Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang


In the year 1381, when Richard II was King of England, though always boasting that he was a Frenchman born, a carpenter, called Robert Boellet, dwelt with his wife in the little town of Corbie, in Picardy. Ever since they had been married the Boellets had longed for a baby, and now to their great joy a plump little girl lay in the little wooden cradle.

'There is only one name we can give her, of course,' said the proud mother, and the father answered:

'Yes, she must have the name of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of all children,' so the baby was christened Nicolette.

Though Nicolette's father was only a carpenter he made plenty of money by his trade. He bought several houses in Corbie, and gave one of them to be a home for friendless people who had got into bad ways, where they stayed till they had learned to do better and their neighbours would employ them again. Boellet was held in great respect by the townsmen; many was the quarrel which was brought to him to decide, and seldom was his decision disputed. The abbot, too, of the big Benedictine monastery which towered above the town, set much store by him, and not a stroke of work was done in the abbey without the knowledge and superintendence of Master Boellet. As for his wife, she kept the house clean and cooked the food, and did not even think of having a servant to help her. But she never missed going to church early every morning, and very soon she took Colette with her.

From the first the child was a solitary little creature; she never cared to play with other children, but would sit for hours at a time by her mother's spinning wheel listening to stories from the Gospels, or kneeling by her side in church. As she grew older, her parents sent her to some kind of a school where she was, perhaps, taught to read and write as well as to spin; but books were very scarce in those days, before printing was invented, and had all to be copied by hand. Everyone liked her, she was so kind and had such a pleasant voice, and she was always ready to do anything harmless that her schoolfellows wanted, even if it was to play games which she hated. After a while she used to slip away and hide from them, often under her own bed at home, but probably they soon guessed how unwilling she was and let her alone, for nothing is so dull as to play a game with a person who does not care for it.

Now, it was the custom in the monastery of Corbie to sing the office of matins in the middle of the night, and very often some of the townspeople were present. When Colette was about eleven she was seized with a longing to go with them, and night after night she left her room to join the company on their way to the monastery. We do not know whether she told her parents where she was going, but, as they had always allowed her to attend what services she pleased, she would probably never have thought she was doing any wrong, nor, it seems, would they have thought of it either, if some busybodies had not begun to find fault.

'How strange of Monsieur and Madame Boellet,' whispered they, 'to let a child of that age be going to church at an hour when she ought to be asleep. No good would come of it, of that they might be quite sure. But, after all, it was well known that since Colette was born, neither father nor mother had ever said her nay, so what could you expect?' And the gossip grew louder and louder, till, at length, it reached the ears of Colette's parents. Madame Boellet, who thought that her little girl was as much under the direct guidance of God as was the infant Samuel, wished to take no notice, and to let her daughter attend matins as before, but the carpenter held a different view of the matter.

'There was a great deal of truth in what the neighbours said,' he told his wife, 'and if Colette wanted to go to church, she could do so by day. As to matins in the monastery, he would have no more of it,' and he ordered Colette to sleep in a little room, almost a closet, which could only be reached by passing through the chamber in which her parents slept.

Thus the matter would have ended had it not been for the interference of a friend of the family, one Adam Monnier, who openly disagreed with Boellet, and told him that Colette was not to be treated like other children; and that he would himself take her every night to the monastery. But Boellet naturally thought that it was he, and not Monnier, who was responsible for the safety of his own child, and answered that he had made up his mind as to what was best, and expected to be obeyed. So far, Colette seems to have made no resistance, but one night when her father and mother were asleep, the little girl was awakened by a voice calling softly to her from the window:

'Colette! Colette! It is I, Adam Monnier, I have a ladder here, and have come to take you to matins. It will be all right. I will arrange it with your father.'

Of course, Adam Monnier must have known perfectly well that it was extremely wrong of him to tempt Colette to disobey her father's express orders, or he would not have come in this secret way. And Colette, who was always thought to be so much better and holier than other children, and who spent half her life in church and on her knees, was equally wrong to listen. However, she did not stop to consider what was right or wrong, but at once got up, and after dressing herself quickly, scrambled out of the window and was carried by Monnier down to the ground. And off the two culprits went to the monastery.

We do not know what Boellet said the next day to the friend who had interfered in what did not concern him, or to his disobedient daughter, but he took the best measures he could to keep her at home, by fitting up an oratory for her, where she could pray when she was not in church. This delighted Colette; she felt as if she owed it to Adam Monnier, and preferred consulting him to anyone else. He was always ready to encourage her, and by his advice she not only persuaded her mother to give her nothing but common or ugly garments, but wore rough cords round her body, and secretly left the bed, on which she now slept in a corner of her parents' room, to lie on some knotted twigs on the floor. Still, in spite of her care for her own soul, Colette had thought left for others, and used to save part of her food, and whatever clothes she was allowed to give away, for the sick and poor about her.

So the years went on, and Colette was nearly grown up, but at sixteen she was no taller than she had been at ten or eleven.

