It is hard to pin down Marie de France, though many have tried. The best-known woman poet of the Middle Ages is a chimera, pieced together centuries after she lived from stray clues in the poems that are attributed to her. In the story most often told about her today, Marie was a learned French émigré connected to the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in late-twelfth-century England. She wrote a collection of animal fables, translated a religious treatise on Purgatory and a life of Saint Audrey from the Latin, and composed a series of twelve short tales in verse, called lais, about passionate love.
We do not know if a single person wrote all the works ascribed to “Marie,” or if this was a pen name adopted by multiple authors. (The prologue to one lai names “Marie” in the third person, and the epilogue to the fables is in Marie’s voice, adding that she is from France.) Scholars have endeavored, without success, to identify her with a crew of contemporary abbesses and noblewomen.
Despite her shadowy history, Marie remains a singular, appealing figure. It is unusual to find signed vernacular poetry from this period. A female author is even rarer. Above all, the myth of Marie endures because of her lais. They are set in a long-gone, enchanted Celtic world in which people transform into animals, unmanned boats bring lovers to each other, and fairies sweep knights to Avalon. Haunting, erotic, and melancholic, these tales in verse show how brilliant and destructive love can be. Whoever wrote these poems wanted to craft a beauty almost painful to behold.
It is this enigmatic artist whom Lauren Groff has made the protagonist of her new novel. Matrix (a word that in Latin can mean “mother,” “womb,” and “female breeding animal,” which will turn out to be relevant) begins with seventeen-year-old Marie’s arrival at a poor, plague-infested abbey in England and follows her career as she takes control of the community, sets its accounts in order, puts the other nuns to work, and embarks on an ambitious building program justified by a series of convenient divine revelations. The lais are a mere diversion in this story. Marie writes them in an attempt to curry favor with Eleanor of Aquitaine, but they fail in their purpose and are rarely mentioned again in the book. Whatever talent Groff’s Marie has, it lies in networking, team management, and establishing plans for sustained growth and capital acquisition.
Groff has created a heroine who is more or less the opposite of the little we know of Marie de France. To be fair, Groff is not writing a strict historical novel but a work of imagination, based on real medieval people and events. Still, it’s worth asking why she would choose Marie de France only to reject what makes that woman’s poems so remarkable. In Matrix, beauty is suspect, art and writing are powerless, sex is without passion, and strategy stands in for enchantment. The true ideal of this novel is work: vigorous, ruddy-cheeked, sweat-of-the-brow physical labor presented with the cheerfulness of a midcentury Communist propaganda poster.
This is not to say that Matrix is not beautifully written. Groff can write a sentence with the spiky surprise of a good lyric poem, and while her own love of language has sometimes run away with her (as in her 2015 novel, Fates and Furies), here she deploys it with control. Groff’s prose in Matrix is resonant in its simplicity, particularly suited to her evocation of the humble lives of nuns whose community is “not a tapestry of individual threads but a solid sheet like pounded gold.” Nevertheless, her challenges in telling this story are evident. How can a female protagonist in a historical setting seem engaging without being made to conform to today’s progressive standards? How can a writer who fundamentally mistrusts human ambition and progress celebrate a strong, enterprising female character? And, finally, the question that has haunted Groff’s work for years: What kind of utopias can we imagine when the apocalypse is already in sight?
Medieval motifs have appeared in Groff’s work before, lending a mythic aspect to her characters. Fates and Furies tells the story of the marriage between an epic hero and a saint, to show how little either lives up to their ideal type. Lotto, a tall, good-looking, wealthy playwright named after Lancelot—his father was called Gawain, lest we miss the point—is shoved toward success by Mathilde, whose immaculate self-sacrifice hides calculated ambition of terrifying proportions. Lotto is naive and a little too in love with glory; at one point he writes a play about Eleanor of Aquitaine, “a genius, the mother of modern poetry.” Mathilde, bruised and cruel, is a woman one can both hate and admire, and thus enormous fun to watch in action.
Matrix feels at times like the novel Lotto and Mathilde might write. Marie is sent from France to be prioress of a “grayish whitish abbey” so devoid of life even its nuns seem to her like “carrionbirds descending in slow circles to their feast of death below.” It quickly becomes clear that her spirit is too great to be confined in such a narrow place. Descended from the fairy Mélusine, Marie was raised by a mother and aunts who are bold Amazons, “flying across the countryside scandalously galloping astride, with their swordfighting and daggerwork tutors and their knowledge of eight dialects.” As a small child she accompanied her family on crusade (a rare but not inconceivable exploit) and became obsessed with Eleanor in the distant, idealized way practiced by courtly lovers. This high-born novice nun has little time for Christian teaching: “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?” Keep this small word, “lazy,” in mind.
