The Shape of Things

saint-augustine-hippo-mosaic-front-church-mount-beatitudes-galilee-israel-84554391

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.

dinosaur egg

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.

 

dog circleOn 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.

 

Yes Power

margery

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.

Forks in the Road (and other cutlery)

knives_eating

Western table cutlery settings today always feature a knife, fork and spoon, each one with its particular use. Spoons for the soups, sauces; knives for cutting food into manageable pieces; forks for moving the food from plate to mouth. But this organised (and well-mannered) approach is relatively new – at least in terms of human civilisation.

Knives were probably the first of the ‘cutlery set’ to appear. Evidence dates them right back to pre-historic times when sharpened flints, volcanic glass and bones were among the earliest cutting implements in use. With the advent of the Bronze and Iron Ages, knife blades became more sophisticated and, though still used primarily for hunting and as weapons, the knife’s utility was hard to ignore, and smaller versions of it became handy for assisting in eating and cutting in general.

Spoons have been around since the Stone Age too, with shaped stones, shells and hollowed-out animal horns being some of the discoveries that testify to their use.

Forks were known in Greek and Roman times but virtually disappeared from use during the Christian Middle Ages. Some historians have suggested that the fork’s shape was too reminiscent of the devil’s pitchfork but it is more likely that the knife’s versatility – it could be used for spearing food and bringing it to the mouth as well as cutting it – overrode the need to invest too much time and craftsmanship into the fork. And hands were, well, just as ‘handy’ for picking up food (and always ‘on hand’). It seems, however, that the fork did reappear in Western Europe in the 16th century when courtly society deemed that eating was more politely accomplished by digging forks rather than hands into food.

In the Middle Ages all travellers carried their own knife and spoon for eating when staying at an inn on the journey as the innkeeper did not provide guests with cutlery because such useful, well-crafted, and portable items were considered too ‘tempting’ and likely to be stolen by passing strangers: a different take on the “dish ran away with the spoon” in the Hey Diddle Diddle nursery rhyme (which, by the way, seems to date back in some form to medieval times).

One of my favourite ‘literary spoons’ is the runcible spoon in the final part of Edward Lear’s wonderful poem The Owl and the Pussycat:

They dined on mince and slices of quince

Which they ate with a runcible spoon

And hand in hand by the edge of the sand

They danced by the light of the moon, the moon

They danced by the light of the moon.

‘Runcible’ is today said to describe a sort of combination fork, spoon and knife; a fork with a curved section like a spoon, and with three broad prongs, one of which has a sharpened outer edge for cutting. In Australia we might call such an implement a ‘splayd’ or a ‘spork’. Actually, though, Edward Lear made up the word (along with others of his invention) as a whimsical addition to his poem. And cutlery to match the whimsy followed.

Enjoy your dinner!

Cats to Conjure With

cat and mouse

I don’t have to think about it. I admit it: I am a dog person. There’s something about dogs’ joyful optimism and irrepressible enthusiasm for everything from food to a good stick that makes me happy; not to mention their devotion and companionship. And, in truth, I’ve never had a cat as a pet whereas I could not imagine home life without a dog. Nevertheless, I have friends who couldn’t live without their cats and so when I decided to write a blog or two on animals in the Middle Ages, I decided, in the interests of fairness and balance, to start with cats. (Dogs will follow at a later date).

The people of the Middle Ages saw cats in both a positive and negative light. Their biggest “plus” was that cats caught mice, no small mercy in an age that was ridden with rodents. Some medieval commentators, however, compared the way in which cats toyed with the rodents before killing them to the way that the devil played with people’s souls before possessing them completely. From this comparison it was not a large step to believing that the cat, like the devil, could alter its shape and appearance for fair means and foul.  And there was something about the cat’s independence – its disdain for the closely-held belief that God had made animals for the service of humans – that provoked suspicion. And, it’s true that this view resulted in medieval cats being often very cruelly treated.