'You are so small that you will never be able to keep the house clean when your mother dies,' remarked her father one day, seeing Colette in vain trying to lift something from a shelf that was out of her reach, and though the words hurt her the girl knew that they were true. What would become of them when her mother died? and she was nearly sixty now. Night and day the thought troubled her, and at length she resolved to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of a saint not very far from Corbie to ask for help, as many of her friends had done before her.

'Let me become tall and strong,' she prayed, and tall and strong she became, to her great joy, so that when her mother died she was able to take her place and do all that was required of her.

'What a good daughter old Robert Boellet has,' said the neighbours, when their own girls wished to leave their work and dance in the meadows by the river; and the children, instead of disliking her because she was held up to them as an example, would go and talk to her and ask her questions about her faith, till the numbers who flocked to her teaching were so large that no room in her father's house was big enough to hold them.

For the most part the people saw nothing but good come of the talks, and were grateful to Colette for the difference it made to their children's lives. But some persons were discontented, and complained to the Bishop of Amiens that it was not fitting that a young girl should take on herself the office of a preacher. The bishop listened to all they had to say, and sent a priest to hear her secretly; and the priest was so touched and interested in her words that at the end he stood up and thanked her, and returning to the bishop told him he was quite content.

But if the bishop and the priest were satisfied, the others were not. Once more complaints were made, and this time Colette was summoned to Amiens.

'Keep silence for a little while, my daughter,' said the bishop, 'and let men's minds grow calm again. Then, when peace has been restored, you may continue your work.'

So Colette went back to her home and kept the house clean, and tended her father, now in his last illness. Very soon he died, leaving his property to his daughter, and herself to the care of Raoul, abbot of the monastery.

Left alone, Colette thought that at last she might indulge in what she had always longed for—a life of entire solitude, devoted wholly to prayer. Great as was her love and respect for her guardian, Raoul the abbot, she had fears that he might think it his duty to find her a husband, and in this she was perfectly right. Therefore, without giving him or anyone else notice of her intention, she set out for Amiens to consult a famous priest, Father Bassadan, on what she ought to do.

The priest bade her do nothing hurriedly. 'He that believeth shall not make haste.' She must think over it all calmly and quietly and come to him again. Colette obeyed, and, when he perceived that she was in a fit state to decide, he bade her make her own choice as to what convent or order she would enter. It was not very easy to satisfy her, and she tried several different communities, both at Corbie and elsewhere, but they all of them fell short of the strictness she desired. Finally, her life was determined by a meeting with a great Franciscan monk travelling through Picardy. To him she told the tale of her disappointments in the past and her doubts for the future.



'Be a recluse, my daughter, and thus will you find the peace you seek,' he said; and by the joy that filled her, Colette knew that that was what she wanted.

A recluse! Can you guess what that means? Not a hermit dwelling apart in a cell, where at any time a traveller riding by may seek shelter, and the 'solitary' can hear again news of the world he has left, or, at any rate, listen to human speech. Not a monk or a nun in a convent, where, though the gates are shut, there is left human companionship, and common duties and interests which every life, however simple, that is lived with others must hold. But to Colette a recluse meant to be alone always, and in one place, with one small window in her cell looking into the church; and that she might speak only through a grating to the two girls who brought her daily the vegetables and bread for her one meal. And this to last, perhaps, for fifty years, for at this time she was only twenty-two! No wonder Raoul the abbot tried his hardest to dissuade her. It was quite useless, so he could but obey her wishes, and, selling the houses her father had given her, she placed the money in the hands of the parish priest to be divided amongst the poor.

The angles between the walls of the Church of St. Etienne and the Benedictine cloister were built up, and a short staircase ending in a grating led up to the two tiny cells in which the recluse was to live. When all was ready a solemn service was held, and amidst the grief and tears of her old friends, Colette, with Father Pinet beside her, walked behind the procession of the clergy to the chamber on the walls. Steadily, and without lifting her eyes, she entered, and the door, which she hoped never to pass again, was shut on her by the abbot.

It is a comfort to think that even Colette understood that it was not possible to fill her life entirely with prayers and holy thoughts, however much she might wish to do so; or rather, that her hands must be employed for part of the day, whatever her mind might be fixed on. She kept in order the beautiful linen of the church, and not a day passed that the girls who brought her food did not also bring some garments belonging to the poor people, to be patched or darned.

Soon, there arose a longing in the breasts of those who had watched her from a child, or even in strangers who had heard of the 'Saint of Corbie,' to take counsel with her as to their troubles and difficulties. Day by day they pressed up the narrow staircase as far as the grille or grating, pouring out their trials to Colette who sat on the other side. Hour by hour they came, and in such numbers that at last her friend, Father Pinet, interfered, and fixed certain hours at which only she could be seen. For awhile she listened with sympathy, and gave carefully-considered answers to all who asked her advice; and whatever she said they implicitly believed and faithfully acted on. But at length she grew weary of her task. She wanted, it would seem, to serve God in her own way, not in His. She wished to be free to pray all day, not to help her neighbours in the only way in which she could now help them. 'These people,' she said, 'rob me of my time, and interfere with my devotions'; and at last she obtained leave to shut out everything that reminded her of the world. Only her two friends might bring her food as before, and they  were to be silent.

