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.

Being Green

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.

To Bee or Not to Bee

beekeeping_2.jpg

The keeping of bees for their honey and other products such as pollen and beeswax is a practice that dates far back into human civilisation. Pottery beekeeping vessels of around 10,000 years of age have been found by archaeologists and the interest in the farming of bees has been continuous across the centuries and in most cultures.

In medieval Europe, beekeeping was well established. While we now think of the sweetness of the bees’ honey as the important product, in the Middle Ages the beeswax was equally prized and was used in the making of good quality candles and writing tablets.

beekeepingBeehives were made of pottery or wood or wicker, and generally cone-shaped. In colder climates, and in the winter months of more temperate zones, the hives were layered with straw to keep the bees warm (and alive). Harvesting of the bees’ honey and other products was effected by fumigating the hives with thick smoke. This method saved the beekeeper from being stung but, unfortunately, killed the bees so that new swarms needed to be sourced regularly.

While the bees’ products were greatly admired and sought after, there were other “bee” qualities that had come to attention over the centuries. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) devoted a long (and keenly-observed) chapter (XL) of his ‘The History of Animals’ to the bee, describing its work and life habits and the society of the hive. Here’s a small selection:

 Bees scramble up the stalks of flowers and rapidly gather the bees-wax with their front legs; the front legs wipe it off on to the middle legs, and these pass it on to the hollow curves of the hind-legs; when thus laden, they fly away home, and one may see plainly that their load is a heavy one. On each expedition the bee does not fly from a flower of one kind to a flower of another, but flies from one violet, say, to another violet, and never meddles with another flower until it has got back to the hive; on reaching the hive they throw off their load, and each bee on his return is accompanied by three or four companions. …  Bees seem to take a pleasure in listening to a rattling noise; and consequently men say that they can muster them into a hive by rattling with crockery or stones; it is uncertain, however, whether or no they can hear the noise at all and also whether their procedure is due to pleasure or alarm. They expel from the hive all idlers and unthrifts. As has been said, they differentiate their work; some make wax, some make honey, some make bee-bread, some shape and mould combs, some bring water to the cells and mingle it with the honey, some engage in out-of-door work. At early dawn they make no noise, until some one particular bee makes a buzzing noise two or three times and thereby awakes the rest; hereupon they all fly in a body to work. By and by they return and at first are noisy; then the noise gradually decreases, until at last some one bee flies round about,making a buzzing noise, and apparently calling on the others to go to sleep; then all of a sudden there is a dead silence. … The hive is known to be in good condition if the noise heard within it is loud, and if the bees make a flutter as they go out and in; for at this time they are constructing brood-cells. They suffer most from hunger when they recommence work after winter.

Medieval authors also appreciated the importance of the general qualities of the bee and, in the medieval Christian literary milieu, the bee was often called into service as an analogy for hard work and persistence in the spiritual life. Richard Rolle, the Hermit of Hampole (c.1300-1349), demonstrates this approach in his “Allegory of the Bee [and the Stork]”. In part, he writes that

The bee has three qualities. The first is that she is never idle, and she never associates with those who refuse to work …. . A second is that when she flies she picks up earth in her feet so that she cannot easily be blown too high in the air by the wind. The third is that she keeps her wings clean and bright … .

The spiritual and moral lessons are quite obvious in Richard Rolle’s allegory: Work hard, stay grounded, keep clean in mind, body and spirit.

So …. Time to get back to work but, as you do so, remember:

The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use. But the bee…gathers its materials from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. 
     Leonardo da Vinci

 Life is the flower for which love is the honey. 
     Victor Hugo

Tart words make no friends; a spoonful or honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.
      Benjamin Franklin

 

 

Cats to Conjure With

cat and mouse

I don’t have to think about it. I admit it: I am a dog person. There’s something about dogs’ joyful optimism and irrepressible enthusiasm for everything from food to a good stick that makes me happy; not to mention their devotion and companionship. And, in truth, I’ve never had a cat as a pet whereas I could not imagine home life without a dog. Nevertheless, I have friends who couldn’t live without their cats and so when I decided to write a blog or two on animals in the Middle Ages, I decided, in the interests of fairness and balance, to start with cats. (Dogs will follow at a later date).

The people of the Middle Ages saw cats in both a positive and negative light. Their biggest “plus” was that cats caught mice, no small mercy in an age that was ridden with rodents. Some medieval commentators, however, compared the way in which cats toyed with the rodents before killing them to the way that the devil played with people’s souls before possessing them completely. From this comparison it was not a large step to believing that the cat, like the devil, could alter its shape and appearance for fair means and foul.  And there was something about the cat’s independence – its disdain for the closely-held belief that God had made animals for the service of humans – that provoked suspicion. And, it’s true that this view resulted in medieval cats being often very cruelly treated.

