A PhD in medieval literature and culture; career paths that have included journalism, professional dancing, university lecturing, a book and other publications on all things medieval; a passion for all things science, all things mystical, all things spiritual. And now, a new novel: "Grasping at Water".
My overseas readers may not know that the east coast of Australia has been experiencing unprecedented bush fires from the beginning of Spring. This story about the resilience of our koalas (and other fauna) is a positive one in the midst of so many negatives and I thank Kate (lighttravellerkate.blog for sharing this story so that, in turn, I can share it with you
Over 50 bushfires have been burning for the past three weeks along thecoast from Sydney tothe north of Noosa in Queensland.The news has been consistently stark and depressing to read and watch. People have lost their lives, homes, livelihoods. The devestation to the wildlife population is extreme and especially impacting the Koala habitat around Port Macquqrie.
So here’s a good news story about the resilience of our fauna and the wonderful humans of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital who care for them
Koala and joey rescued from the Queensland bushfires to be released into the wild
November in Sydney is all about the colour purple. Overhead, the
jacarandas are in full bloom and, when the wind gusts through, many of those
blooms are blown to the ground to form a soft purple carpet underfoot.
In the ancient and early medieval world, the dye known as “royal purple”
was prepared from the secretions of the predatory Murex snail. The snail is
still found in the shallow, coastal waters of the Mediterranean and its
harvesting for the dyers’ “palate” has been documented to at least as far back
as the Phoenicians. However, as between 10,000 and 12,000 murex were needed to
produce one gram of purple dye, it was an expensive process and the resulting
product was very highly prized. Thus purple became limited in its use to the
preparation of cloth for the garments of the wealthiest in society. And it was
a very short step from there to purple’s association with royalty. By the
Middle Ages the “royal purple” was being replaced by (dark) blue as the royal
colour of choice because of the difficulties in securing regular supplies of
the murex purple.
With all of this in mind, I quite like the irony of seeing common garden snails inching their way across my backyard’s purple jacaranda carpet: this time, the snails are “on” the colour purple, not “in” it.
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:
And such neat and strong paw prints they are,
recorded for posterity. Now, a dog would never have been able to manage that!
Fine perfume is, and always has been, a luxury item, its
high price putting it out of reach of many people in poorer social
circumstances. But, in the Middle Ages, perfume was not only an indicator of
high social status but a necessity for anyone who could afford it.
The streets and winding laneways of medieval towns were
awash with dirt and foul-smelling waste products (of the animal, vegetable, and
human kind), the limited lighting in most houses was by means of tallow candles
which smoked and gave off a rancid odour, and the tightly-packed and poorly
ventilated houses were musty. Scented oils in the dwellings and/or on the
person provided a welcome relief from the daily assault on the olfactory senses
of all. And it was believed that sweet fragrances warded off malodorous evil
spirits. The pomander ball – a sort of spherical vase or container, or
sometimes a bag filled with fragrant herbs – enabled individuals to carry a
pleasant smell around with them, dispelling bad smells and (it was thought)
evil infections in their wake.
At that time, perfumes were prepared by infusing oils
(usually almond or olive) with flowers such as rose, lavender and violet, or
with other readily available plants like lemon, and herbs such as thyme and
sage. Resins helped fix the scent and, later, when the process of distillation
was perfected, the production of perfume became more widespread and of a more
commercial concern, expanding access to this important item.
Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume:
The Story of a Murderer (1985) gives some wonderful details of the
processes involved in creating special perfumes while, at the same time,
offering a disturbing story about the evocative and provocative powers of scents and the sense of smell. Not a read for
the faint-hearted (you might need your pomander ball close-by!).
In the Middle Ages, the understanding of the natural world was not based on scientific observation but on utility and moral applicability. This was particularly so for plants and animals: if they could be eaten (or could produce eggs, milk etc for human consumption) then they fitted into the scheme of things and were farmed or domesticated accordingly. However, many plants and animals defied ready explanation and represented, instead, a source of such wonder and (often) fear that their very existence could only be accommodated if they were regarded as serving a moral purpose. Enter the bestiary, a book that was a sort of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast.
Although the bestiary had originated in the ancient world (with the volume known as Physiologus bringing together insights about animals from such authors as Aristotle and Herodotus), it was later Christian writers like Isidore of Seville and St Ambrose who gave the stories a moral and religious focus. Because the majority of the medieval populace was illiterate, the imparting of the Christian message in stories and allegories was an essential part of the Church’s teaching method. Nevertheless, the creatures presented in the medieval bestiaries were usually so exotic that their descriptions were often considered to be factual in many respects. Griffins, dragons, and unicorns featured along with lions and elephants.
Even in early times, the lion was considered to be the king of the beasts, and as such, generally is the first beast described in the bestiaries. Two types of lions are described: a timid lion which has a short body and curly hair (think, the Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz); and a fierce lion with a longer body and straight hair. Both types were understood to have three particular attributes: the practice of erasing their tracks with their tail; always sleeping with eyes open; and giving birth to dead cubs which the mother brings to life on the third day by breathing into them.
The Christian association of Jesus with the lion is relatively straightforward: the lion as King of the Beasts = Jesus Christ the King. (In this aspect, such writers as C.S. Lewis with his character Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be seen to be drawing directly on the medieval parallel). And the three attributes are similarly associated: the lion’s erasing of its tracks was representative of Jesus’s hidden divinity; its sleeping with eyes open represented Jesus’s (and all Christians) physical death to the world but spiritually alive and alert; and the lion cubs being brought to life after three days is, of course, allegorically standing for Jesus’s death and three days in his tomb before his resurrection.
