We try to imagine what it must mean for a man to throw over everything, the world, his life, for a woman. How on earth does a governor meet a nun? No matter. He met her. It was the year 827 AD, in Sicily. The Greek Byzantine governor was named Euthymius.
Picture 827. Charlemagne, dead these thirteen years, founded the Holy Roman Empire of the west twenty-seven years before, a scandal and affront to the truly and anciently Roman east, Byzantium. The people are at least nominally Christian in Sicily, in Italy, in France, in England, in Ireland. They are no longer Christian in North Africa or the middle or near East (the Muslims have arrived), nor are they in Germany, the Slavic lands, or the Baltic. In those cold wild forests the tribesmen are all still pagan, worshipping Thor until the missionaries come. They sing Beowulf there. All Spain except the north has been conquered by the Muslims. The Vikings prey upon Britain and Ireland, and will begin to prey upon France, Germany, and Russia in another generation or so. Magyars, Avars, and Slavs will throw their own weights into the scales of power. Perhaps the chaos and darkness of the time -- at least, as later times judged it -- can best be illustrated by pointing out that here, in Rome the former center of the world, we are in the era to which legend assigns the woman Pope, Joan. What could be more awful?
Look in a book of Western fashions: men and women at this time dress in a kind of half-way style between the togas, smocks, and veils of antiquity, and the trousered, skirted, and belted styles of the modern age. Look at the world through their eyes: if they are literate, they will read the church Fathers and some of the Bible. Dante has not yet lived, and medieval epics like Parsifal or The Song of Roland have not been set down. If they go for a walk, they will not see or venture into the great Gothic cathedrals or the gray, round-walled castles which we tourists still flock to now. They have not yet been built. Charlemagne's palace chapel at Aachen is there; in Sicily, the remains of the old Greek temples are there, and in better shape than we are privileged to see.
In the middle of all this, smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, Euthymius the governor met a woman, a nun. How? Did he catch a glimpse of her singing in the choir at a cathedral – Palermo, Syracuse, Messina – as he attended mass on some state occasion? Did she retreat, bowing humbly before him, as he inspected her charges at a leper hospital? Did she, at forty perhaps, brazenly tempt a gouty old man, or was he a warped predator who violated a devout teen? Was he a splendid man, made defiant by the sublimity of love (and she worthy of him), or was he a fat idiot, pressed on by a shrew, who looked in a quivering burnished steel mirror and stupidly thought he could win?
History says only that in 827 the governor of Sicily proclaimed his independence from the Empire of Byzanium - from Byzantium! – to detract attention from the scandal of his eloping with a nun. Then he called in the Aglabi Saracens from North Africa – Muslims, Arabs, infidels, the anti-Christ – to help him maintain his new independence. It would be as if the governor of Florida seceded from the United States and called in Cuban troops for help, all to deflect attention from the scandal of his elopement with a nun – or the scandal of elopement with someone, the spiriting of whom out of accustomed life would have caused a commensurate outcry. To deflect attention from that.
"I cannot be seen to be dissipating myself at a convent. We must marry."
"The penalty ... my father and uncles – "
"I’ll take Sicily into rebellion. When I am king I’ll make the law."
"My darling. You could be in chains in a month."
"Not if I have allies. Powerful ones."
Yes, all this to deflect attention from that. We see where the attentions, horror-stricken, of the people really lay. Some things were worse than rebellion and foreign religious alliances. Or do we know anything about history, about the likelihood of human motive, at all?
After years and years of looks and longing they were finally together, facing each other, clothed and upright beside the bed. Their fingers intertwined, the backs of their hands touched. They could not look at each other. All vows were broken, all loyalties shredded. Byzantium defied. They hovered outside the world in a pearl of time, the two of them, like the moon above a medieval Sicilian night, perfect, enclosed, unreachable. The Emperor himself, far off in his palaces on the Golden Horn, master of all Romans, did not yet know. With their new vows tonight he had lost Sicily – Sicily! – and the wild African Saracens were to help see that he never regained it. He, her lover, with his skin as tawny as mustard, would be King Euthymius, and she, his beautiful one, would be queen. She must take a Greek name, something pious and perfect. Helen.
