A FASCINATING NEW NOVEL BASED ON THE TRUE STORY
OF A REBELLION LED BY NUNS AGAINST THE CHURCH
IN SIXTH-CENTURY GAUL
Marj Charlier’s The Rebel Nun is based on the true story of Clotild, the daughter of a sixth-century
king and his concubine, who leads a rebellion of nuns against the rising misogyny and
patriarchy of the medieval church.
At that time, women are afforded few choices in life: prostitution, motherhood, or the
cloister. Only the latter offers them any kind of independence. By the end of the sixth century,
even this is eroding as the church begins to eject women from the clergy and declares them
too unclean to touch sacramental objects or even their priest-husbands.
Craving the legitimacy thwarted by her bastard status, Clotild seeks to become the next
abbess of the female Monastery of the Holy Cross, the most famous of the women’s cloisters
of the early Middle Ages. When the bishop of Poitiers blocks her appointment and seeks to
control the nunnery himself, Clotild masterminds an escape, leading a group of uncloistered
nuns on a dangerous pilgrimage to beg her royal relatives to intercede on their behalf. But the
bishop refuses to back down, and a bloody battle ensues. Will Clotild and her sisters succeed
with their quest, or will they face excommunication, possibly even death?
In the only historical novel written about the incident, The Rebel Nun is richly imagined
story about a truly remarkable heroine.
If you would like Marj Charlier to participate in a book club conversation about The Rebel Nun, send a message via the "contact" tab.
(For book club questions, scroll to the bottom of this page.)
Advance Praise for The Rebel Nun:
"Marj Charlier takes an obscure sixth-century tale and turns it into a stunning story of a nun caught up in the misogyny of the early Christian church. Led by Clotild, a king’s bastard daughter, a group of nuns attempt to rescue their monastery from the all-male church hierarchy. Extensively researched and rich in historical detail, The Rebel Nun tells of a time when women were chattel, when priests questioned whether females had souls. Charlier’s artfully written account of Clotild’s struggle to save her Medieval sisterhood from the dominance of kings and bishops is a perfect novel for today’s women."
-Sandra Dallas, New York Times best-selling author
(The Rebel Nun) Vividly imagines one of the most fascinating events to occur in sixth-century Gaul, bringing into focus the complexity of the early centuries of Western Christianity as the Church struggled to define its positions on clerical celibacy, the role of women, pre-Christian traditions, and its relationship to secular power. Scholars have long been fascinated with Gregory of Tours’ account of how a rebellion of nuns from the monastery of the Holy Cross in Poitiers supposedly resulted in acts of murder, plunder, and unplanned pregnancies. It is a moment that has been calling out for a writer to do it justice in a work of historical fiction, but which feat no one has dared to attempt—until now. Marj Charlier’s The Rebel Nun brings the sights, sounds, and smells of this event and its aftermath to life in a richly imagined story that is firmly rooted in equal parts rigorous historical research and inspired, creative imagination.
-Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Professor of English/Medieval Studies at Purdue University, and Lecturer for The Great Courses (“The Medieval World”, “The Black Death”, and others)
This thoughtful imagining of the underlying causes and characters involved in the revolt centers on Clotild, the leader of the insurrection ... Charlier
carefully constructs a narrative that positions Clotild, a pagan at heart despite her outward piety, as a reluctant revolutionary who pushes for fairness in a Christian world increasingly dominated by men.
- Excerpt from forthcoming review in Booklist, December 2021
"The Rebel Nun is a gripping, well-told story of women fighting against a church and society dominated by men who are determined to defeat them in body and spirit. A great tale that will immerse you in a world so different—and not so different—from our own."
-Philip Freeman, Fletcher Jones Chair of Western Culture, Pepperdine University
“The Rebel Nun is a gripping tale of heroism and audacity in the least likely of guises--a renowned cloister under the heel of the medieval church. With meticulous research and in exacting detail, Marj Charlier brings to light the remarkable exploits of Clotild, who leads her fellow sisters on a daring escape that culminates in bloody revolt, and a place in history.”
