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

Hildegard’s Marvellous Medicine

Hildegard’s Illumination:
Cycle of the Seasons

This is a reblog of my post of 17th January, 2017. Regular readers here will know that I often make reference to Hildegard of Bingen, and I’m reblogging this today because I’ll be doing a mini speaking ‘tour’ in Brisbane next week. The first of my talks is ‘Hildegard of Bingen’ for the Abbey Museum in Caboolture on 27th April. The second talk is an ‘author’s talk’ on my novel Grasping at Water at the Cedar & Pine Wine Bar in Wynnum on 29th April. If you’re in either neighbourhood, come along and say ‘Hello’.

Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century Rhineland visionary, includes a remedy for jaundice in her extensive writings on medical topics. She advises the sufferer to wear a stunned bat (yes, of the mammalian kind) around his neck until the bat expires. To our modern sensibilities this recommendation seems useless at best but it was a treatment that was in keeping with the medieval understanding of human physiology and illness. That understanding had originated with Hippocrates (460-377BC) and Aristotle (384-324BC) and had been transmitted to the West via the writings of Galen (129-216AD) whose approach dominated the theory and practice of medicine throughout the Middle Ages.

                Following Galen, Hildegard regarded the human body as a microcosm of the vast macrocosm of the known universe which was believed to be made up of four elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.  All things – animate and inanimate – were composed of various combinations of these elements and of their contraries: cold, hot, moist, and dry. Particular combinations of any two of the contraries produced in each and every person one of four main Complexions or Temperaments and an accompanying predominant bodily fluid (humor).  Illness was understood as a disturbance in these humors and treatment sought to restore humeral balance. An overabundance of blood in the system, for example, was often treated by the application of leeches. Herbs, with their own particular humeral qualities, were a popular treatment as was careful attention to the patient’s diet.

Hildegard seems to have been an expert in the understanding and application of humeral theory. Among her many writings is a book of (medieval) “natural science”, Causae et Curae, in which she gives authoritative advice on treatment for all manner of ailments. For example, she recommends (a form of) the tansy herb to treat catarrh, and a brew of comfrey, marigold, wild sage and yarrow for easing pain associated with bruising following trauma.  Apples were a staple medicine.  When cooked  they were considered to be very beneficial for sick persons in general while a salve made from apple leaves was especially good for the eyes. No doubt this earlier medicinal use of apples is part of the basis for our present-day saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  Mind you, apples are a lot easier to come by than bats. And I can’t help but wonder what I might have to do to “stun” a bat!

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.

All That Glitters

jewels 1

There is a hotel bar in Sydney, high above the Harbour, which features a $10,000 cocktail on its menu. The cocktail consists of only two ingredients – champagne and a diamond. I don’t know of anyone who has actually ordered this drink but I’m presuming you don’t ingest the diamond. If you had served up such a drink in the Middle Ages, however, our modern inclination to keep the diamond and swallow only the champagne would not have necessarily applied.

In fact, the use of precious stones and metals in medieval medicinal treatments was not uncommon. In the 13th & 14th centuries, for example, the Dominican monks of Bologna were widely known for the excellence of their remedies.

Their mojewels 2st frequently prepared cure, to be ingested completely, was manuschristi (the “hands of Christ”) which was a confection of crushed pearls and gold in a syrup that variously included  violets, rosewater, chopped lemon, spices, marzipan and sugar. The mixture was used for a variety of ailments including heart palpitations and stomach disorders, and was even regarded as a plague preventative by some.  

The great 12th century abbess and visionary, Hildegard of Bingen, also included details of jewels as treatments in her medical writings. She regarded the emerald as the “jewel of jewels” for treating many ailments – heart and stomach problems, headaches, even epilepsy. The emerald’s efficacy was due to its excessive greenness which, for her and others of the time, signified that it had absorbed all the green goodness of the natural world as it sprang and sprouted back to new life each Spring. The emerald was not necessarily ingested, however; just wearing it as a charm or drinking some wine in which it had been placed was considered effective.  Hildegard also prescribed a sapphire held in the mouth for a short time each mornings for the improvement of one’s intellect and reasoning powers.

Albertus Magnus, a 13th century German Dominican (and credited with the discovery of arsenic) wrote extensively on the power of precious and semi-precious stones. Among his recommendations are amethyst as a good hangover cure, and topaz as a foil to madness. And diamond, of course, was good for just about everything.

With all those health benefits, maybe the $10,000 diamond and champagne cocktail is worth a try!!!!

Hildegard’s Marvellous Medicine

hildegards-medicine

Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century Rhineland visionary, includes a remedy for jaundice in her extensive writings on medical topics. She advises the sufferer to wear a stunned bat (yes, of the mammalian kind) around his neck until the bat expires. To our modern sensibilities this recommendation seems useless at best but it was a treatment that was in keeping with the medieval understanding of human physiology and illness. That understanding had originated with Hippocrates (460-377BC) and Aristotle (384-324BC) and had been transmitted to the West via the writings of Galen (129-216AD) whose approach dominated the theory and practice of medicine throughout the Middle Ages.

Following Galen, Hildegard regarded the human body as a microcosm of the vast macrocosm of the known universe which was believed to be made up of four elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.  All things – animate and inanimate – were composed of various combinations of these elements and of their contraries: cold, hot, moist, and dry. Particular combinations of any two of the contraries produced in each and every person one of four main Complexions or Temperaments and an accompanying predominant bodily fluid (humor).  Illness was understood as a disturbance in these humors and treatment sought to restore humeral balance. An overabundance of blood in the system, for example, was often treated by the application of leeches. Herbs, with their own particular humeral qualities, were a popular treatment as was careful attention to the patient’s diet.

Hildegard seems to have been an expert in the understanding and application of humeral theory. Among her many writings is a book of (medieval) “natural science”, Causae et Curae, in which she gives authoritative advice on treatment for all manner of ailments. For example, she recommends (a form of) the tansy herb to treat catarrh, and a brew of comfrey, marigold, wild sage and yarrow for easing pain associated with bruising following trauma.  Apples were a staple medicine.  When cooked  they were considered to be very beneficial for sick persons in general while a salve made from apple leaves was especially good for the eyes. No doubt this earlier medicinal use of apples is part of the basis for our present-day saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  Mind you, apples are a lot easier to come by than bats. And I can’t help but wonder what I might have to do to “stun” a bat!

Dally Messenger III

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