By Danièle Cybulskie
In some medieval miracle stories, the Virgin Mary gives aid to sinners by undoing the harm caused by their actions sometimes by turning back the clock and healing the injured or ill. In the story of Beatrice, Mary keeps the clock running in order for Beatrice to learn her lesson, but she protects her from the eternal fallout by taking human form for fourteen years as Beatrice falls from nobility, to prostitution, to beggary before finding redemption once again in the arms of the church. Although there are several renditions of the story, perhaps the most beautiful is the Flemish version written around the year 1300.
As the story begins, Beatrice is a sacristan, in charge of ringing the bells, caring for the altar, and waking up the nuns every morning. She is the keeper of the keys and said to have been diligent about her work, but Beatrice is not as devout as she outwardly seems. Inwardly, Beatrice is still carrying a torch for a yeoman she has loved since they were twelve years old. The poet tells us we should not blame her for this because love is an unstoppable force, especially when the devil gets involved. Finally, Beatrice meets her yeoman through the barred window of the convent and makes a plan with him to run away.
The yeoman, for his part, seems sincere in his love for Beatrice, and immediately sets out to have clothes made for her to wear as soon as she leaves the abbey. Both of them know that she will be pursued when she runs away, so it’s best for her not to be spotted in her nun’s habit. The man brings fine cloth to the tailors’ and asks them to set to work right away. This small moment is a good reminder of the detailed planning essential to any medieval romantic scheme: the lovers can’t just run away with a cell phone and a credit card, but must wait several days first in order to have what they need to make it happen.
When Beatrice leaves the abbey, she prays for forgiveness to God and to Mary, leaving everything from her keys to her veil and shoes in front of a statue of Mary herself so that the nuns will be sure to see them there in the morning. When she steals away, Beatrice’s lover meets her in the garden and gives her the choice of the two gowns he’s had made (she chooses the “sky blue” one). He’s remembered every detail, from shoes to stockings to hair covering – even “a girdle with knife and almoner”; that is, he’s remembered to bring her a purse. Everything is made of the best fabrics and furs, and when the two lovers kiss this seems like the perfect romantic moment, despite the fact that Beatrice is running away from a nunnery with her lover and this is supposed to be a moral tale.
After many promises of eternal fidelity (of the type that immediately sets off alarm bells in the reader), the lovers ride off to a new town for a fresh new start with the riches the yeoman is eager to assure Beatrice will keep them in comfort for the rest of their lives. After a brief pause in which the yeoman tries to convince Beatrice to sleep with him on the side of the road (she turns him down flat), they arrive in the town where all seems to go well for seven years, and the couple has twin boys.
But all good things must come to an end (especially if you’re a runaway nun in a miracle story), so soon the money runs out, and after that, the husband. Beatrice has sold all her possessions, but she still has her small children to feed. As a woman in the real Middle Ages would have been, Beatrice is faced with few options. She fears returning to her old convent and doesn’t enter a new one, perhaps because she wishes to stay with her children. She can’t be married because her husband (assuming the two did marry) is still alive. With her admittedly awful spinning skills, Beatrice’s options narrow considerably. She begins to work as a prostitute.
Beatrice’s work as a prostitute seems to pay the bills and keep her children fed, and she does this for nearly seven years. As someone with a continuing devotion to Mary, whom she prays to and reads about regularly, Beatrice struggles with her conscience about sinning for her supper each day. Finally, despite knowing she is choosing a harder road (literally), Beatrice gives up prostitution and becomes a wandering beggar. Her conscience is clear, but she is again struggling to care for her children.
Eventually, Beatrice makes her way back to the city in which she had been a nun, where a widow takes pity on her and her twins, and allows them to stay with her. While there, Beatrice asks about the sacristan who ran away fourteen years ago. She is immediately admonished by the widow, who tells her that the sacristan at the convent has been faithful and faultless in her duties for fourteen years and is beloved by all. Beatrice finds this odd, but doesn’t argue.
When she goes to sleep that night, a voice tells Beatrice that she must return to the convent and take up her old duties. On waking, Beatrice doubts that this is a true vision, and prays that if it is true, it will come again. Sure enough, the voice returns, but this time admonishes her for not listening the first time. Always one to take big risks, Beatrice again waits and asks for the vision to be proven true by having it return the next night. It does, but this time the voice has had enough and orders Beatrice by invoking Mary that she must return to the convent. Right. Now.
This third time, Beatrice listens and returns to the convent to find things exactly as she’d left them! Her veil, shoes, and even her keys await her right by the statue of Mary. The voice was right – Mary had taken Beatrice’s place and done her work all these years so that Beatrice could return to her life serving God in the convent. Beatrice is so overjoyed at this chance at redemption that she rings the bells for Matins louder than ever before. But what about the children? Left with the kindly widow, the children are in good hands, with the abbess of the convent offering to pay their living expenses.
Time passes, and the local abbot stops by to hear the nuns’ confessions, but Beatrice is too frightened to confess her past sins. Praying for guidance, Beatrice sees a somewhat bizarre vision of a young man carrying a dead child in his arms and trying to get his attention by tossing an apple in front of his face. When Beatrice helpfully points out that the child is dead, the young man replies bluntly that yes, the child is dead and can’t notice the apple, just like God can’t hear Beatrice’s prayers unless she confesses her sins. Then, he disappears.
Needless to say, an unnerved Beatrice immediately goes to confession, where the abbot takes her story totally in stride and then says he’s going to write a sermon about it. Anonymous, of course. Perhaps it’s part of the miracle that no one can guess who the anonymous sermon was about when the abbot decides to up and take two boys who suspiciously look like Beatrice with him immediately afterwards to be raised in his monastery, but hey. Beatrice is relieved, the boys have a permanent godly home, and all’s well that ends well.
The story of Beatrice has everything a medieval audience could ask for: scandal, lust, fashion, a fall from grace, and redemption thanks to the steadying hand of Mary on fortune’s wheel. It also is an interesting story in that it has just about every iteration of medieval womanhood represented: maiden, lover, wife, prostitute, widow, nun (and Mary, herself). Although she is mild and humble enough to have performed human duties for fourteen years, as in other Marian stories, Mary is stern at times and also rewards faithful prayers made to her specifically, not just prayers in general. She insists that religious devotion is the highest calling – even higher than the motherhood for which she is the ultimate Christian symbol. Of course, as prescient as she is, Mary’s hand seems to have been present in the boys’ rescue as they are mothered by both the widow and the abbess before joining the monastery. The redemption of the sinner is the happy ending promised to all medieval Christians, making this both an entertaining and comforting story for its audience.
This version of the story of Beatrice can be found in a beautiful and accessible English translation by Adriaan J. Barnouw (alongside the original version) available for free online on The Digital Library for Dutch Literature (DBNL) website.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: British Library MS Royal 2 B VII fol. 218v