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Time and Chance

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The Dukes of Aquitaine always had a notoriously stormy relationship with the Church; when Eleanor's father supported the wrong Pope in a papal schism, it came to a head. Then her little brother fell ill, and her father, panicked at the prospect of losing his only male child and heir while his entire duchy was under threat of excommunication, swore that if his son recovered, he would become a penitent pilgrim, and his oldest daughter would take the veil and join a nunnery.

Little Aigret recovered.

"God has spared one child," Eleanor's father the Duke said grimly, "so I must give him the other."

That taught Eleanor about the perverseness of the divine will right then and there. She had never wished to become a nun. This was what happened to unwanted wives, like her grandmother, but she was a girl with a life still ahead of her, which she'd always imagined to involve feasts, hunts, music and beauty. She'd been her father's favourite, and he'd given her an education to match any son's. This was the first time something was asked of her, and spoiled as she was, she knew she would not refuse. Not when her father was genuinely afraid of damnation, and for her brother's death, should he break his bargain with God.

She did persuade him to let her choose the cloister, though. It wasn't one in Aquitaine, but one in Anjou. Since Count Geoffrey of Anjou was her father's ally, this wasn't a problem, and her father obliged her, travelling with her to Fontevrault himself before going on his own pilgrimage. He had asked her about her choice, and she had told him placidly she'd heard much praise of the Abbey of Fontevrault, which had been founded only three decades earlier by the Archpriest Robert and the Prioress Hersende, and that if she was to be a nun, she wished to do so at a place famed for its learning so she could continue her education at least.

"That's not why," her younger sister Petronilla said when they were alone. "Even I know they have both monks and nuns there, and their founders made it law that they'll always be ruled by a woman, not a man. You don't want learning, you want a chance to order people about one day. I know you."

She would miss Petronilla dreadfully.

The foundress Hersende had refused the title of "Abbess". So the current Abbess of Fontevrault was still the first one, a woman who'd been the foundress Hersende's right hand, and shared Eleanor's sister's name. She was Petronilla de Chemillé, and to Eleanor's young eyes, she seemed ancient. It was the prioress, Mahault, who did much of the day to day administrative work. "Once you have taken your vows," she told Eleanor, not unkindly, "you will be a young novice here, no more, no less. It can be difficult at first. Believe me, I know."

She did. Mahault, Eleanor learned, was not only sister to Count Geoffrey of Anjou but the widow of that young prince who drowned on the famous White Ship, leaving King Henry I. of England without a male heir and only his daughter Maude to succeed him. Mahault could have been Queen of England, and yet she seemed content here, where nuns and monks worked to care for lepers, former whores and wives who had left their husbands for fear of their lives.

The discipline of the monastic life was hard for Eleanor to accept. Eating gruel where she'd once been served pie made of fowl, rising at dawn to pray instead of sleeping in comfort, living with girls who weren't her servants or family but strangers and being chided if she argued with any of them: none of this was easy. But her endless curiosity always found new targets, through all the stories the people seeking refuge at Fontevrault brought with them. And what she had heard was true: in Fontevrault, the Abbess ruled over men and women alike, and the two founders had ensured it would never be an Abbot.

"Nor will it ever be a nun raised at Fontevrault," one of the older nuns told Eleanor. "Blessed Robert and blessed Hersende wished it to be always a widow, someone who'd had experience in the world first, and would know how to deal with it without longing for it. As Hersende herself was."

She might as well have said: it will never be you. Well, Eleanor thought, we shall see about that. If she was to stay here for the rest of her life, it would certainly be a waste of the mind God had given her not to use it.

There was a lot about Fontevrault she admired, and she did believe the work its community was doing was important. But even after taking her vows, it wasn't easy to encounter the occasional highborn female guest, dressed in fine robes, and not resent the rough cloth scratching her skin a little; to listen in the prescribed silence to the recitation of St. Benedict's rules and not long for it to be music and song by a troubadour instead. Still, the hardest vow to keep was that of obedience: doing as she was told.

