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

Song for summer

Summer in Sydney is at its height in January. The skies are clear and scorching heat sends us in search of the nearest beach or air-conditioner. With February just a few days away, we can look forward to some serious humidity coming our way, too, just as we all head back to work. Still, we can’t complain: the long, hot days and balmy evenings have been filled with Christmas and family, giant New Year celebrations, cricket, the Australian Open tennis; and, for many, some time away at the beach with family and friends. In our embracing of the (very) warm weather we’re no different from those who have gone before us.

In the Middle Ages, in Western Europe, the end of the long, hard winter was greeted with joy and celebration. In fact, one of the earliest surviving English songs is in praise of the arrival of summer. “Sumer is icumen in” was composed by an unknown composer in about 1260 in the Wessex dialect. In form the song is a “rota” which means that it is designed to be sung by two or more singers in a “round”, the first singer performing the first part just ahead of the second who, in turn, is just ahead of the next singer, and so on. You can hear a very merry version of it by the Lumina Vocal Ensemble at http://youtu.be/ZWWEHAswpFI or you might like the slower version with its clear Middle English pronunciation at   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMCA9nYnLWo

And, in case you want to sing along, here are the words in both Middle and Modern English.

Middle English 
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wode nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!
Modern English 
Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,
cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now,Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

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?

Greening

greenery

It’s Spring and everything in the garden is blooming. In Sydney the winters are not harsh but we still appreciate the lengthening light, the warmer days, and the signs of nature renewing itself that come with the change of season.

In medieval times, someone who watched and understood the seasonal cycle of renewal Hildegard_von_Bingenwas the great visionary, Hildegard of Bingen. Born in Germany’s Rhineland in 1098, Hildegard was not only a prominent religious figure of her day but also – as her considerable writings and works demonstrate – an expert on natural science, medicine and herbal treatments, cosmology, poetry and music. Further testament to her influence is that many of her writings (and musical compositions) survive to the present day. Hildegard’s works are not ‘easy reads’ but a lot of her ideas resonate with our current interests, particularly our concerns over climate change and caring for our planet.

Don’t be mistaken: Hildegard was a woman of her time and, it seems, a very strong personality. She had an extraordinary intellect and pulled no punches when it came to asserting a theologically precise view of the medieval Church; but, she also had a deep reverence for, and an amazing insight into, the beauty and order of creation. So powerful are Hildegard’s expressed views on the importance and dignity of all creation that the coining of the term viriditas (greening/greeness) is frequently, and somewhat mistakenly, attributed to her.  In fact, earlier theologians such as St Augustine had made mention of viriditas but it is appropriately and particularly associated with Hildegard because of the new and interesting way that she interpreted and applied the concept. For Hildegard, viriditas was the reflection of God’s goodness and beauty in everything in the natural world. It stood for vitality, fertility, fruitfulness and growth; in essence, all the things that we now associate with the greenness of nature.  For Hildegard, viriditas was also synonymous with physical and spiritual health. Similarly, for us today, ‘greenness’ and the seasonal renewal of the natural world are signs that the Earth is healthy and flourishing.

Hildegard was canonised (becoming St Hildegard) by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2012 and, though it took the Church nearly 900 years to acknowledge her remarkable contributions, the canonisation is strangely timely as it coincides with our efforts to come to terms with the ravages of a changing climate. Hildegard of Bingen has a lot to teach us.

A Whale Tale

whale_1

Sydney’s whale-watching season runs from May to November. At the peak of the whales’ northward migration – around late June and early July – it’s hard NOT to spot  whale from the many cliff-top vantage points along Australia’s eastern coastline. By this time of year (October), however, the whales are heading south again and their southward ‘whale trail’ is a little further out to sea so they’re a little harder to spot … but they are certainly there, and in abundance. These magnificent creatures are a source of wonder and admiration for us today but the sad history of whaling demonstrates that this wasn’t also so. In the Middle Ages, the “status” of whales was even more lowly with medieval people viewing them as a source of deception and death. The basis of this view can be traced to the whale’s depiction, and description, in a number of medieval bestiaries. (More on “bestiaries” in another post but, for now, a handy definition of a medieval bestiary is a type of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast).

In 1481 William Caxton (of English printing press fame), drawing on much earlier bestiary definitions, wrote of the whale as being a “fish so huge and great that on his back grows earth and grass” and that this makes the whale appear as if it is an island on whale_2which mariners can “come ashore”. Once there, Caxton explains that it is not unusual for the seamen to light a fire on which to cook their food. However, the heat of the cooking fire eventually distresses the whale enough that he must dive down under the water to cool himself, thereby taking all the mariners with him to their death. The symbolic interpretation of this is that the whale is as deceitful as the devil, luring men to death (spiritual and physical) when they fail to be alert to the deception, and fall for easy and comfortable options.

Now, how fortunate we are to have an informed understanding of these magnificent creatures and how lucky to be able to catch sight of the whales each year as they make their epic journey along the eastern Australian coast.

The Shape of Things

saint-augustine-hippo-mosaic-front-church-mount-beatitudes-galilee-israel-84554391

Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. In the Middle Ages, philosophical debate over the concept of beauty was a wide-ranging one, even extending to discussion on geometric shapes. When the debate took such a turn, the fourth-century opinions of St Augustine were never far away. In his text, De Quantitatae Animae, Augustine expounded a theory based on geometrical regularity in which certain shapes of triangles were considered more beautiful than others and a square surpassed a triangle in the beauty stakes. The winner, however, was the circle.

dinosaur egg

I was prompted to remember this when, on a recent visit to the Australian Museum (Sydney), my attention was taken by a display of models of the dinosaur life-cycle which began with a ‘peep’ inside a dinosaur egg to show the pre-hatched baby tucked into a perfect circle.

