Being Green

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It’s Spring and everything in the garden is blooming. In Sydney the winters are not harsh but we still appreciate the lengthening light, the warmer days, and the signs of nature renewing itself that come with the change of season.

In medieval times, someone who watched and understood the seasonal cycle of renewal Hildegard_von_Bingenwas the great visionary, Hildegard of Bingen. Born in Germany’s Rhineland in 1098, Hildegard was not only a prominent religious figure of her day but also – as her considerable writings and works demonstrate – an expert on natural science, medicine and herbal treatments, cosmology, poetry and music. Further testament to her influence is that many of her writings (and musical compositions) survive to the present day. Hildegard’s works are not ‘easy reads’ but a lot of her ideas resonate with our current interests, particularly our concerns over climate change and caring for our planet.

Don’t be mistaken: Hildegard was a woman of her time and, it seems, a very strong personality. She had an extraordinary intellect and pulled no punches when it came to asserting a theologically precise view of the medieval Church; but, she also had a deep reverence for, and an amazing insight into, the beauty and order of creation. So powerful are Hildegard’s expressed views on the importance and dignity of all creation that the coining of the term viriditas (greening/greeness) is frequently, and somewhat mistakenly, attributed to her.  In fact, earlier theologians such as St Augustine had made mention of viriditas but it is appropriately and particularly associated with Hildegard because of the new and interesting way that she interpreted and applied the concept. For Hildegard, viriditas was the reflection of God’s goodness and beauty in everything in the natural world. It stood for vitality, fertility, fruitfulness and growth; in essence, all the things that we now associate with the greenness of nature.  For Hildegard, viriditas was also synonymous with physical and spiritual health. Similarly, for us today, ‘greenness’ and the seasonal renewal of the natural world are signs that the Earth is healthy and flourishing.

Hildegard was canonised (becoming St Hildegard) by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2012 and, though it took the Church nearly 900 years to acknowledge her remarkable contributions, the canonisation is strangely timely as it coincides with our efforts to come to terms with the ravages of a changing climate. Hildegard of Bingen has a lot to teach us.

A Whale Tale

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Sydney’s whale-watching season runs from May to November. At the peak of the whales’ northward migration – around late June and early July – it’s hard NOT to spot  whale from the many cliff-top vantage points along Australia’s eastern coastline. By this time of year (October), however, the whales are heading south again and their southward ‘whale trail’ is a little further out to sea so they’re a little harder to spot … but they are certainly there, and in abundance. These magnificent creatures are a source of wonder and admiration for us today but the sad history of whaling demonstrates that this wasn’t also so. In the Middle Ages, the “status” of whales was even more lowly with medieval people viewing them as a source of deception and death. The basis of this view can be traced to the whale’s depiction, and description, in a number of medieval bestiaries. (More on “bestiaries” in another post but, for now, a handy definition of a medieval bestiary is a type of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast).

In 1481 William Caxton (of English printing press fame), drawing on much earlier bestiary definitions, wrote of the whale as being a “fish so huge and great that on his back grows earth and grass” and that this makes the whale appear as if it is an island on whale_2which mariners can “come ashore”. Once there, Caxton explains that it is not unusual for the seamen to light a fire on which to cook their food. However, the heat of the cooking fire eventually distresses the whale enough that he must dive down under the water to cool himself, thereby taking all the mariners with him to their death. The symbolic interpretation of this is that the whale is as deceitful as the devil, luring men to death (spiritual and physical) when they fail to be alert to the deception, and fall for easy and comfortable options.

Now, how fortunate we are to have an informed understanding of these magnificent creatures and how lucky to be able to catch sight of the whales each year as they make their epic journey along the eastern Australian coast.

Book review: Grasping at Water by Carmel Bendon

A bit of a departure from my usual ‘contemporary mixed with the medieval’ style of post, but as it is a very thoughtful review of my new book ‘Grasping at Water’ (which is ‘contemporary mixed with the medieval’) I just wanted to share it with you.

Isobel blackthorn

I do enjoy reading novels with strong mystical content. Especially when, as is the case with Grasping at Water, the author has profound knowledge of her subject.

About Grasping at Water

When a young, unidentified woman is pulled alive and well from Sydney Harbour in 2013, the connections to another woman – found in similar circumstances forty years earlier – present psychiatrist Kathryn Brookley with a terrible decision as the events of the present and past begin to mirror each other and the gap between truth and illusion shrinks.