Groff’s larger-than-life characters are usually tall, and much is made of Marie’s “gauche bigboned body” and unattractive face, as though a woman had to escape the confines of beauty and femininity to be capable of heroic action. Despite Marie’s royal blood, her looks make her unmarriageable, and she is forced to channel her charisma and Nietzschean force of will into monastic administration. Groff, who has done her homework, knows that medieval noblewomen were capable of exercising power within marriage: the book features a cameo appearance by Empress Matilda, who fought and lost a war for the English throne alongside her husband. But Groff makes Marie into a particular kind of hero: a solitary savior arriving to build a utopia against all odds. She needs to be on her own.
Marie’s consolidation of her power is one of the most gripping movements in the novel. The convent to which she has been consigned is poor and corrupt, led by an elderly abbess incapable of enforcing discipline among the nuns or gathering the rent due from those who live richly on its lands. The tide changes when Marie picks one stubborn household to serve as an example. She rides her horse into its hall in the early morning, sets about beating the still-sleeping tenants with a crosier until they abandon their home, then settles a loyal family in their place. It is a scene to please Machiavelli, and the other renters duly “reach into their pockets and pay the abbey’s portion, some grumbling but most half proud to have a woman so tough and bold and warlike and royal to answer to now.”
If there is a conflict in Matrix, it lies in Marie’s struggle to fit her desire for fame into the unglamorous, ordinary tasks the monastery requires of her, first as prioress, then as abbess. “The daily kills her greatness,” she reflects at one point, which might be the lament of anyone who has had to give up a dream for a desk job. But there is a drama to survival, even when it consists mainly of paperwork. Groff vividly captures the maneuvers a woman in the twelfth century, or any century, would have needed to make in order to prevail in an unfriendly world. Marie writes letters cultivating patrons and holding off meddling churchmen, sends gifts to families who will make good allies, and pays to have songs about her abbey’s glory performed in the cities of Europe.
Less convincing is Marie’s reorganization of the abbey’s work, to which she brings the energy of a management consultant wielding a fresh Ivy League degree. The nuns she finds are starving, apparently ignorant of gardening, fishing, or gathering food until seventeen-year-old Marie arrives to tell them how to do it. To instill humility, each nun had been assigned precisely the tasks she found most painful, leaving the community in a state of continual torment. Marie decides there will be “no more milking done by weeping terrified Sister Lucy, whose sister was killed by a heifer kick to the head,” along with other reforms. Why does Marie know so much at her age, while the other nuns are cartoonishly incapable of surviving on their own?
Some explanation is to be found in Marie’s backstory: she ran the family estate for two years on the sly after her mother’s death. More to the point, however, the abbey has to be abject so that it can be rescued by Marie, who comes to it as an evangelist for the revolutionary potential of labor:
So many hours have been forever lost through feebleness and reluctance. There is nothing wrong, she thinks, in taking pride in the work of one’s body. She has never been convinced by any argument for abasement. Surely god, who has done all good work, wants work to be done well.
Here is why Eden was “lazy.” The colorless, insipid, and above all inefficient monastery Marie finds is a stereotyped version of the medieval past. At one point she muses that the practice of reading aloud means that “there is no private dialogue to challenge the internal voice and press it forward,” hence “few of her nuns have the capacity to think for themselves.” Marie is the fresh wind of modernity, bringing with her genius, individuality, and industry.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the rest of the novel consists of an uninterrupted litany of success stories. Despite her early lack of faith, Marie is given a “great, ground-trembling” vision of the Virgin Mary holding a rose that blooms and disintegrates in her hand:
The petals circle in the wind and the soft petals each tear down the great trees of the forest in a pattern. And Marie can feel the pattern in her fingers as though she is tracing it with her hand, and knows it to be a labyrinth; and at the heart of the labyrinth she sees a yellow broom flower holding upon its slender stalk a shining full moon.
Marie understands this as an instruction to build a labyrinth in the forest around the monastery to keep her tender nuns safe from the predatory influence of men. The nuns do much of the construction work themselves, growing stronger as they do so; in the evenings, “they return with callused hands, sunburnt cheeks, a swagger of exhaustion and pride in their legs.” Even the young novices apply themselves, and everyone is happier and healthier than ever before now that they have discovered the joyful potential of exercise. Another message from above, and Marie builds an abbess house, then a water reservoir. Finally, she breaks the ultimate stained-glass ceiling: she takes confession and gives her nuns Holy Communion, eliminating the need for male priests altogether.
