Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946
The Cornerstone is not so much a historical novel as a work of fiction in which medieval men and women live. This distinction is important. What now passes for the historical novel is little more than an adventure story filled with bombast or a record of bedroom escapades in fancy dress. Zoé Oldenbourg’s book is the exception that justifies a literary form debased by most of her contemporaries. Her novel has all the qualities readers expect of a story enclosing long perspectives of time and change and the mysteries of life and death.
No small part of Oldenbourg’s effectiveness is the result of her insight into the mind and heart of medieval people. Her characters come together, talk, and go about their intimate affairs, and, in so doing, they reveal themselves and their private concerns, loyalties, superstitions, hopes of heaven, and fears of hell. Nothing seems contrived or forced; situations arise as casually as they do in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) or the stories of Giovanni Boccaccio, but everything adds up to the stir and spirit of an age. Life is harsh, disappointing, and sad. Men seize at excitement or happiness in the pageantry of a tournament, the rituals of a court of love, an illicit passion, or the violence of war.Always, above everything else, Christian faith gives meaning and purpose to experience and guides humanity’s quest for spiritual salvation. Through these matters, Oldenbourg brings to life and motion the gentry and the whole of medieval society—knights and their ladies, Crusaders, troubadours, wandering scholars, holy pilgrims, serfs, priests, merchants, clerks, and beggars—in the days when Philip Augustus reigned in Paris and Pope Innocent III summoned the chivalry of France to a new crusade against the Albigensian heretics of Provence and Toulouse.
In a novel so solid in construction, so varied in detail, certain comparisons are inevitable. There is something massive here, like the soaring bulk of a Gothic cathedral built in an age when people lived in daily intimacy with God and churches were powerful upsurges of buttressed masonry. In this connection, the title of Oldenbourg’s book is symbolic, for Christian faith was the cornerstone on which rested the whole structure of the feudal period. Again, reading this novel is like inspecting at close hand a medieval tapestry, in which every figure, leafy tree, and symbolic beast is worked lovingly and with care, or like turning the pages of a beautifully limned Book of Hours, the figures of its decorative groupings a little stiff and archaic in their poses but believable and very human, with every face and gesture clear-cut and revealing.
Father, son, and grandson stand in the foreground of this landscape with figures. In his old age, Ansiau de Linnières, part of whose story was told in an earlier novel, Argile et cendres (1946; The World Is Not Enough, 1948), turns over his fiefs in Champagne to his heir and sets out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to win forgiveness for the sins of his rough life. A veteran of the Third Crusade, he hopes to see Jerusalem once more before he dies and to visit the grave of his oldest son, buried at Acre. His sight failing, he goes blind on the way and wanders through a countryside ravaged by the Albigensian wars in the company of a young squire, a blinded heretic, and a renegade monk. In Palestine, he is captured and forced into slave labor. His capacity for faith, however, allows him to overcome all agonies of the body and of the spirit, and, in his last hour, dying alone on a hillside near Jerusalem, he trustingly calls on God to be his priest.
His son Herbert, aptly nicknamed the Gross, is a man of brutal nature and prodigious physical appetites. Greedy, lecherous, cruel, disliked by his neighbors, and alienated from his children, he murdered, fornicated, and blasphemed his way into middle age. When he commits incest with his half sister Eglantine and is cursed by his mother, the Lady Alis, the pilgrimage he makes in expiation of his sins is little more than an impious fraud. On his return, he is fatally injured by his son, Haguenier, while he is trying to beat his wife to death.
Haguenier, the young knight of Linnières, represents the more tender and idealistic side of the medieval temperament. He might have become an even worthier son of an unworthy father if he had not been afflicted by physical weakness or come under the spell of Lady Marie de Mongenost, whom he serves faithfully but hopelessly, according to the rules of chivalric love. In repentance, after his sin of patricide, he leaves the older woman to whom he is married and his baby daughter and enters a religious order.
It is plain that the three Linnières of the novel illustrate three different facets of medieval life and belief. Bluff old Ansiau and Herbert le Gros stand at opposite poles of that age of contradictions and extremes. Haguenier, too sensitive for the rough life to which he was trained, confusing his adoration of the Virgin with his love for an earthly woman, dreamy, but manly in his capacity for fidelity and suffering, points to the more humanistic age that was soon to follow.
Oldenbourg expressed a belief that in the contemporary novel there is too little concern with what is great and eternal in man. In this somber, richly imagined, and starkly depicted story of thirteenth century France, she holds up a mirror of human conduct and faith that illumines the past to reflect the hopes and fears of the present.