When the young woman goes further and declares that she has lived continuously since coming to ‘understanding’ in the 14th century, her vivid accounts of life, love, childbirth, and loss in the Middle Ages seem so authentic that they test Kathryn’s scientific objectivity to the limit. As Kathryn delves she discovers that she is not the only one whose habitual…

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The Shape of Things

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Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. In the Middle Ages, philosophical debate over the concept of beauty was a wide-ranging one, even extending to discussion on geometric shapes. When the debate took such a turn, the fourth-century opinions of St Augustine were never far away. In his text, De Quantitatae Animae, Augustine expounded a theory based on geometrical regularity in which certain shapes of triangles were considered more beautiful than others and a square surpassed a triangle in the beauty stakes. The winner, however, was the circle.

dinosaur egg

I was prompted to remember this when, on a recent visit to the Australian Museum (Sydney), my attention was taken by a display of models of the dinosaur life-cycle which began with a ‘peep’ inside a dinosaur egg to show the pre-hatched baby tucked into a perfect circle.

 

dog circleOn my return home that evening, I was again confronted by a perfect circle in the form of my ‘post-hatched’ dog curled up on her bed in an almost perfect circle. Dinosaurs or dogs, I think Augustine is right: the circle is a beautiful shape.

 

Yes Power

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In 1934, in the dark recesses of an old English family library, a rare fifteenth century manuscript came to light. Scholarly investigation revealed it to be what is now known as The Book of Margery Kempe, the life story of an extraordinary medieval woman who answered “yes” without hesitation when she thought God was calling her. Today, some regard her as a mystic; others as a sick, or attention-seeking woman but, whatever the truth, Margery gives us a surprising lesson in devotion and perseverance.

Margery was born in 1373 in the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn where her father, John Brunham, had been the Mayor for five separate terms. At twenty years of age Margery married John Kempe and within a year of the marriage, had given birth to her first child. She went on to have a further thirteen children but the first birth was especially decisive as, immediately following it, Margery experienced what we now would probably describe as a post-partum psychotic episode but which Margery herself describes as being tormented by devils. Margery explains that the relief from this episode came in the form of a personal visit from Jesus and this unexpected encounter set her on her life’s quest of serving God.

Margery did nothing by halves. Believing that Jesus had appeared to her during her illness, she emerged from her sickbed and began to spend a great amount of time praying, arising at two or three in the morning and making her way to church where she would pray until midday and then again in the afternoon. She confessed to a priest twice and, sometimes, three times a day, in particular seeking forgiveness for an early sin which she had avoided confessing for many years. She adopted stringent fasting and the wearing of a hair-shirt made from the coarse cloth on which malt was dried. It was in these early years, too, that Margery reports receiving the ‘gift of tears’.

This gift, in particular, with its associated crying and wailing at even the mention of Jesus’ name, saw Margery shunned by many who witnessed the extreme behaviour. Such was her disruptive influence that some priests refused to allow her in the church when they were to preach. But Margery persisted in her devotions, feeling that her original “yes” to God was a promise on which she could not renege. She also felt compelled to embark on numerous and extensive pilgrimages and travelled, over several years, to the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Norway and Germany, as well as important pilgrimage sites throughout England. This was an amazing undertaking in the 14th century and even more remarkable for a (sole) woman.

Then, as now, Margery’s travels and general behaviour garner divided opinions on the authenticity of her mystical calling. That is, while there is no doubt of her devotion, her motivation for, and expression of it remain a matter of considerable debate. Putting this debate aside, however, there emerges a wonderful and unexpected consequence of her “yes”…

From The Book we know that, though Margery was illiterate, she managed to dictate her story to an unidentified scribe. Six hundred years after she lived and was almost forgotten, the finding of the manuscript of her life story gave the world the great gift of the first autobiography in English.

Something Sinister at Hand

Left-handed-monk

A few weeks ago I suffered a crushing injury to part of the right hand. Yes, all very traumatic but, thankfully, with some nifty microsurgery, I will regain most of the function of my dominant hand. Since the injury, however, I’ve had to do things with my left hand and for someone like me who, I’ve realised, has been rigorously right-handed all my life, the necessary change in dominance has been very challenging. Good for the brain, no doubt, but I now realise that the world shamelessly privileges right-handers. And it got me thinking about those among us (about 10 %) who are decidedly left-handed.

In the Middle Ages, being left-handed was considered to be a sign of the devil. The Latin word for ‘left’ is ‘sinistre’ and we all know the connotations that are associated with its English version ‘sinister’. That is, because left-handedness was very much in the minority then (as now) it was treated with suspicion, and the biblical allusions to ‘right’ and ‘left’ only served to underline the distinction. For example, Jesus is said to sit at the right hand of the Father; in Matthew 25:32-33, the ‘sheep’ (those in God’s favour) go to the right while the out-of-favour ‘goats’ are directed to the left.

But the bias extends much further back than the writings of Matthew and, no surprise, there is a gendered component at its basis. Eve is said to have come from a rib from Adam’s left side (and we all know the problems that Eve is blamed for), and women have been under suspicion ever since. In the witch hunts of the 15th century, for instance, left-handedness in a woman was sometimes enough to bring her under suspicion of witchcraft.

