Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Song at the Scaffold

The Song at the Scaffold
Author: Gertrud von le Fort

The Song at the Scaffold is a novella written in 1931 fictionalizing the martyrdom of Carmelite nuns during the Reign of Terror. The faith displayed by long-time Nuns is portrayed alongside the fear and confusion of a new initiate to the order. The French Revolution is playing out all around them. Decrees come down that no new initiates should be added to any religious order, and even that all such orders should be disbanded. This era of extreme violence brought about swift changes and those who refused to conform, or those in the nobility or ruling class, were often put to death by guillotine in a bloody public spectacle. Priests, nuns and other religious leaders were not safe from execution. This book tells the story of 16 Carmelite nuns who were condemned to die.

The story is told in the form of a fictionalized letter from a witness who was at the execution on July 17, 1794 to a friend who has fled France for safety.  It is a short book - only 122 pages - but it clearly tells the story of the 16 Nuns who died for their faith.

I don't normally read religious books, but when I read a description of this novella, I really wanted to read it. It was a quick read, and I became much more engrossed in the tale than I thought I would. The title of the book comes from the fact that the Nuns sang religious hymns as they rode in a cart through the screaming crowds to their place of execution. The narrator tells the haunting story, adding that the song got quieter and quieter, until there was only one person left singing, a former initiate who had been brought to witness the executions. While the story based on real events, the initiate is a fictional character added to embody the fear and uncertainty felt by so many during the revolution.

I enjoyed this book, but it wasn't really what I expected. It was more of a narrative blending fact and fiction than a true account of the executions. I did enjoy how they contrasted the solid faith of the Nuns against the unsure fears of the initiates. The initiates would have to join the order in secret, as the revolutionaries had declared that no new members could be added to any religious order. As it became apparent that staying true to their order and Catholicism could result in their martyrdom, it became a true test of faith that not all the new members would be able to handle. The mental anguish and fear really played out in the simple narrative.

When I finished the book, I had to sit for a few minutes and just think. Would I pass such a test of my own personal convictions? I'm not Catholic, but I'm not sure my personal beliefs are strong enough for me to face public execution with the grace and bravery of those Nuns. I'm a spiritual person not religious, so it was hard for me to wrap my mind around that strong dedication to their religion and why they were willing to lay down their lives. I can't even imagine what it would be like to be publicly humiliated like be driven through the streets in an open cart through crowds of people that are there just for the pleasure of seeing an execution. And for them to sing out songs of praise to God while going to their death. What powerful women. Even after centuries, their faith and strength still have power whether I ascribe to their beliefs or not.

A magnificent novella. Even if you don't ascribe to any religious beliefs, it is still worth a read. A very powerful, well-written, interesting peek into the Reign of Terror.

My rating: 7/10

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