Biographies & Memoirs


IT WAS Aranmanoth, the wheat-blade month, in the autumn of her ninth year, when Joan first met Aesculapius. He had stopped at the canon’s grubenhaus on his way to Mainz, where he was to be teaching master at the cathedral schola.

“Be welcome, sir, be welcome!” Joan’s father greeted Aesculapius delightedly. “We rejoice in your safe arrival. I trust the journey was not too arduous?” He bowed his guest solicitously through the door. “Come refresh yourself. Gudrun! Bring wine! You do my humble home great honor, sir, with your presence.” From her father’s behavior, Joan understood that Aesculapius was a scholar of some standing and importance.

He was Greek, dressed in the Byzantine manner. His fine white linen chlamys was clasped with a simple metal brooch and covered with a long blue cloak, bordered with silver thread. He wore his hair short, like a peasant, and kept it smoothly oiled back from his face. Unlike her father, who shaved in the manner of the Frankish clergy, Aesculapius had a long, full beard—white, like his hair.

When her father called her over to be presented, she suffered a fit of shyness and stood awkwardly before the stranger, her eyes fixed on the intricate braid work of his sandals. At last the canon intervened and sent her off to help her mother prepare the evening meal.

When they sat down at the table, the canon said, “It is our custom to read from the Holy Book before we partake of food. Would you do us the honor of reading this night?”

“Very well,” said Aesculapius, smiling. Carefully he opened the wooden binding and turned the fragile parchment pages. “The text is Ecclesiastes. Omnia tempus habent, et momentum suum cuique negotio sub caelo …

Joan had never heard Latin spoken so beautifully. His pronunciation was unusual: the words were not all run together, Gallic style; each was round and distinct, like drops of clear rainwater. “For everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted …” Joan had heard her father read the same passage many times before, but in Aesculapius’s reading, she heard a beauty she had not previously imagined.

When he was finished, Aesculapius closed the book. “An excellent volume,” he said appreciatively to the canon. “Written in a fair hand. You must have brought it with you from England; I have heard that the art still flourishes there. It is rare these days to find a manuscript so free from grammatical barbarisms.”

The canon flushed with pleasure. “There were many such in the library at Lindisfarne. This one was entrusted to me by the bishop when he ordained me for the mission in Saxony.”

The meal was splendid, the most lavish the family had ever prepared for a guest. There was a haunch of roast salted pork, cooked till the skin crackled, boiled barley-corn and beetroot, pungent cheese, and loaves of crusty bread freshly baked under the embers. The canon brought out some Frankish ale, spicy, dark, and thick as country soup. Afterward, they ate fried almonds and sweet roasted apples.

“Delicious,” Aesculapius pronounced at the end of the meal. “It has been a long while since I have dined so well. Not since I left Byzantium have I tasted pork so sweet.”

Gudrun was pleased. “It is because we keep our own pigs, and fatten them before the slaughter. The meat of the black forest pigs is tough and unappetizing.”

“Tell us about Constantinople!” John said eagerly. “Is it true the streets are paved with precious stones, and the fountains spew liquid gold?”

Aesculapius laughed. “No. But it is a marvelous place to behold.” Joan and John listened gape-mouthed as Aesculapius described Constantinople, perched on a towering promontory, with buildings of marble domed in gold and silver rising several stories high, overlooking the harbor of the Golden Horn, in which ships from all over the world lay at anchor. It was the city of Aesculapius’s birth and youth. He had been forced to flee when his family had become embroiled in a religious dispute with the basileus, something to do with the breaking of icons. Joan did not understand this, though her father did, nodding with grave disapproval as Aesculapius described his family’s persecution.

Here the discussion turned to theological matters, and Joan and her brother were trundled off to the part of the house where their parents slept; as an honored guest, Aesculapius was to have the big bed near the hearth all to himself.

“Please, can’t I stay and listen?” Joan pleaded with her mother.

“No. It is well past time for you to be asleep. Besides, our guest is done with telling stories. This schoolroom talk will not interest you.”


“No more, child. Off to bed with you. I will need your help in the morning; your father wishes us to prepare another feast for his visitor tomorrow. Any more such guests,” Gudrun grumbled, “and we will be ruined.” She tucked the children into the straw pallet, kissed them, and left.

John was quickly asleep, but Joan lay awake, trying to hear what the voices were saying on the other side of the thick wooden partition. Finally, overcome with curiosity, she got out of bed and crept over to the partition, where she knelt, peering out from the darkness to where her father and Aesculapius sat talking by the hearth fire. It was chilly; the warmth of the fire did not reach this far, and Joan was wearing only a light linen shift. She shivered but did not consider returning to the bed; she had to hear what Aesculapius was saying.

