Women Underground

My most recent literary research is on alchemy, particularly the chemistry/metallurgy in practice in 16th century France. I have a character I’m placing in a mountain village at the border of France and Italy who comes in contact with a visiting alchemist from the court of a Sardinian Prince. I have chosen my protagonist, Irene’s, character to have a great affinity for local spirits, herbal cures, and underground spiritualism. She will be the foil to the alchemist but also, in a way, his informant, as they devise a collaborative enterprise in the mountain village where Irene is from.

One of the most interesting themes I’ve found in this research is Provence’s devotion to Mary Magdelaine, or, more precisely, to her incarnation as “St. Mary Underground.” The saint was, according to the Golden Legend, brought to the south of France to preach.


Her skull is supposedly at rest in the church of St. Baume, and there are tens of thousands of pilgrims to her shrine and to other Mary churches all over the region as well. I like the idea of a “Mary Underground” as a literary theme. Provence was an area steeped in earth mother spirituality. So the layering of Mary Magdelaine atop an existing goddess belief seems quite natural.

As to the artistic representation of certain Madelaines: Mary’s “underground” status seems to have transformed her skin pigment to the color of earth, as though she is hiding literally in the dirt where she’s been placed to better safeguard her legend. It’s a creepy but compelling metaphor. What were women hiding from in Provence? What threatened them? There were invaders, Crusaders, and also “Saracens” taking slaves from local villages, according to nearby tales. But did they prey on women? I haven’t found this out yet.

For me it’s interesting to consider a character who is a simple woman, a healer, a mother, a merchant, an entrepreneur, and also someone on the edge of magic, mixing tarot and chemistry in an unusual way. The alchemists got their fame from the gold they were alleged to be capable of creating. In reality, most just smelted metal, compounded medicines and separated valuable metals from ore. Of course, they also dabbled in fireworks and probably got some fame from spectacular witch doctoring. But that would all have depended on the license given to them by their employer.

Women could be alchemists. I have found references to two. Women were also sometimes apothecaries and were always the midwives. They turn tarot among the Gypsies, and they always mix the home remedies, but they rarely hold the keys to government or religion.

I hope this stuff is not too complex to be outside the realm of YA. My voice right now is a middle aged woman with a grown up son. She tells her story from the inside out, alternating from the recent past to the times longer ago, starting when she first apprenticed to a healer at age eleven. I’ll circulate this post to my YA-reading friends in the hope they’ll give feedback if the plot and character age can be handled by a young reader. There’s limited violence and almost no profanity. But there are historic references and passages in French. Might be some Arabic at the end, too.

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