-Denise Heinze, author of The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew
A startling look into a world I never imagined visiting—a 6th Century nunnery, where one bride of Christ only a generation away from paganism breaks her vows of obedience to the church’s male hierarchy and makes it her mission to battle the corruption of bishops oppressing the sisters of the Holy Cross. A well-wrought yarn reflective of historical fact.
-Darryl Ponicsán, author of Eternal Sojourners
The Rebel Nun is a wildly original, suspenseful account of a group of nuns in medieval France who must endure hardships and treachery from both outside and within their walls. It feels both historically authentic and startlingly contemporary, and I loved every word of it.
-Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of Revenge of the Radioactive Lady
The Rebel Nun is a boldly imagined story of one early medieval woman's struggle against the societal forces that constrained her. It draws on historical sources that briefly mention--and condemn--the insurrection that two noble nuns led within their abbey, in Poitiers, in 589. On the basis of this sparse information, Marj Charlier imagines the incident from the perspective of one of these nuns, the noblewoman Clotild, and embeds these events within the larger story of Clotild's life. The result is an engaging and thought-provoking tale.
-Samantha Kahn Herrick, Associate Professor of History, Syracuse University, and author of Imagining the Sacred Past
Clotild's family tree, The Rebel Nun Sans font, and cover design by Kathryn English, Blackstone Publishing.
For a pdf of this formatted book club questions list, make your request via our contact page with an email where we can send it.
Book Club Questions
1. Were you surprised to learn that women were members of the Christian clergy, holding at least the status of deaconesses in the early church? Why do you think that changed? Does it change your perspective on the debate about accepting women as priests today?
2. What motivated Maroveus’s takeover of the governance of the monastery? Was it only the church’s changing position on the role of women in the church and control over female monasteries? Or did his ego play a role in the way he treated the nuns at the Holy Cross? What influences your opinion?
3. Until she meets Alboin, Clotild’s role models and mentors are largely female. And her one male mentor—Fortunatus—abandons her as the monastery’s difficulties rise. Do you think this contributes to the way she interprets Maroveus’s and Gregory’s actions, and the perspective she has on who should govern the Holy Cross?
4. Lebover was an outcast from the beginning of her arrival at the monastery, which Clotild imagines is her main motivation for allying with Maroveus against her sisters. What else could have motivated her to behave the way she did, hording the treasury and fraternizing with a eunich?
5. The decision to leave the monastery brought the nuns, and Clotild in particular, into contact with the outside world, where they discovered how privileged they were compared with the vast majority of Gaul’s peasants. With hunger and the plague ravaging the populace, did this affect your sympathy for the nuns?
6. Brunhilde (Hilda) and Fredegund (Freda) were real Merovingian queens at the time of the rebellion at the Holy Cross, and neither was a saint. Further, Basina is untrustworthy, the nun Didimia testifies against Clotild, and Lebover and Justina abet Maroveus’s takeover of the monastery. To what extent is this as much about women sabotaging other women as it is about the church sabotaging women? Do women still act to undercut other women? In what ways?
7. While we think of feminism originating in the 19th century, throughout time, at least some women have craved independence and self-determination. To what extent is Clotild’s dissatisfaction with her options seem anachronistic, or have we just not heard enough of heroines from that era?
8. Gregory of Tours and some historians have chalked the rebellion up to Clotild’s and Basina’s “hubris”—or their arrogance as daughters and nieces of royalty. Even Clotild wonders at times if her fight with Maroveus isn’t partly a matter of pride. What do you feel was her motivation—or motivations—that led Clotild to take on the leadership in the rebellion at the Holy Cross?
9. In taking up arms against the obviously superior weapons and strength of the count’s men, the women of the Holy Cross could certainly be judged as foolish. What did you think of their choice to ask for weapons and to attempt to fight against Macco’s men? What other choices did they have at that point of the rebellion? Had they worked themselves into a corner?
10. What is the significance of Clotild’s decision in the end to leave the monastery and return to her family estate and her mother’s religion? What is the lesson she learned from the rebellion that led her to that decision?