Stone hallway with arched windows

Matrix: Lauren Groff’s Visions of the Medieval

The title of Lauren Groff’s ambitious new novel, Matrix, is deliberately multivalent. In Latin, it points us toward the leader and mother of a women’s religious community. It also means a system of categorizing and understanding knowledge, a system within which things come into being. Among other things, the novel is a Bildungsroman for its protagonist, Marie, who has to learn how to be at peace with herself, and decides to learn how to manage and order her world after being commanded to join a nunnery. Although this could be an empowering narrative about women’s agency, and about the rich possibilities of living in community, clichés make the medieval world of the novel feel both more artificial and more distant from the present than it might. More readiness to explore the beauty and strangeness of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on their own terms would have yielded a richer and more challenging novel.

The character of Marie is based on the theory that Marie de France, twelfth-century romantic poet, was also abbess of Shaftesbury in Dorset.[1] The fictional Marie is an illegitimate relative of the Plantagenet monarchs, and Matrix follows Marie’s emotional and intellectual journeys during the decades of her leadership of a religious community. Marie seeks to turn this community into a utopia set apart from its violent, dreary, and misogynistic medieval surroundings.

Illuminated illustration of Marie de France
Poet Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

At times, Matrix is filled with a very medieval delight in the everyday sensuality of the world as well as its great mysteries. For Marie, “The world holds a great and pulsing terror at its center. The world is ecstatic in its very deeps.” She herself, however, is presented as alienated from and alienating to the twelfth-century world of the novel, her independence dooming her to intellectual isolation. In an early scene, Groff writes: “She longs to be among the greats of the generations before. Marie might have discovered others like herself in that era. She would not have felt so alone.”[2] This bleak sense of Marie’s creativity as doomed to incomprehension pervades the novel. Her mystical visions, for instance, are portrayed as exceptional and quasi-heretical; but the imagery of these visions is neither unfamiliar or unorthodox. In one instance, she dreams of a cosmic egg at the birth of creation – an image borrowed from Hildegard von Bingen. At another time, she writes of Eve and Mary as equally necessary to salvation. In the novel, this image is, to another nun, breathtakingly distinctive. But imagery linking these two women is both widespread and beloved in medieval texts, found not only in theological treatises but in songs and sermons.

Matrix is clearly written to address the tensions and injustices within twenty-first century society in addition to engaging with the medieval past. As a historian of women’s religious communities and medieval medicine, I find it more satisfying in the former endeavor than the latter. Groff’s prose is original and often intoxicatingly beautiful. Its medievalism, however, is clichéd. A passage concluding a visit between Marie and Eleanor of Aquitaine is illustrative. The queen is described as “impressive in her sable cloak that catches light and sparks with it, chestnut and blue and black, the thick gold circlet on her head concentrating all the sun in the street.” In contrast, her surroundings are “mud and stone and smoke, pigs rooting in the filth; the queen alone is made of higher stuff.”[3] This vision of the Middle Ages seems closely related to that of Monty Python, where you can tell a man is a king if he hasn’t got shit all over him. In Groff’s medieval England, “no one is less powerful than a woman religious.”[4] This pronouncement is startling, since Groff has stated that the novel had its start through her encounter with medievalist Katie Bugyis’s work, which has illuminated the variety of ways nuns wielded power and exercised creativity within their communities.[5]

The presentation of the nunnery as a place of both illness and healing is poignant. When Marie arrives, the nuns are afflicted with a mysterious coughing sickness, which may have been one of the ailments that cold, damp, and impoverished monasteries often had to contend with. The statistical overrepresentation of physical impairment among the nuns is accurately handled; both mental and physical impairments would have been less disabling in monastic life than in agricultural communities.[6] The abbey’s most gifted illuminator, whose blue teeth are borrowed from a recent archaeological excavation, is “mad,” troubled by visions that may be violent or beautiful or both.[7] I appreciated the matter-of-fact way in which neurological diversity and a range of illnesses were presented as part of the nuns’ shared life. This includes the medieval view of sex as potentially medicinal: the nun in charge of the infirmary takes it upon herself to relieve her sisters’ imbalanced humors by bringing them to orgasm, as well as providing medicines for coughs, colds, and menstrual cramps.[8] The leprous are represented as both loathsome and loathed, at first mistaken for rats or dogs by Marie, and then described by her as “the human life lesser than that of street bitches with their teats scraping the earth.”[9] This is the prelude to the nuns’ founding of a leper hospital under their care and supervision, a compassionate act more representative of medieval responses to leprosy than the horror here presented as the default.[10]

Cover of Lauren Groff's Matrix
Lauren Groff’s Matrix is out now. (Courtesy Penguin Random House)

Groff portrays the monastic life, to which Marie adjusts slowly, as having been designed to limit and even prevent those vowed to it from being able to think for themselves. Marie, while perceiving this, “keeps her nuns in their holy darkness with their work and their prayer.”[11] This harks back to nineteenth-century visions of the European Middle Ages as an Age of Faith, a time of both great devotion and great credulity; it does not speak to the ideals of the Middle Ages themselves. The idea that time to think must have been scarce seems to ignore the possibility of thinking while washing dishes or scything a field, let alone while listening to texts being read aloud, as they were daily.[12] Private reading, too – explicitly allowed by the Rule of St. Benedict – is treated as a suspect eccentricity.[13] Conflicts over permissible reading and permissible knowledge are familiar in the United States of the twenty-first century. Portraying rigid censorship of ideas as a norm of the past seems strange given the censorship debates in our own historical moment. It risks presenting the medieval as the childish other of modernity, something we should have grown out of. Acknowledging a more nuanced reality, in which characters other than Marie might be reading and reflecting on the work of theologians and legal scholars, would enable more complex debates within the women’s community, and thus more provocative exploration of the novel’s central ideas. This is also the case in the treatment of religious belief.

