“This Creature”: 40 Years of Margery Kempe

I’ve written about Margery Kempe before in this blog (https://carmelbendon.com/2018/09/04/yes-power-2/ ) and I’m really pleased to be able to reblog this post on Margery from one of the world’s “Margery Kempe experts”, Clarissa Atkinson. Her book, “Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe” was ground-breaking at its time of release, and remains essential reading for students of Margery. By the way, Margery Kempe was, in part, the inspiration for the modern-day character, Sister Margery Plimsoll, in my novel “Grasping at Water”.

The Oldest Vocation

In the mid-1970s, casting about for a dissertation topic, I stumbled over Margery Kempe. In those days you had to stumble over her – she did not appear in the syllabus of any course in medieval studies, nor did she haunt the ether. (Not that we would have known if she had.) Students of medieval Christianity had probably heard of Margery, but very vaguely, with few specifics about her life or work. She was a mystic, sort of, but her book was not read along with Julian’s Revelations or The Cloud of Unknowing. It was not assigned.

sculpture crop Frontispiece to my book: Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe (Cornell University Press, 1983)

Margery Kempe was an English woman of the late 14th, early 15th centuries who “wrote” a kind of memoir – dictated it, really, as she couldn’t read or write. It was…

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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.

Book review: Grasping at Water by Carmel Bendon

A bit of a departure from my usual ‘contemporary mixed with the medieval’ style of post, but as it is a very thoughtful review of my new book ‘Grasping at Water’ (which is ‘contemporary mixed with the medieval’) I just wanted to share it with you.

Isobel blackthorn

I do enjoy reading novels with strong mystical content. Especially when, as is the case with Grasping at Water, the author has profound knowledge of her subject.

About Grasping at Water

When a young, unidentified woman is pulled alive and well from Sydney Harbour in 2013, the connections to another woman – found in similar circumstances forty years earlier – present psychiatrist Kathryn Brookley with a terrible decision as the events of the present and past begin to mirror each other and the gap between truth and illusion shrinks.

When the young woman goes further and declares that she has lived continuously since coming to ‘understanding’ in the 14th century, her vivid accounts of life, love, childbirth, and loss in the Middle Ages seem so authentic that they test Kathryn’s scientific objectivity to the limit. As Kathryn delves she discovers that she is not the only one whose habitual…

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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.