Fortunately, not everyone shared the suspicion; there is quite a lot of evidence in the literature of the time that shows that many medieval people were very fond of cats.  The Ancrene Wisse, an early 13th century guide for enclosed anchorites, recommends the keeping of a cat, and no other animal. In 14th century Exeter Cathedral had a cat on its payroll at 13 pence per quarter; and in the 1360s that amount was raised to 26 pence per quarter (though, perhaps, indicating an increasing rat problem that called for the employment of a second cat rather than representing a pay rise for the first cat).

A ninth-century monk inserted this poem to his cat in the margin of the manuscript he was working on:

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

In fact, cats and manuscripts seemed to have gone together in the Middle Ages as can be seen by the paw prints left on a 15th century manuscript from Dubrovnik:

cat prints

And such neat and strong paw prints they are, recorded for posterity. Now, a dog would never have been able to manage that!

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.

Perchance to Dream

dreams

Dreams, as we all know, are complicated. Sometimes they are pleasant, sometimes terrifying, but always they leave us with fleeting and fractured impressions of our sleeping subconscious after we wake from them. Interest in dreams goes back a long way into our human history; and throughout the ages there has been no shortage of authors putting quill to parchment for the purpose of exploring the dream-state more deeply.

Cicero, the great Roman orator and statesman, and consul of Rome in 63BC, is among the many who wrote about dreams. In fact, his Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio) became one of the most influential works on dreams for later medieval writers. Cicero’s story of the dream of Scipio Africanus – in which the subject’s grandfather appears to him and gives him insights into such heady topics as cosmology and the immortality of the soul – made such an impression on the early medieval writer, Macrobius, that he wrote a detailed commentary on Scipio’s dream, developing the elaboration into a classification method for dreams in general.

Macrobius’s method distinguished 5 types of dream. The first two types (nightmare and apparition) he declared as ‘insignificant’ because he believed them to be non-predictive/non-prophetic (and, therefore, of no practical use to one’s present or future life). Such dreams, he said, were brought about by day-time anxiety or stress or, in particular, over-indulgence in the wrong kind of food and drink.

The next three types in the classification, however, were of great significance:

  • The somnium or enigmatic dream in which strange shapes and symbols represent important meanings that must never be ignored but always carefully interpreted.
  • The visio or prophetic visionary dream which is a clear glimpse or insight into what is to come.
  • The oraculum in which someone of importance and/or great wisdom (from the past or present, dead or living) appears to the dreamer to impart information or advice.

Such credence was given to Macrobius that, in the later Middle Ages, a whole genre of dream-vision poetry developed with his classifications as the base and inspiration. Great medieval authors such as Chaucer (who not only wrote many dream-vision poems but actually mentions Macrobius’s Scipio in at least three of them) and Guillaume de Lorris (Romance of the Rose) were masters of the genre. Even Dante’s epic The Divine Comedy is a vision of the world beyond death.

Today, of course, most writers are cautious about employing the dream device but, for medieval authors, it was regarded as a skilful way of bringing together the worlds of reality and imagination. Then, too, the division between the material and the spiritual was much more fluid, less stringently applied than in our own matter-of-fact time. Now, the dream (and even sleep itself) has been down-graded to a distant second-place behind our ‘real lives of busyness’. There is little time to ponder our dreams when all waking moments are taken up by the bright screens of modern technology.

Something to think about as you fall asleep tonight … unless, of course, you’ve over-eaten beforehand!

A Wait Problem

L'Horloge de Sapience (the Clock of Wisdom) from about 1450

As a society, we Australians are not very good at waiting. Being at the end of a long queue in the supermarket, or at the petrol station, or the ticket office is enough to send us into an agitated frenzy. Trolley rage, road rage, crowded train rage – you name it, we rage about it. Busyness is considered a virtue and anyone who is not ‘flat out’, head-down, tail-up’, ‘haven’t got a minute’ is obviously not pulling their weight in this country with some of the longest working hours in the world. Recently, a Sydney University study showed that one in five Australian workers puts in at least 50 hours a week while, overall, full-time employees work an average of 44 hours per week, placing us near the top of the hours-worked pile among the OECD countries.

