Cooking the Books

In the introduction to his dream-vision poem, The Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of Fowls), the great medieval author, Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400,) wrote “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne”, meaning, of course, that life is short and acquiring proficiency in any craft takes a very long time. In Chaucer’s case, he was reflecting particularly on the craft of writing. Writing IS a craft, and it IS hard work and I mention this because it’s been quite a while since I posted to this blog.

It’s not that I’d stopped writing. In fact, during my absence from the blog, I worked on my latest book, the creative non-fiction The Mystics Who Came to Dinner, and was thrilled to have it published by Orbis Books in April this year. And it’s that book that showed me exactly what Chaucer was talking about in his aphorism about the time required to attain competency in writing, or in any craft really.  For although I completed the book in under six months, I had wanted to write a generally accessible book on the medieval mystics for quite a long time. In fact, I had been asked to write such a book very soon after the completion of my PhD on medieval mystical texts back in 2001. There was no way, at that time, that I could envisage conveying the deep experiences of these mystics in more transparent terms without diminishing their messages. I tried but just couldn’t come up with something that seemed convincing to me, let alone anyone else.

Still, I did manage to produce an academic book on the subject in 2008, and I was content with that … for a while. But almost every time I gave a public talk or interview about the mystics someone would ask, “Is there an accessible book on the topic, not too heavy?” And, though there were, and are, many wonderful books, I knew that what the audience members were asking for was a book that delivered the deep insights of the mystics but in a lighter form, a form that encompassed their humanity, personalities, tribulations and triumphs, as well as honouring the deep spiritual experiences that had been theirs. A book that was more like a conversation than a lecture. And I knew that the books I would recommend in answer, though excellent, were not quite what they were asking for. So I continued to turn over in my mind the hope that, somehow, someday, I might write a more widely readable, more widely relatable book about the mystics.

And then Covid came along and I had time to turn over that hope even more concertedly. And one night I awoke at 3am with the ‘conversational’ component of my wonderings pushing itself to the fore and I suddenly knew that I’d invite six of my favourite mystics to dinner for an evening of conversation about their lives, loves and lessons. I would let them speak for themselves, basing their words on their own writings but updating and creatively elaborating their interactions, and reimagining their personalities, to highlight their relevance to 21st century readers.

How did Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, The Cloud of Unknowing author, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe communicate with each other, and with Annie, their host, you might ask, especially considering that their birth dates range from 1098 to 1373 (and those dates are a long way from 2022), and their places of birth (and, therefore, native languages) vary considerably. Perhaps I’ll answer by offering some extracts from the book in subsequent posts. But, for now, I’m thinking of Chaucer and his point that “the craft [is] so long to lerne”. Yes, The Mystics Who Came to Dinner took me less than six months to write, but it was really over 20 years in the reading, learning and planning stage, percolating in my imagination without me consciously realising it. I could not have written that book twenty years ago. Like bread, I had to mix and knead the idea, give it time to rise and bake before taking it from the oven to share with others.

Perhaps many of you are cooking the books, too, at this moment, even if you don’t know it.  

New York: Orbis Books, 2022

Valentine’s Day: Love, Pain and Poetry

wound of love

Ah, love is in the air with Valentine’s Day almost here. 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 be celebrated on 14th February.  

As it happened, too, the medieval people (particularly of 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 Chaucer wrote a few love poems of his own. One of his best-known is Rondel of Merciless Beauty in which he described the impact of a woman’s beauty on him, and how it feels as if his heart is wounded with love.

There are three parts to this poem, each of thirteen lines. Here is the first part in Middle English and then in modern translation.

Merciles Beaute: A Triple Roundel

Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit throughout my herte kene.

And but your word wol helen hastily
My hertes wounde, while that hit is grene,
Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene.

Upon my trouthe I sey you faithfully
That ye ben of my lyf and deeth the quene;
For with my deeth the trouthe shal be sene.
Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of hem not sustene,
So woundeth it throughout my herte kene.

Rondel of Merciless Beauty

Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene;
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen. 

Only your word will heal the injury
To my hurt heart, while yet the wound is clean –
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene. 

Upon my word, I tell you faithfully
Through life and after death you are my queen;
For with my death the whole truth shall be seen.
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly;
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene;
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen. 

The juxtaposing of love and pain was common in medieval poetry; and today we find that same blend in poetry, literature and films. Such pairing is, of course, the natural expression of the human experience of love and loss but, today, the pain is regarded as coming more at the end of a relationship than at the beginning. In the Middle Ages, and following the much earlier Roman mythological view,  Cupid (and his mother Venus) were presented as the initiators of love (and lust). Cupid would aim his bow and shoot an arrow not into the heart of the soon-to-be-lover but into his eye; that is, the object of his admiration was first pleasing to the eye (in a “love at first sight” way). After that, the heart, and the will, would acquiesce and act on the desire. You’ll notice that Chaucer plays with this “eye-heart” connection throughout the Merciless Beauty poem, and he also highlights the “wounding” and “slaying” aspect. This is especially interesting because “rondel” had another meaning in the Middle Ages. Then, a rondel was also a dagger with a very narrow and needle-pointed blade, perfect for thrusting into another’s heart for a swift and accurate kill.

Let’s hope you get all the love, and none of the pain, on this 14th February.

Author! Author!

venerableBede - Copy

I must confess that I’ve always had quite a bit of sympathy for the biblical ‘Doubting Thomas’.** It seems such a very human reaction to me to express incredulity at a man rising from the dead and to want to verify the event by reliance on one’s own senses. We doubt many things that we haven’t seen with our own eyes or perceived with our other senses. We are a society that demands proof as a matter of course. Business cannot function without written contracts; academic research builds on earlier (written) research results; the legal system insists on proof before a conviction can be recorded. We wouldn’t dream of taking a financial institution’s word as to our account balance – we must check the statement ourselves. MRIs and other technologically complex tests are necessary to probe and verify our illnesses. We cannot leave the country without a passport; nor can we be considered to even ‘exist’ without a birth certificate; and we’re only officially ‘dead’ when the Death Certificate is entered into the public record.

This wasn’t always the case. The Venerable Bede, for example, completed the writing of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731. Bede was born in Northumbria in about 673 AD. At the age of seven he was given by his parents into the care of the Benedictines at the monastery of Saint Peter in Wearmouth in north-east England. In 682, Bede was transferred to a joint-foundation at Jarrow and there he remained as a monk until his death in 735. In the Preface to his history, Bede assures his readers that they can trust in all that he has written because, he states, “I am not dependent on any one person, but on countless faithful witnesses who either know or remember the facts”. That is, for Bede, the authenticity of his history comes not only from earlier written accounts but also from a variety of trusted oral and traditional sources. It is Bede’s words, and the words of those he trusted, that are presented as the impeccable credentials on which the veracity of his work rests.

In the High Middle Ages, too, the importance of trusting the words (written and spoken) of others found full realisation in the writing practice of NOT being seen to be original and creative but, rather, of being regarded as giving due acknowledgment to those who had gone before, of building on the firm foundations of the insights and achievements of previous generations. Bernard of Chartres’ saying (often incorrectly attributed as having its origin with Isaac Newton – though Mr Newton certainly said those words too), “We are as dwarves on giants’ shoulders …” is emblematic of the time which gave us the word ‘author’ from the Latin ‘auctoritas’ meaning ‘authority’. That is not to suggest, of course, that the great medieval writers were not creative; in fact, authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Marie de France (more of these in later posts) turned narrative conventions upside down to give us stories that are as fresh and relevant today as they were at their time of composition. And nor is it to suggest that the writings of the past centuries were all ‘true’ and utterly ‘honest’ representations of people’s lives and thoughts. The art of Rhetoric has been around since at least the days of the Ancient Greeks and part of the ‘authority’ that was passed on from them to the Western authors of the early and later Middle Ages was the insight that words are slippery, and can exert influence, menace, confusion as well as relay information and inspiration. 

The situation is no different today. So, what to do? The doubt of Thomas, the trust of Bede, the creative slipperiness of Chaucer? As a writer I’m opting for the third option; but in my everyday life I’m taking the middle ground: open mind and open heart with the occasional pinch of scepticism.

 

**Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, “we have seen the Lord”, he answered, “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe” (John 20: 24-29).

Love is in the Air

medieval-love-letter

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

pilgrimage

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.

Dally Messenger III

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