Hey, hey, windy day

Windy_weather

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?

A Flight into the Dark Night

Night_darkness

 

Many of us have had the experience of preparing for an overseas holiday. As the time for departure grows closer, there’s often a feeling of anxiety mixed with the excitement of anticipation as we try to tidy the house and garden, make sure the newspaper and other deliveries are cancelled, organise accommodation for the pets, pay the bills, purchase travel insurance, renew the passport and so on. On the day of departure, just before we’re leaving for the airport, we run around checking that all the appliances are turned off, all the doors and windows are secured and the perishables are thrown out of the fridge and pantry. Even as we board our flight we may have a sudden thought that we’ve left the iron on; but once that plane accelerates down the runway and then lifts its nose skyward and we feel ourselves leave the ground, we know there’s nothing else we can do about any unfinished tasks at home. We’re lifted into a “between” state of being – not at home, yet not at our destination, detached from a clear sense of place, and completely “ungrounded”. Yet, there is an accompanying feeling of freedom, of leaving the mundane behind and of going towards the exciting unknown.

            In some ways, this physical experience of being “betwixt and between” is comparable to the psychological and spiritual idea of detachment. The great 16th century Spanish poet and mystic, St John of the Cross, opens his beautiful account of the soul’s journey towards union with God with the following lines:

On a dark night,

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh happy chance!

I went forth without being observed,

My house being now at rest.

Here, the “house” is the body with all its senses that bristle and alert us and keep us connected to worldly concerns and emotions. In bringing the house to rest, in detaching from its concerns, John of the Cross regards the soul as liberated to soar into that dark night which he views as being an assent to live in total darkness with regard to all created things. Two centuries earlier, in the medieval period, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing described the detachment experienced during contemplation and meditation in a similar way: an intermediate state between two clouds – “a cloud of forgetting” below and “a cloud of unknowing” above, between the contemplative and God. The Cloud author further posed that darkness was not an absence of light but, rather, an absence of knowing [of God] and as, in his view, God cannot be known but only loved, darkness and detachment are desirable states in which to find oneself. More recently, and similarly, I have heard the Dalai Lama describe the concept of detachment very simply as being in a state of “nothingness: no-thing-ness”.

                        Some recent scholars, too, have described the “dark night” in psychological terms as the detachment of the ego, a letting go of the self and all its props. While letting go of illusions about ourselves can be confronting enough to plunge us into our own version of a “dark night”, perhaps we might usefully consider St John’s reference to the “happy chance”. That is, when those rare opportunities of bringing our “house to rest” present themselves, we should take them – for meditation or a walk in the garden, thus allowing ourselves to be more open to life’s possibilities, more open to an unplanned journey into a dark night.

 

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!

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.

Let’s Dance

medieval dance

 

Some of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that the subject of my PhD thesis (over 18 years ago now) was, broadly, medieval mystics; and every now and then (well, quite often, actually) I am drawn back to their beautiful writings for inspiration. I am in one of those ‘phases’ currently so there might be a few ‘mystical’ posts making an appearance over the coming weeks. Today, I needed to reflect on one of my ‘favourites’ – the brilliant Mechtild of Magdeburg. Here she is:

Mechtild of Magdeburg was a medieval mystic whose visions and insights ranged, quite literally, from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven. She was born in Saxony in about 1210 and, from evidence within her own writings, seems to have experienced her first visions at the age of twelve. At about the age of twenty she left her home to become a Beguine[1] in the town of Magdeburg. There, under the spiritual guidance of the Dominicans, Mechtild’s visions continued and increased and she was encouraged to write them down. This she did in a text under the title of The Flowing Light of Godhead. However, Mechtild’s claim that God had directed her to record these insights and experiences attracted considerable suspicion and criticism, and this increased when, in turn, Mechtild voiced her own criticism of certain local and high-ranking clergy. As a result, for her own protection, in 1270, Mechtild was moved to the Cistercian convent of Helfta. There, in the company of other great mystics of the time, including Mechtilde of Hackeborn and St. Gertrude the Great, Mechtild passed the final years of her life, in writing and in prayer, until her death sometime between 1282 and 1290.

Mechtild’s writings are representative of the ‘affective’ or via affirmativa approach to mysticism in which the mystical experiences are recorded and conveyed in a language that is steeped in metaphor, analogy and sensual imagery. There is no doubt that Mechtild was a gifted poet and some scholars have, rightly, speculated on how much of her writing is attributable to actual mystical inspiration and how much to pure poetic expression. Her visions of hell and purgatory and heaven, in particular, are graphic enough to have prompted comparisons with Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly as Mechtild’s version features descriptions of deeper and deeper levels of hell and purgatory where souls are tormented according to the severity of their sins. Some have even suggested that Mechtild’s descriptions were Dante’s inspiration and that Mechtild herself is represented in the poem as the character, Matelda. Such comparisons remind us that the ‘affective’ medieval mystics used not only beautiful imagery that elevates and delights the modern reader but also, sometimes, gritty and confronting imagery that challenges our modern sensibilities. Perhaps it is the ‘dance’ of these opposites that is one of the reasons that the mystics retain an appeal for us today. We, too, must live in a world that is often ugly and fraught with despair; but we also have the promise and knowledge of the great beauty of creation, and the undercurrent of something divine, mysterious and constant that somehow sustains and enlivens us. Perhaps ironically, then, the poem that is now most synonymous with Mechtild is about ‘the dance’ but, in this case, a very positive and beautiful dance with Divine Life.

I cannot dance, Lord, unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain, yet want also to circle higher still.        

(Mechtild of Magdeburg)

[1] A beguine was a woman who lived a life dedicated to God but who did not take the vows of religiously professed women. Instead, she lived with other similarly dedicated women who often worked in the community but returned to the “group house” (beguinage) to share in a community life of prayer. Topic for another blog.

Raising Specks to the Spectacular

Meister_der_Manessischen_Liederhandschrift_001

O the dignity of that small speck of human dust
Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence

To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s height
                                        (Gertrude the Great 1256-1302)

Gertrude the Great was a nun and mystic in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as “the scholars of Helfta” because of their extraordinary writings and mystical experiences. Gertrude’s prayer brings together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence – our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and our dignity. Her lovely metaphor for each of us as “that small speck of human dust” is even more relevant today than it was when Gertrude composed her poem in the late 13th century.

Last time I checked, the world’s current population is around 7.5 billion people, and increasing at a rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.

The 14th century English woman, Julian of Norwich (another great mystic), was also given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her (what she termed ) “Revelations of Divine Love”. In her writings on those profound revelations she explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because God loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense to us: love endures.

We cannot hope to truly comprehend the vastness and complexity of our universe but we can understand, from our own everyday human experience, what it is to be loved and to love ourselves and others. Of course, to truly love others we must acknowledge their humanness – the positive and negative attributes of the personality, the annoying habits, the inconsistencies, the humour and kindness, the bad temper, the fears, the thoughtfulness, the failings as well as the successes. In our enduring love for others, we raise them up in our own estimation and, as a consequence, they are also raised in their own view  – from specks to spectacular. So, like Gertrude the Great, Joe Cocker was onto something in his song “Love Lifts us up Where We Belong”.