Still, given the ‘sinister’ associations, the prejudice may not have been as acute in the Middle Ages as we might think. Palaeographic evidence from medieval manuscripts shows that left-handed monastic scribes and copyists were not uncommon so, in the religious houses at least, it seems that left-right discrimination was not being practised. This evidence arises from examination of the difference in the way that letters appear on the parchment or vellum, with the more usual right-handed scribes creating ink strokes that show the quill was pulled from left to right of the page, while the left-handers’ strokes show evidence of pushing.

Somewhat ironically, it may be that the most marked prejudice against left-handedness appeared with the Age of Enlightenment, particularly with the associated spread of education in the 18th and 19th centuries. The formalisation of education also demanded conformity and, as most people wrote with their right hand, left-handers were punished, often severely. Tying a naturally left-handed child’s left hand behind his back was not uncommon. Even into the 20th century, left-handed children were often considered to be wilful and difficult. It is a relatively recent development that has seen left-handedness being regarded as a normal (albeit minority) occurrence and, in fact, often a sign of creativity and giftedness.

Hands up left-handers. Your time has come!

To Bee or Not to Bee

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The keeping of bees for their honey and other products such as pollen and beeswax is a practice that dates far back into human civilisation. Pottery beekeeping vessels of around 10,000 years of age have been found by archaeologists and the interest in the farming of bees has been continuous across the centuries and in most cultures.

In medieval Europe, beekeeping was well established. While we now think of the sweetness of the bees’ honey as the important product, in the Middle Ages the beeswax was equally prized and was used in the making of good quality candles and writing tablets.

beekeepingBeehives were made of pottery or wood or wicker, and generally cone-shaped. In colder climates, and in the winter months of more temperate zones, the hives were layered with straw to keep the bees warm (and alive). Harvesting of the bees’ honey and other products was effected by fumigating the hives with thick smoke. This method saved the beekeeper from being stung but, unfortunately, killed the bees so that new swarms needed to be sourced regularly.

While the bees’ products were greatly admired and sought after, there were other “bee” qualities that had come to attention over the centuries. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) devoted a long (and keenly-observed) chapter (XL) of his ‘The History of Animals’ to the bee, describing its work and life habits and the society of the hive. Here’s a small selection:

 Bees scramble up the stalks of flowers and rapidly gather the bees-wax with their front legs; the front legs wipe it off on to the middle legs, and these pass it on to the hollow curves of the hind-legs; when thus laden, they fly away home, and one may see plainly that their load is a heavy one. On each expedition the bee does not fly from a flower of one kind to a flower of another, but flies from one violet, say, to another violet, and never meddles with another flower until it has got back to the hive; on reaching the hive they throw off their load, and each bee on his return is accompanied by three or four companions. …  Bees seem to take a pleasure in listening to a rattling noise; and consequently men say that they can muster them into a hive by rattling with crockery or stones; it is uncertain, however, whether or no they can hear the noise at all and also whether their procedure is due to pleasure or alarm. They expel from the hive all idlers and unthrifts. As has been said, they differentiate their work; some make wax, some make honey, some make bee-bread, some shape and mould combs, some bring water to the cells and mingle it with the honey, some engage in out-of-door work. At early dawn they make no noise, until some one particular bee makes a buzzing noise two or three times and thereby awakes the rest; hereupon they all fly in a body to work. By and by they return and at first are noisy; then the noise gradually decreases, until at last some one bee flies round about,making a buzzing noise, and apparently calling on the others to go to sleep; then all of a sudden there is a dead silence. … The hive is known to be in good condition if the noise heard within it is loud, and if the bees make a flutter as they go out and in; for at this time they are constructing brood-cells. They suffer most from hunger when they recommence work after winter.

Medieval authors also appreciated the importance of the general qualities of the bee and, in the medieval Christian literary milieu, the bee was often called into service as an analogy for hard work and persistence in the spiritual life. Richard Rolle, the Hermit of Hampole (c.1300-1349), demonstrates this approach in his “Allegory of the Bee [and the Stork]”. In part, he writes that

The bee has three qualities. The first is that she is never idle, and she never associates with those who refuse to work …. . A second is that when she flies she picks up earth in her feet so that she cannot easily be blown too high in the air by the wind. The third is that she keeps her wings clean and bright … .

The spiritual and moral lessons are quite obvious in Richard Rolle’s allegory: Work hard, stay grounded, keep clean in mind, body and spirit.

So …. Time to get back to work but, as you do so, remember:

The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use. But the bee…gathers its materials from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. 
     Leonardo da Vinci

 Life is the flower for which love is the honey. 
     Victor Hugo

Tart words make no friends; a spoonful or honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.
      Benjamin Franklin