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.

 

The Shape of Things

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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.

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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 and showed the pre-hatched baby tucked into a perfect circle (Photo #1). On 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 (Photo #2). Dinosaurs or dogs, I think Augustine is right: the circle is a beautiful shape.

 

Thou Shalt Not Quill

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On these warm, clear days of early spring in Sydney, the range of distractions for a writer is unending. Who would not prefer to laze in a sunny spot in the garden, sipping coffee and reading a favourite novel rather than sitting in a cold study, staring at a blank screen, and willing inspiration to manifest?

While the lure of sunny distractions is, I’m sure, age-old, I doubt that our medieval counterparts could often indulge in the luxury of writer’s block because, when they weren’t writing, they were probably collecting or preparing their writing implements. Parchment and ink, of course, were crucial but the main medieval writing instrument was the quill. This earlier pen was a flight feather from a large (and moulting) bird. Most commonly, the goose was the provider but swan feathers were also coveted, though not so readily acquired. Smaller quills were obtained from birds such as crows and owls.

The feathers feature a hollow shaft which allowed ink to be held in reserve between dipping. A quill’s plume, while decorative, also often obscured the clear vision of the page for the writer or copyist and, thus, most medieval scribes favoured a stripped feather. Quills were sharpened with a knife and our present-day terminology preserves the idea (and a version of the implement) in the “pen-knife”.

Perhaps then, bird-watching might be considered a legitimate distraction for a writer – much more enjoyable than taking the laptop in for repairs.

Pests, Ink and Red-letter days

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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.

Yes Power

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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.

We, too, will often not know the repercussions of saying “yes” in our lives, of being willing to undertake a difficult task or of making a commitment. We can only have faith that something good will come of it (and hope that it doesn’t take quite as long as Margery Kempe’s “yes” for its effect).