By Gabriella Brooke.
Cheney, Washington: Eastern Washington University Press, 1999.
ISBN # 0-910055-49-1.
258 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
November 2004

Beginning in 1061 the elderly single lay woman, Bernfrieda, writes a chronicle of her half-sister, Senda. Along the way we are treated to a beautiful, if painful, love story, a history of the family of Tancred of Hauteville and two of his sons, and some fascinating reflections on the philosophy of history.

As the novel opens Bernfrieda and Senda are living at the convent of St. Eufemia is southern Italy. Senda is the mother of the Duke of Apulia, and Bernfrieda, while being her half-sister is actually her main lady in waiting, having raised Senda from birth. Bernfrieda is in her mid-60s and Senda about 7-8 years younger. Bernfrieda is a bit bored and begins to learn to write in the monastery scriptorium, though the Brother who teachers her is quite reluctant to allow a woman to learn to write. She is put to work copying the life of St. Agatha, and turns out to be quite good at it.

A chronicler (historian) comes to the monastery to interview the Senda concerning the chronicle he is writing of her son Robert, Duke of Apulia. The historian is obviously going to change details to glorify Robert since this is a "commissioned" history.

Back in the scriptorium Bernfrieda tells the old Brother who had taught her to write, all about this interview and she is simply scandalized. He chastises her about being naive and not understanding anything, since of course one would have an historian glorify one when writing a history. And he tells her this is simply proof that a woman could never be a writer.

Further, she raises the question of why the historian had absolutely no interest in details of Robert's mother's life, especially since she was quite well-known. The monk gives her the classic argument about silencing the past -- but arguing in defense of such silencing, since women weren't 'WORTH' writing about.

I hesitated, but I saw no harm in telling him what was on my mind. Nothing that happened at the Abbey escaped Brother Gaufredus anyway.

"Brother Amatus never even asked about my Lady's early years.

"Why should he?" Brother Gaufredus put down his quill, leaned back in his chair and massaged his forehead with inky fingers. "The past is interesting only when it foreshadows greatness. The only greatness in your Lady's life is the fact that she is the mother of our beloved Duke, and this fact Amatus will record. Why should a chronicler be interested in your Lady's past beyond that?"

"You do not know my Lady, Brother Gaufredus," I said. "You have never even talked to her. Aren't the seeds of her children's heroics in her past too?"

He shrugged. "You mean in their father's past, Bernfrieda. We all know that Tancred killed a wild boar with a single thrust of his sword when he was just a boy."

"But they are also part of Senda," I said. "She too was their teacher."

"What can a mother teach a male child?" He gestured toward the bleeding Agatha. "Did your Lady perform saintly deeds? Has she been a paragon of piety? What can a woman do that her children's children would want to read about?" He shook his head. "You have learned your letters well - yet after all the time you spent here with me, you still can't sort out what is important from what isn't. If you feel there is something notable about your Lady's past, embroider it on your tapestry, Bernfrieda."

He too does not think Senda important beyond the fact that she is the mother of Robert Guiscard and the wife of Tancred of Hauteville. Brother Gaufredus picked up his quill and began to work. I started to correct my mistake, scraping gingerly with the knife lest I cut into the parchment. Had Senda been saintly she may not have had the same children, or any children at all for that matter. Apulia would be ruled by someone else, and Amatus would not have his task. How can Brother Gaufredus be so sure that Senda's grandchildren would be interested only in saintly deeds? Saints' lives are dull. Even the gore of martyrs' deaths becomes tiresome. I know it well, for all that Brother Gaufredus has ever allowed me to copy have been the lives of female saints.

I will record what happened - but not on my tapestry! No matter how faithful the colors, how careful the stitching, embroidery yields only stick figures. How can I portray the haughtiness of Senda's mother, Lady Mathilda, on cloth? How can I describe with thread what I felt when I saw her ride by my father's side? No, not with a needle but with my quill I will record Senda's story!

Thus she decides to write her own secret chronicle, a life of her half-sister. And then we go back some 60 years to 1099 to start the story of her half-sister, which involves the narrator herself from the beginning.

In the next 200 pages we hear the story of Senda’s family and the emerging of her two sons, Richard (Duke of Apulia) and Rogier (Count of Mileto), into positions of dominant power in Southern Italy and Sicily.

The novel is a fascinating read since Gabriella Brooke is very careful to try to recreate with accuracy life as it would have been lived in the 11th century. Oh my, those were hard times and the one image that sticks in my mind most was a scene in the dining room of the castle when one of the knights is making a toast at dinner and as Bernfrieda describes it “His breathe clouded in the cold room as he spoke.” As I write these notes on a chilly morning in November, not yet having turned on my heat, I sympathize, realizing that it’s just not nearly that cold in my house. And that when I finally give into winter I will just flick a switch and my furnace will create a warm, cozy house.

In Michel Rolph Trouillot’s marvelous SILENCING OF THE PAST he lays out the problem of history and who gets silenced. Trouillot points out that to begin with only a tiny portion of what happens in the world ever gets written down or otherwise “saved.” Then of that written portion an even smaller part ever finds its way into archives which survive down the centuries. Finally, when a particular history is written, the historian must scour the archives for the limited data, and then make decisions as to what gets presented in the history being written and what doesn’t. The net effect is a massive “silencing” of the past.

Most particularly the lives and histories of the underclasses, and the disempowered are silenced. Obviously this silencing includes the lives of women.

In this sense Brooke’s novel is a feminist work, and the frame story and tactic for writing the her history of 11th century Normandy and Italy is astonishingly similar to a novel I read just a few weeks ago, CONFESSIONS OF A PAGAN NUN which does the same thing for 5th century Ireland.

In the case of Bernfrieda we have not only the unusual biography of an 11th century woman, Senda, but the added rarity of a female author, Bernfrieda herself.

