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

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!).

Hard Labour

Giving birth in medieval times was a risky business – for mother as well as baby. While data from the era is scarce, a conservative estimate of maternal death (during the birth process or soon after, as a result of infection) was between 3% – 4% for each birth. And as women who survived the first birth would invariably go onto give birth again, and again, and again, the risk of death for any one woman was as high as 10%. Figures on infant mortality are even more scarce but estimates are put at between 30 – 50 %. (Such a figure may well include the death of infants due to infection in the first few weeks of life). It’s a grim picture and one that I had clearly in mind when I wrote about the birthing experience of one of the characters in my recent novel Grasping at Water (Odyssey Books, 2018). As some of you might know, the novel is set in modern-day Sydney and tells of the life-changing impact a mysterious young woman has on those with whom she comes in contact. The woman only reveals herself to others in medieval tales and the following is one such tale, an extract from the novel that I thought some of you might find interesting.

And then it is winter in the great town of Norwich in East Anglia. A bleak wind is blowing from the sea across the flat fenland, picking up cold moisture as it roars in, and dropping it as icy rain onto the town. In the town, the street that I see is not cobbled but is of packed-dirt and the freezing torrent has turned it to sticking mud. The surface gutters are clogged with putrefying waste, causing animal and human excrement to overflow and mix with the mud, all congealing into a sickly stew that coats traversers’ legs up to their knees in solid filth and fills their noses with a stench so vile that it liquefies in their lungs. Inside my house, a peat fire burns in the open hearth and warms the inhabitants but its smoke is thick, odorous and irritating. I am lying on a low settle bed in the corner of the dim, low-ceilinged room and I am coughing, the choking spasms adding to the severity of the pains of my labour that is now in its second day.  The blinding rain that has beset the town for three days has prevented the gathering and strewing of fresh rushes and fragrant herbs on the dirt floor of the lying-in room. No men are permitted near a birth but, nevertheless, I think of Hugh and long to see his face and have him touch my hand and kiss my mouth once more. He cannot. He is gone. Matilda, the midwife, and my mother attend me, tiredly but lovingly rubbing my belly and flanks with rose oil, and giving me a mixture of vinegar and sugar to drink. I am shivering with cold, with fear, with effort. Matilda unpins and loosens my hair, my mother opens a cupboard door and unties the knots in her apron cord so that the room is animated with opening and loosening in the hope that my laboring body will similarly slacken and open. Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, is invoked in fervent prayers. My pain increases, more slow hours pass, and still I labour without reward. Matilda and my mother speak to each other earnestly in whispers. A decoction of flaxseed and chickpeas is prepared and Matilda rubs this on her hands and then pushes her hands into me to rotate the baby who cannot find its way into the world because it is trying to enter feet-first. I am helped to the birthing chair and Matilda crouches between my shaking legs, easing, encouraging. My mother stands behind the chair, supporting me under my arms. I can barely stay upright let alone push so Matilda must pull. Amid screams and wails, a tiny, whimpering but beautiful boy is born.  I am cleaned and assisted back to the bed. He is bathed, rubbed with salt, warmly swaddled and placed on my breast. At first, his tiny, mewing mouth seeks nourishment but, like me, he is weak. I stroke his head, willing him to suck, but he does not. Such has been the stress of his arrival that he dies, pale and cold before he has had the chance to be pink and warm in my arms.

P

New Year, New Plans

Do you make New Year resolutions? As a (much) younger person I was a fan of the idea of resolving to do better in some specific way in all the months that stretched ahead of me in the coming year. Now I realise that those months contract more than stretch, and I’m inclined to count the positives each day brings rather than aim for more ambitious long-term goals.

A Christmas-New Year tale from the Middle Ages that puts the short-term positives vs the long-term ambition in interesting juxtaposition is an Arthurian story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 

The story begins in Arthur’s court of Camelot where he and his knights are enjoying frivolous New Year games and gift-giving. The carefree atmosphere is shattered by the arrival of an unknown giant of a knight who is not only dressed all in green but also has skin of a green hue. Even his horse is green. Now, of course, in the broadest interpretation of this story opening, the ‘green knight’ represents the intrusion of the natural world (and the ‘old religions’) into a Christian setting but there are more important lessons in this story.

Once the shock of his entrance into the King’s court has subsided, the Green Knight proffers an axe and asks for a volunteer to cut off his head. The great King Arthur is shown to be a bit of a coward, as are many of his other knights as it is only young Sir Gawain who steps up to the challenge and removes the Green Knight’s head cleanly in one blow. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Green Knight bends down to pick up his own severed head and, propping it under his arm, continues to speak to the assembly. He reminds them that since “one good turn deserves another”, Sir Gawain is expected to seek him out at the same time next year so that he may remove Sir Gawain’s head.

