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Two years ago I saw a book in a library that once belonged to a medieval convent. It was a big, old tome on the history of the popes that looked unspeakably boring, and it was open in its display case at the entrance to Pope Joan, the apocryphal figure who allegedly disguised her sex and became pope in middle Age.
The nuns who owned the book were obviously fascinated by this legend. In the margins next to the entrance of Pope Joan – in firm and enthusiastic handwriting – one of them had written the words “papa femina”. High priestess.
I’ve thought about this book many times since: all the frustration, the palpable longing for some sort of power or independence, wrapped up in those two scribbled words. To be a woman living a life as circumscribed as that of a medieval nun, so that every waking moment would be assigned a task, live a life of such intense drudgery – and still think: “There, there, there is. the proof. It doesn’t have to be like that. You can still imagine something else.
You can imagine a woman as an emissary of God on Earth, reigning over all the countries and fiefdoms of Europe. You can imagine not even becoming the Pope yourself, but just seeing another woman as the Pope. See her there, and know that it was possible to achieve that kind of power. Think about the thrill.
Lauren Groff Matrix, finalist for the National Book Award and the Vox Book Club’s October choice, embodies this fantasy once again. It takes the snippets we know of the real poet Marie of France, the possibilities we can imagine for a community of single women, and it builds a whole utopian world out of them.
The historic Marie de France is the first known woman to have written poetry in French. She lived in 12th century England, was probably born in France or an independent region which has since become part of contemporary France, and appears to have been known at the court of King Henry II of England and Eleanor d ‘Aquitaine. (You might remember these royals best as parents to Richard the Lionheart and King John, famous for being secondary characters in the Robin Hood legend and also for signing the Magna Carta. .)
Marie of France was highly educated, suggesting that she was of noble birth. And she wrote a boastful and sultry poetry of courtly love and Celtic fairies.
This is pretty much all we know about Mary. There are obscure historical theories and rumors that link her to various 12th century abbesses and noblewomen, but there is very little we can say about her life for sure.
What shines through in the poetry left by Mary, however, is a certain strength of character, a suggestion of a strength of will that borders on the supernatural.
“He who obtains from God knowledge, science, / and a talent for speech, eloquence, / should not be silent or hide,” wrote Mary in the prologue of The Lais of Marie de France. (Translation by Judith P. Shoaf.) She goes on to admonish, “No, that person should gladly show up. / When everyone hears about a great good, / then it flourishes as it should.
Mary has this knowledge and this talent, and she has no intention of shutting it down or hiding it. She will make sure everyone knows her genius. That’s why she wrote a book of poetry that has survived for almost 1,000 years. You can almost imagine him wanting these poems in the margins of the story, where his life was.
In Matrix, Groff puts this ambition and motivation at the center of Marie’s existence and then builds everything else around her.
Groff is inspired by the most popular theory of the life of Mary, which identifies her with the Abbess of Shaftesbury, also known as Mary and half-sister of Henry II. In Groff’s account, Mary is the product of rape, a disgrace to the lineage of the Plantagenet family. She is also passionately in love with Henry’s wife Eleanor, another historic woman remembered for her indomitable strength of character and patronage of the arts. (It was at Aliénor’s court that the courteous amorous poetry of the French troubadours flourished.)
If Mary were beautiful and well-behaved, Eleanor might have been willing to bring her bastard sister-in-law to court and marry her to someone. But Mary is tall, “a giant of a young girl,” possessing vigorous physical strength and little beauty or grace. Anyone, Eleanor bluntly informs her, can see that she “was always meant for holy virginity.”
Thus, in the first pages of Matrix, Mary, 17, arrives in Shaftesbury, the hinterland of the afterlife, to serve as prioress in an abbey. She will remain there for the rest of her life, reaching the rank of abbess, keeping the young nuns in her charge and sending her poetry out into the world for Eleanor, her great unrequited love. And by the time Marie is done with that, Shaftesbury is completely transformed.
When Marie arrives, the abbey is impoverished and the nuns are slowly dying of hunger. Gloomily, Marie recovers the rent from the tenants of the abbey and develops a reputation as a dangerous landlord for those who do not pay and generous for those who pay. She is spreading the word that her nuns are available to copy text at a fraction of the price charged by the monks – a godsend, as women aren’t supposed to do the script work.
As the money comes in, Marie channels her furious and foiled ambition to make her abbey an art center. It turns it into a fortress, surrounded by a vast labyrinth that no one who has not been instructed by the abbey will be able to walk.
Finally, she begins to assume the roles reserved for a priest, administering mass and hearing the confessions of her nuns. She even slips into the scriptorium at night to change verbs and nouns in the feminine, always operating with palpable glee. “To cut women off in the texts is bad,” writes Groff. “It’s funny.”
Marie made the abbey a world apart, a self-sufficient commune, run by women and only for women, where no man appeared. Her ambitions are spectacular and her closest friends more than once suggest that she may be going too far and abusing her power – but the idea of the world she is building is becoming as powerful a fantasy today as it is. ‘it was in the 12th century. (“We were in the middle of the Trump presidency, and I was exhausted,” writing Matrix, Groff explained in a Q&A with his editor. “I just wanted to go live in a feminist utopia. “)
“She feels royal,” Groff writes of Mary, after successfully building a dam that turns an expanse of crown land fallow into a lake. “She feels papal.”
Finally, the fantasy realized. Pope Joan was a myth, but in the pages of Matrix, Marie can feel more than real. Papa finally closed.
Share your thoughts on Matrix in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our next live chat event with Lauren Groff herself. Waiting for, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss a thing.
Here are some scattered questions and thoughts to guide your discussion.
- How does the title of Matrix take you? Does this work for you, or do you find it distracting? NO JUDGMENT ZONE: When you first heard about this book, did you think it would be a novelization of the sci-fi movie?
- One of the most compelling parts of this book is how vivid and visceral all of the physical details are. Marie as a character lives a lot in her body, and the way Groff channels this worldview has the side effect of making the story immediate and real. What’s your favorite physical detail in the book? For me, it’s probably Marie who bathes in the river at night to cool off from a hot flash, and the failed rhythm of the sentence as she climbs into the water: “Goodbye clogs and stockings. now wet from the night dew and mud chill her toes, water is at her ankles, dragging hard at the hems, knees shame belly so fresh at chest and arms, wet wool pulling her body down .
- What do you think of the visions of Mary of Eve and of the Virgin Mary? As Groff makes clear via Marie Tilde’s second in command at the end of the novel, Hedonistic Mary is an unusual choice for a medieval mystic, but poets today often write about a mysticism rooted in the flesh. (“At the hour of my death, for the gifts of my body, I give thanks,” says Everyman in poet Carol Ann Duffy’s modern translation of the medieval morality play.) Tilde suspects that Mary’s visions are created rather than given. What do you think?
- Speaking of visions, which do you prefer? I myself have a soft spot for one who shows God as a hen laying creation eggs.
- In the last pages of Matrix, Groff suggests that if any of Mary’s private writings had survived, they would have offered “traces of a predecessor” as society trembles and remodels in the face of the force of climate change, and “showed a different path for the next millennium “. How do you imagine that such a book could have changed things for us?