Groff seems unwilling at any point to let her protagonist suffer defeat. Marie’s namesake, the mysterious author of those haunting Breton lais, knew that the most resonant tales come from loss. Marie, however, has little time for melancholy: she is too busy building up her credentials as a heroine, not for the twelfth but for the twenty-first century. When Marie begins listening to her nuns’ confessions, she hears stories of rape, molestation, abuse, murder in self-defense. It is a Me Too episode made possible by her breaking the rules, because the nuns had been unwilling to reveal their traumas to a male confessor. Marie then boldly rewrites the prayer books to suit her community, sneaking to the scriptorium to “change the Latin of the missals and psalters into the feminine, for why not when it is meant to be heard and spoken only by women?” This is a clever nod to the way medieval women adapted books of prayer and instruction for their own purposes by using feminine pronouns and forms (“abbess” instead of “abbot”), but other signs of Marie’s progressive credentials are more wishful.
When young Marie is faced with the exhausting grunt work of the monastery, she begins to empathize with her childhood servant: “Marie has never scrubbed a thing in her life. She wonders, hands aching, how Cecily did not hate her.” Another privilege check follows much later, when Cecily reminds Marie that she is not a self-made woman but “molded by others, her mother, her ferocious aunts, her books, her money.” Marie may be entitled, but Groff is careful to let us know that she is not at all anti-Semitic, as any twelfth-century abbess would most likely have been. Learning of the fall of Jerusalem, Marie worries that “Jews throughout the Christian lands will be blamed.” Even her sole intolerance strikes a modern note: when Eleanor suggests that the abbey has become too luxurious, Marie insists that “they do eat well and plentifully, though of course none of the nuns are fat.”
There is a scene in Fates and Furies in which Lotto describes his impossibly perfect wife:
Mathilde. She’s a saint. One of the purest people I’ve ever met. Just morally upright, never lies, can’t bear a fool…. She thinks it’s unfair that other people clean up your dirt, so she cleans our house even though we can afford a housekeeper.
His friend sees right through him: “But it’s exhausting to live with a saint.”
Reading about Marie’s first triumph against the patriarchy is thrilling. As the second and third and fourth roll by, one longs, in the churlish way readers do, for some catastrophe to ruffle her composure. We see Marie adapting her greatness to the abbey, but never her struggling to become great in the first place. There are promising subplots along the way—small-scale attempts at opposition from the men of the nearby village, novice nuns with disturbing ambitions—but Marie handles all of them adroitly before the tension can build to something interesting. At times one of Marie’s minor flaws threatens to become her undoing: her repressed erotic passion, perhaps, or her nearly narcissistic conviction that all her undertakings are just and ordained by God. But she controls her longings with iron discipline, and the powerful men who could oppose her inexplicably fade away. The result is not so much a novel as a hagiography, beginning with signs of extraordinary ability in childhood and proceeding, year by year, until the splendid woman comes to her blessed death.
To understand how strange Groff’s choice is here, it may be worth comparing Matrix to its predecessors. The novel’s premise recalls Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel, The Corner That Held Them, a portrait of a poor Benedictine convent’s struggles to stay afloat during the Black Death, complete with foolish nuns, recalcitrant tenants, and a host of accidents and diseases. Warner has her nuns speak in a modern register, often about which prioress is good at “business” and about “how one should manage: with bold strokes, with a policy that fitted the times.” But Warner’s story is one of continuing struggle, occasionally lightened by humor or insight, and it offers no larger-than-life heroines.
Groff’s own novel Arcadia, published in 2012, follows the rise and fall of an ascetic commune in New York State. Though woven through with rich depictions of shared work, a life lived close to nature, and the intimacy of a tight community, Arcadia also shows how dreams of perfection can die. Led by a charismatic but unreliable founder and strained by its own success, that community and the relationships in it split at the seams. The story of repeated victories Marie enjoys in Matrix is less challenging, and ultimately less humane, than the nuanced view of utopian dreams Groff proposed in Arcadia.
Groff’s rejection of the Aristotelian structure of rising movement, crisis, and denouement appears to be intentional. In her 2019 book on narrative patterns, Meander, Spiral, Explode, Jane Alison compares the familiar plot “that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses” to the male orgasm. An alternative Alison offers is the spiral, an ancient shape she connects to witchcraft, the rhythms of life, and women’s cycles of reproduction. Groff (who has blurbed Alison’s work) is thinking in a similar vein when she dwells on the comfort to be had in the predictable sequences of monastic life:
Temporale, the proper of time, the cycle of Christmas, the cycle of Easter. Sanctorale, the proper of the saints. The seasons with their colors: dove gray to green to floral prismatic to gold. The Kalends Nones Ides of the month. The days of the week, the Sabbath. Night and day.
