Forks in the Road (and other cutlery)

knives_eating

Western table cutlery settings today always feature a knife, fork and spoon, each one with its particular use. Spoons for the soups, sauces; knives for cutting food into manageable pieces; forks for moving the food from plate to mouth. But this organised (and well-mannered) approach is relatively new – at least in terms of human civilisation.

Knives were probably the first of the ‘cutlery set’ to appear. Evidence dates them right back to pre-historic times when sharpened flints, volcanic glass and bones were among the earliest cutting implements in use. With the advent of the Bronze and Iron Ages, knife blades became more sophisticated and, though still used primarily for hunting and as weapons, the knife’s utility was hard to ignore, and smaller versions of it became handy for assisting in eating and cutting in general.

Spoons have been around since the Stone Age too, with shaped stones, shells and hollowed-out animal horns being some of the discoveries that testify to their use.

Forks were known in Greek and Roman times but virtually disappeared from use during the Christian Middle Ages. Some historians have suggested that the fork’s shape was too reminiscent of the devil’s pitchfork but it is more likely that the knife’s versatility – it could be used for spearing food and bringing it to the mouth as well as cutting it – overrode the need to invest too much time and craftsmanship into the fork. And hands were, well, just as ‘handy’ for picking up food (and always ‘on hand’). It seems, however, that the fork did reappear in Western Europe in the 16th century when courtly society deemed that eating was more politely accomplished by digging forks rather than hands into food.

In the Middle Ages all travellers carried their own knife and spoon for eating when staying at an inn on the journey as the innkeeper did not provide guests with cutlery because such useful, well-crafted, and portable items were considered too ‘tempting’ and likely to be stolen by passing strangers: a different take on the “dish ran away with the spoon” in the Hey Diddle Diddle nursery rhyme (which, by the way, seems to date back in some form to medieval times).

One of my favourite ‘literary spoons’ is the runcible spoon in the final part of Edward Lear’s wonderful poem The Owl and the Pussycat:

They dined on mince and slices of quince

Which they ate with a runcible spoon

And hand in hand by the edge of the sand

They danced by the light of the moon, the moon

They danced by the light of the moon.

‘Runcible’ is today said to describe a sort of combination fork, spoon and knife; a fork with a curved section like a spoon, and with three broad prongs, one of which has a sharpened outer edge for cutting. In Australia we might call such an implement a ‘splayd’ or a ‘spork’. Actually, though, Edward Lear made up the word (along with others of his invention) as a whimsical addition to his poem. And cutlery to match the whimsy followed.

Enjoy your dinner!

Cats to Conjure With

cat and mouse

I don’t have to think about it. I admit it: I am a dog person. There’s something about dogs’ joyful optimism and irrepressible enthusiasm for everything from food to a good stick that makes me happy; not to mention their devotion and companionship. And, in truth, I’ve never had a cat as a pet whereas I could not imagine home life without a dog. Nevertheless, I have friends who couldn’t live without their cats and so when I decided to write a blog or two on animals in the Middle Ages, I decided, in the interests of fairness and balance, to start with cats. (Dogs will follow at a later date).

The people of the Middle Ages saw cats in both a positive and negative light. Their biggest “plus” was that cats caught mice, no small mercy in an age that was ridden with rodents. Some medieval commentators, however, compared the way in which cats toyed with the rodents before killing them to the way that the devil played with people’s souls before possessing them completely. From this comparison it was not a large step to believing that the cat, like the devil, could alter its shape and appearance for fair means and foul.  And there was something about the cat’s independence – its disdain for the closely-held belief that God had made animals for the service of humans – that provoked suspicion. And, it’s true that this view resulted in medieval cats being often very cruelly treated.

Fortunately, not everyone shared the suspicion; there is quite a lot of evidence in the literature of the time that shows that many medieval people were very fond of cats.  The Ancrene Wisse, an early 13th century guide for enclosed anchorites, recommends the keeping of a cat, and no other animal. In 14th century Exeter Cathedral had a cat on its payroll at 13 pence per quarter; and in the 1360s that amount was raised to 26 pence per quarter (though, perhaps, indicating an increasing rat problem that called for the employment of a second cat rather than representing a pay rise for the first cat).

A ninth-century monk inserted this poem to his cat in the margin of the manuscript he was working on:

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

In fact, cats and manuscripts seemed to have gone together in the Middle Ages as can be seen by the paw prints left on a 15th century manuscript from Dubrovnik:

cat prints

And such neat and strong paw prints they are, recorded for posterity. Now, a dog would never have been able to manage that!

