Facing the Earth

Humility – take a bow. The words ‘humility’ and ‘humble’ both come from the Latin, ‘humilis’ meaning ‘on the ground’. In this lovely post about gardening, and the way that it calls our attention to the earth, the author, Audrey Driscoll, captures something of the way in which humility and reverence are bound together. And, as gardening is just as vital now as it has always been, I thought you would enjoy Audrey’s post.

Audrey Driscoll's Blog

Looking down is looked down upon, isn’t it? Happy, healthy people are supposed to stand tall and look toward the horizon. “Looking up” is a way of saying things are improving. A “downer” is a disappointment.

But gardeners, even the most optimistic ones, are almost always looking down.

If I ever become incapable of bending over, my gardening days will be over. Except in specially designed gardens for the disabled, it’s impossible to garden in an upright position or while seated.

Sometimes I’m appalled by how much of my time in the garden is spent in a bent-over position. I’ve even wondered if it’s harmful. (I suspect it makes face wrinkles worse. Gravity, you know.) On the other hand, I don’t have any back problems. Maybe I’ve naturally used the correct technique for bending over, called the “hip-hinge.”

Woman wearing hat working in plant nursery in a bent over position
Bending from the hips makes it possible to hold this position while…

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Isolation, Medieval Style

As we begin to emerge from the isolation that has been imposed in response to Covid-19, it might be timely to reflect on the fact that the world has faced immense social disruption due to pestilence many times in its history. And whilst now we have scientific knowledge and medical treatments that can help us minimise the terrible effects of such a contagion, the planet’s earlier populations were left largely to battle on in the darkness of ignorance. There are, however, similarities in the broad features of pandemics over the centuries. Take, for example, the plague (that we know as the ‘Black Death’) which swept across the western world in the mid-fourteenth century.

The ‘Black Death’ is believed to have started in China in 1347 and to have swept rapidly west to engulf Europe (and Britain) in 1348-1349, and wiping out between 30% and 50% of the population in its wake. The great medieval author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was a resident of Florence when that city was overtaken by plague and he wrote of the experience in his classic work, ‘The Decameron’. First, in a description that resonates with our own efforts to curtail the spread of Covid-19 Boccaccio explains that “despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health … the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent.”

He goes on to describe the contagious nature of the disease, observing that “… it was not merely propagated from man to man but … it was frequently observed that things which had belonged to one sick or dead of the disease, if touched by some other living creature, not of the human species …. [suffered] almost instantaneous death.” Florence was so overwhelmed by the number of deaths, Boccaccio says, that the normal reverent rituals associated with death and the traditional burial customs were discarded completely and, sadly, bodies piled up in the streets as there was few (or none) to remove them. And whilst many Florentine residents took the view that they might as well “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” others choose isolation, removing themselves from the city if they were able to do so. This, of course, was Boccaccio’s choice and his great work “The Decameron” is actually the story of ten Florentines who fled the town and decided to share their own sad, funny and bawdy stories as a way of passing the time in their group seclusion.

Boccaccio also shares some grim details of the symptoms of the Plague but I’ll leave those for you to follow-up if you’re so inclined. Today, however, we know that the medieval plague presented in two interrelated forms:

  1. Bubonic – swellings (buboes) beginning on neck, armpits, groin. Infected fleas attached to rats spread this form. Death usually within a week
  2. Pneumonic – contracted by breathing exhaled air of someone with primary plague. Death within 1-2 days

Boccaccio offers no ideas on the treatment of the contagion, (beyond describing how many people walked about “carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices, which they frequently raised to their noses” but he regarded this more as a way of disguising the “stench of the dead and dying” rather than as any type of infection preventative. Other writers of the time, however, offered some (very dubious) suggestions on treating the plague, and here are a few examples:

  • The swellings associated with the Black Death should be cut open to allow the disease to leave the body. A mixture of tree resin, roots of white lilies and dried human excrement should be applied to the places where the body has been cut open.
  • Roast the shells of newly laid eggs. Ground the roasted shells into a powder. Chop up the leaves and petals of marigold flowers. Put the egg shells and marigolds into a pot of good ale. Add treacle and warm over a fire. The patient should drink this every morning and night.
  • Place a hen next to the swelling to draw out the pestilence from the body. To aid recovery, the patient should drink a glass of his own urine twice a day.

                                           All I can say is: DO NOT TRY THESE AT HOME

WeAreTheWorldBlogfest: A Good News Bushfire Story

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

lightravellerkate

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

Updated

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The Colour Purple

November jacarandas in our garden

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.

Cats to Conjure With

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!

Heaven S(c)ent

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!).    

Lions and Dragons and Bears, Oh My!

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.

dragon

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.

(Well, I hope he’s harmless!).