A great cry of disappointment arose in Corbie, in which the clergy joined. But, though Colette may have guessed at their feelings, no echo of their murmurs reached her ears. Perhaps she would not have cared, even had she known how much unhappiness and disturbance she was causing. 'There was very little left of the human in Colette,' says one of her biographers and fondest admirers; forgetting that there was so vast a humanity left up to the end, in the Lord whom she wished to serve.

Little though she knew it, only one more year remained of her present mode of existence, but the four years she passed in the cell of a recluse were laden, according to her own account, with strange experiences. Not very long after she had entered, whispers began to be heard among the townspeople of temptations by the Evil One himself; of visions of spectres, meant to terrify her into calling for man's aid to dispel them; of awful shrieks and screams, coming, none could tell from where; of loathsome animals, of shapes known and unknown, playing round her cell. Any tale of horror that had ever been told, was now told of Colette, and, weakened as she was with fasting and want of air, all seemed real to her, and no doubt she suffered as much as if she had indeed seen outward things of the kind she described. But the end of each trial was always the same: Satan was overcome; and exhausted by the struggle Colette was left for awhile in peace.

It was in the last year of her life as a recluse that, when praying in her oratory, she had a vision of St. Francis and learned that she was set aside for the reformation of the great orders he had founded, into which abuses had already crept. Not desiring to leave her cell she put the vision from her, or rather, tried to do so, for it would not go. In despair she sent for Father Pinet, but he could only bid her pray. The struggle with her own will and the path she had chosen lasted many days. At length she gave in and agreed to return to the world, which she hoped she had quitted for ever.

It was through a Franciscan friar, Henri de Baume by name, that Colette obtained from the pope the necessary dispensation from the vows she had taken of perpetual seclusion. At that time there were two popes supported by different nations, and the papal palace at Avignon, where one of them lived through most of the fourteenth century, was, and still is, one of the glories of France. Party hate between their followers was as fierce as it had been in Italy a century before, in the strife of emperor and pope, of Guelf and Ghibelline. The pope had left, and loud was the clamour that the people should leave, Avignon and return to Rome. But there were still two or three popes instead of one, and it was this scandal that Colette and Father Henri de Baume meant to fight.

Under his protection, and that of a noble lady, the Baroness de Brissay, Colette left Corbie so early one morning that scarcely anyone was up to bid her farewell. It almost broke her heart to quit her cell, which she called paradise, and she could hardly tear herself away from it. Passing through Paris, the little company travelled to Dijon, the capital of the great Duchy of Burgundy, and then turned sharp to the south where the Count of Savoy awaited her, and down to Nice where the anti-pope, Benedict XIII was, at that time, living. To him she presented a petition, beseeching him to allow her to enter the Order of the Poor Clares—an order for women closely associated with the Order of St. Francis—and to follow strictly the rule laid down by the foundress. The pope not only granted this, but made Colette, who was not yet even a nun, abbess-general over the whole three orders, with power to open fresh houses if they were needed; while Father Henri was created superior-general over all the houses that should submit to being reformed. Then she was consecrated a nun, and allowed to enter on her duties as abbess without going through the months of training known as 'the period of noviciate.' At first she shrunk from the responsibility; she longed to be simply 'Sister Colette,' but Father Henri pointed out that she could not take her hand from the plough, and must pray for courage to do her work.

And here we must leave her. Henceforth, her path was clear, and, in spite of opposition where she often expected help, and abuse where she thought to have found love, her work prospered. As, nearly three hundred years later in the case of Mère Angélique, whole families of well-born novices with everything to hold them to the world, enlisted under her banner. Far and near she went, attracting all by her preaching and holy life. At Baume, the house placed at her disposal soon grew too small for the numbers that flocked into it, and they moved to a large convent at Besançon, empty of all its community except two nuns. The archbishop and a vast multitude received her, and daily the people thronged for advice to the gate of the convent as they had once done to the cell at Corbie.

Other houses were shortly needed, and Colette was forced to take many journeys to found them. They were mostly situated in the east of France, for the Duchess of Burgundy was her friend and helper. Again, like Mère Angélique in after years, she kept herself informed of the state of every convent, and dealt with every difficulty herself. She was still believed to perform miracles, and certainly she had complete faith in her own power to accomplish them, but the visions of wild beasts which had so terrified her in her cell never came back. Instead, birds flew about her, and a lark drank from her cup, while a lamb trotted after her and stood quiet in her oratory while she prayed. In her last years a convent was opened at Amiens and the inhabitants of Corbie offered land for a religious house, but the Benedictine monks would not allow her to build it. This was a bitter sorrow to the abbess, and it is very likely that it preyed on her mind on a cold winter journey to Ghent. At any rate, a change was noticed in her soon after her arrival there, and she laid herself down for the last time, covering her head with a black veil. In three days she died, at the time that Nicholas V was elected pope, and received the submission of the Duke of Savoy. Truly she might be accounted happy in her death. The scandal of the anti-pope, which had so grieved her, was ended, and but a few years before France had been delivered from the English by the sword of a girl.