Fast Food

monk-brewing-beer

Most of you will know that, in the Christian calendar, the forty days preceding Easter is known as “Lent”. Though the stringency of requirements and restrictions associated with Lent in our present day have been relaxed greatly by Church authorities, some people can still be heard saying that they are “giving up chocolate/alcohol/coffee” in acknowledgment of the tradition that dates back to the earliest Middle Ages. The broad idea of eschewing something enjoyable for Lent is that the awareness is drawn away from self-gratification and directed towards a more spiritual focus. Sometimes, the money saved in effecting the self-denial is redirected towards a deserving cause, thereby adding a social dimension to the season.

Forgoing chocolate or coffee, however, is nothing when compared to the privations that accompanied Lent in medieval times. For our medieval ancestors, Lent didn’t mean just giving up something enjoyable; it meant a full fast, forty days (or more) on little more than scant amounts of the most basic foods – no meat, few vegetables, barely even a piece of daily bread. But this wasn’t because our ancestors were more strong-willed about abstinence than we are today. The word “lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon len(c)ten meaning “Spring season” and herein lies the clue to the origins of fasting as a Lenten practice.

The fact is that there was actually very little left to eat by the time the medieval people came to the spring season. Summer was their growing season, autumn was the season of harvest when the barns and granaries could be filled (depending on the fruitfulness of the fields). With limited means of keeping food fresh, by the time winter came around any stockpiles of food were starting to dwindle. By spring they would be all but gone unless carefully conserved. Wisely, then, the church refashioned the unavoidable hunger and scarcity into a purposeful (if not positive) experience. People were assured that “going without” in the material world today would ensure abundance in the heavenly world to come. Material disadvantage worked to spiritual advantage. And, by the time Easter morning arrived – along with the return of the growing season – feasting was the order of the day. Of course, feasting for the poor of the Middle Ages was quite different to feasting for the wealthy but, overall, the majority of the populace could at least enjoy eggs (and egg flans and custards), milk, butter, cheese, seasonal vegetables, fish (eels came under this category), bread, and some preserved fruits like figs and raisins.

And beer, plenty of beer (which, by the way, was a staple and so never given up for Lent).

Valentine’s Day: Love, Pain and Poetry

wound of love

Ah, love is in the air with Valentine’s Day almost here. And while the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day is very much a modern phenomenon, the day itself has its origins in the Middle Ages.

True, very early foundations for the day can be found in the ancient Roman fertility Feast of Lupercalia which randomly paired young boys and girls in marriage; but it was the 14th century that gave us our current focus on romantic love. At that time, the West experienced a surge of interest in saints’ and martyrs’ legends. One very popular story was that of St Valentine, a priest of the 3rd century who defied the Roman Emperor Claudius II’s ban on the marrying of Christian couples, and proceeded to perform marriages in secret. For his efforts, St Valentine was executed in 278, and his feast day came to be celebrated on 14th February.  

As it happened, too, the medieval people (particularly of France and England) commonly believed that birds began their mating season on 14th February. In his Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Fowls) the great Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the belief for posterity with the words:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day 
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate

And Chaucer wrote a few love poems of his own. One of his best-known is Rondel of Merciless Beauty in which he described the impact of a woman’s beauty on him, and how it feels as if his heart is wounded with love.

There are three parts to this poem, each of thirteen lines. Here is the first part in Middle English and then in modern translation.

Merciles Beaute: A Triple Roundel

Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit throughout my herte kene.

And but your word wol helen hastily
My hertes wounde, while that hit is grene,
Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene.

Upon my trouthe I sey you faithfully
That ye ben of my lyf and deeth the quene;
For with my deeth the trouthe shal be sene.
Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene,
So woundeth it throughout my herte kene.

Rondel of Merciless Beauty

Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene;
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen. 

Only your word will heal the injury
To my hurt heart, while yet the wound is clean –
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene. 

Upon my word, I tell you faithfully
Through life and after death you are my queen;
For with my death the whole truth shall be seen.
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene;
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen. 