Last year, Australians clocked up over 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime. The situation has reached such a fever pitch of activity that, for the past several years, The Australia Institute has nominated a day in late November as National Go Home on Time Day www.gohomeontimeday.org.au . And guess what? Today is the day – 22nd November, 2017.

Of course, once we get home, there’s little likelihood that we’ll be any less busy than we are at work as we rush to complete household chores, to fulfill social engagements and family commitments. Yes, we know what we should be doing: taking time to smell the roses; being aware; living in the present moment

But just what IS a ‘present moment’. Some of the great mystical writers of the Middle Ages sought to quantify the notion because they were concerned with entering wholeheartedly into a contemplative state. They recognised that merely being IN the world was to be in a state of constant distraction, so many of them chose to separate themselves from the distractions by seeking out isolated places where silence could surround them. Others acknowledged that unavoidable and constant distractions were part and parcel of being alive and so tried to work within the limitations. The fourteenth-century Cloud of Unkowning author* took a more lateral view, advising his readers that the work of contemplation was “the shortest work that can be imagined”. For him, that ‘shortest’ time was “no longer or shorter than one athomus”.  To the medieval understanding an athomus was the smallest quantity of time, indivisible and almost incomprehensible. It was approximately equal to one-sixth of a second and, therefore, the Cloud author is speaking of the attainment of the Divine as being virtually instantaneous. It is our modern-day equivalent of finding and experiencing God/Peace/Love in the absolute present, in every moment. The Cloud author further reminds his audience that “[we] shall be asked how all the time given [to us] has been spent … [for] nothing is more precious than time. In one little moment, heaven may be won and lost … [and] time is made for man, not man for time.” That is, the Cloud author stresses the importance of time, the necessity to use it effectively, and the infinite possibilities that time offers in each and every moment.

So, don’t forget to go home early today and, when you get there, take an athomus or two to appreciate all the possibilities of the moment.

 

*The actual author of the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing is, ironically, unknown; hence he is usually referred to as “the Cloud author”.

 

Mirror, Mirror!

mirror

We all remember the magic mirror belonging to the evil queen in the fairytale, Snow White. Each day the queen would position herself in front of the mirror and ask, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?” And the mirror would reply, “You are, O Queen.” The queen would be reassured for the moment, content in the mirror’s lie and its acquiescence to her vanity.

                Throughout history, the mirror has been one of the most prevalent and potent metaphors for the folly of human vanity. One of the foundational Western myths, for example, is the story of Narcissus who fell helplessly in love with himself when he discovered his reflection in a woodland pond. So taken was he with the beauty of his own image, he could not leave the pond and so died there.

Today we, too, seem to be obsessed with our own images. We wouldn’t think of leaving the house without first checking ourselves in the mirror. Lifts in buildings have mirrored walls so we can pass the time by looking at ourselves as we ascend or descend. There are mirror apps for our phones. And our mobile phones are the new mirrors, providing us with the instant ‘selfies’ that we can enhance (or delete) before sharing them with the world.  We spend countless billions on lotions and potions in attempts to beautify ourselves and to ward off the aging process. Beauty and youth are idealized and idolised in glossy magazines, on the big and small screen, and across social media. And the way to happiness is often touted as being as easy as a few deft swipes of the plastic surgeon’s knife. The idea is that we’re only as worthwhile as our outward appearance. If we don’t look good, we cannot be happy. In this way, the mirror is powerful because we allow it to have power.

And its power over humans started a long time ago. Archaeologists have found evidence of the earliest mirrors being simply polished surfaces of natural materials – rocks like obsidian, for example – which could reflect back an image, albeit a hazy one. With time, the crafting of metals – copper, silver, gold – gave the self-viewer a slightly clearer idea of him/herself but it was still a rudimentary reflection. The glass mirror – the closest ancestor of our contemporary mirrors – is recorded from Roman times but it was really during the Middle Ages that the quality of glass became good enough to return a clear reflection. Around that time, the manufacture of a much smoother glass enabled a relatively blur-free surface to be achieved and its reflective ability was increased by backing the glass with a metal such as gold leaf or a silver-mercury combination.

The medieval mirror par excellence was the work of Venetian glassmakers on the island of Murano. Their backing material of choice was kept secret for many decades but it was known to include mercury in the gilding process which, of course, made the final product ‘problematic’. Still, that didn’t dampen the general enthusiasm for mirrors (though, of course, their cost made them a luxury item for the wealthy only). After that, the reflective quality continued to improve over the centuries as production methods advanced the clarity of glass.

As far as the mirror was concerned, there was no looking back!

All Creatures Great and Small

S.Francesco_speco

It is no coincidence that the feast day of St Francis of Assisi and World Animal Day are both celebrated on 4th October each year because for Francis, all of creation was sacred. From the tiniest insect to the largest mammal, from the wind and rain to the sun and stars, all were the work of the Divine, all were worthy of respect and love.

Francis was born in 1181 to Pietro Bernadone and his wife, Pica in Umbria, in present-day Italy. Francis’s father was a cloth merchant who travelled frequently to France for business and it was Pietro who is said to have named his son ‘Francesco’ (Francis) in honour of his love for France. It was expected that Francis would follow his father into the cloth trade but he had other ideas, enjoying a wild social life and even going off to fight in a civil war. In 1201 Francis was captured by the enemy and spent one year in prison before being released when his wealthy father paid the ransom for him. But the captivity experience did not deter Francis and, in 1204, he set off to enlist for the 4th Crusade. However, he never made it as, en route, he began to experience strange dreams and visions and, unable to continue with his journey, he returned to Assisi and worked with his father for a time.

But Francis remained unsettled and, in 1205, he found himself in the old church of San Damiano, gazing at a crucifix. As he gazed, it seemed that the figure of Christ spoke to him, instructing him to repair the old church. Francis did not hesitate – he took the directive literally and set about repairing, stone by stone, the crumbling little church, paying for the repairs by selling his horse and some of his father’s most expensive cloth.

Today, no doubt, we would regard Francis’s visions as something requiring medical attention but in the Middle Ages, visions were usually understood as messages of divine (or sometimes diabolical) origin. Francis’s father took the latter view and, infuriated by his son’s behaviour, he had Francis brought before the town council. Francis answered the charges by stripping naked in the piazza, giving everything back to his father, including his clothes. From then on, Francis dressed in rags and went about begging for his food, preaching poverty and the love of God and all creation. St Francis_2

Soon others joined him on his quest. In late 1209/early 1210, Francis and 11 brothers travelled to Rome to seek the pope’s permission to establish a new (religious) order. At first the pope was very reluctant to grant such permission but then he had a dream in which he saw Francis propping up a crumbling church – and not just a single edifice but the whole institution. So, on 16 April 1210, Pope Honorius III gave verbal approval for the establishment of the ‘Order of Friars Minor’ (later, the ‘Franciscans’). Basically, the Franciscan Rule called only for the friars to preach the gospel and to live in absolute poverty.  More and more men join Francis and the brothers set about preaching far and wide, even going into Egypt and the Holy Land in 1219. It is said that Francis preached to anyone and anything – his address to the birds, and to a troublesome wolf in Gubbio being particularly familiar stories to us even now.   

 

When Francis’s health and eyesight began to rapidly decline, he retreated from his extensive preaching, spending more time in solitary contemplation. During this period, he composed his famous Canticle of the Sun (sometimes called the Canticle of the Creatures) ***

Francis died on Saturday, 3rd October 1226, at age 45 years and, only two years later (1228) was canonised a saint by Pope Gregory IX. (Of course, some political reasons contributed to this expediency but, even so, in those early years, Francis’s dedication and contributions were undeniable).  Centuries on, Francis was proclaimed a patron saint of Italy in 1939 and, in 1980, he was declared the patron saint of ecology.