Fortunately, not everyone shared the suspicion; there is quite a lot of evidence in the literature of the time that shows that many medieval people were very fond of cats.  The Ancrene Wisse, an early 13th century guide for enclosed anchorites, recommends the keeping of a cat, and no other animal. In 14th century Exeter Cathedral had a cat on its payroll at 13 pence per quarter; and in the 1360s that amount was raised to 26 pence per quarter (though, perhaps, indicating an increasing rat problem that called for the employment of a second cat rather than representing a pay rise for the first cat).

A ninth-century monk inserted this poem to his cat in the margin of the manuscript he was working on:

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

In fact, cats and manuscripts seemed to have gone together in the Middle Ages as can be seen by the paw prints left on a 15th century manuscript from Dubrovnik:

cat prints

And such neat and strong paw prints they are, recorded for posterity. Now, a dog would never have been able to manage that!

Let’s Dance

medieval dance

 

Some of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that the subject of my PhD thesis (over 18 years ago now) was, broadly, medieval mystics; and every now and then (well, quite often, actually) I am drawn back to their beautiful writings for inspiration. I am in one of those ‘phases’ currently so there might be a few ‘mystical’ posts making an appearance over the coming weeks. Today, I needed to reflect on one of my ‘favourites’ – the brilliant Mechtild of Magdeburg. Here she is:

Mechtild of Magdeburg was a medieval mystic whose visions and insights ranged, quite literally, from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven. She was born in Saxony in about 1210 and, from evidence within her own writings, seems to have experienced her first visions at the age of twelve. At about the age of twenty she left her home to become a Beguine[1] in the town of Magdeburg. There, under the spiritual guidance of the Dominicans, Mechtild’s visions continued and increased and she was encouraged to write them down. This she did in a text under the title of The Flowing Light of Godhead. However, Mechtild’s claim that God had directed her to record these insights and experiences attracted considerable suspicion and criticism, and this increased when, in turn, Mechtild voiced her own criticism of certain local and high-ranking clergy. As a result, for her own protection, in 1270, Mechtild was moved to the Cistercian convent of Helfta. There, in the company of other great mystics of the time, including Mechtilde of Hackeborn and St. Gertrude the Great, Mechtild passed the final years of her life, in writing and in prayer, until her death sometime between 1282 and 1290.

Mechtild’s writings are representative of the ‘affective’ or via affirmativa approach to mysticism in which the mystical experiences are recorded and conveyed in a language that is steeped in metaphor, analogy and sensual imagery. There is no doubt that Mechtild was a gifted poet and some scholars have, rightly, speculated on how much of her writing is attributable to actual mystical inspiration and how much to pure poetic expression. Her visions of hell and purgatory and heaven, in particular, are graphic enough to have prompted comparisons with Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly as Mechtild’s version features descriptions of deeper and deeper levels of hell and purgatory where souls are tormented according to the severity of their sins. Some have even suggested that Mechtild’s descriptions were Dante’s inspiration and that Mechtild herself is represented in the poem as the character, Matelda. Such comparisons remind us that the ‘affective’ medieval mystics used not only beautiful imagery that elevates and delights the modern reader but also, sometimes, gritty and confronting imagery that challenges our modern sensibilities. Perhaps it is the ‘dance’ of these opposites that is one of the reasons that the mystics retain an appeal for us today. We, too, must live in a world that is often ugly and fraught with despair; but we also have the promise and knowledge of the great beauty of creation, and the undercurrent of something divine, mysterious and constant that somehow sustains and enlivens us. Perhaps ironically, then, the poem that is now most synonymous with Mechtild is about ‘the dance’ but, in this case, a very positive and beautiful dance with Divine Life.

I cannot dance, Lord, unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain, yet want also to circle higher still.        

(Mechtild of Magdeburg)

[1] A beguine was a woman who lived a life dedicated to God but who did not take the vows of religiously professed women. Instead, she lived with other similarly dedicated women who often worked in the community but returned to the “group house” (beguinage) to share in a community life of prayer. Topic for another blog.

Heaven S(c)ent

distillingperfume

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 Beasts, Oh My!

lion_bestiary

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.

The dragons of today’s literature (for children in particular) are generally quite placid, with their mythic quality overtaking their earlier ‘evil’ connotations. dragon
I have a harmless dragon, myself, in my garden.

 

(Well, I hope he’s harmless!).