A few lamps around the room flared purls of ochre light on the walls. The air seemed thick and chill, heavy with the scent of the sea and thyme. He felt a shiver run from her fingers up her arms and into her body. It made her long robes tremble. She smiled up at him, a little; and he stepped closer, gripped her hands tighter, and drew her arms around his back. They kissed. It was for this they had waited, for this they had prayed, of this they had dreamed and dreaded and begged forgiveness for. They felt as though they were four people, themselves as they had so long been, yet watching this silent couple they were now, private, utterly knowing, and deservedly melted into one. And then the watching couple seemed to fade away, and there was only one – themselves. Time stopped; it was everlasting night; they had been created by God for each other; this was all that mattered in the whole universe. Whatever would follow would follow.
Later, and as ridiculous as he felt about it at his age, he lay there and silently wept from happiness. She saw it and quickly raised herself up and bent over him.
Suddenly she was the elder, the pursuer. She touched his broad face with her fingers and kept her mouth close to him. "Shall I tell you a story?" she asked.
"Years ago," she began to whisper slowly, staccato, the cloistered nun trained to silence. "I had seen you, years before. I knew all your movements. Every procession. I knew every bit of gossip, and I said nothing but everyone knew I knew. I could recognize you from a mile away, did you know that?" He smiled, and she kissed him.
"And one day, your guards went by, in the street just outside our walls. Your outriders. A sedan chair. I watched and watched. I knew it was you. I stood at the window. I knew you would look for me.
"And you weren’t there. They all passed by. And do you know what? My knees shook. I thought I would fall down. My knees went weak at the sight of your people, even your chair. Just like in poetry. That is how much I loved you."
He rose up in his turn and pressed her down beneath him and covered her mouth with his. She put her arms around him. Perfect, after years of waiting and poetry about other people. The night was still dark. Sicily still floated in the sea. They were still the only man and woman in creation.
History says the Saracens were only too glad to come and invade more Christian land. They "got rid of" Euthymius, and in the next dozen or so years sailed at will up the Adriatic along Italy’s east coast, sacking the Byzantine towns of Bari, Ortronto, and Brindisi. They meted out the same treatment to Ancona, very close to Venice.
This is serious. "Sacking" means houses burned, citizens killed, women raped, shops and libraries destroyed, precious things stolen. We have never seen this happen. Our ancestors lived it. Then in 841, a Saracen fleet met a combined navy of the Byzantine and Venetian states, out to defend the coast and punish the sackings. And the Saracens destroyed it. The flower of Venice’s young manhood, the flower of Byzantium’s, gone. Years of suffering crowned by defeat, and the infidel predator triumphant. A generation, spoiled.
One would think that after such a terrifying victory there would be no reason why Italy today would not be a Muslim country, and St. Mark’s, in Venice, a mosque. It happened to Byzantium – Constantinople – itself, centuries later; it happened to the church of the Hagia Sophia. Italy escaped. But to return to our purpose. We have traveled in time only fourteen years, from 827 to 841. What happened to Euthymius, and to the nun, his wife?
We can only presume that their end was tragic. He beheaded, and she sent to the slave markets of Tripoli, are the most logical and least horrible conclusions to their story. What fascinates is what came before, for when people throw the world over for the sake of a perfect pearl of time, it is so very important that it was worth it. The pearls themselves seem twice-wasted, infinitely wasted, if they are not hunted out, polished, and preserved.
The moon still rises. Sicily still floats in the sea. Palermo was one of the most glorious of European capitals centuries later, during the Normans’ time in the 1100s, though the island seems to have become only a byword for wretchedness and then the Mafia’s haunt in later ages. One wonders if the governor and the nun would recognize any of it – a dusty road, the site of the leper hospital. One wonders how they would explain themselves, after all these years.