The juxtaposing of love and pain was common in medieval poetry; and today we find that same blend in poetry, literature and films. Such pairing is, of course, the natural expression of the human experience of love and loss but, today, the pain is regarded as coming more at the end of a relationship than at the beginning. In the Middle Ages, and following the much earlier Roman mythological view,  Cupid (and his mother Venus) were presented as the initiators of love (and lust). Cupid would aim his bow and shoot an arrow not into the heart of the soon-to-be-lover but into his eye; that is, the object of his admiration was first pleasing to the eye (in a “love at first sight” way). After that, the heart, and the will, would acquiesce and act on the desire. You’ll notice that Chaucer plays with this “eye-heart” connection throughout the Merciless Beauty poem, and he also highlights the “wounding” and “slaying” aspect. This is especially interesting because “rondel” had another meaning in the Middle Ages. Then, a rondel was also a dagger with a very narrow and needle-pointed blade, perfect for thrusting into another’s heart for a swift and accurate kill.

Let’s hope you get all the love, and none of the pain, on this 14th February.

Perchance to Dream

dreams

Dreams, as we all know, are complicated. Sometimes they are pleasant, sometimes terrifying, but always they leave us with fleeting and fractured impressions of our sleeping subconscious after we wake from them. Interest in dreams goes back a long way into our human history; and throughout the ages there has been no shortage of authors putting quill to parchment for the purpose of exploring the dream-state more deeply.

Cicero, the great Roman orator and statesman, and consul of Rome in 63BC, is among the many who wrote about dreams. In fact, his Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio) became one of the most influential works on dreams for later medieval writers. Cicero’s story of the dream of Scipio Africanus – in which the subject’s grandfather appears to him and gives him insights into such heady topics as cosmology and the immortality of the soul – made such an impression on the early medieval writer, Macrobius, that he wrote a detailed commentary on Scipio’s dream, developing the elaboration into a classification method for dreams in general.

Macrobius’s method distinguished 5 types of dream. The first two types (nightmare and apparition) he declared as ‘insignificant’ because he believed them to be non-predictive/non-prophetic (and, therefore, of no practical use to one’s present or future life). Such dreams, he said, were brought about by day-time anxiety or stress or, in particular, over-indulgence in the wrong kind of food and drink.

The next three types in the classification, however, were of great significance:

  • The somnium or enigmatic dream in which strange shapes and symbols represent important meanings that must never be ignored but always carefully interpreted.
  • The visio or prophetic visionary dream which is a clear glimpse or insight into what is to come.
  • The oraculum in which someone of importance and/or great wisdom (from the past or present, dead or living) appears to the dreamer to impart information or advice.

Such credence was given to Macrobius that, in the later Middle Ages, a whole genre of dream-vision poetry developed with his classifications as the base and inspiration. Great medieval authors such as Chaucer (who not only wrote many dream-vision poems but actually mentions Macrobius’s Scipio in at least three of them) and Guillaume de Lorris (Romance of the Rose) were masters of the genre. Even Dante’s epic The Divine Comedy is a vision of the world beyond death.

Today, of course, most writers are cautious about employing the dream device but, for medieval authors, it was regarded as a skilful way of bringing together the worlds of reality and imagination. Then, too, the division between the material and the spiritual was much more fluid, less stringently applied than in our own matter-of-fact time. Now, the dream (and even sleep itself) has been down-graded to a distant second-place behind our ‘real lives of busyness’. There is little time to ponder our dreams when all waking moments are taken up by the bright screens of modern technology.

Something to think about as you fall asleep tonight … unless, of course, you’ve over-eaten beforehand!

All That Glitters

jewels 1

There is a hotel bar in Sydney, high above the Harbour, which features a $10,000 cocktail on its menu. The cocktail consists of only two ingredients – champagne and a diamond. I don’t know of anyone who has actually ordered this drink but I’m presuming you don’t ingest the diamond. If you had served up such a drink in the Middle Ages, however, our modern inclination to keep the diamond and swallow only the champagne would not have necessarily applied.

In fact, the use of precious stones and metals in medieval medicinal treatments was not uncommon. In the 13th & 14th centuries, for example, the Dominican monks of Bologna were widely known for the excellence of their remedies.

Their mojewels 2st frequently prepared cure, to be ingested completely, was manuschristi (the “hands of Christ”) which was a confection of crushed pearls and gold in a syrup that variously included  violets, rosewater, chopped lemon, spices, marzipan and sugar. The mixture was used for a variety of ailments including heart palpitations and stomach disorders, and was even regarded as a plague preventative by some.  