She wasn't allowed messages from her family for the first two years, until she'd taken permanent vows, and then she found out that her father had died while her little sister Petronilla had been married to the young King of France, Louis, while her uncle was regent in Aquitaine until Aigret came of age. It was unworthy, yet she couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if Aigret had died back then. Would she be Duchess of Aquitaine now? Or Queen of France? Both?

No matter. She had to do best with what she'd been given. Her big chance came when she was a little past twenty years of age, and the Church was in uproar. The feud between Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard had escalated to the point where Bernard had accused Abelard of arrogance of the mind and heresy, and asked for the public condemnation of all his works. Abelard was planning to defend his theories in a public disputation at Sens, and had written to anyone he regarded as a friend and follower in order to ask them to come to Sens in his support. Since Bernard of Clairvaux was considered to be a living saint while Abelard, though a brilliant scholar, was indeed famous for his arrogance, and even more famous for the notorious scandal that had ended with him castrated, many of the younger nuns were surprised to learn that the Abbess had decided to go to Sens, despite her age.

"Why would she side with Abelard?" one of the novices asked, and Eleanor was glad, since she wanted to know the same thing, but had learned by now not to show it so openly.

"There is a... connection," an older nun said, but could not be drawn into explaining more. Eleanor decided she would find out sooner or later, but the more important issue was to use this opportunity.

"Our Mother Abbess is going to need someone to aid her on the journey," she said to Prioress Mahault after having asked for an audience. "You can spare me. I can be far more useful to her on the way than I could be here."

"This is true for any number of our younger nuns," Mahault replied quietly.

"Yes, Mother. But," Eleanor drew a quick breath, for now she had to gamble, "none of the others is the sister of the Queen of France. Who will be there, at Sens, together with her husband the King."

The corners of Mahault's mouth quirked. "Humility is still a stranger to you, Sister. Mother Abbess is respected and venerated everywhere in France for this Abbey she helped create. Do you seriously believe this will weigh less at Sens than your shared blood with a young Queen whom you haven't seen in years?"

"No, Mother. But I think that it might not solely be Peter Abelard who is in danger at Sens. Forgive me, Mother, but I listen to the stories told by people who come here, and they say Abbot Bernard has declared that communities such as ours, women and men led by a woman, are against the natural order. He considers women worthy only of serving, does he not? And if he wins the dispute, he might use the opportunity to have this view of his confirmed by all the bishops and cardinals present as well. If that should be the case, it could be important to have the King's ear, so our community here can continue just as we are."

Mahault regarded her silently. Eleanor felt the sweat running down on her back, but she was reasonably sure her face remained composed. She did not speak again, but remained silent as well, and did not look away. Mahault's face appeared ageless, framed by her nun's wimple, and yet somewhere still must be the woman who'd seen the machinations of power at a royal court first hand and knew how important influence was.

"You care about this community, do you, Sister?"

"Yes," Eleanor said, and it wasn't a lie. She did care. But she also wanted a chance to prove what she could do.

"Very well," Mahault said at least. "You'll go with Mother Abbess to Sens. But remember, you'll be there to serve her and Fontevrault. Not to glory in your own cleverness."

The venerable Abbess Petronilla turned out to be as mentally alert as ever, but fragile enough to need a litter for her journey to Sens, as opposed to travelling on a donkey, which, as she told Eleanor, she used to do in her younger years. The men carrying her litter were lay monks, and had dispensation to use force should the Abbess and Eleanor be attacked by brigands, which thankfully didn't happen. But they could only travel a few hours a day because of the Abbess' state. It was spring, a lovely May; the Abbess still felt so cold that Eleanor had to rub her hands and feet more than once to get the blood flowing. It also got the Abbess talking about the old days, about blessed Robert and Hersende, and that was how Eleanor found out what the "connection" was.

