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’.
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.
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.
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!).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ______________
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.