The laws of chivalry required Sir Gawain to honour the request and so, in the biting winter of the following Christmas-New Year period, Gawain sets off on his quest.  His adventures en route to his destiny are too lengthy to describe here but what is really interesting about the fabulous Gawain is that, despite his honour and fortitude, he does eventually accept a talisman – a waist cord of green silk – that, while not allowing him to avoid his fate, will protect him from death. With such help, he still faces the Green Knight, still endures the strike of the axe, but his life is spared. Nevertheless, he must return (alive) to Arthur’s court with an obvious and an indelible scar on his neck. It is a bodily reminder of his human frailty. In addition, he decides to emphasise his lack of total courage by wearing the green cord as another sign of his imperfection. In support of his honesty, all the other Arthurian knights take to wearing green silk belts too.

In this New Year as we make all kinds of resolutions to be better than last year, I think that Gawain and the knights can teach us a valuable lesson about doing our best, honouring our commitments, acting with courage and behaving with dignity. But they can also remind us to accept that, despite our best intentions, we are only human; and our friends and family will love us, scars and all.

Hey, hey, windy day

Windy_weather

Today in Sydney there is a wild wind blowing. Trees are down and flights have been cancelled. We only have to look (or venture) outside to see (and feel) the effects of the strong wind but exact measurement of weather components is a sophisticated process in our modern world. Of course, now, accessing those components and getting the latest weather updates and warnings is as simple as a few clicks through to the Bureau of Meteorology but the understanding and interpretation of weather in the Middle Ages was a very different thing. And instruments were limited. It wasn’t until after the Middle Ages – in the late 1500s – that Galileo invented a basic thermometer; and it was 1644 when Galileo’s colleague, the physicist and mathematician, Evangelista Torricelli, invented the barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure. Before that, the medieval people used weather vanes – with the word vane deriving from the Old English word fana meaning flag – for the indication of wind direction, and relied mainly on their own subjective views and experience of what was happening around them for further weather information.

That is, sources for weather data for the medieval period are scarce and historians generally now turn to chronicles and narrative accounts for their insights into climate and its effects. In most instances, objective evidence is limited largely to the observation of physical changes to the local environment brought about by weather and climate events.  For example, the following vivid description of a thunderstorm which took place in northern England in July 1293 is given in Chronicle of Lanercost :

“Early in the morning…we beheld in the east a huge cloud blacker than coal, in the midst whereof we saw the lashes of an immense eye darting fierce lightning into the west; whence I understood that Satan’s darts would come from over the sea. … [and] there began and continued throughout the night over the whole of the west part of the diocese of York, thunder and lightning so prodigious that the dazzling flashes followed each other without intermission, making, as it were, one continuous sunlight. Not only men were terrified and cried aloud, but even some domestic animals – horses, for certain. In some places houses were burnt or thrown down, and demons were heard yelling in the air.”

And, in my opinion, the best ‘potted’ description of the extremes of the seasons is given in the anonymously authored 14th century alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here’s an extract, first in the Middle English, and then in translation:

Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter
bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
[folio 98r]
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez
Quen Zeferus syflez hymself on sedez and erbez,
Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute,
When þe donkande dewe dropez of þe leuez
To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryȝt sunne.
Bot þen hyȝes heruest, and hardenes hym sone,
Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype;
He dryues wyth droȝt þe dust for to ryse,
Fro þe face of þe folde to flyȝe ful hyȝe;
Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne,
Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde,
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere;
Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst,
And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony,
And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez,
no fage,

But then the world’s weather wrestles with winter:
cold clings to the ground, but clouds rise,
releasing warm rain; rinsing showers
fall to the flat earth; flowers appear,
both field and forest are fringed with green.
Birds busy themselves building, and with brilliant song
celebrate summer, for soon each slope
will rush
                     to bloom with blossoms set
                     in lines luxuriant and lush,
                     while noble notes form nets
                     that fill the forest hush.

Then the summer season when the west breeze blows
and soft winds sigh on seed and stem.
How the green things glory in their urgent growth
when the dripping dew drops from the leaves,
waiting for the warm sun’s welcome glance.
But then Fall flies in, and fills their hearts,
Bidding them be rich, ripe, and ready for winter.
The autumn drought drives up dust
that billows in clouds above the broad earth.
Wild winds whistle, wrestling the sun;
Leaves launch from each limb and land on the soil,
while the green grass fades to grey.
What rose at the first now ripens and rots
till the year has gathered its full yield of yesterdays.
In the way of the world, winter winds

Much nicer description of the weather than we’ll hear on tonight’s TV weather, don’t you think?

Yes Power

margery

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.