The talk had turned to the cathedral schola. Aesculapius asked the canon, “Do you know anything of the library there?”

“Oh yes,” said the canon, obviously pleased to have been asked. “I have spent many hours in it. It houses an excellent collection, upwards of five and seventy codices.” Aesculapius nodded politely, though he did not appear impressed. Joan could not imagine so many books all in one place.

The canon said, “There are copies of Isidore’s De scriptoribus ecclesiasticus and Salvianus’s De gubernatione Dei. Also the complete Commentarii of Jerome, with wondrously skilled illustrations. And there is a particularly fine manuscript of the Hexaëmeron by your countryman St. Basil.”

“Are there any manuscripts of Plato?”

“Plato?” The canon was shocked. “Certainly not; his writing is no fit study for a Christian.”

“Ah? You do not approve of the study of logic, then?”

“It has its place in the trivium,” the canon replied uneasily, “with the use of proper texts such as those of Augustine and Boethius. But faith is grounded in the authority of Scripture, not the evidence of logic; out of foolish curiosity men do sometimes shake their faith.”

“I see your point.” Aesculapius’s words were spoken more out of courtesy than agreement. “Perhaps, however, you can answer me this: How does it happen that man can reason?”

“Reason is the spark of the divine essence in man. ‘So God created man in His own image; In the image of God created He him.’”

“You have a good command of Scripture. So you would agree, then, that reason is God-given?”

“Most assuredly.”

Joan crept closer, moving out from behind the shadow of the partition; she did not want to miss what Aesculapius said next.

“Then why fear to expose faith to reason? If God gave it to us, how then should it lead us from Him?”

The canon shifted in his seat. Joan had never seen him look so uncomfortable. He was a missionary, trained to lecture and to preach, unaccustomed to the give-and-take of logical debate. He opened his mouth to reply, then closed it.

“Indeed,” Aesculapius went on, “is it not lack of faith that leads men to fear the scrutiny of reason? If the destination is doubtful, then the path must be fraught with fear. A robust faith need not fear, for if God exists, then reason cannot help but lead us to Him. ‘Cogito, ergo Deus est,’ argues St. Augustine, ‘I think, therefore God is.’”

Joan was following the argument so intently that she forgot herself and exclaimed aloud in appreciative understanding. Her father looked sharply toward the partition. She darted back into the shadows and waited, scarcely breathing. Then she heard the hum of voices again. Benedicite, she thought, they did not see me. She crept softly back to the pallet, where John lay snoring.

Long after the voices ceased, Joan lay awake in the dark. She felt incredibly lighthearted and free, as if an oppressive weight had been lifted from her. It was not her fault that Matthew had died. Her desire to learn had not killed him, despite what her father said. Tonight, listening to Aesculapius, she had discovered that her love of knowing was not unnatural or sinful but the direct consequence of a God-given ability to reason. I think, therefore God is. In her heart, she felt the truth of it.

Aesculapius’s words had turned a light on in her soul. Perhaps tomorrow I can speak to him, she thought. Perhaps I will have a chance to show him I can read.

The prospect was so pleasing that she could not let go of it. She did not fall asleep until dawn.

EARLY the next morning, her mother sent Joan into the woods to gather beechnuts and acorns as fodder for the pigs. Anxious to return to the house and Aesculapius, Joan hurried to complete the chore. But the ground of the autumn forest was thick with fallen leaves, and the nuts were hard to find; she could not go back until the wicker basket was full.

By the time she returned, Aesculapius was readying to leave.

“Ah, but I had hoped you would do us the honor of dining with us again,” said the canon. “I was interested in your ideas on the mystery of the Triune Oneness and would like to discuss the subject further.”

“You are kind, but I must be in Mainz this evening. The bishop expects me, and I am eager to take up my new duties.”

“Of course, of course.” After a pause the canon added, “But you do remember our conversation about the boy. Will you stay to observe his lesson?”

“It is the least I can do for so generous a host,” Aesculapius said with studied politeness.

Joan took up her sewing and stationed herself in a chair a short distance apart, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, so her father would not send her away.

She need not have worried. The canon’s attention was focused entirely on John. Hoping to impress Aesculapius with the extent of his son’s learning, he began the lesson by questioning John on the rules of grammar following Donatus. This was a mistake, for grammar was John’s weakest subject. Predictably, he performed dismally, confusing the ablative with the dative case, botching his verbs, and in the end showing himself utterly unable to parse a sentence correctly. Aesculapius listened solemnly, the line of a frown creasing his forehead.

Red-faced with embarrassment, the canon retreated to safer ground. He began with the great Alcuin’s catechism of riddles, in which John had been thoroughly drilled. John made it through the first part of the catechism well enough:

“What is a year?”

