaume, the Prince chief among them.
“A Beguine is not a lady of the court, but a humble laywoman who goes to live in a little city with other women who seek holiness, who seek only the unfettered presence of blessed Jhesu. Women choose to be Beguines so they have the support of other women to live a holy life. Women who live in a community, which is what the new little city is called, take vows to be faithful to blessed Jhesu Crist alone. A Beguine can own property, earn an income, and even leave the community to marry if she so chooses.”
Eva had shaken her head. “You speak of a nun. Nuns are not permitted to marry. I have no wish to be a nun.” Eva had been unable to conceive of a woman taking such vows that were able to be broken at will. The idea of the Beguine had been a discordant one to many throughout Christendom, but it appealed to those robbed of husbands and fathers by conflict in the Holy Land, a place few of them would ever see. It provided a choice theretofore unknown.
“No my pera. A Beguine is not a nun. There have been nuns for hundreds of years. The first communities of Beguines were started in Flanders about twenty years past, because so many women and children had been bereaved by crusades to the Holy Land as we were. In Latin they are called Mulieres Sanctae, the holy women, but their common name is Beguines. It is what I will be called in this new place and what you can be called three years hence when you reach majority. That is…if you wish to be called such.”
Eva had scrunched her nose. “Why would I want to be called a Beg…
“Beguine?” Her mother had smiled again.
The name of her favorite biblical saint had entered Eva’s mind at that moment. “When you say like the women who walked with Jhesu, you mean like San Maria Magdalen? She was the wife of blessed Jhesu. I could be like the Magdalen and have a husband!”
The smile on the face of her mother disappeared. Eva had thought for a moment she was going to get paddled. But her mother had released a long breath and sat next to Eva. Lydia had smiled that blessed smile that Eva had ever longed to see, and had oft seen. “That is but a legend of Provence. Blessed Jhesu does indeed have a bride, and that bride is his holy church. Maria Magdalen is the bride of Crist as are we my pera. For we will seek to be like Maria Magdalen and ardently serve the blessed Crist. You will experience the work of God. The Beguines believe in taking the Eucharist often. They believe in seeking to hear from God through visions and dreams and in spending time in solitude as a hermit does. They believe in studying la Bíblia themselves in the common tongue like the Bereans, not embracing unquestioned the words of a cleric.”
Her mother went on to say that Beguines were called to study the Scriptures themselves in the common tongue, to think their own thoughts of blessed Jhesu, to freelance their own prayers. Nobles, including her own Prince Guillaume, funded the raising of cities of women known as beguinages to have benefit from such unscripted supplications to Deu.
Go to the new city they did, and they were happy for a time. Her mother was second in stature in the community beneath only the Superior. Eva enjoyed the space and the freedom of movement and of mind. She learned to pray and to scribe and to read in Occitan and Latin and ancient Greek. Over time she came to dream also in Latin, though never in Greek.
As her mind’s eye returned to the present, Eva looked upon her community of Beguines with thankfulness renewed. It was a city unto itself, encompassed by limestone walls three yards in height and low towers but a yard higher, with three gates of ironbound ash wood manned by the fully armored guards of the Prince of Orange. The buildings of residence in the community were row houses of wood, brick, and stucco, built much like the mas, the traditional Provençal farmhouse, laid out painstakingly from Northeast to Southwest. The North ends of the buildings bore no windows in deference to the savage rage of Mistral. The roofs of layered terra-cotta tiles sloped gently with their low pitches to the peak, designed expressly to let the violent winds pass over rather than absorb their impact and yield shingles, as steeper pitched roofs would. Thankfully this day Mistral did not thunder from the North.
Through the break in the West line of houses she glimpsed the courtyard, or common as it was called, a flower in iris and poppy, dominated by a pear tree in the center, encompassed on two sides by churches of stone, the high church for the mass, which faced east like a cathedral, and the low church for prayer and the study of the Scriptures in the common tongue. The low church was joined to the infirmary, staffed always by a physician to the Prince. There was also a small stable for the packhorses, a simple hall of stone for dining built parallel to and roofed in the same fashion as the row houses, and a metal forge for the smithy. He had seen sixty-six summers and Eva thought he may not linger much more among the living. His ever present cough had worsened.
Which brought to mind her mother. Three years after they had moved to the community, but a month after Eva reached majority, her mother had taken a terrible fever one night and her soul had quit her body before cockcrow. Eva had taken up her unfinished carving once more and hewn out finely chiseled features not of the Virgin Maria but of her maire.
Eva had planted also a pear tree in the community of Beguines in memoriam to her. It occupied still a place of honor in the center of the common. From where she stood now, she glimpsed its elegant shape, rising above all in the common like a living spire. It was a remembrance of many things. Including the sightings.
Within a week of the passing of her mother, as Eva had felt her soul in a dizzying fall into shifting and ever-crowding darkness, the visions began. They were sightings of hazy images that blurred all bounds between corporeal and ethereal. Shapes of darkness that hovered, latched onto people around her, harassed, smothered, gave pale light, deceived, tormented, whispered words of honey sweetness. She would encounter someone in the community of Beguines, on the streets of Orange, in a cathedral, and see their home, their family, their very soul being invaded by the restless writhing and scratching of the darkness. It was all too transparent to her, a thing of which others seemed unaware. She wondered if there were more like her that saw beyond the earth and stone edges of this world. The shadows thrived all the more in the larger cities, like Orange and Avignon, but did their foul work in her little city of Beguines as well.
Still, it was not clearer glimpses of the darkness that broke her fall, but light manifest.
with no comments yet.