Review: A rebel nun is an exemplar of feminism in action
Books about nuns are having quite a literary run this season, including Matrix by Lauren Groff and Claire Luchette’s Agatha of Little Neon. Like these other titles, Marj Charlier’s historical novel, The Rebel Nun, presents a woman’s decision to join the convent not as a spiritual calling, but a last-ditch effort to escape other unpleasant options: marriage, prostitution, or poverty. This is certainly how the novel’s narrator, Sister Clotild, describes the situation among a subset of her fellow religious sisters: “Like me, many of them had ended up in the monastery for its security, sustenance, and freedom from marriage, not for their piety.”
Charlier based the novel, set in 613, on Gregory of Tours’s Ten Books of History, which recounts a rebellion at the Monastery of the Holy Cross led by a nun named Clotild and her sister compatriots. Charlier retells that story from the point of view of a nun, painting a detailed, sometimes painful portrait of womanhood in the early Middle Ages. The church declared females “unclean,” but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is the least of the nuns’ worries.
When we first meet Clotild, she is lamenting the death of the kind and loving Prioress Redegund. Clotild is the daughter of the Frankish king, Charibert, and his concubine; as a result, she has a potential claim to the throne. To protect herself from being murdered by jealous members of the royal family, Clotild joins the convent at age 13. “At the time I entered Holy Cross, my other options were limited by my gender and illegitimacy, and the danger posed by my stepmothers, cousins and half siblings,” she narrates.
Sister Clotild in The Rebel Nun: “Like me, many of them had ended up in the monastery for its security, sustenance, and freedom from marriage, not for their piety.”
Clotild learned “diplomacy and patience” from Prioress Redegund and hopes to be named the next prioress. Instead, Maroveus, the bishop of Poitiers, appoints a gluttonous, spiteful woman named Lebover as the new prioress. Lebover pilfers relics from the convent, deprives the sisters of basic provisions like food and firewood, and even requires the nuns to sleep in drafty corridors.
The seeds of unrest among the sisters are firmly planted at Christmas dinner when Clotild is forbidden to eat by Lebover, despite a bounty of food. The rest of the nuns refuse to touch their plates if Clotild is not allowed to eat. “It was the beginning of the rebellion,” she writes.
The sisters, bypassing the corrupt bishop of Poitiers, instead embark on a grueling journey to plead with Bishop Gregory of Tours to intervene and save them from the cruelties of the new prioress—even though the very act of setting foot outside the monastery is grounds for excommunication. While awaiting an audience with the bishop to make their case, they seek sanctuary in the Basilica of St. Martin. Weeks, then months pass with no visit or acknowledgement from Gregory. They receive no support from the local community and many of the sisters are pushed beyond endurance. Some run away to find a husband, while others live on the street. Clotild wonders whether, during this time of suffering, “they had all experienced doubt at some point in the past three months as even Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane.”
She asks herself, “How were we, crouching obediently in our monastery doing Christ’s bidding of tending to the sick and poor? We were only praying to save our own souls. Surely, I thought, a woman’s life should amount to more than that.”
Eventually, the nuns who remain loyal to Clotild return to Holy Cross and prepare for battle with the help of Alboin, a handsome warrior motivated by a desire for vengeance of his own. Alboin explains that Maroveus excommunicated his brother, who, as a result, died by suicide. “I fear only the wrath of God if I do not avenge my brother’s death,” he explains. Almost immediately, passion sparks between Clotild and Alboin. As Alboin pulls her against his wide chest, Clotild reflects on the feelings his closeness evokes: “It felt nothing like sin.... I let go of my allegiance to the church’s morality. From then on, I would have to figure out my own path to redemption, and I would have to decide what redemption meant.”
The battle for control of the monastery is met with death, destruction and, ultimately, the nuns’ defeat. Horrific scenes describe how soldiers cut down the lives of these helpless women. Clotild survives and is brought to trial, where the truth is turned upon its head as accusers claim that the nuns were “bloodthirsty and bellicose,” while Lebover is scarcely punished.
The message of fairness, love and hope expressed in The Rebel Nun remains an important lesson rightly served up to modern Catholic citizens.
Readers may expect from the start that Clotild will not prevail, but this is of small consequence, as the book’s rich (if sometimes complex) narrative brings us fully into the mind of this strong narrator. Clotild is not merely doubtful about her Christian faith; she practices pagan rituals and admits that she has secretly reserved her soul for her grandmother’s gods. Though she finds some comfort in prayers while she is in the cloister, they are “simply ritual.” And while disdainful of the church’s patriarchal hegemony, she does give some credit to forms of Christianity that emphasize “selflessness, generosity, humility and other fine qualities.”
Charlier reveals that women did possess a good deal of authority in the early years of the church and gives a history lesson: “The Council of Orleans gave power over the church to royal families.... The church councils, [took] away our right to be ordained, then prohibited us from administering...the sacraments.” The writer also cites the Council of Nicaea, at which bishops denied women ordination and suggested they had no souls.
Clotild is a compelling character, a courageous woman and an exemplar of feminism in action. She is a leader of women and is insistent on gender equality. She hopes that the “church’s pernicious subjugation of women will run out of favor” so that her communities can “reclaim joy.”
Despite these admirable qualities, Clotild, in some respects, lacked depth. Perhaps if she experienced more of an internal struggle regarding her lack of faith, or demonstrated concern over the fact that the rebellion resulted in the death of her dear friends (one wonders whether she had any survivor’s guilt) the reader could root for her more. As compared with the narrator in Agatha of Little Neon, Sister Clotild does not undergo a significant personal transformation from the beginning to the end of the book. She is steadfast in her desire for rebellion throughout.
Nevertheless, The Rebel Nun resonates with many of the issues faced by the church in modern times. Charlier writes, through Clotild: “To be Christian to Gregory of Tours was to believe in Christ, His resurrection, and His purpose on earth, not necessarily to act in ways we believe represent ‘Christian’ behavior today.” One wonders what Clotild would make of the Catholic Church in the 21st century, where women are denied the power and privilege of the priesthood, and reckoning with clerical abuse moves at a glacial pace.
Flawed though she may be, Clotild’s message of fairness, love and hope remains an important lesson rightly served up to modern Catholic citizens.