The bestiaries’ lion could be injured by a scorpion but it was only serpents that could kill it. And supreme among the serpents was the dragon, with its strength in its tail and not its teeth. Its thrashing, coiling tail enabled it to kill any animal – even one as large as the elephant – by suffocation. Thus, the dragon stood for the Devil, with his ability to squeeze the (holy) breath of life out of souls, suffocating them with sin. Further, with his fiery breath, the dragon could make the air shine and so he would sometimes appear to be an angel of light, tricking and luring the unsuspecting to their spiritual demise.
The dragons of today’s literature (for children in particular) are generally quite placid, with their mythic quality overtaking their earlier ‘evil’ connotations. I have a harmless dragon, myself, in my garden.
The 20th century philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, considered the house to be “one of the greatest powers of integration for thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.”
Bachelard’s idea is really not a new one. In the Middle Ages, in that time prior to the invention of the printing press, and when access to books was very limited, the accurate recalling of huge chunks of information – even whole manuscripts – was not just an art but an essential skill for scholars who needed a reliable method of remembering information. And this method involved a house … of sorts.
Much earlier, Cicero, in his Rhetorica ad Herennium described a method of memory that was ‘locational’. That is, it involved the locating of specific things and ideas to be remembered within specifically-imagined rooms or architectural divisions in a ‘mind space’ (later known as the ‘memory palace’). Cicero’s method was revived in the monastic culture of the High Middle Ages with Hugh of St. Victor being a leading exponent in using architectural imagery to serve a mnemonic function. He, and others around the time, used as many of the senses as possible to support the mental impressions of objects, ideas, and entire texts that were to be placed in the memory palace for later retrieval. For example, different manuscripts might have had a different ‘feel’ or distinctive smell, and their contents may have reminded the scholar of an earlier experience, or even a friend. Inside the palace, different rooms served to house different categories of information and the scholar would ‘walk through the palace’ (of his mind), moving from the ‘general’ to the ‘specific’. With practice, no doubt, the ‘walk’ became quicker, more direct.
In addition to using such imagery for the purposes of remembering, it was in the medieval period, too, that the practice of finding associations between physical space and the spiritual space was distilled and enlarged. In part this was because the general populous was illiterate so that other things, besides words, needed to be able to be ‘read’ in order to convey information, specifically information of a religious nature. Thus, for example, the medieval cathedral was designed to be ‘read’ by the church goers with many things in the physical space being representational of something else in a ‘higher’ space. Every image in the stained glass windows, every carving on the great supporting columns, every leering gargoyle, told a story and taught a lesson. That is, sacred space, in the medieval period at least, was not just a space or place associated with divinity or religious worship but a vibrant representation of another even more vibrant spiritual reality.
This takes us back to our philosopher, Bachelard, who said that “Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms’ we learn to abide within ourselves.” It’s an interesting idea but, as the average size of the Australian home has increased by around 50% in the last twenty years – from 169sq metres to 220 sq metres – I wonder if the physical edifice says more about our (external) desires and aspirations than about our souls.
This is a reblog of my post of 17th January, 2017. Regular readers here will know that I often make reference to Hildegard of Bingen, and I’m reblogging this today because I’ll be doing a mini speaking ‘tour’ in Brisbane next week. The first of my talks is ‘Hildegard of Bingen’ for the Abbey Museum in Caboolture on 27th April. The second talk is an ‘author’s talk’ on my novel Grasping at Water at the Cedar & Pine Wine Bar in Wynnum on 29th April. If you’re in either neighbourhood, come along and say ‘Hello’.
Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century Rhineland visionary, includes a remedy for jaundice in her extensive writings on medical topics. She advises the sufferer to wear a stunned bat (yes, of the mammalian kind) around his neck until the bat expires. To our modern sensibilities this recommendation seems useless at best but it was a treatment that was in keeping with the medieval understanding of human physiology and illness. That understanding had originated with Hippocrates (460-377BC) and Aristotle (384-324BC) and had been transmitted to the West via the writings of Galen (129-216AD) whose approach dominated the theory and practice of medicine throughout the Middle Ages.
Galen, Hildegard regarded the human body as a microcosm of the vast macrocosm
of the known universe which was believed to be made up of four elements: Earth,
Fire, Water and Air. All things –
animate and inanimate – were composed of various combinations of these elements
and of their contraries: cold, hot, moist, and dry. Particular combinations of any two
of the contraries produced in each and every person one of four main Complexions or Temperaments and an accompanying predominant bodily fluid (humor).
Illness was understood as a disturbance in these humors and treatment
sought to restore humeral balance. An overabundance of blood in the system, for
example, was often treated by the application of leeches. Herbs, with their own
particular humeral qualities, were a popular treatment as was careful attention
to the patient’s diet.
to have been an expert in the understanding and application of humeral theory.
Among her many writings is a book of (medieval) “natural science”, Causae et Curae, in which she gives
authoritative advice on treatment for all manner of ailments. For example, she
recommends (a form of) the tansy herb to treat catarrh, and a brew of comfrey,
marigold, wild sage and yarrow for easing pain associated with bruising
following trauma. Apples were a staple
medicine. When cooked they were considered to be very beneficial
for sick persons in general while a salve made from apple leaves was especially
good for the eyes. No doubt this earlier medicinal use of apples is part of the
basis for our present-day saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Mind you, apples are a lot easier to come by
than bats. And I can’t help but wonder what I might have to do to “stun” a bat!