Sheri Holman Friar Felix Fabri
(creator: Sheri Holman)


Friar Felix Fabri
is one of the Dominican Preaching Brothers of Ulm in Germany. He is 38, and it has been18 years since he became a monk. It is now 1483, and he has set out from Germany on a long and dangerous pilgrimage to an old monastery on Mount Sinai to venerate the remains of the martyr St Katherine of Alexandria, whom he took as his "spiritual bride" when he first swore his vows. He refers to her throughout as his "wife". (The author explains in a note that it It was not until 1996 that the Roman Catholic Church annulled this spiritual marriage, and removed St Katherine from the Catholic canon.)

Fabri describes himself as "by nature a likable fellow and not used to unpopularity". The author explains that all of her characters have "the same uncompromising wish for perfection that I have". Fabri is obsessed by his love for St Katherine and puts up with incredible dangers and hardships. He is very determined, well-meaning and pious, but can also be fussy and credulous.

The story of his travels was suggested by a real Friar Fabri (1441-1502) who went on a sililar pilgrimage, and who is sometimes directly quoted in this story, as in the sections on The Rules for Pilgrimage and Why the Eucharist May Not Be Celebrated on Shipboard.

Sheri Holman (1966- ) grew up in rural Virginia and studied theatre at the College of William & Mary, hoping to become an actress. She soon realised that acting was not for her and found work as a literary agent in New York. She still lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is married to a classicist who helped her by translating some of her source material. This was her first book, and the only one featuring Friar Fabri. Her subsequent books (including The Dress Lodger and The Mammoth Cheese) are perhaps better known.

A Stolen Tongue (1997)
A Stolen Tongue was suggested by a documentary on the pilgrimage of Father Felix Fabri, which inspired the author to go and see the Sinai for herself. This resulted in this book, rejected by 13 publishers, which is far from being a conventional detective story, but is such a remarkable achievement that I felt I had to include it.

Fabri writes the incredible, if rather prolonged, story of his appalling journey as a record for the monks back home. He tells how he is joined on ship by a disturbed young woman called Arsinoë, who is called the Tongue of Saint Katherine because she claims that St Katherine speaks through her. But she has a scheming brother who is to prove a major hazard. Then every time they come ashore in Greece or Palestine to worship some part of the saint's widely scattered remains, they find that that part of her body goes missing: her hand, her ear and then her tongue disappear from their holy resting places.

Desperate to discover the thief and save his saint from such a brutal fate, Fabri resolutely struggles on through scenes of carnage and what, to anyone else, would be total despair. Even 13-year-old Ursus and his father, travelling with Fabri, are not spared. It is to Ursus that Fabri explains, "You know how women, when they become nuns, are called 'Brides of Christ'? .... Well, when we monks take our orders, we may choose a spiritual spouse to keep us company, like nuns have Jesus. We can't very well take Jesus because, first, he's a man and, second, he has married all those nuns. It is wrong to presume the Blessed Virgin would have us; she is married to Saint Joseph .... It is fitting, therefore, that a pious monk .... take to wife some unwed virgin saint."
"And you chose Saint Katherine?"
"I like to think she chose me."

This is only one of many examples of the strange paths that faith can take. Another occurs when Constantine, a dying Greek merchant, asks Fabri, "If my body is thrown to the fishes after I die, can God still resurrect me?"
'What errors men entertain! I smile indulgently. "Saint Augustine tells us that if a man is starving, and, to save himself, eats another man, even if the eaten man is absorbed into the starving man's flesh, God knows to whom the body belongs. Should fish eat you, Constantine, God can extract your essence from the bubbles they exhale." Well. that's a relief, isn't it? But in the end Fabri wants to help him, yet has to let him die unshriven because he is a Greek Orthodox Christian and did not recant. "For all his delusions, he was a kindly man. It is only fitting he should have an arm to lean on as he totters off to Hell".

The author's ironic humor is seen again when the party reaches the Saracen-occupied Holy Land, where they visit such unlikely sites as "the kitchen wherein the paschal lamb was roasted and the water heated for the Lord's Supper". Fabri admits, "Granted, nowhere in Scripture does it say that Christ washed his disciples' feet with warm water, yet warm water takes away the dirt better than cold" and "also shows greater piety, for it is no great proof of friendship to wash a man's feet in cold water .... We cannot suppose Christ would withhold any sign of perfect love, whereby we can also assume, though it be not in Scripture, that his water was not only warm but steeped with fragrant herbs .... Profiting by this pious conversation, we knelt and here received indugences."

Then there are the jars of claimed relics to be found on sale in Jerusalem. "The jar of Christ's foreskins sits alphabetically next to the stack of girdles dropped from Heaven by the Virgin Mary. Boxes of fingers sit next to caskets of hands, and toes go with feet." Even Fabri says, "I shudder at how these men make their living, preying on the gullibility of desperate Christians". But he has no doubt about the superority of Christianity to other faiths: "In their benighted faith, the Saracens believe that at the End Times an angel called Adriel will slay all creatures, including the angels, and, having performed his macabre task, will turn his sword upon himself. When all are dead, Allah, as they call God, will raise up every creature, saving only Death .... As you know, brothers, in reality the End Times are quite different. When the Day of Judgment comes, all the peoples of the earth will gather together in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, there to be tried for their sins. .... Several countryfolk gave me money to set up a small pile of rocks in the valley and thus mark their place for the Last Judgment, which I shall do to humor them."

After appalling privations (including a desperate lack of water) in the Sinai desert, Fabri is one of the few survivors to reach the longed-for monastery. He has by now discovered that "there are only two mountains in the world: the Mountain of Truth and the Mountain of Illusion". And what we find upon the Mountain of Truth is "a waiting grave .... Mount Illusion gave us Love, Mount Truth gives us death; we exist somewhere in the valley, brothers, trying on a hundred loves, imagining a thousand deaths". He realises that Katherine, who must have allowed all the suffering her followers experience, cannot be the saint he dreamed she was. It all makes a grim, unrelenting story, and presents a most unromantic, disturbing but revealing picture of life at the time. Altogether, a remarkable, sardonic, hard-hitting book. Recommended.


There is an interview with the author on the Publishers Weekly site, and a list of her books on the Fantastic Fiction site.



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A Stolen Tongue cover
The handsome cover makes good use of the old illustration of the martyrdom of St Katherine.The story is every bit as bloodthirsty as the picture.
Close up of cover
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