“A cart with four wheels.”

“What horses pull it?”

“The sun and the moon.”

“How many palaces has it?”


Pleased with this small success, the canon moved on to more difficult parts of the catechism. Joan feared what was coming, for she saw that John was now in a state of near panic.

“What is life?”

“The joy of the blessed, the sorrow of the sad, and … and …” John broke off.

Aesculapius shifted in his chair. Joan closed her eyes, concentrating on the words, willing John to utter them.

“Yes?” prodded the canon. “And what?”

John’s face lit with inspiration. “And a search for death!”

The canon nodded curtly. “And what is death?”

Stricken, John stared at his father like a netted deer who sees at last the approach of the huntsman.

“What is death?” repeated the canon.

It was no use. The near miss on the last question and his father’s mounting displeasure destroyed the last of John’s composure. He could no longer remember anything. His face crumpled; Joan saw that he was going to cry. Her father glared at him. Aesculapius looked on with pitying eyes.

She could stand it no longer. Her brother’s distress, her father’s anger, the intolerable humiliation before the eyes of Aesculapius overwhelmed her. Before she knew what she was doing, she burst out: “An inevitable happening, an uncertain pilgrimage, the tears of the living, the thief of man.”

Her words struck the others like a thunderbolt. All three looked up at once, their faces registering a range of emotions. On John’s there was chagrin, on her father’s outrage, on Aesculapius’s astonishment. The canon found his voice first.

“What insolence is this?” he demanded. Then, remembering Aesculapius, he said, “Were it not for the presence of our guest, you would be given a proper thrashing right now. As it is, your punishment will have to wait. Be gone from my sight.”

Joan rose from her chair, fighting for control until she reached the door of the grubenhaus and pulled it shut behind her. Then she ran, as fast and hard as she could, all the way to the bracken at the edge of the forest, where she threw herself down on the ground.

She thought she would burst with pain. To have been disgraced before the eyes of the one person she had most wanted to impress! It isn’t fair. John didn’t know the answer, and I did. Why shouldn’t I give it?

For a long time she sat watching the lengthening shadows of the trees. A robin fluttered to the ground nearby and began to peck in the bracken, hunting for worms. It found one and, puffing out its chest, strutted in a little circle, displaying its prize. Like me, she thought with wry recognition. All puffed with pride over what I’ve done. She knew pridefulness was a sin—she had been chastised for it often enough—yet she could not help the way she felt. I am smarter than John. Why should he be able to study and learn and not me?

The robin flew off. Joan watched it become a distant flutter of color among the trees. She fingered the medal of St. Catherine that hung around her neck and thought of Matthew. He would have sat with her, talked with her, explained things so she could understand. She missed him so much.

You murdered your brother, Father had said. A sick feeling rose in her throat as she remembered. Still her spirit rebelled. She was prideful, wanting more than God intended for a woman. But why would God punish Matthew for her sin? It didn’t make sense.

What was it in her that would not let go of her impossible dreams? Everyone told her that her desire to learn was unnatural. Yet she thirsted for knowledge, yearned to explore the larger world of ideas and opportunities that was open to people of learning. The other girls in the village had no such interest. They were content to sit through mass without understanding a single word. They accepted what they were told and did not look further. They dreamed of a good husband, by which they meant a man who would treat them kindly and not beat them, and a workable piece of soil; they had no desire ever to go beyond the safe, familiar world of the village. They were as inexplicable to Joan as she was to them.

Why am I different? she wondered. What is wrong with me?

Footsteps sounded beside her, and a hand touched her shoulder. It was John.

He said sulkily, “Father sent me. He wants to see you.”

Joan took his hand. “I’m sorry.”

“You shouldn’t have done it. You’re only a girl.”

This was hard to take, but she owed him an apology for shaming him before their guest.

“I was wrong. Forgive me.”

He tried to maintain his pose of wounded virtue but could not. “All right, I forgive you,” he relented. “At least Father isn’t angry at me anymore. Now—well, come and see for yourself.”

He pulled her up from the damp ground and helped her dust off the clinging pieces of bracken. Holding hands, they walked back toward the cottage.

At the door, John ushered Joan in ahead of him. “Go on,” he said. “It’s you they want to see.”

They? Joan wondered what he meant, but she could not ask, for she was already facing her father and Aesculapius, who waited before the hearth fire.

She approached and stood submissively before them. Her father had a peculiar look on his face, as if he had swallowed something sour. He grunted and motioned her toward Aesculapius, who beckoned to her. Taking her hands in his, Aesculapius fixed her with a penetrating gaze. “You know Latin?” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“How do you come by this knowledge?”

