Something Sinister at Hand

Left-handed-monk

A few weeks ago I suffered a crushing injury to part of the right hand. Yes, all very traumatic but, thankfully, with some nifty microsurgery, I will regain most of the function of my dominant hand. Since the injury, however, I’ve had to do things with my left hand and for someone like me who, I’ve realised, has been rigorously right-handed all my life, the necessary change in dominance has been very challenging. Good for the brain, no doubt, but I now realise that the world shamelessly privileges right-handers. And it got me thinking about those among us (about 10 %) who are decidedly left-handed.

In the Middle Ages, being left-handed was considered to be a sign of the devil. The Latin word for ‘left’ is ‘sinistre’ and we all know the connotations that are associated with its English version ‘sinister’. That is, because left-handedness was very much in the minority then (as now) it was treated with suspicion, and the biblical allusions to ‘right’ and ‘left’ only served to underline the distinction. For example, Jesus is said to sit at the right hand of the Father; in Matthew 25:32-33, the ‘sheep’ (those in God’s favour) go to the right while the out-of-favour ‘goats’ are directed to the left.

But the bias extends much further back than the writings of Matthew and, no surprise, there is a gendered component at its basis. Eve is said to have come from a rib from Adam’s left side (and we all know the problems that Eve is blamed for), and women have been under suspicion ever since. In the witch hunts of the 15th century, for instance, left-handedness in a woman was sometimes enough to bring her under suspicion of witchcraft.

Still, given the ‘sinister’ associations, the prejudice may not have been as acute in the Middle Ages as we might think. Palaeographic evidence from medieval manuscripts shows that left-handed monastic scribes and copyists were not uncommon so, in the religious houses at least, it seems that left-right discrimination was not being practised. This evidence arises from examination of the difference in the way that letters appear on the parchment or vellum, with the more usual right-handed scribes creating ink strokes that show the quill was pulled from left to right of the page, while the left-handers’ strokes show evidence of pushing.

Somewhat ironically, it may be that the most marked prejudice against left-handedness appeared with the Age of Enlightenment, particularly with the associated spread of education in the 18th and 19th centuries. The formalisation of education also demanded conformity and, as most people wrote with their right hand, left-handers were punished, often severely. Tying a naturally left-handed child’s left hand behind his back was not uncommon. Even into the 20th century, left-handed children were often considered to be wilful and difficult. It is a relatively recent development that has seen left-handedness being regarded as a normal (albeit minority) occurrence and, in fact, often a sign of creativity and giftedness.

Hands up left-handers. Your time has come!

From the depths of winter to The Peacock Summer

This is a beautiful reflection by Hannah Richell on loss and grief, and our innate drive to carry on. Hannah’s new novel “The Peacock Summer” is just out and I know it will be a wonderful read.

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There is a general consensus that broken hearts are fertile ground for creativity. The break-up album. The affecting, painted canvas. The revealing memoir. Joan Didion wrote eloquently about loss and grief after her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds wrote the dark and dazzling album, Skeleton Tree after the tragic death of Cave’s young son. Sir Francis Bacon produced some of his most important and moving paintings after the suicide of his lover. Meryl Streep once famously concluded a Golden Globes acceptance speech with, ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art.’ There is a clear sense that the experience of deep emotion can be somehow as transformative and productive as it is painful.

Not so, for me. In the earliest days of loss my feelings were out of control. Everything felt sharp and hyper-real. I was on the edge…

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Gargoyles

This is a great post on a fascinating medieval topic by Robyn Cadwallader, author of “The Anchoress” and, recently “Book of Colours – both wonderful reads.

I love gargoyles, and when I was travelling around England and in Paris, I took lots of photos of them. Little did I know then that one of them would insinuate its way into my novel.

At the base of the roof was an army of gargoyles, stone-grown and
weather-worn, each one distinct, all reaching out beyond the gutters,
spout-mouths open. Creatures dragged from some netherworld
and put to work guarding the holy ground beneath. Such proud
ugliness, so assured of their right to be there, as if directing water
away from the building was merely a foil for their true status. Will
was entranced. What minds the masons had, to carve from solid
stone such creatures that seemed at once of air and earth. Hybrid
beasts: bird beak, wolf mouth, monkey snout, ox hoof; ravaging
teeth and horns; flapping ears and wings; howl and snuffle, snicker
and growl. He…

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Le cantique de Frère #Soleil

In my recent post I’ve written about St Francis of Assisi, his love for all creation, and his beautiful Canticle of Creatures, also known as Canticle of the Sun. This lovely post by Lunesoleil is also about the Canticle, and from a different perspective.

