My posts are usually about ‘the past’ and in this lovely reflection from the “Empty Nest, Full Life” blog site (one of my favourites), there are some thoughts about how we hold and honour the past experiences in our own lives. I thought you might appreciate it as much as I did so I’m reblogging it, with thanks to the author ‘Momshieb’.
O the dignity of that small speck of human dust Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s heights Gertrude the Great (1256-1302)
As of today, 17th June 2020, the United Nations Worldometer estimates the world’s population as 7.8 billion and growing at the rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.
Julian of Norwich, the great 14th century English mystic was given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. She explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because the Divinity loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense: love enables us to endure.
Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) was a nun in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as ‘the scholars of Helfta’ because of their extraordinary writings and mystical insights. In one of her poems (see excerpt above) Gertrude brought together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence: our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and the dignity that is each and every person’s right, regardless of colour, creed, gender, or economic standing.
In the face and aftermath of Covid-19 and the social upheavals being played out as a result of inequality, 14th century Julian and 13th century Gertrude might just be onto something for 21st century earthlings.
Our winter garden is sombre and bare right now. Looking at it, I find it hard to imagine the shock of vibrant blooms that will burst forth in spring, and then the lush green foliage that will completely cover the bareness in summer. The renowned early 20th century writer and researcher into mysticism and mystics, Evelyn Underhill, defines mysticism – in its simplest terms – as “seeing things differently” and I often remember that little definition when I look at the winter garden. Beneath its nakedness the garden is full of life, full of potential, that will flower when the conditions are right. Great thinkers throughout history have dared to see things differently. Sometimes, they have had to wait a long time to be vindicated. Galileo (1564-1642) is a good example. He dared to see the medieval cosmos in a very different way, going so far as asserting that, contrary to the firmly held view of the time, the Earth revolved around the Sun and not vice versa. Persecuted by the Inquisition for his views, he was finally exonerated in 1992 when Pope John Paul II officially declared that Galileo had been correct all along.
The medieval view of cosmology basically rested on the theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle. In this view the Earth was at the centre and was surrounded by the seven progressively larger concentric spheres of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. (And, by the way, this is where we get our expression, ‘in 7th heaven’). Beyond the planetary spheres were, firstly, the stellatum – the area of fixed stars – and then the primum mobile which was the boundary of the physical universe. In the medieval, Christianised version of cosmology, beyond this outermost sphere (and thus, literally outside the universe) was the Empyrean or Heaven, the place of God.
Of course, we are very unlikely to have the visionary and intellectual insights of Galileo but we can at least try to be more open in our approach to life. We can strive to ‘see things differently’ by, in particular, accepting others’ points of view; we can try to step outside our comfort zones now and then; we can embrace some new ideas. We can choose to grow rather than to stagnate and, then, to let our potential flower when the time is right. And, with any luck, we won’t have to wait as long as Galileo to harvest the fruits of our ‘new view’.
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.
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.”
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:
Bubonic – swellings (buboes) beginning on neck, armpits, groin. Infected fleas attached to rats spread this form. Death usually within a week
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.
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!).