Lions, and Dragons and Beasts, Oh My!

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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!).

 

Love is in the Air

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In a few days time, the hearts, chocolates and premium-priced roses will be eagerly snapped up by lovers and would-be lovers, keen to demonstrate their devotion to the object of their affection. And while the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day is very much a modern phenomenon, the day itself has its origins in the Middle Ages.

True, very early foundations for the day can be found in the ancient Roman fertility Feast of Lupercalia which randomly paired young boys and girls in marriage; but it was the 14th century that gave us our current focus on romantic love. At that time, the West experienced a surge of interest in saints’ and martyrs’ legends. One very popular story was that of St Valentine, a priest of the 3rd century who defied the Roman Emperor Claudius II’s ban on the marrying of Christian couples, and proceeded to perform marriages in secret. For his efforts, St Valentine was executed in 278, and his feast day came to celebrated on 14th February.

As it happened, too, the medieval people (particularly in France and England) commonly believed that birds began their mating season on 14th February. In his Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Fowls) the great Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the belief for posterity with the words:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate

And there it was: the amorous nature of the day was set … for better or worse.

Journey AND Destination – Pilgrimage

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Whan that April with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which engenred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the Yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

(Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales)

The medieval obsession with pilgrimage, immortalised and used as the basis of Chaucer’s great work, The Canterbury Tales, was a firm feature of medieval life. As Chaucer indicates, once Spring settled over the land, and the people were freed from the hardships of a rigorous Winter, folk of all types planned and set out on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, then as now, meant a journey with a spiritual objective to a religiously-significant destination.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages ranged from small journeys to the shrines of local saints, to more arduous and lengthy journeys to religious centres with soaring Gothic cathedrals, right up to the most demanding travel of all: the prized destinations of Rome, Compostela and the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Along the pilgrim routes which criss-crossed Europe, centres of economic prosperity arose in the service of catering to the pilgrims but, in reality, there was very little “vacation” to be found in these journeys. The pilgrim roads were fraught with dangers. It’s no coincidence that Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims met at an appointed time at the Tabard Inn so that they could make their pilgrimage in the company of others. A pilgrimage was a dangerous undertaking and no-one in their right mind would travel between the medieval walled towns and cities alone, day or night. It was not only the wild animals en route that pilgrims feared; it was the desperate humans who lurked, ready to rob and injure unsuspecting travellers.

While wealthy pilgrims travelled on horseback, all the others walked. Inns along the way provided accommodation but most of these were basic at best. “A bed for the night” rarely meant “a bed of one’s own”. The Great Bed of Ware, for example, was notable for its capacity to sleep fourteen people. The Pilgrim’s Guide written in 1140s is one of several surviving medieval “travel guides” that offer helpful hints to travellers and it warns of the error of eating the heavily spiced meat served by some inn keepers; such spice, it explains, is used to disguise meat that is “off”. The same guide also warns travellers to beware of paying for drinks served in very large tumblers since the quantity of liquid therein is often very small.

Such dangers and hardships were expected, accepted, and to an extent, embraced by the pilgrims because a pilgrimage was understood as a (living) metaphor of life’s journey to God. Everything in the medieval world was rich with meaning; every physical undertaking could be seen as having a spiritual meaning. Life was a pilgrimage and the pilgrimage was life, with all its twists and turns, joys and disappointments, unexpected gains and losses, good company and bad, laughter and tears. In the material world the ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem because it represented the ultimate spiritual destination, the heavenly city of God.

To the present day we undertake tours and pilgrimages to the great holy places of the world. We, too, might stand in awe of the magnificence of a cathedral but, like the pilgrims of a millennium ago, we will also understand the deeper, spiritual significance of such an edifice. Today, too, modern pilgrims walk the five-hundred mile road to Compostela, sometimes in company, at other times alone. In the commitment to the walk, to getting up every day and walking as far as possible, in facing the unexpected experiences that each day on the road presents, the contemporary pilgrim, like his medieval counterpart, is representing in a concentrated form that which we all strive to do in our everyday lives: meet the challenges, enjoy the blessings and keep moving forward, towards a reward – whether we seek it here or in the here-after.

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.

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).