L'actualité de Lunesoleil

saint-francoisSaint François d’Assise 

En ce jour de Dimanche  dédié au Soleil 🌞

Très haut, tout puissant et bon Seigneur,
à toi louange, gloire, honneur,
et toute bénédiction ;
à toi seul ils conviennent, ô Très-Haut,
et nul homme n’est digne de te nommer.
Loué sois-tu, mon Seigneur, avec toutes tes créatures,
spécialement messire frère Soleil.
par qui tu nous donnes le jour, la lumière :
il est beau, rayonnant d’une grande splendeur,
et de toi, le Très-Haut, il nous offre le symbole.
Loué sois-tu, mon Seigneur, pour soeur Lune et les étoiles :
dans le ciel tu les as formées,
claires, précieuses et belles.
Loué sois-tu, mon Seigneur, pour frère Vent,
et pour l’air et pour les nuages,
pour l’azur calme et tous les temps :
grâce à eux tu maintiens en vie toutes les créatures.
Loué sois-tu, mon Seigneur, pour soeur Eau.
qui est très utile et très humble,

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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!).

Only One Book

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I’ve been thinking lately of the books that I couldn’t live without, the books that have inspired my life, fired my imagination, and opened my mind. The list is long and when I engage in the ‘game’ of deciding which five books I’d take to a desert island, I admit that I always find myself extending the list by a book, or two, or twenty. Certainly, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would be first in the survival pack; then, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, for its truth and beauty;  the complete works of Shakespeare (yes, I realise this is probably cheating); then, for the magic of the story and the skill of the writing, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet;  and for its sheer genius, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

But what about … ? And ….? And I can’t ignore ….?

This is a game that I always lose and, in my defeat, I’m sometimes drawn to think of those hardy medieval souls who might have possessed only one book for their whole lifetime. Because the production of medieval manuscripts was such a costly and labour-intensive task and the level of literacy so low, few individuals actually owned a book.

I remember, many years ago, in the magnificence of the old British Library  (then in the British Museum),  putting in my request for an original, 13th century manuscript of Ancrene Wisse, a work that I was researching as part of my thesis on medieval religious and mystical writings. When it was finally retrieved (4 hours later) from the ‘backroom depths’, two librarians asked if they could join me at the reading table for a rare ‘look’ at this rare manuscript.  I recall it being a tiny book, about 15 x 15 cms, bound by two pieces of thin, and very fragile wood, back and front, connected by a leather spine. Inside were about sixty pages of yellowed/grey, thick, rough-cut parchment. And on both sides of these pages, written in the cursive of the time, was the ‘guide’ for how an anchoress (subject of a future post) should conduct herself in the anchorhold where she was immured, for life. I realised that this little book had been held and read, probably every day, by a woman who had been locked in a little cell attached to a church; and in this little cell she had lived out her whole adult life. And there she would die, and even be buried there in the ‘in-house’  pre-dug grave (as recent archaeological investigations into anchorholds have revealed). How precious that book must have been to her because it was, most likely, her only book.  How fascinating to me were the signs of fingermarks where she had held the book over many readings. How intoxicating was the smell of the dusty parchment which I, like a Pavlovian dog, responded to by conjuring up the whole scene of the woman sitting and reading in a very dank, dark, and cold purpose-built cell.

For me at that time, having a researcher’s Reader’s Ticket to the British Library was like being a child with unlimited access to a sweet shop. I was able to order up manuscripts I’d only dreamed of.  The illuminated manuscripts  I viewed were breathtaking in the richness of the ink colours and thick gold embossing that adorned each page’s rubric. But, if I could choose only one manuscript to take with me to a desert island, it would be the little, unadorned Ancrene Wisse.

What book would you choose?

A Whale Tale

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At this time of year the southward-migrating  humpback whales can be seen off our  Sydney shores. 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).

whale_2     Medieval image of whale and mariners

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 which 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 to the extent 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.