"Blessed Hersende, ah, there was a woman. She did not regret once that she'd given up her worldly state to follow Robert and found our monastery. Well, for her own sake, she did not regret. There was...she had a daughter, you see. Such a remarkable girl, wise beyond her years, and a scholar, too, as much as any man was. I confess I was jealous of her, for I, too, saw Hersende as my mother. Her daughter was raised by an uncle in Paris, and he had her taught by the most famous, the most brilliant scholar of them all."

By now, Eleanor had a suspicion as to where this was leading, and she was young enough to hold her breath.

"I had never met Heloise before the scandal," the Abbess murmured. "And when it happened, I was ashamed of my unworthy thoughts again. Mark this, daughter, for envy is one of the mortal sins, and you can think of yourself as a good Christian and still be afflicted by it. Hersende's daughter might be the most learned woman of France, I thought, but she'd still been seduced by Abelard as if she'd been one of the unfortunate tavern girls seeking refuge with us. I was the better daughter, I thought. And this is why I must now be at Sens. To atone for my joy at another's pain. She's an abbess now, too, Heloise, did you know that? They were married then, but after her uncle castrated Abelard, Abelard took holy vows, and asked that she should as well. And she did. That was when I met her. I felt I owed it to Hersende to be there, or so I told myself, but when I saw her, I knew I had come to triumph yet again. I was the Pharisee, not the Good Samaritan. I congratulated her for following in her mother's footsteps at last, and she looked at me and said: 'I'd rather be Abelard's whore than the greatest Abbess in Christendom.' She looked at me, and I saw myself, petty, envious, and that memory will not vanish."

"Will she be there, at Sens?" Eleanor asked, trying not to sound too eager, despite how much the story reminded her of something out of a minstrel's song. She'd heard about Heloise before. Everyone had. The younger novices sometimes whispered amongst themselves about what they would do if ever a monk were to be an Abelard. To her disappointment, the Abbess shook her head.

"She will not be. She knows Abelard's existence might be at stake, and if she is there, Bernard will not even need to remind everyone of the past, and make them believe the past is also the present."

Despite the drawn out journey, they arrived in time at Sens. Due to the town being packed with all the visitors attending the Council, the Abbess and Eleanor shared quarters with the Countess of Champagne's ladies. Eleanor hadn't had the chance to identify herself to anyone as the Queen's sister yet; attending the evening mass, open to everyone, clergy , nobility and commoners alike, was more important, for Bernard of Clairvaux himself would preach, and it was this mass that was regarded as the beginning of the Council.

Bernard, it turned out, wasn't coy about what he wanted. He asked everyone present to pray for the soul of Peter Abelard, which was in dire peril. "Does he not encourage doubt? '"By doubting we come to examine, and by examining we reach the truth', these are his words! He puts reason above faith. He claims that the intention, not the act itself, is what makes a deed good or bad! This is heresy. This is evil!"

And thus it went on for another hour, which left most of the attendants drenched in sweat and fear. It made Eleanor very curious to read Abelard's works, but she was aware this had not been the intended effect. After mass, there was a festive banquet for the bishops and the abbots of the great abbeys who were in attendance. The Abbess had not planned to go, but after Bernard's sermon, she declared she had to.

It was the first banquet Eleanor took part in since she'd left Aquitaine. She stood behind the Abbess and cut her fish for her, for the Abbess did not possess many of her teeth anymore. Neither the King nor the Queen were present, so she could focus on everyone else. The Abbess was talking to the Abbot of Poitiers, Berengar, who as it turned out was on Abelard's side and was most distressed.

"He will not, surely?" was what Eleanor heard the Abbess asking, but couldn't hear Berengar's reply, because that was when Bernard of Clairvaux entered the room. He did not bother to take a place at the table. Instead, he used his preacher's voice for one more statement. As everyone present surely now had been convinced of Abelard's heresy", he thundered, "I ask you, my lord bishops, to condemn his works. Do not give him the chance to indulge his Luciferian pride with idle chatter. Condemn his works now!"

There were some mutterings from Berengar and other clerics, but the majority nodded. Only the Abbess rose.