The repetitive story line of Matrix also fits into this shape: each time Marie dreams, Marie plans, and then Marie wins with a small price to pay for her victory. There is no dramatic resolution or great shift in circumstance, just a gentle petering out until she is ready to dream again.
It might seem strange to imagine Matrix as a series of female orgasms, except that the novel really does hang on Marie’s orgasms. Long after becoming a nun, she nourishes a love for Eleanor that is “hard and sharp and fixed,” leaving little space for other attachments. But workaholic Marie suffers from stress like anyone else, a fact that does not escape Nest, the woman who runs the monastery’s infirmary. Among Nest’s medicinal talents is cunnilingus, which she cheerfully offers to Marie, on a regular basis, as “an expression of the humors, not unlike bloodletting…nothing to do with copulation.” These utilitarian releases play a crucial part in Marie’s intellectual development: they tend to be followed by a divine revelation or some deeper understanding of the material world. They are also representative of the strange bloodlessness of Groff’s utopian design, which prefers its sex without passion or vulnerability. At one point, a wayward young nun dies in childbirth, but Marie’s womb, or “matrix,” is connected only to power. In the paradise she builds, there is no space for sin to get in the way of industry.
Or rather, there is one sin, but it is so closely bound up with virtue that it is hard to untangle the two. Though Groff idealizes small-scale, traditional craftwork, such as baking or weaving, she is suspicious of progress. This tension is embodied by Asta, the nun who carries out Marie’s building projects. A mechanical prodigy ever straining toward the future, Asta has a dazzling imagination that carries the seed for humanity’s self-annihilation:
What Asta could do if she were of a warlike mind: machines of awful death, things to flip fire and venom over a distance, crushing machines, machines of ardent substance ready to explode; the strange nun is so excited by ideas she forgets to consider consequence.
People who work in technology tend not to fare well in Groff’s fiction: Arcadia features two brothers, Leif, a computer animator who takes over and essentially destroys the commune that forms the center of the novel, and Erik, who is “fatty as a doughnut, spinach stuck in his teeth, an engineer,” and survives by making “boredom his lifeboat.” Asta has terrible table manners too, but as a woman doing a man’s job, she is given more sympathetic treatment. Still, the innovations she designs on Marie’s orders—the labyrinth, the reservoir—are destructive in ways the nuns can barely see. Animals flee their dens and nests, trees that had endured since the Romans are swallowed up by rising waters, and the groundwork is laid for centuries of mechanical innovation and ecological catastrophe.
Having crafted a heroine who leans in to monastic administration with gusto, creating a collaborative feminist utopia in which the elderly and disabled are cared for, artists and architects are given the opportunity to fulfill their talents, and skillful oral sex is a standard part of the benefits package, Groff finds her creation overshadowed by a larger concern—the end of the world. This motif has thrummed through her work for years: Arcadia closed with an impressively prescient pandemic, and her enthralling 2018 short story collection, Florida, was, among other things, a meditation on climate change. Marie’s ambition makes her a proto-capitalist, causing small-scale environmental disasters beyond her understanding. Only near the end does she realize that despite her holiness, “deep within she has coveted her own rebellious pride.”
The recognition that a woman’s desire for power is no purer than a man’s would be a remarkable twist in an otherwise uninterrupted encomium, if Groff had followed through on it. Instead, she rescues Marie from any responsibility for her actions. As the novel closes, the now elderly abbess ruminates on the lake of fire in Revelation 19:20, understanding in it a prediction of global warming: “Marie suspects this fiery end would be the stone and the soil and the waters of the earth itself, through human folly and greed made too hot for it to be willing to bear any more life upon its back.” When, after her death, the monastery’s new abbess burns the book in which Marie records her divine revelations, Groff’s narrator laments the loss of “visions that might have shown a different path for the next millennium.” Instead of taking part in the great, foolish chain of human ambition, Marie is an ignored prophetess who might have saved the world from itself.
In the historical timeline, the one we have to live in, writing by medieval women did survive. The entrancing lais that play such a small part in Groff’s story, and that were very likely written by a woman, endure in five manuscripts. The fables attributed to the same writer survive in twenty-five copies. Some of the fictional Marie’s feminist visions are directly inspired by those of a real twelfth-century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, from whom we have a vast body of letters and treatises. The past swallowed the brilliance of many women, but not all. Difficult as it is to face the prospect of a planet “too hot to bear humanity,” as Marie predicts in her final epiphany, perhaps it’s even harder to acknowledge that ours is a world women helped create.