The limited options available to women is underlined in both novels. Were a woman not to want to marry and have children, there were few options tolerated. Three dominate:

These two novels help raise our consciousness as to the harshness of lives of women until quite recent times.

Bernfrieda and Senda share the same father. However, Bernfrieda’s mother was not her father’s wife, but a local woman concubine. Thus when he finally marries a woman of noble birth, Bernfrieda, her mother and other children return to village life. They do work at the keep (castle of sorts) and Bernfrieda becomes the nursemaid and inseparable companion to Senda when she is born.

When Senda marries Tancred, a knight much older than she, and a warrior buddy of her father, Bernfrieda goes with her to Tancred’s keep, and the inseparability of the women continues to death.

What complexifies this story is that Senda is actually in love with Tancred’s son, Guillaume, and Bernfrieda with Tancred!!!!! It gets deliciously muddled.

Eventually Robert and Rogier, two of Senda’s sons become Norman powers in Southern Italy and Sicily and the action moves there. After Tancred dies the two women retire to Saint Eufemia convent on the gulf by the same name.

The novel is a wonderful story of the intricacies of the family interrelations, but I’ll leave that plot for those who would read the novel.

In addition to the place of women in the world and the discussions of philosophy of history the novel is interesting for its heavy focus on the day to day activities of life in 11th century Europe.

A few bits and pieces that just fascinated me:

Senda had been promised to Tancred by Senda’s father. But she loved Guillaume, Tancred son. This exchange between Senda and Bernfrieda tells us so much:

“How can I marry Guillaume’s father?” She stood up and paced the antechamber. “I shall send word to Guillaume. We could run away – “

“Senda! Go against Father’s will? You would disgrace yourself – and Guillaume too – how far do you think you could go before you were recaptured and brought back in shame? Guillaume would be killed.”

She recognizes she is simply stuck. But, she doesn’t even know the slightest thing about marriage or sex. Again Brooke is careful in her description:

What would happen tonight? Senda had clung to me fearfully the night before. Lady Mathilda had not told her much about what to expect from her groom, but Senda knew about coupling. She had often observed dogs mounting bitches and Father's stallion mounting mares. She was aware of what a man looked like, for she had often seen naked peasants play in the river during the warm summer months.

The mystery of the wedding bed! If coupling was as simple as it looked between animals, why did it bring so much misery among humans? Her parents were not happy. She could not think of anybody who was married and happy. And she kept thinking of Guillaume. I told Senda Tancred was different but even to me those words sounded hollow: had I not seen my own mother suffer because of coupling? How could Senda ever be happy when she longed for Guillaume to be in his father's place?

Guillaume sat with his eyes lowered during meals, and was constantly at his father's side during the day. He looked away when their eyes met. He was angry at Senda. Senda was desolate, she wanted to speak to him, tell him - what?

As I combed her hair I felt a sudden pain. Senda had changed: her laughter had not resounded in the hall since she was betrothed to Tancred, and something grave had entered her demeanor. She walked past Adeliza as if she weren't there. Perhaps, if Tancred were gentle, Guillaume would fade into a memory. Had Muriella, her predecessor, been happy?

Today people know so much more, but many things seem not to change; today many seem as unhappy in “coupling” as in the quote above.

Tancred is described as a caring and sensitive husband. I did wonder just how believable Brooke’s description of him was. He had children by his previous wife, he just wanted Senda for her company and beauty (in his eyes, otherwise, she wasn’t seen as a significant beauty – Bernfrieda was!)

When Senda is pregnant by him we read:

"Are you displeased, my Lord?" Senda asked. He gazed at her silently.

When he spoke, his voice was unsteady. "You are more precious to me than any child you could give me."

Senda was bewildered.

"The children you give me, I shall love. But you are my most beloved, Senda. In my youth I may have felt otherwise, but. . ." Later Senda tried to make sense of what Tancred had told her. The whole purpose of marriage is to have children, she said to me. Father Raoul had said it many times. Tancred already had five children, and she decided that was the reason for his lack of enthusiasm.

"Tancred loves you, Senda," I said coldly, irritated at her stupidity. I did not mention that he feared for her life because it would add to her worry about childbirth. Senda shrugged at my words. I opened my mouth to argue but then shut it. Things will change when the baby comes, I thought; it might not be long before even the memory of Guillaume faded away.

Bernfrieda’s love for Tancred is why she never married. She could have had any of the knights in Tancred’s service.

Eventually Senda has sex with Guillaume, just once. And she is consumed with guilt and just about that time she gets news of her father’s death.

“God is punishing me, Bernfrieda,” Senda sobbed, head on my shoulder.

“I know Father died because I sinned.”

“No. Men sin like you did, all the time, and God does not punish them. Did he punish Guillaume? Men are killed by other men in battle, not by God.”

Another passage I thought was insightful was after Abbot Robert’s brother Arnold is killed Bernfrieda is speaking with him, and he has already forgiven the powerful man who killed his brother. She reports thinking: “How can he forgive so soon? Is he a saint or a shrewd politician.”

In addition to the family details Brooke sets the stage for rather general chapters on life of the times by using very short historical source quotes at the head of each chapter which tell us the theme of the coming narrative. This served two purposes – to root her in actual surviving historical accounts of the time, and to give a thrust for the adventure or episode of the chapter.

This process struck me as a powerful way to give a writing assignment. Quote a short paragraph from an historical account and have the writers do a short story about it.

The novel is exciting in bringing the 11th century to our attention in some reasonably imagined historical detail, rooted in texts of the time. It also has a wonderfully complex family story and love stories. The interrelationship between church and state is another important theme, and dominating all is the place of woman in this harsh world.

The novel is well-written, a quick and rewarding read.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett