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.
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.
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!
The season of Lent, which stretches over the forty days from
Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, was a time of penance and fasting in the
Christian medieval world. Fasting saw a prohibition on the eating of many
foods, with meat, fat, milk and eggs being particularly forbidden. This may
seem harsh to us now but, in fact, the Church had cleverly imposed the
restrictions on a time of the year when the food reserves were most scarce
anyway. That is, in Spring, the food stocks from the previous autumn’s harvests
were at their lowest level after the long, cold winter. Thus, a social
disadvantage was refashioned into a spiritual benefit.
The scarcity, however did not stop people from thinking
about their favourite foods and, as the chickens did not stop laying
completely, there sprang up the practice of preserving the eggs – by boiling –
over the Lenten period, and often painting and decorating them in preparation
for the celebration of Easter Sunday morning. Resourceful medieval folk also
found ways to make mock, or substitute, eggs (at least as far as the outward appearance
of the egg went) by blowing out egg shells and then filling them with an almond
paste mixture, or even fish roe.
The prohibition on eggs also worked towards making them seem special, both as a food and a symbol and, unsurprisingly, various superstitions arose in relation to eggs at Easter. One such superstition was that an egg laid on Good Friday and kept for one hundred years, would turn into a diamond. Another was that eggs cooked on Good Friday and eaten on Easter Sunday would increase fertility (and the fertility belief also attached itself to the symbol of the rabbit/bunny – for obvious reasons!). And, if you were fortunate enough to bite into a double-yolked egg, future wealth was assured.
Of course, the religious significance of the egg at Easter was not overlooked, with adults hiding brightly coloured eggs for children to find in a symbolic reflection of the women finding Jesus’ tomb empty after his resurrection.
now and then I like to share an excerpt from my recent novel, Grasping at Water. The story is set in
modern-day Sydney but there are medieval elements woven through it, usually in
the form of a dream sequence or as ‘tales’ told by key characters. I’ve tried
to make these medieval moments as authentic as possible, based on my many years
of research, lecturing and writing on medieval topics. And, in line with that
desire for authenticity, the following sample is about the [very] ‘basics’ of
everyday life in the Middle Ages. There are two schools of thought on the
question of how medieval townspeople disposed of the contents of their chamber
pots each day. The first, and most widely held, is that the contents were
thrown into the street (or river, if one was nearby) every morning; the second
view is that, as some large towns such as London had statutes against such
disposal, the towns were not as filthy as we might think. As you’ll see in the
following excerpt, I subscribe to the former, majority opinion.
Excerpt from Grasping at Water (Odyssey Books) p.152-154
Kathryn is dreaming again. She knows she is dreaming and yet everything is so vivid that her sleeping self seems more real than her waking self. She is moving backwards down a dark tunnel. It is constraining, claustrophobically narrow. She wants to get out. Suddenly she is expelled from it but, immediately, she wishes to be back in the tunnel. In the world outside the tunnel she is surrounded by death. The stench is overwhelming. Cupping her hand over her mouth and nose she takes short, shallow breaths in an attempt to filter out the repugnant smell. Gagging, she raises her head from its downcast position and tries to make visual sense of the dreamscape in which she finds herself. She is leaning against a wall, a house wall. Her feet are standing on cobblestones. Everything around her is narrow. Across the narrow cobbled street she sees narrow, closely packed houses of uneven proportions, many with the upper storey protruding fifty centimetres or more over the lower storey, overhanging the street. The houses’ windows are narrow, mean, without glass and covered, instead, with what looks like oiled cloth. The doors are narrow and heavy. It looks like the medieval town that Sophia had described to her. From somewhere overhead, Kathryn hears a female voice shout out something in a strange accent. “Gardey loo; gardey loo,” calls the woman who Kathryn can now see is hanging out of the upper storey window of the house directly opposite where she is standing. She is holding some kind of a pot in her hands.
are you saying?” Kathryn calls back, stepping forward into the middle of the
street. She is hit with a downpour of liquid and other matter; it drenches her
head, sticks to her hair; and its overpowering odour tells her instantly that
she is covered in urine and faeces.
was saying, gardez l’eau, and using
the phrase to mean ‘watch out for the water’. But I see you got more than
water,” laughs a well-dressed gentleman as he passes by. “These English have
been bastardising the French language ever since the Norman Conquest.”
Kathryn wants to ask the gentleman more but he vanishes, clearly not belonging to this place and time. Kathryn wants to vanish from it too, but does not know how to do it. Instead, she takes a single, crumpled tissue from the inside of her sleeve and tries to wipe her face with it, tries desperately to remove the smell of the chamber pot’s contents from her nose.
