My wife, kids, and I decided to escape the August heat by driving an hour-and-a-half… up. We live in Denver, and the mountains are a welcomed reprieve from trickling-summer sweat. Once arrived at our chalet, I did what I do—I started perusing the book shelves. I stumbled across a faded-yellow paperback, The Cornerstone by Zoe Oldenbourg. The cover proudly boasted, “A masterpiece of historical fiction.” I thumbed through it, did a quick Wikipedia search, and, liking what I saw, decided to sink my stained teeth into it.
The Cornerstone takes place in 13th century France and follows the lives of three generations of barons living in the province of Champagne. The oldest of the three, Ansiau, abdicates his baronage before setting off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He leaves his holdings, Linnières, to his hedonistic son Herbert who wields his power brutally, recklessly, and, at times, arbitrarily.
Oldenbourg then effortlessly weaves the tale of Haugenier, Herbert’s only son, into the complex tapestry that is the baronage of Linnières. If, through Ansiau, we see the French countryside, 13th century crusades, and the arid Levantine landscape, then through Haugenier we read of the realities of romanticism, chivalry, and courtly love. Haugenier, early on, pledges his love to the Lady Marie, a married but barren woman. Tormented by both his passions and his chivalric responsibilities, young Haugenier retires from the world and enters into a secluded monastery to grapple with the meaning of divine love and service as a way of expiation.
Through Oldenbourg’s trinity of characters we experience the horrors and suffering of the medieval life. If you are in search of joy, romanticism, or courtly ballads full of love and hope, then look elsewhere. Oldenbourg paints with detailed strokes a medieval France full of strife, suffering, and heartache. The Cornerstone is a concrete and, at times, disturbing portrayal of humanity’s plight.
Two weeks into his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Ansiau is attacked by wolves in a forest buried in snow. While he is able to escape, his comrade is not. Shortly after, Ansiau, 50-years old, loses his eyesight. In one of Oldenbourg’s more touching scenes, the reader too experiences Ansiau’s loss and eternal longing for one last sunset. But it’s not to be, for here there are no corrective surgeries or hospices for the elderly.
Rather, The Cornerstone is a historical tale set in a real yet distant time, a time without modern conveniences. Though Oldenbourg wrote The Cornerstone in 1953, to a modern reader, the medieval narrative reveals humanity’s fragility. After all, I’m writing this in an air conditioned room on a magical device called a “PC” while drinking my Starbucks mochachino. In our time, it’s all too easy to forget that we are not the masters of our universe.
The Cornerstone is not, however, nihilistic in either tone or outlook. Though it wrestles with questions of serving God and arbitrary suffering, it is a novel that also probes the depths of both human connection and morality. We see this in the way that the hedonist Herbert deals with his impending excommunication or Haugenier, Herbert’s son, endlessly searches for ways to best honor his father, though he refuses to respect him.
Yes, these are contextual problems. But Oldenbourg writes with such honesty and transparency that what is true for the medieval transcends both time and space. The medieval mind is not portrayed as either cute or quaint, but rather as filled with questions of both gravity and magnitude. In the end, The Cornerstone is the best kind of fictional history: it instructs, inspires, and imparts a renewed sense of historical context.