The great 12th century abbess and visionary, Hildegard of Bingen, also included details of jewels as treatments in her medical writings. She regarded the emerald as the “jewel of jewels” for treating many ailments – heart and stomach problems, headaches, even epilepsy. The emerald’s efficacy was due to its excessive greenness which, for her and others of the time, signified that it had absorbed all the green goodness of the natural world as it sprang and sprouted back to new life each Spring. The emerald was not necessarily ingested, however; just wearing it as a charm or drinking some wine in which it had been placed was considered effective.  Hildegard also prescribed a sapphire held in the mouth for a short time each mornings for the improvement of one’s intellect and reasoning powers.

Albertus Magnus, a 13th century German Dominican (and credited with the discovery of arsenic) wrote extensively on the power of precious and semi-precious stones. Among his recommendations are amethyst as a good hangover cure, and topaz as a foil to madness. And diamond, of course, was good for just about everything.

With all those health benefits, maybe the $10,000 diamond and champagne cocktail is worth a try!!!!

Christmas Rush: Mind the Gap

Simeon_Stylites_stepping_down

There is a line from the TV series Seinfeld that often comes into my head when I’m getting ready for a family celebration or holiday, and especially for the great event of Christmas. The Seinfeld character quotes his father as observing that “Sometimes even a picnic’s no picnic”. How true that observation seems as, in the frantic rush to prepare for Christmas, the joyous underpinning of the season is obscured by the mad frenzy of parties, shopping and cooking. It is not that we intentionally lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. In fact, I think it is the opposite: we want to honour Christmas, to celebrate it with all the joy that it deserves. As in so many things we undertake, we intend to do well. It is into this gap between trying and achieving, between intention and attainment, between journeying and arriving that we, as fallible, ‘unfinished’ humans fall. We can strive for perfection but we cannot reach it. The stories of some the early hermits often make me think of this yawning gap between intention and achievement.

St Antony is sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Monasticism’. The title is unlikely to be an accurate one but there is no doubt that Antony’s life story, written by St Athanasius of Alexandria between 356 and 362 AD, helped to establish Antony’s renown as a holy man whose life modelled a particular approach to a life dedicated to God.  Athanasius tells us that Antony was born in c251AD in Egypt (at Coma, near Heracleopolis Magna) to prosperous, Christian parents.  At about thirty-five years of age, Antony decided to take up an ascetic life of prayer and absolute solitude but things did not go exactly to plan. As Antony’s dedication became known, more and more people approached him for help and healing; so many people, in fact, that Anthony’s plans for a solitary life became virtually impossible to sustain.  Although maintaining his customary discipline and austerities, he frequently had to mingle with, and attend to, a growing number of followers. As Scott Cairns, in his Foreword to Robert C. Gregg’s translation of The Life of Antony observes, “In the person of Saint Antony we are able to witness … a life that is, decidedly, a life along the way, a life led by one who understood that way to be a never-ending one, a manner of progress without conclusion”.

Symeon the Stylite faced a similar dilemma but reacted more dramatically. Symeon was born around 390 in Sission, northern Syria. He apparently decided on a life dedicated to God when he was very young and he further determined that this dedication would be manifested by great austerity and acts of mortification. In those days, the trend toward a solitary life of severe self-denial was gaining in popularity. To our modern sensibilities it may seem strange but these early hermits were regarded with awe by their faithful counterparts who, in an effort to ‘gain by association’ some of the (perceived) holiness of the solitaries, would follow them at a distance, even into the more remote areas where the hermits ventured for solitude.

This social practice resulted in a rather bizarre situation in which hermits, attempting to live a solitary life, came under the watchful gaze of large groups of people who would approach the hermits whenever possible for prayers, healings and advice. It is said that Symeon, unable to ‘horizontally’ escape the attention of his ever-increasing band of followers, finally took a ‘vertical’ escape route, climbing many metres up a pillar to live atop its meagre platform for thirty years or more.

Sometimes at Christmas, we too might feel like escaping ‘up a pole’ as Symeon did but it may be more practical for us to take Antony’s lead and regard our lives and endeavours as ‘a life along the way’, towards peace and kindness. And, even if Christmas is not always a ‘picnic’, we might be better off if we abandon any escape plans and simply put ourselves squarely amongst the mad, happy throng of our fellow humans, all rushing around with good intentions – and, sometimes, slipping through the unavoidable gaps.

A ‘rush’ of Christmas happiness to all.