Afterword: The Historical Hildegund

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I first want to thank EVERYONE who has taken the time to read, vote, and provide feedback on this novel. This is a story that I care very deeply about, and knowing that other people have read and enjoyed it truly means the world to me.

This story was inspired by a historical tale, but I wound up digressing so much from the source material that I can no longer claim that I was just using "creative license." Journey to Joseph is a fictional account that happens to have some overlap with a historical Hildegund. That said, I would like to quickly share the true story of Hildegund.

Hildegund was born in a town near Cologne, Germany in the 1160s or 1170s. Her mother died when she was still young, and when she was around 12 years old her father, who was a knight from the lower nobility, decided to take her on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In order to make the passage safer, her father decided to disguise her as a boy and called her Joseph.

On the way back from Jerusalem, while in Tyre, her father fell ill. He beseeched his servant to take care of Hildegund and return her safely back to Christendom. However, when her father died, his servant betrayed his trust. The servant stole all of their belongings and abandoned Hildegund in a foreign land.

Hildegund was forced to beg for survival. She also may have received an education, for she claimed to have both begged and attended school while in the east.

The sources do not agree on how she returned to Germany. One source says that while in Tyre she befriended a German pilgrim who accompanied her home. Another source says that she fist traveled to Jerusalem and served the Knights Templar for a year before eventually returning to Germany with the help of one of her father's acquaintances.

Back in Germany, Hildegund continued to present as male. She was recognized as intelligent and became a servant to the Archbishop of Cologne. She was entrusted to carry a letter to the pope, who at the time resided in Verona. However, during the journey, she met and was befriended by a thief, who tricked her into holding stolen goods as he was being pursued. She was discovered holding the stolen goods and was dragged in front of the local magistrate. Her guilt was obvious and she was sentenced to death by hanging.

The priest who heard Hildegund's last confession believed in her innocence and decided to search out the actual thief. Once caught, the thief denied all charges. The priest suggested a trial by ordeal. Both Hildegund and the thief were subjected to holding a red-hot iron. Whoever was able to hold it longer had the strength of innocence. Hildegund passed the test and was let free. Unfortunately, she was soon apprehended by the thief's companions, who tried to hang her. Luckily, she was cut down in time and was able to escape back to Germany.

Once back in Germany, Hildegund joined a Cistercian monastery, the Abbey at Schönau. She became a novice, but never took her vows. In fact, she unsuccessfully tried to run away on at least two occasions. Apparently she chafed against their strict rules.

Then, while living as Brother Joseph, she fell terribly ill. It was during her deathbed confession that she told her remarkable story. But even knowing that death was upon her, she did not reveal her birth name or sex. It was only while preparing the body for burial that it was discovered that Brother Joseph was born female. The monks started to investigate her origins and learned that she had been born named Hildegund.

I learned about Hildegund from my favorite academic book: Clothes Make The Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe by Valerie Hotchkiss (New York: Routledge, 1996). I stumbled upon it in graduate school when I was earning my Master's Degree in Ancient and Medieval European History. Hildegund Von Schönau is somewhat unique to the era because there are five different sources that tell about her life, all written within a decade of her death. The accounts are based both on her first-person recollections and on discussions with people who knew her. Discrepancies in the accounts hint at the authors using different sources, and not just simply copying each other. Although we can assume that details of her life were exaggerated and manipulated - both by Hildegund in the telling of her own story, and by the various authors who chose to preserve her accounts - historians believe that she was most likely a real person.

After reading Hotchkiss's account of Hildegund's life I wondered why on earth this tale hadn't been made into a movie. It was so exciting and full of betrayal and action and mystery! And also, how interesting that even on her deathbed she didn't reveal her female sex. Although I didn't wind up writing a novel based just on her life, I trust that you can see some of the connections between history and the story that I wound up telling. It is still my hope that one day the historical Hildegund will receive the public recognition that her story deserves. 

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