CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 41 . . . . June 24, 2011
The medieval world of knights, castles, tournaments and battles is familiar to young people through movies and games. Authors Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and Pat Van Biers have delved into Flanders in the Middle Ages to tell of a young woman who did not fit the prescribed female role of piety, passivity and pregnancy. Marguerite, daughter of the Count of Flanders, is a disappointment to her father because she is not a son and heir. Loss of two male heirs after Marguerite's birth results in the devalued and depressed Countess of Flanders going into a convent.
The main conflict is Marguerite's rocky relationship with her powerful father. As a child, she hears washerwomen saying that he seemed to be able to father sons with the peasant girls but not with his wife. Growing up motherless as an only child, ignored by her father, Marguerite enjoys an unusual amount of freedom. She has adventures with three boys (future knights) as they explore the estuary and the harbour which receives ships from all over the world. The authors vividly describe the Castle Male where she lives, the harvest festival and the street life of Bruges. The blacksmith on her father's staff makes her a sword suited to her size, and eventually, without asking her father's permission, she takes fencing lessons. She also acquires a horse and rides it astride, as opposed to sidesaddle shocking behaviour for a woman of that time.
After she and her friends get involved in a fight with the guild master's son's gang, her father talks sternly to her. He accuses her of "stirring the boys up" and threatens to incarcerate her in a convent until her wedding day. At a public mass, the chaplain tells her that women are the "devil's playthings", that "woman is an insatiable beast...a perpetual state of war, a daily devastation, a house filled with storms," and adds that women like herself "impede the moral and material regeneration of the world." Marguerite reminds the chaplain that she is the count's daughter, and reminds him that he was born of woman, but his words are damaging, nevertheless, and reflect the prevailing view of the time.
Marguerite's future is tied up with the politics of the era. Her father fights on the side of the French king against the English, who win because of their mastery of the long bow. The English victory led to a shift in allegiance for Flanders which depended on English wool for its main industry, cloth manufacture. The count, therefore, arranges Marguerite's marriage to the English prince, Edmund, youngest son of King Edward III. Marguerite, then 14, loves the young knight, Willem, her childhood companion, and strongly objects to being married to a stranger. Her paternal grandmother travels from Paris, accompanied by a French prince, Philip, to try to persuade the count that his loyalty should be with France, not England.
In one of the funniest passages, Marguerite and Philip are caught in a thunderstorm while riding and take shelter in a Bruges bath house. There, they meet people they don't expect to see, a tub tips and chaos results. The authors excel in description, whether of a bathhouse, a tournament or a plague ridden city.
They are also historically accurate to the belief system of the 14th century, avoiding the error of giving characters the thoughts and beliefs of the 21st century. For instance, when little Marguerite misses her absent mother, she prays for her return to the Holy Nail. This nail, which the count purchased at great cost, is said to have been in the cross on which Christ was crucified. Today's readers may think this practice delusional and bizarre, but the authors let it speak for itself, Later, when the plague spreads to Flanders, people say there is a "plague girl who, in the shape of a blue flame, rises from the mouths of the dead and flies through the air to infect the next house."
The authors occasionally allow characters to question some of the beliefs of the day. For instance, when Marguerite asks her priest/tutor if it is true that the Holy Spirit impregnated the Virgin Mary through her ear, he replies that "it is a noble man's duty to whisper the sweetest and loveliest words into the woman's ear, hoping she will give herself to him."
To avoid marriage to the English prince, Marguerite sends the knight, Godfried, with an appeal to the Pope at Avignon where the plague is raging. Godfried brings back her successful appeal, but also the disease, which takes his life and those of several other people she loves. One victim was her best hope of future happiness. After Godfried's death, she internalizes the prevailing low view of womankind, blames herself, and goes into exile in a mountain convent, Our Lady of the Snows, where she does penance for her "frivolity, vanity, and all the evil [she] has caused."
The seeds of the ending are present at the beginning; the outcome hints of future opportunities for Marguerite to use her talents. If the story had continued a little longer, however, or if an epilogue had been included, the ending would be less abrupt and more satisfactory. The authors explain that, since little is known of Marguerite (who lived between 1348 and 1405), they gave their imaginations "free rein" to create a story like a troubadour's song. Having taken poetic licence so far, why not go further and imagine what Marguerite might have done between age 14 and her death at 57?
Although pre teens with good reading skills could certainly comprehend A Sword in Her Hand, the content is too mature for that age group. The novel begins with an agony filled childbirth scene in which a witchlike midwife turns the baby in the womb, pulls out a child who looks like a "hundred year old goblin", then "bites through the navel string." Marguerite's birth occurs during a winter famine in which "a couple ate their own children out of sheer desperation" and "the bodies of hanged men were taken from the gallows for food." The plague scenes are similarly grisly. Although there is no explicit sex, at one point 14-year-old Marguerite decides that it is time to "give herself" to her 15-year-old bridegroom. These plot points and descriptions are historically accurate and make the novel vivid and compelling but are best appreciated by older teens and adults.
Indeed, A Sword in her Hand is better researched and written than many historical romances aimed at the adult women's market. Annick Press is to be commended for bringing this novel, first published in Flemish, to an English speaking audience.
Ruth Latta's short story collection, Winter Moon, (Ottawa, Baico, 2010) won the 2011 "Northern Lit" award for English fiction from Ontario Library Services North and Northern Ontario Libraries.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.