Matrix, in the Middle Ages




Lauren Groff was nervous about writing a novel set two thousand and ten years ago. This, I get. Even the prospect of writing a book set before smartphones feels daunting: so many details to reconstruct, an entire lifeworld that functioned in a radically different way. Lovely for the reader, though, to be picked up and plopped down in another time as well as place….

Except Groff wanted to do more than that. She wanted to use the time travel to comment on us.

So how do you use a medieval nun to critique contemporary culture? The depth of her research for Matrix shows in every detail; there is a concreteness to this medieval abbey life that is utterly unlike our flights of electricity. Marie’s mystical visions glow even brighter by contrast to their somber surroundings. But the moments of beauty and truth in Groff’s prose do not come from those mystical visions. They come from universality—the longings and struggles and joys that do not change with time—and physicality, and my excitement in reading those passages reminds me just how unmoored I sometimes feel. It is a comfort to remember how much of human experience stays the same, even when you are only talking about apricots (“the perfume of the fruit’s flesh, the soft give under her teeth”) or hot flashes (“flames from deep inside, licking outward. Horrid.”)

Somehow Groff, who is too young to know from experience, even intuits the prize at the end of menopause: “When the blood stopped, the knives that had twisted in her since she was fourteen were at last removed from her womb. She is given instead a long, cold clarity.” Did she research the neuroscience of hormones or just observe? This book is a perfect commingling of imagination, intuition, experience, and research. What brittle document would have described this solution to sexual frustration: “She leans forward against the horn of her pommel, and lets the motion of the horse’s gait build against her until she gasps and something in her breaks.” What ancient records would have suggested that “Marie and Ursule sat at the foot of the trees, letting their thoughts dissolve to make themselves more like the roots of the trees they sat upon and erase some of what was human in them.”

The novel’s style is polished, in that each word feels exactly right, yet none sound too slick to be written in the twelfth century. Still, Matrix is not a typical historical novel; nor is it an illusionist’s triumph. By sculpting this tall, bony, ungainly medieval nun with close attention, Groff sweeps us to the core of ourselves.

Marie did exist, but little is known of her life. At Amherst College, Groff fell in love with what survived: her lais, a traditional form of Breton poetry. Years later, the absence of other facts gave Groff her own poetic license; the result brings us closer to the woman than any biography could have.

Recorded without love, the past stays dry, coated in thick dust. But by sensing a kindred spirit, Groff was able to strip away her own world and enter—no, create—Marie’s. Which turns out to be connected to our own experience in more ways than you might expect.

The bridges? Pain, sex, spirit, age, friendship, longing, ambition, and bacon. “Marie thinks, truly, she does not believe she could live here in this bitter, sloven place without at least the consolation of bacon.” Dementia, so clinicalized today, we see afresh through Sister Wevua, who “begins to slide through time in her mind.” Then, as now, “aging is a constant loss; all the things considered essential in youth prove with time that they are not. Skins are shed, and left at the roadside for the new young to pick up and carry on.”

Matrix’s environmental critique is also painfully current. When Marie orders a labyrinth built to protect the abbey, “what she does not see behind her is the disturbance her nuns have left in the forest, the families of squirrels, of dormice, of voles, of badgers, of stoats who have been chased in confusion from their homes.” She is proud of her triumph over chaos, insensitive to the balance she has destroyed, oblivious to the fact that “it will take a half century to lure these tiny birds back.”

The feminist critique is just as scathing, but free of jargon, grounded in hard physical work, solidarity, and frank ambition. “Why should she, who felt her greatness hot in her blood, be considered lesser because the first woman was molded from a rib and ate a fruit and thus lost lazy Eden?” Marie wants men, who rape and steal and usurp, kept away from the abbey. She knows full well that “women act counter to all the laws of submission when they remove themselves from availability.”

And so they do, by banding together and building something all their own. As themselves, not by donning men’s clothes and imitating men’s power games.

Marie does wind up thirsty for men’s power, though. Groff makes us fall in love with her, then recoil as her building project destroys the surrounding ecosystem. A mean trick, this, forcing us to see both the appeal and the damage in centuries of dominion. And then Groff repeats the trick with theology, showing us how Marie takes on the role and powers of a priest. First “she keeps her nuns in their holy darkness with their work and their prayer,” holding back difficult truths and plans and rebellions, telling herself that she is preserving their innocence. Parish priests have done the same for centuries, dumbing down the theology, erasing ambivalence and contradiction, shielding the faithful to ensure their placid devotion. But Marie goes even further, behaving not as the parish priest but as the pope, horrifying those who are close to her by grandly taking all the church’s authority upon herself, leaving us uncertain whether to cheer or wince at her arrogance.

Groff’s own attitude toward religion is not simple. She can be wonderfully wry: “Animals are closer to god, of course; this is because animals have no need of god.” In other places, the book’s wisdom feels eastern, as when another women’s sexual generosity softens Marie into a realization that “nothing stands in opposition. Good and evil live together; dark and light.” That realization is temporary, however, its serenity eaten up by her quest. And a whiplash of contradictions begins when Groff delves into the endless western tension between freedom and restriction, individuality and community. Marie finds a caged bird’s song “unbearable. It sang no inspired flights or strange tunes lifted form the hearts of other birds, it sang the same few songs the same few ways.” Yet when she listens to the nuns’ high, clear voices singing plainsong, she realizes that “the song that rises into them and leaves their mouths is prayer intensified, redoubled in its strength every time it pours through them anew.” Because this prayer is enclosed within the stone chapel, its volume soars; let these women scatter, each going her own way, and the air would steal their song. “For it is a deep and human truth that most souls upon the earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves.”

Which brings us straight to contemporary politics and the new global hunger for authoritarian rule.

By the book’s end, the twelfth century feels awfully close to our own time of plague, catastrophe, and lawlessness. But what also resonates is wisdom, unchanged in two thousand and ten years. It is easy for me to imagine feeling what Marie feels when she lies on her deathbed, some of her ambitions fulfilled and the rest drained by age, remembering a time when she was “so young that she believed she could die of love. Foolish creature, old Marie would say to that child. Open your hands and let your life go. It has never been yours to do with what you will.”

I smile knowingly and shut the book. Then I yank it open again—what does she mean, exactly? Is she speaking of maturity’s realization that we cannot bend others to our will? Or does she feel she lived a predetermined destiny? Is this more arrogance, a sense that she was sent with special purpose? Is Groff praising or condemning Marie’s bids for power and control and accomplishment? Or are Marie’s words another peaceful eastern reconciliation, endorsing acceptance of whatever comes one’s way? She is telling us how to live, but how?

The same question was no doubt asked two millennia ago. And still it burns.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.