Another woman at another second storey window a little further down the street, holds a chamber pot in her hands and cries, “Gardey loo,” and this time Kathryn does what she observes other pedestrians doing: scrambling for cover against the first storey walls of houses so that they are under cover of the overhanging second storeys. Up and down the street, the cry is repeated until the street is a shower of human waste products that splash into, and up from, the cobblestones, some of it clinging to the clothes and uncovered hands and faces of passersby, the majority of it pooling in the slightly concave centre of the street and mixing with other muck that coats the cobbles to form a lumpy, brown sludge that oozes and flows along the sloping thoroughfare and into the river at the end of the road.
hurries towards the river too, hoping that from its banks she will gain a
perspective on where she is, and how she might escape. But on reaching the
embankment, she is assailed by an even greater stench and it is not simply the
result of the odious refuse and excrement that pours into the river from the
streets that wind down to it. Kathryn sees that both banks are home to trades
and industries that she takes some time to identify.
and butchery,” says a scrawny woman crouched on the shore, and looking up at
Kathryn as if she has read her dream-thoughts. “Stinks, doesn’t it? That’s
because the butchers slaughter right here, on the river’s edge, and skin the
animals as well. Then the skins are sold to the tanners next door and up along
the river and they submerge the hides in a solution of lime and urine to
dislodge the hair and fat. And then they rewash the hides by immersing them in
either warm dogs’ dung or birds’ droppings. And then they drench in another
solution of barley and urine or stale beer. They make beautiful leather here –
oh, the shoes, belts, gloves, saddles and harnesses are something to behold.
Still, the smell is so bad that even the rats keep away.”
Kathryn does not dare to open her mouth to thank the strange woman for the information but, instead, looks down at her to acknowledge that she has heard what was said and is shocked to see that the woman is washing her clothes in the river, right next to the tannery’s outfall. And at various spots all along the river’s edge there are women washing clothes, immersing heavy fabrics in the water, then wringing them by hand and rubbing and scrubbing them on washboards, and spreading them out on the ground to dry. She feels herself retching. ______________
A post inspired by ‘Seeing Green: A Philadelphia Story‘ by Yeah, Another Blogger
Our English word for the colour ‘green’ comes from the Old
English word grene which has the same
word root as that of the words grass and
grow. It’s no surprise, then, that we
associate green with nature and new life. Similarly, in the Middle Ages, the
colour green – with its profuse representation in the natural world – was a
potent symbol of the beauty of God’s creation. God’s promise of hope, fertility,
and abundance was renewed each year as people witnessed the green shoots of
Spring pushing through the cold, hard earth of Winter.
The great 12th century abbess and visionary,
Hildegard of Bingen, seems to have had quite a fondness for the colour green.
Firstly, there is her detailed knowledge of, and admiration for, the plants and
herbs of her locality which she used in healing medicines and ointments for her
nuns and others needing treatment. Then, there are the green-themed ‘upmarket’
remedies that Hildegard recommended: 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 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. (No
doubt many of us would agree that wearing an emerald might make us feel better!).
Hildegard also evoked greenness in relation to spirituality. She used the word viriditas (from the Latin meaning
‘greeness’) to describe the vitality, verdant beauty, and potential for growth
of the human soul.
Not everyone saw green as a positive force, however. Some
medieval churchmen were wary of the colour precisely because of its association
with the natural world. That is, some saw green as representative of the
pre-Christian religions that worshipped nature, and found their meaning in the renewal
and abundance that the seasons brought. The medieval ‘Green Man’, depicted with
his face and head surrounded by foliage, is a motif often found carved into
medieval (English) churches. His incorporation into Christianity points to the
way that the Church often managed to ‘neutralise’ the power of the Old
Religions by appropriating their symbols. Some scholars think that the rise –
in literature if not in fact – of the legendary outlaw, Robin Hood (topic for a
later post), and his distinctive green clothing, was associated with some
people’s yearning for a return to the old forms of worship.
The beauty of the colour green, however, overshadowed the
negative associations and it was a popular choice in the illuminated
manuscripts of the time. But it was tricky to make. The naturally occurring
earth and plant greens were not lightfast and so a mix of the more sturdy
primary colours – yellow and blue – gave the best effect. Or, sometimes,
verdigris – made from the blue-green rust of copper – was a good alternative
but, again, the green colour thus-produced tended to darken over time.
Actually, it was not until the 18th century that a vivid green was produced; and, unfortunately, as it was made by mixing copper with arsenic, it was a dangerous hue, considered responsible for the deaths of many, possibly even Napoleon Bonaparte who had a penchant for green (arsenic-based) wallpaper in his palaces. It was not until the early 20th century that a vivid and safe green was produced. As that great philosopher Kermit the Frog so often said: “It’s not easy being green”.
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?
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.
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.
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 in an almost perfect circle. Dinosaurs or dogs, I think Augustine is right: the circle is a beautiful shape.
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.