“I listened, sir, whenever my brother had his lessons.” She could imagine her father’s reaction to this information. She dropped her eyes. “I know that I should not have done so.”

Aesculapius asked, “What other knowledge have you gained?”

“I can read, sir, and write a little. My brother Matthew taught me when I was small.” From the corner of her eye Joan saw her father’s start of anger.

“Show me.” Aesculapius opened the Bible, searched for a passage, then held the book out to her, marking the place with his finger. It was the parable of the mustard seed from the Gospel of St. Luke. She began to read, stumbling at first over some of the Latin words—it had been a while since she had read from the book: “Quomodo assimilabimus regnum Dei aut in qua parabola ponemus illud?”— “Unto what is the kingdom of God like? And whereunto shall I resemble it?” She continued without hesitation until the end: “Then he said, It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took, and cast into his garden, and it grew, and waxed a great tree, and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.”

She stopped reading. In the silence that followed she could hear the soft rustle of the autumn breeze passing through the thatching on the roof.

Aesculapius said quietly, “And do you understand the meaning of what you have read?”

“I think so.”

“Explain it to me.”

“It means that faith is like a mustard seed. You plant it in your heart, just like a seed is planted in a garden. If you cultivate the seed, it will grow into a beautiful tree. If you cultivate your faith, you will gain the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Aesculapius tugged at his beard. He gave no indication of whether he approved of what she had said. Had she given the wrong interpretation?

“Or—” She had another idea.

Aesculapius’s eyebrows went up. “Yes?”

“It could mean that the Church is like a seed. The Church started small, growing in darkness, cared for only by Christ and the Twelve Apostles, but it grew into a huge tree, a tree that shades the whole world.”

“And the birds who nest in its branches?” Aesculapius asked.

She thought quickly. “They are the faithful, who find salvation in the Church, just as birds find protection in the branches of the tree.”

Aesculapius’s expression was unreadable. Again he tugged solemnly at his beard. Joan decided to give it one more try.

“Also …” She reasoned it out slowly as she spoke. “The mustard seed could represent Christ. Christ was like a seed when he was buried in the earth, and like a tree when he was resurrected and rose toward Heaven.”

Aesculapius turned to the canon. “You heard?”

The canon’s face twitched. “She is only a girl. I am sure she did not mean to presume …”

“The seed as faith, as the Church, as Christ,” said Aesculapius. “Allegoria, moralis, anagoge. A classic threefold scriptural exegesis. Rather simply expressed, of course, but still, as complete an interpretation as that of the great Gregory himself. And that without any formal education! Astonishing! The child demonstrates an extraordinary intelligence. I will undertake to tutor her.”

Joan was dazed. Was she dreaming? She was afraid to let herself believe this was actually happening.

“Not, of course, at the schola,” Aesculapius continued, “for that would not be permitted. I will arrange to come here once a week. And I will provide books for her to study in between.”

The canon was displeased. This was not the outcome he had envisioned. “That’s all very well,” he said testily. “But what about the boy?”

“Ah, the boy? I’m afraid he shows no promise as a scholar. With further training, he might qualify as a country priest. The law requires only that they read and write, and know the correct form of the sacraments. But I should look no further than that. The schola is not for him.”

“I can scarcely credit my ears! You will undertake to teach the girl, but not the boy?”

Aesculapius shrugged. “One has talent; the other has not. There can be no other consideration.”

“A woman as scholar!” The canon was indignant. “She to study the sacred texts while her brother is ignored? I will not permit it. Either you teach both or neither.”

Joan held her breath. Surely she could not have come this close only to have it taken away. She started to recite a prayer under her breath, then stopped. Perhaps God would not approve. She reached under her tunic and gripped the medallion of St. Catherine. She would understand. Please, she prayed silently. Help me to have this. I will make a fine offering to you. Only please let me have this.

Aesculapius looked impatient. “I have told you the boy has no aptitude for study. To tutor him would be a waste of time.”

“Then it is settled,” said the canon angrily. Joan watched, disbelieving, as he rose from his chair.

“A moment,” said Aesculapius. “I see you are fixed in your intention.”

“I am.”

“Very well. The girl shows every sign of a prodigious intellect. She could accomplish much with the proper education. I cannot let such an opportunity pass. Since you insist, I will tutor them both.”

Joan let her breath out in a rush. “Thank you,” she said, as much to St. Catherine as to Aesculapius. It was all she could do to keep her voice steady. “I will work to be deserving.”

Aesculapius looked at her, his eyes filled with a penetrating intelligence. Like a fire from within, Joan thought. A fire that would light the weeks and months ahead.

“Indeed you will,” he said. Underneath the thick, white beard there was the trace of a smile. “Oh yes, indeed you will.”

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