"Surely, he should be allowed to defend what he has written?" she said, her own voice old and exhausted. "Was not this the reason why we were called here to this Council? To hear you, my lord Abbot, and Peter Abelard dispute, so we can all learn how to understand and love Christ all the better for giving us such wise men to teach us?"

It was defense and flattery in one, and very well done, thought Eleanor, who admired her Abbess for her courage. To her surprise, Bernard didn't look angry. Nor did he agree. He simply said, in an utterly dismissive tone, quoting St. Paul: "Mulier taceat in ecclesia."

May the woman be silent in church.

It was as if the Abbess had never spoken. Soon after, all the bishops present decided to condemn Peter Abelard's work as heretical. But they had taken note of the Abbess. "You should not have spoken in favour of an heretic," one of them told her ominously before asking for the plate with waterfowl.

By now, Eleanor was burning in indignation, but if nothing else, the years as a nun had taught her not to burst out with what she thought immediately. After she had made sure the Abbess was tucked in with one of the Countess of Champagne's ladies, she asked to see the Countess herself, knowing that a simple nun claiming to be the Queen's sister would be turned away by the royal guards, but a nun in the company of an important noblewoman would not be.

Convincing the Countess of her identity turned out to be not so hard. "If you are the Queen's sister, she'll be grateful," the woman said mischievously, "and if you aren't, it'll give us topic for gossip to watch her react. She's such a lively person."

"She always was," Eleanor said thankfully.

Petronilla had grown into a beautiful young woman, if a very bored one. The King was nowhere near the quarters given to her. "He's more monk than King," Petronilla sighed, "and would rather spend the night before the Council in prayer." She'd heard about what had happened at the banquet, but did not care one way or the other. "Why does it matter?" she sighed. "Someone's books are always banned."

This could have been me, Eleanor thought, staring at her, and for the first time, the thought came free of envy. Right here and now, she would not have wanted to be the idle young woman in front of her for the world.

"It matters because Bernard is not the Pope, yet usurps such authority that he'll soon be able to condemn you for listening to the wrong song, or any song at all," she said, choosing an argument that she thought her sister, who was far from stupid, would understand. "It matters because he disapproves of Fontevrault, and would rather have us nuns serving the monks, or not existing at all. There have been nunneries dissolved because mighty abbots wished it so, you know they have."

"Ah, now we're getting to it," Petronilla exclaimed, the old delight when she thought she'd found Eleanor out dancing in her eyes. "Do not fret, sister. If Fontevrault gets dissolved, you'll always have a place at my side. I promise. As for your vows, with Louis such a good Christian, he should be able to get some bishop to free you from them. I doubt our brother Aigret will die as a result. That was our father's bargain, and he is dead, God rest his soul."

"It was my bargain as well," Eleanor said, and saying it, she truly accepted it for the first time. "And I don't want to leave Fontevrault, Petra. I want it safe, once and for all."

Surprise, consternation and then a smile mingled on Petronilla's face. "And to rule it, once day," she replied. "Don't tell me you've changed that much."

"One day," Eleanor confirmed, and returned Petronilla's smile, for it was true. "So I need to make sure neither Bernard nor another holy man interferes with it. If you need to justify it to your husband, ask him this: can he be sure that the next Pope won't regard Bernard of Clairvaux as a heretic as well? Saints and heretics are so difficult to keep apart sometimes. It would be best if the crown of France were being seen to support Bernard not quite so unquestioningly, but supports other abbots - and abbesses - as well."

"I have missed you," Petronilla sighed.

Two of Peter Abelard's books and fourteen of his thesis were condemned as heretical by the Council of Sens. But the Abbey of Fontevrault got its statute confirmed, in every detail save one: the exclusion of nuns who were raised at Fontevrault from being elected as Abbess.

"I think," the Abbess said wearily, "that we've done all here we could. Now let's go home, my child."

"I'm looking forward to it," Eleanor said, and she truly did.