Maria Gloria de Bourgogne was born in Burgundy towards the end of the confusingly named Hundred Years War into the noble family of the Marquis de Bourgogne. A highly unattractive newborn; the midwife screamed, slapped her, and then crossed herself repeatedly. The oddly-shaped facial birthmark eventually faded, but the beetlebrow, fearsome squint, and jaw that jutted like the prow of a Viking longboat never did. If anything, these unlovely characteristics intensified as she grew older.
Icon of Maria Gloria de Bourgogne, silver/iolite
The last-born into a family of eight girls, four of whom were named Maria, her father quickly ascertained that Maria Gloria would not be a good marriageable proposition to any aging nobleman looking for a brood-mare to shore up his title and lands. She was ugly and opinionated, so her father determined she should also be educated. This would make her extremely unattractive to even the most repellent old man and would save her father the necessity of yet another expensive dowry. Let the church have her!
Alas, the church did not want her. Maria Gloria was absolutely fine with chastity, but unable to embrace the requisite virtues of poverty and obedience. She was returned to her dismayed family in less than a week; her education had not prepared her for the rigours of life in a nunnery. She could neither embroider or sew, the tasks traditionally allocated to the daughters from noble families. Her fluent Latin, comprehensive study of the Greek Classics and Philosophers, knowledge of Euclidian Geometry, and self-directed interest in metallurgy and medicine which pre-dated Paracelsus by a number of decades had no status in a place of feminine devotion to a masculine god. Her allergy to all things piscine on a Friday was her final undoing.
At the end of his tether and in a fit of hand-wringing pique her anguished father determined to send her into the service of his nemesis, Chancellor Nicholas Rolin. Rolin had come to favour as a peace negotiator between the French and the Burgundians. He was not a nobleman but he had been rewarded handsomely for his services to the Duchy of Burgundy. He was considerably wealthier than most of his noble counterparts at a time when most of the populace lived in miserable poverty, and consequently earned the envious emnity of his noble betters. Rolin had established a Hospice for the poor and indigent in Beaune, unusual for its time in that it was fiercely independent from the Church. Rolin insisted that all of his nurses were lay-sisters. They were all sourced from the middle and upper-middle classes and were not permitted to take nun’s vows whilst in service, though they were nominally expected to pledge to poverty, obedience and chastity. It was an honour to their grateful families for a girl to be accepted for nursing servitude…
Regretfully, an attitude of servitude and gratitude was unattainable by Maria Gloria. Her bedside manner was abominable, and her hospital corners worse. Pity the suffering terminal patient whose last earthly sight was the scowling visage of Maria Gloria… She found her lodgings unsalubrious, her uniform unflattering, and the simple yet nourishing food unpalatable. Her modest stipend she deemed risible. Her increasingly desperate father worn down by her incessant complaints determined to secretly incentivise Chancellor Rolin to progress Maria Gloria’s career in the manner she believed herself entitled to. In short, he gifted the hospice a modest parcel of prime grape-growing land in order to grease the path of his vile off-spring.
When Maria Gloria found herself in command of a modest but well-appointed apothecary complete with beakers and flasks for distillation and titration, razors and saws for letting and cutting, tools for cupping, annelids for leeching, fleams and clysters for all manner of painful indignities, restraining boards complete with straps and buckles, plus a selection of cauterising irons she believed it was because of her own extraordinary ability rather than the sacrifices of her dear Papa.
Actually, Maria Gloria was clever and able, but like many people of good fortune and privilege she was unable to see that her success was as much due to opportunities made available to her as her own adroitness. However, let us not dwell on Maria Gloria’s sociopathy, but instead celebrate her achievements… She proved very adept at the arts of distillation; her poppy and pinot potation was deemed a taste sensation and proved a highly effective somnambulant for both suffering patients and exhausted nurses, as well as being less fatal than her hemlock concoctions. Certainly Maria Gloria was not averse to tippling in her tinctures in the interests of experimentation when the need arose. The Hospice did not accept plague victims, lepers, or pregnant women as patients, but Maria Gloria had a very lucrative sideline in particular infusion of tanacetum vulgare, pulegium regium, and her father’s finest Burgundian pinot noir. This preparation was created with utmost care as Maria Gloria quickly learned to her mild discomfort that even small quantities of extract of pennyroyal cause failure of the liver and death, at which point the reality of an unwanted pregnancy becomes an irrelevancy. During Maria Gloria’s reign at Hospices de Beaune it was noted that Beaune had a remarkably low rate of birth. Her exploits in amateur surgery were less triumphant, but the survival rates from invasive incisions were inauspicious in 15th century France so I think it unjust to be overly punctilious. It was an uphill battle for the most conscientious of barber surgeons to overcome the threat of gangrenous humors when the only antiseptic available was an unappetising concoction of fresh urine and wine. A survivor of the surgery would likely die from the shock of wound cauterisation at any rate.
It will come as no surprise to readers of moral tales that Maria Gloria was eventually broken on the wheel of her own hubris… Increasingly arrogant and perhaps maddened by constant imbibing of her own potions she began to dabble in the darker arts. Believing herself impervious to accusations of witchcraft because of her nobleman Papa and because the church was so comprehensively excluded from the Hospice she embarked on a new line of side-products designed to further line her pocketbook. Word of Maria Gloria’s range of hallucinogenic unguents and salves spread faster than plague buboes. She devised philtres for the lovesick, elixirs for the heartbroken. I fear it is likely she was a purveyor of poisons for those wishing to cause harm, such was her lack of moral compass. When the buyers of illicit substances come knocking at your door the law is seldom far behind. Testimony has it that Maria Gloria grew increasingly anxious and paranoid.
No-one can say for certain what precipitated the distressing events of June 21 1460, but the facts indicate that a collection of nurses in the courtyard of the Hospices de Beaune heard a bloodcurdling shrieking coming from a second storey room. Alarmed, they all looked up in time to see the figure of Maria Gloria cartwheeling out of the window. In moments she had landed heavily and brokenly on the cobblestones in front of them, her brains leaking from an irreparably damaged skull. Eyes open wide, lips snarled in a terrified grimace, and legs akimbo, Maria Gloria was no lovelier in death than she had been in life. Some of the nurses swore they had heard her bawl “Possum volare!” as she left the window. This remained unverified, but if true it suggests that Maria Gloria may have been experimenting with ‘flying ointment’. It seems possible that she could have concocted an ointment extracted from henbane, hemlock, belladonna, or mandrake, muddled with base of fat and applied it to her nether regions. The hallucinogenic properties would have acted swiftly and lethally. Like many before her and many to follow, she believed she could fly…
It is very difficult to find further information about Maria Gloria de Bourgogne. There is no marked grave, I know, because I searched for it in vain when I visited Beaune. It’s likely she was buried in unconsecrated ground as a suicide and disowned in death by her surviving family members. Requiescat in pace.