How wonderful that one man’s love of all creation has persisted for nearly 800 years to be an example that we can all follow today in caring for our planet, and all creatures great and small.

*** Canticle of Creatures

Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

 Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.

Playing Chicken

Chickens

My neighbours have built a chicken coop (‘a chook shed’ as we Aussies say) in their suburban backyard with high hopes of having fresh eggs for breakfast for many years to come. It’s a good plan and one to which people the world over have subscribed for many, many centuries. Today’s domesticated chickens are, apparently, descended from the Red Jungle Fowl of South Asia. The Romans are thought to have brought chickens to Britain with them and it’s the descendants of that Roman poultry that have become the focus of some intense archaeological studies in the past few years. What particularly drew the archaeologists’ attention was the discovery of substantial increases in the quantity of chicken remains that could be dated between the 9th and 12th centuries. Though chickens had been an easy and popular feature of even the humblest farms prior to, and following those centuries, several studies noted that the 9th – 12th century increase correlated with a surge and expansion of the farming and fasting practices of the Benedictine monks: they abstained from the eating of meat from quadrupeds but, as birds (and their eggs) were not considered to be ‘meat’ – having only two legs –  the raising of chickens on their monastery lands was a good way of feeding the monks and honouring their fasting obligations. The spread and influence of the Benedictines in these centuries very soon saw their fasting practices adopted by large portions of Christian society. A simple case of chicken and egg.

It got me thinking about a chicken and egg experience of my own.

One year, in an effort to give our city-born-and-bred daughters a taste of ‘rural life’, we hired a farmhouse cottage for the July school holidays. The cottage was ‘rustic’ to say the least, with bare, unsealed floors, lumpy beds and no heating except for a wood-burning stove in the little living room. This left the kitchen and bedrooms bitterly cold in the Oberon winter. Still, we reasoned that frosty breath in the morning, and icicles on the windows were part of the adventure. A blanket of snow in the surrounding yard was also a bonus. In the yard, too, much to the delight of three little girls, was a chicken coop with one – and only one – fat, red hen. The farmer, greeting us on our arrival, told the children that the hen’s name was ‘Henrietta’ and, pointing them to a bag of chicken feed, he said that they could feed her each morning and evening. They were beside themselves with joy and, as soon as the farmer took his leave, they were in the coop with Henrietta.

“Be gentle with her,” I instructed.

“We will, Mummy, but we just love her. Do you think she’ll lay some eggs?”

“Well, I certainly hope so,” I replied. “That’s what hens do.” What I, as a city-born-and-bred mother did not know, however, was that chickens don’t lay very reliably when the mercury is sitting below freezing most of the day and night.

Now, whether it was indeed the freezing weather, or the hen’s nervousness at being so greatly loved by three little girls, the first week passed without my daughters discovering a single egg in Henrietta’s coop.

“Mumma, you said she’d lay eggs,” they moaned as they tramped despondently back into the cottage empty-handed again.

Our days at the farm were ticking by and, with only four mornings left, I decided to take the egg production business into my own hands. After the girls were asleep that night, I crept out to the chicken coup with a torch in one hand, and a fine, brown egg from a carton purchased at the local supermarket in the other, and I carefully placed the egg next to a somewhat alarmed chook.

The next morning the girls made their way doggedly to the hen-house, mumbling that it would be another waste of time. I smiled quietly to myself as I heard their excited cries.

“Mummy, Mummy, look. Come quickly,” they shouted.

I ran out, arranging a fake look of surprise on my face as I went, but my pretence turned to real surprise when the girls stood in front of me with an egg each in their hands.

“Mummy, Henrietta’s laid three eggs,” they said, proudly holding up their discoveries for my inspection. There, in front of my eyes, were three brown eggs – and only one of them was store-bought.

Over the remaining days of our farm stay Henrietta managed to produce two eggs each morning, without any prompting from me and, nearly twenty years on, Henrietta lives on in the memories of my daughters – and of me, especially – as a chook who could take a hint. Like most of us, all she needed was a little encouragement.