An outbreak of ergotism presents an early threat to the community. After the abbess has exorcised the affected fields, Marie asks how she learned to perform this unfamiliar rite. The abbess responds that, “of course,” she made it up, a mystical act designed to “create mystical beliefs.”[14] Charms and prayers scrawled in the margins of miscellanies attest to the frequency with which medieval communities devised their own rituals, but the abbsess’s quasi-anthropological detachment from the process of doing so is jarring to the reader. Elsewhere, the abbess is presented as gentle and unworldly to a fault; this cynicism about her own actions seems out of character, as well as unrealistic. The novel presents the rot in the grain as a danger to the community, a potential pretext to accuse the women of “being agents of the devil,” since religious women “already are suspect, unnatural, sisters to witches.”[15] This is a very modern approach, viewing ways in which medieval women could wield unusual power as inevitably linked in the popular imagination. This conflation ignores the realities of medieval women’s agency and the ways in which this agency was welcomed, sought out, or grudgingly accommodated. Later, Marie’s silent reading is objected to as “witchy magic” by a fellow-nun who has visions of witches with a visual vocabulary that would not be codified until more than three hundred years after the novel takes place.[16] This blurring of change over time denies readers the opportunity to see, through Groff’s eyes, more of how women’s knowledge, women’s power – and, yes, women’s magic – were perceived. It also curiously flattens the relationships between Marie and the other nuns in her community, reducing them to either being for or against her, willing or unwilling to accept her alien intellect.

Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is the construction of a labyrinth, designed to keep the nunnery entirely separate from the world of darkness and violence and danger outside. The episode struck me as the kind of thing that might come from a medieval romance or even a sermon illustration, capped with an improving moral. But in the context of the novel, it struck me as a strangely disturbing fantasy. It seems an abdication of the pastoral and social duties that nuns performed in and for their communities. Enclosure might be chosen or resisted by medieval religious women, but the centuries of its strict enforcement are distant from the time of the novel’s setting.[17] Relationships between women and male diocesan authorities are also imagined as hostile by default. Having studied the sources describing how such relationships were negotiated, and how nuns exercised authority in medieval England, I was saddened by this. The questions of privilege and accessibility with which Matrix engages are also vividly present in these records, in the ways in which women’s collective knowledge was honored even within systems designed without them in mind. As with the novel’s representations of medieval leprosy and witchcraft, too, the portrayal of a self-indulgent and misogynistic male elite risks becoming the portrait of a past that should be left behind, rather than of what Judith Bennett has described as patriarchal equilibrium.[18]

Historical fiction’s liberation of the historical imagination can be one of the genre’s great pleasures. But Matrix portrays a medieval world in which independence and intelligence are exceptions to a repressive set of rules for life and thought; pleasure and joy are achievable only by exceptional women rejected by – and set apart from – their society. In an otherwise imaginatively written novel, these bleak and stagnant medievalisms strike me as a depressing failure of imagination.

Notes

  1. Marie de France, The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (Penguin Books, 1999), 17-18.
  2. Lauren Groff, Matrix (Riverhead Press, 2021), 58.
  3. Groff, Matrix, 128.
  4. Groff, Matrix, 174.
  5. “A Conversation with Lauren Groff, Author of Matrix,” Riverhead Press, 2021.
  6. Marco Mostert, “Orality, Non-Written Communication and Monastic Studies” in Understanding Monastic Practices of Oral Communication (Western Europe, Tenth-Thirteenth Centuries), ed. Steven Vanderputten (Brepols, 2011), 367–88.
  7. Anita Radini, et al., “Medieval Women’s Early Involvement in Manuscript Production Suggested by Lapis Lazuli Identification in Dental Calculus,” Science Advances 5:1 (January 2019). 
  8. Luis García Ballester, “The Origin of the Six Non-Natural Things in Galen” in Galen and Galenism: Theory and Medical Practice from Antiquity to the European Renaissance, eds. Jon Arrizabalaga, et al. (Ashgate, 2002), 35–42. Hildegard of Bingen’s writings show that the sexual abstinence prescribed by the monastic life could equally be viewed as healthful. See Laura Kalas, Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine: Suffering, Transformation and the Life-Course (D. S. Brewer, 2020), 34–35, 44–48.
  9. Groff, Matrix, 204.
  10. Carole Rawcliffe, Leprosy in Medieval England (Boydell Press, 2006), 13–43.
  11. Groff, Matrix, 130.
  12. Timothy Fry O.S.B, ed. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Liturgical Press, 1982), Chapter 42. 
  13. RB 1980, Chapter 92 and Chapter 48.
  14. Groff, Matrix, 60.
  15. Groff, Matrix, 57.
  16. Groff, Matrix, 113–14; Michael Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University, 2003.)
  17. Elizabeth Makowski, Canon Law and Cloistered Women: Periculoso and its Commentators 1298–1545 (Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 1–8.
  18. Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 72-81.

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