 

dog circleOn my return home that evening, I was again confronted by a perfect circle in the form of my ‘post-hatched’ dog curled up on her bed in an almost perfect circle. Dinosaurs or dogs, I think Augustine is right: the circle is a beautiful shape.

 

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.

A Flight into the Dark Night

Night_darkness

 

Many of us have had the experience of preparing for an overseas holiday. As the time for departure grows closer, there’s often a feeling of anxiety mixed with the excitement of anticipation as we try to tidy the house and garden, make sure the newspaper and other deliveries are cancelled, organise accommodation for the pets, pay the bills, purchase travel insurance, renew the passport and so on. On the day of departure, just before we’re leaving for the airport, we run around checking that all the appliances are turned off, all the doors and windows are secured and the perishables are thrown out of the fridge and pantry. Even as we board our flight we may have a sudden thought that we’ve left the iron on; but once that plane accelerates down the runway and then lifts its nose skyward and we feel ourselves leave the ground, we know there’s nothing else we can do about any unfinished tasks at home. We’re lifted into a “between” state of being – not at home, yet not at our destination, detached from a clear sense of place, and completely “ungrounded”. Yet, there is an accompanying feeling of freedom, of leaving the mundane behind and of going towards the exciting unknown.

            In some ways, this physical experience of being “betwixt and between” is comparable to the psychological and spiritual idea of detachment. The great 16th century Spanish poet and mystic, St John of the Cross, opens his beautiful account of the soul’s journey towards union with God with the following lines:

On a dark night,

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh happy chance!

I went forth without being observed,

My house being now at rest.

Here, the “house” is the body with all its senses that bristle and alert us and keep us connected to worldly concerns and emotions. In bringing the house to rest, in detaching from its concerns, John of the Cross regards the soul as liberated to soar into that dark night which he views as being an assent to live in total darkness with regard to all created things. Two centuries earlier, in the medieval period, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing described the detachment experienced during contemplation and meditation in a similar way: an intermediate state between two clouds – “a cloud of forgetting” below and “a cloud of unknowing” above, between the contemplative and God. The Cloud author further posed that darkness was not an absence of light but, rather, an absence of knowing [of God] and as, in his view, God cannot be known but only loved, darkness and detachment are desirable states in which to find oneself. More recently, and similarly, I have heard the Dalai Lama describe the concept of detachment very simply as being in a state of “nothingness: no-thing-ness”.

                        Some recent scholars, too, have described the “dark night” in psychological terms as the detachment of the ego, a letting go of the self and all its props. While letting go of illusions about ourselves can be confronting enough to plunge us into our own version of a “dark night”, perhaps we might usefully consider St John’s reference to the “happy chance”. That is, when those rare opportunities of bringing our “house to rest” present themselves, we should take them – for meditation or a walk in the garden, thus allowing ourselves to be more open to life’s possibilities, more open to an unplanned journey into a dark night.

 

Forks in the Road (and other cutlery)

knives_eating

Western table cutlery settings today always feature a knife, fork and spoon, each one with its particular use. Spoons for the soups, sauces; knives for cutting food into manageable pieces; forks for moving the food from plate to mouth. But this organised (and well-mannered) approach is relatively new – at least in terms of human civilisation.

Knives were probably the first of the ‘cutlery set’ to appear. Evidence dates them right back to pre-historic times when sharpened flints, volcanic glass and bones were among the earliest cutting implements in use. With the advent of the Bronze and Iron Ages, knife blades became more sophisticated and, though still used primarily for hunting and as weapons, the knife’s utility was hard to ignore, and smaller versions of it became handy for assisting in eating and cutting in general.

Spoons have been around since the Stone Age too, with shaped stones, shells and hollowed-out animal horns being some of the discoveries that testify to their use.

Forks were known in Greek and Roman times but virtually disappeared from use during the Christian Middle Ages. Some historians have suggested that the fork’s shape was too reminiscent of the devil’s pitchfork but it is more likely that the knife’s versatility – it could be used for spearing food and bringing it to the mouth as well as cutting it – overrode the need to invest too much time and craftsmanship into the fork. And hands were, well, just as ‘handy’ for picking up food (and always ‘on hand’). It seems, however, that the fork did reappear in Western Europe in the 16th century when courtly society deemed that eating was more politely accomplished by digging forks rather than hands into food.

In the Middle Ages all travellers carried their own knife and spoon for eating when staying at an inn on the journey as the innkeeper did not provide guests with cutlery because such useful, well-crafted, and portable items were considered too ‘tempting’ and likely to be stolen by passing strangers: a different take on the “dish ran away with the spoon” in the Hey Diddle Diddle nursery rhyme (which, by the way, seems to date back in some form to medieval times).

One of my favourite ‘literary spoons’ is the runcible spoon in the final part of Edward Lear’s wonderful poem The Owl and the Pussycat:

They dined on mince and slices of quince

Which they ate with a runcible spoon

And hand in hand by the edge of the sand

They danced by the light of the moon, the moon

They danced by the light of the moon.

‘Runcible’ is today said to describe a sort of combination fork, spoon and knife; a fork with a curved section like a spoon, and with three broad prongs, one of which has a sharpened outer edge for cutting. In Australia we might call such an implement a ‘splayd’ or a ‘spork’. Actually, though, Edward Lear made up the word (along with others of his invention) as a whimsical addition to his poem. And cutlery to match the whimsy followed.

Enjoy your dinner!