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Rahab's Red Book: further discoveries

The lovers seek shelter from the storms to come

Sarah's comments on the similarity between myself and Rahab, the memoirist whose book I had discovered in Istanbul, gave me pause for thought. Could it possibly be that there was a connection between the woman and myself? It seemed unlikely. From what I had read so far, she was a lesbian, and therefore unlikely to have had children; so I began to dismiss the thought. Then I got another call from my friend Ruth in the British Museum.

As my new job as Personal Assistant to Miss Sinn of the Sinn Agency of Private Investigators gave me more leisure time than my old job for the Government, I took the afternoon off and popped round. Ruth was in a state of high excitement.

"Pix, this discovery is going to change our view of a part of our Island history."

"How so," I asked, "is this to do with her visit to Queen Elizabeth I?"

'No, you know I told you there were other papers in the trunk, well we found something else on Friday, and I have spent the weekend deciphering it."

I looked agog. 'What?"

"It is a separate manuscript, much, much older, dating back to the eleventh century, to the end of Anglo-Saxon England."

I looked even more agog if that is possible; I certainly felt it.

Ruth showed me an ancient book, worn and stained. She opened it. It took me back to my studies in English at Oxford. It was Anglo-Saxon, and with a little effort, I could make it out:

"My Mistress was worried; which worried me.

‘Danegyth, this could end badly for us all, you are a clever little thing, can you think of a way in which we could persuade the earl to think again.’

I hated to see my beloved Ealdgyth upset.

By common consent, she was the most beautiful woman in England. Known as ‘the fair; or ‘swans neck,’ and her husband, the great Godwin Earl, Harold, loved her in a way few women are loved."

"Oh my goodness!" I was momentarily speechless.

Ruth explained that as far as she could tell, it was genuine. The vellum had been tested, and the preliminary results suggested that it was eleventh century and English in origin. The ink also checked out. The binding, Ruth said, was not English. It was from the Kiev region, but that, she added, matched what the text suggested about its final resting place, which was Kievan Rus.

I asked how on earth it had ended up there, and how it had found its way to Istanbul.

"The answer to the second is harder than the first, and will need to wait on our translation of the next part of Rahab's book. But after Harold's death a lot of Anglo-Saxons ended up there, his daughter by Ealdgyth, Gytha, married Vladimir II and became Queen of Kievan Rus. If this manuscript is genuine, it tells us what became of Harold's common-law wife, also called 'Edith the Fair,' and that is a real discovery. It also throws light on Anglo-Saxon customs and attitudes towards Sapphic love."

"Are you telling me that Ealdgyth was a lesbian? She had five children, at least."

"No, I am saying she was bisexual. The author of the manuscript, one Danegyth, seems to have been her adopted daughter and later lover, and went to Kiev with her. She seems to have outlived her and had a daughter - called Rahab."

"What? Surely not the one who visited Elizabeth I? This is getting silly."

Ruth explained that was not, of course, the case. But according to the book, Danegyth had been granted a vision by the Virgin Mary, and she had been told she would have a daughter and should call her Rahab, and that the name should be passed down the line.

"I see," I said, not quite sure I did, "but what's the connection with our Rahab?"

Ruth explained she was not yet sure. The most obvious one was that this book had been buried under a pile of papers in the same trunk as the Book of Rahab, so at some point a connection had been made. The working hypothesis was that either 'our Rahab,' or a descendant, had brought the two volumes together, which suggested that someone had thought that the two were linked.

'What is interesting, Pix," Ruth added, "is that it looks as though Danegyth and our Rahab were similar in build and sexual preferences - a bit like you and Rahab."

I was stunned.

"Sarah showed me the photo and the icon, and here, if you are interested, is an artist's reconstruction of Rahab, and mine of Danegyth."

I was taken aback. They looked like each other, and they both looked like me.

"What are you suggesting?" I asked Ruth.

"Nothing, I am simply saying that there are remarkable resemblances."

"But Danegyth was Anglo-Norman, if this is right, and Rahab was Jewish, so I don't get it?"

"Me neither, but the person who collected the papers, Rahab, was the daughter of Danegyth and half-Jewish, so across the next five hundred years there is no reason why the remote descendant of an Anglo-Norman woman should not have been Jewish."

So there it was.

It was all very possible. Indeed, the more I read of the Danegyth manuscript, the more I saw the resemblances between 'our Rahab,' and the Anglo-Saxon woman. It was as though, across the chasm of centuries a theme resonated. They were more alike than they were unalike. We had only a list of names, we had no real history. The questions were legion.

How had the first and second Rahabs escaped from the chaos that had overwhelmed Kievan Rus in the 1130s; indeed, had they both? It looked as though Danegyth's granddaughter had fled south with her Jewish husband. It was quite possible that they had settled in the Eastern Roman Empire's border provinces, close to help, but not under Christian rule, which back then, had been marked by sporadic bouts of anti-Semitic persecution. Then came the Mongols and finally, the Ottomans.

Rahab, 'our Rahab,' had written that she was part of the 'tribute,' owed by her district, and that part of Wallachia had been part of the Ottoman Empire for a century and more by the time she was born. The Ottomans were far more tolerant of the Jews than the Christians of that time, and as Rahab's own story showed, it was possible for a subject, even a slave, to rise very high. So the whole thing hung together.

I was impatient. I knew that Ottoman script was difficult, and I was grateful that we had reached the stage where the new manuscript made sense, but I wanted to know so much more. In particular, I needed to know where I fitted in to all this?

Sarah consoled me. She was such a darling.

So, I got on with my life. But suddenly, it was shadowed by two other lives. The past was another country, they said. No, I thought, it was with us, even when we did not know it. The story never ended, only our part in it.

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