Heaven S(c)ent

Fine perfume is, and always has been, a luxury item, its high price putting it out of reach of many people in poorer social circumstances. But, in the Middle Ages, perfume was not only an indicator of high social status but a necessity for anyone who could afford it. 

The streets and winding laneways of medieval towns were awash with dirt and foul-smelling waste products (of the animal, vegetable, and human kind), the limited lighting in most houses was by means of tallow candles which smoked and gave off a rancid odour, and the tightly-packed and poorly ventilated houses were musty. Scented oils in the dwellings and/or on the person provided a welcome relief from the daily assault on the olfactory senses of all. And it was believed that sweet fragrances warded off malodorous evil spirits. The pomander ball – a sort of spherical vase or container, or sometimes a bag filled with fragrant herbs – enabled individuals to carry a pleasant smell around with them, dispelling bad smells and (it was thought) evil infections in their wake.

At that time, perfumes were prepared by infusing oils (usually almond or olive) with flowers such as rose, lavender and violet, or with other readily available plants like lemon, and herbs such as thyme and sage. Resins helped fix the scent and, later, when the process of distillation was perfected, the production of perfume became more widespread and of a more commercial concern, expanding access to this important item.  

Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) gives some wonderful details of the processes involved in creating special perfumes while, at the same time, offering a disturbing story about the evocative and provocative powers of scents and the sense of smell. Not a read for the faint-hearted (you might need your pomander ball close-by!).    

Lions and Dragons and Bears, Oh My!

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.

dragon

The dragons of today’s literature (for children in particular) are generally quite placid, with their mythic quality overtaking their earlier ‘evil’ connotations. 
I have a harmless dragon, myself, in my garden.

(Well, I hope he’s harmless!).

Thanks for the Memory

The 20th century philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, considered the house to be “one of the greatest powers of integration for thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.”

Bachelard’s idea is really not a new one. In the Middle Ages, in that time prior to the invention of the printing press, and when access to books was very limited, the accurate recalling of huge chunks of information – even whole manuscripts – was not just an art but an essential skill for scholars who needed a reliable method of remembering information. And this method involved a house … of sorts.

Much earlier, Cicero, in his Rhetorica ad Herennium described a method of memory that was ‘locational’. That is, it involved the locating of specific things and ideas to be remembered within specifically-imagined rooms or architectural divisions in a ‘mind space’ (later known as the ‘memory palace’). Cicero’s method was revived in the monastic culture of the High Middle Ages with Hugh of St. Victor being a leading exponent in using architectural imagery to serve a mnemonic function. He, and others around the time, used as many of the senses as possible to support the mental impressions of objects, ideas, and entire texts that were to be placed in the memory palace for later retrieval. For example, different manuscripts might have had a different ‘feel’ or distinctive smell, and their contents may have reminded the scholar of an earlier experience, or even a friend. Inside the palace, different rooms served to house different categories of information and the scholar would ‘walk through the palace’ (of his mind), moving from the ‘general’ to the ‘specific’. With practice, no doubt, the ‘walk’ became quicker, more direct.

In addition to using such imagery for the purposes of remembering, it was in the medieval period, too, that the practice of finding associations between physical space and the spiritual space was distilled and enlarged. In part this was because the general populous was illiterate so that other things, besides words, needed to be able to be ‘read’ in order to convey information, specifically information of a religious nature. Thus, for example, the medieval cathedral was designed to be ‘read’ by the church goers with many things in the physical space being representational of something else in a ‘higher’ space. Every image in the stained glass windows, every carving on the great supporting columns, every leering gargoyle, told a story and taught a lesson. That is, sacred space, in the medieval period at least, was not just a space or place associated with divinity or religious worship but a vibrant representation of another even more vibrant spiritual reality.

This takes us back to our philosopher, Bachelard, who said that “Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms’ we learn to abide within ourselves.” It’s an interesting idea but, as the average size of the Australian home has increased by around 50% in the last twenty years – from 169sq metres to 220 sq metres – I wonder if the physical edifice says more about our (external) desires and aspirations than about our souls.

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!

Eggs-actly: Medieval Easter Eggs

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.

Happy Easter – eggs and all!

Sanitary Insanity

Every 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.

“What 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.

“She 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. 

Kathryn 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.

“Tanning 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. ______________

Being Green

A post inspired by ‘Seeing Green: A Philadelphia Story‘ by Yeah, Another Blogger

Medieval Green Man

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”.