Of Baths, Monks & Hairshirts

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Today, we humans are very conscious of the importance of bathing for reasons of hygiene but it wasn’t always so. In the Middle Ages, for example, bathing had little to do with cleanliness but was undertaken for either pleasure or restoration of health. On the “pleasure” side, communal baths provided social opportunities, with food and drink being part of the overall experience in a sort of medieval equivalent of the present-day “Gold Class movies”. In fact, the pleasurable and social aspects of community bathing are clearly attested to by the many – rather surprising – manuscript illustrations on the topic.

Very probably because of the frequently  indulgent and decadent quality of medieval bathing,  monks  of that time – although they often washed their hands and feet  –  were limited by their monastic Constitution to complete bodily immersion at Easter and Christmas time only, leaving a very long, hot (northern hemisphere) summer period between washing. Bathing outside those specified times was permitted if a monk was ill as bathing, in moderation,  was believed to be sometimes necessary for the restoration of good health.  Of course, bathing for health reasons always took place in public baths where the drinking of, as well as bathing in, the waters was encouraged. In the fourteenth century, the medical men of Bologna recommended to anyone suffering from scabies that they take a full plunge in the public bath following a vigorous application to the skin of a mix of bran, chickpea meal and saltpetre; and then drink of the waters.

In some cases the mistrust of bathing seemed to exemplify the view that “UNcleanliness is next to godliness”.  St Antony, for example, a hermit in the Egyptian desert during the 3rd and 4th centuries, did not wash any part of himself for at least the last half of his very long life of 105 years. In fact, his biographer tells us that the hairshirt Antony donned when he went into seclusion was not taken off until his death when his followers cut it up and shared out pieces of it as a “holy relic” for each of them.

A hairshirt was an undergarment made of very coarse animal (usually goat) hair that was worn next to the skin where it caused continual irritation. Individuals seeking to mortify their bodies as a form of penance found the hairshirt to be very effective.  Thomas A’Becket (“The Saint of Canterbury”) is said to have been wearing a lice-ridden hairshirt under his bishop’s robes at the time of his murder in 1170. Margery Kempe, a 14th century wife, mother, business woman and mystic, records in her (dictated) autobiography that she wore a hairshirt for a number of years, even during the conception of some of her fourteen children. This gives a whole new meaning to “unconditional love” but also reminds us that our modern olfactory sensibilities are very different, much more delicate, than those of days gone by.

 

Pests, Ink and Red-letter days

oakapple

Spring is really here. I know that because the blow-flies are appearing in the kitchen even before I’ve opened the door in the morning, and the roses are attracting the aphids in swarms.  But even pests sometimes serve a useful purpose. I’m thinking especially of the way in which medieval ink was made. The basic ingredient was the oak apple which, despite its rather inviting name, was actually a “gall” which is an abnormal growth found on plants. Wasps and flies act as the gall-forming “agents” by depositing their eggs in plant tissue. Secretions from the larva stimulate the plant tissue to develop galls which then serve as a protective covering around the larva. This formation process produces high levels of tannic acid in the galls, and this acid is one of the essential ingredients in medieval (iron-gall) ink.

To produce the ink, the tannic acid was crushed and infused in rainwater or vinegar then combined with ferrous sulphate and a little gum arabic which thickened the ink, giving it a better viscosity for its uptake into the quill. The reaction between these three ingredients produced a dark brown to black coloured ink that was well absorbed by parchment or vellum.

Other colours in the medieval palette – evidenced in the beautifully vivid illuminated manuscripts – also required quite a bit of preparation of both chemical and natural substances.  White , for example, was prepared from lead carbonate and, though this resulted in a wonderfully opaque ink, it was also poisonous.

The rarest and most expensive colour of the Middle Ages was blue, made from ultramarine, a powdered form of the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, and sourced only from Afghanistan at that time.  

Red (vermilion), though more easily prepared by combining ground mercuric sulphide, egg white and gum arabic, was also highly prized for its beautiful effects and was used in manuscripts for headings, initials, and rubrics. The rubrics in liturgical calendars usually acted to “highlight” a particular feast day or celebration and we maintain the idea in our expression: “red-letter days”.

In Spring, the vivid colours and fragrance of the flowers make every day a “red-letter day”, pests or no pests.