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.

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!).    

Thanks for the Memory

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.

Hildegard’s Marvellous Medicine

Hildegard’s Illumination:
Cycle of the Seasons

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.

                Following 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.

Hildegard seems 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!

Eggs-actly: Medieval Easter Eggs

The season of Lent, which stretches over the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, was a time of penance and fasting in the Christian medieval world. Fasting saw a prohibition on the eating of many foods, with meat, fat, milk and eggs being particularly forbidden. This may seem harsh to us now but, in fact, the Church had cleverly imposed the restrictions on a time of the year when the food reserves were most scarce anyway. That is, in Spring, the food stocks from the previous autumn’s harvests were at their lowest level after the long, cold winter. Thus, a social disadvantage was refashioned into a spiritual benefit.

The scarcity, however did not stop people from thinking about their favourite foods and, as the chickens did not stop laying completely, there sprang up the practice of preserving the eggs – by boiling – over the Lenten period, and often painting and decorating them in preparation for the celebration of Easter Sunday morning. Resourceful medieval folk also found ways to make mock, or substitute, eggs (at least as far as the outward appearance of the egg went) by blowing out egg shells and then filling them with an almond paste mixture, or even fish roe.

The prohibition on eggs also worked towards making them seem special, both as a food and a symbol and, unsurprisingly, various superstitions arose in relation to eggs at Easter. One such superstition was that an egg laid on Good Friday and kept for one hundred years, would turn into a diamond. Another was that eggs cooked on Good Friday and eaten on Easter Sunday would increase fertility (and the fertility belief also attached itself to the symbol of the rabbit/bunny – for obvious reasons!). And, if you were fortunate enough to bite into a double-yolked egg, future wealth was assured.

Of course, the religious significance of the egg at Easter was not overlooked, with adults hiding brightly coloured eggs for children to find in a symbolic reflection of the women finding Jesus’ tomb empty after his resurrection.

Happy Easter – eggs and all!

Sanitary Insanity

Every now and then I like to share an excerpt from my recent novel, Grasping at Water. The story is set in modern-day Sydney but there are medieval elements woven through it, usually in the form of a dream sequence or as ‘tales’ told by key characters. I’ve tried to make these medieval moments as authentic as possible, based on my many years of research, lecturing and writing on medieval topics. And, in line with that desire for authenticity, the following sample is about the [very] ‘basics’ of everyday life in the Middle Ages. There are two schools of thought on the question of how medieval townspeople disposed of the contents of their chamber pots each day. The first, and most widely held, is that the contents were thrown into the street (or river, if one was nearby) every morning; the second view is that, as some large towns such as London had statutes against such disposal, the towns were not as filthy as we might think. As you’ll see in the following excerpt, I subscribe to the former, majority opinion.

Excerpt from Grasping at Water (Odyssey Books) p.152-154

Kathryn is dreaming again. She knows she is dreaming and yet everything is so vivid that her sleeping self seems more real than her waking self. She is moving backwards down a dark tunnel. It is constraining, claustrophobically narrow. She wants to get out. Suddenly she is expelled from it but, immediately, she wishes to be back in the tunnel. In the world outside the tunnel she is surrounded by death. The stench is overwhelming. Cupping her hand over her mouth and nose she takes short, shallow breaths in an attempt to filter out the repugnant smell. Gagging, she raises her head from its downcast position and tries to make visual sense of the dreamscape in which she finds herself. She is leaning against a wall, a house wall. Her feet are standing on cobblestones. Everything around her is narrow. Across the narrow cobbled street she sees narrow, closely packed houses of uneven proportions, many with the upper storey protruding fifty centimetres or more over the lower storey, overhanging the street. The houses’ windows are narrow, mean, without glass and covered, instead, with what looks like oiled cloth. The doors are narrow and heavy. It looks like the medieval town that Sophia had described to her. From somewhere overhead, Kathryn hears a female voice shout out something in a strange accent. “Gardey loo; gardey loo,” calls the woman who Kathryn can now see is hanging out of the upper storey window of the house directly opposite where she is standing. She is holding some kind of a pot in her hands.

“What are you saying?” Kathryn calls back, stepping forward into the middle of the street. She is hit with a downpour of liquid and other matter; it drenches her head, sticks to her hair; and its overpowering odour tells her instantly that she is covered in urine and faeces.

“She was saying, gardez l’eau, and using the phrase to mean ‘watch out for the water’. But I see you got more than water,” laughs a well-dressed gentleman as he passes by. “These English have been bastardising the French language ever since the Norman Conquest.”

Kathryn wants to ask the gentleman more but he vanishes, clearly not belonging to this place and time. Kathryn wants to vanish from it too, but does not know how to do it. Instead, she takes a single, crumpled tissue from the inside of her sleeve and tries to wipe her face with it, tries desperately to remove the smell of the chamber pot’s contents from her nose.

Another woman at another second storey window a little further down the street, holds a chamber pot in her hands and cries, “Gardey loo,” and this time Kathryn does what she observes other pedestrians doing: scrambling for cover against the first storey walls of houses so that they are under cover of the overhanging second storeys. Up and down the street, the cry is repeated until the street is a shower of human waste products that splash into, and up from, the cobblestones, some of it clinging to the clothes and uncovered hands and faces of passersby, the majority of it pooling in the slightly concave centre of the street and mixing with other muck that coats the cobbles to form a lumpy, brown sludge that oozes and flows along the sloping thoroughfare and into the river at the end of the road. 

Kathryn hurries towards the river too, hoping that from its banks she will gain a perspective on where she is, and how she might escape. But on reaching the embankment, she is assailed by an even greater stench and it is not simply the result of the odious refuse and excrement that pours into the river from the streets that wind down to it. Kathryn sees that both banks are home to trades and industries that she takes some time to identify.

“Tanning and butchery,” says a scrawny woman crouched on the shore, and looking up at Kathryn as if she has read her dream-thoughts. “Stinks, doesn’t it? That’s because the butchers slaughter right here, on the river’s edge, and skin the animals as well. Then the skins are sold to the tanners next door and up along the river and they submerge the hides in a solution of lime and urine to dislodge the hair and fat. And then they rewash the hides by immersing them in either warm dogs’ dung or birds’ droppings. And then they drench in another solution of barley and urine or stale beer. They make beautiful leather here – oh, the shoes, belts, gloves, saddles and harnesses are something to behold. Still, the smell is so bad that even the rats keep away.”            

Kathryn does not dare to open her mouth to thank the strange woman for the information but, instead, looks down at her to acknowledge that she has heard what was said and is shocked to see that the woman is washing her clothes in the river, right next to the tannery’s outfall. And at various spots all along the river’s edge there are women washing clothes, immersing heavy fabrics in the water, then wringing them by hand and rubbing and scrubbing them on washboards, and spreading them out on the ground to dry. She feels herself retching. ______________

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