Heaven S(c)ent

distillingperfume

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 Beasts, Oh My!

lion_bestiary

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.

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

 

(Well, I hope he’s harmless!).

 

A Good Old-Fashioned Barber

Wound_Man

A medieval Wound Man

 

In last week’s post I looked at the handy medieval medical guide for aligning bodily weaknesses with astrological influences as represented in “Zodiac Man”. The “Wound Man” served a similar purpose in that he was a visual compendium for the sorts of traumatic injuries that medieval surgeons might have to treat.

The medieval surgeon was not, of course, anything like the surgeon of our modern world. In fact, the medieval surgeon was often the local barber because one of the main criterion for “entry” to the profession was to be good with a knife or other blade. A barber had ready access, too, to these blades and plenty of practice and skill in using them on the human body.

The barbers’ poles of today, with their red and white intermingling spirals, are direct reminders of the dual skills of the barber of previous days. Originally the red represented the blood that the barber would draw from the patient either as a direct result of the surgery or as a deliberate outcome of bloodletting. This was a common medieval practice which involved the cutting open of a vein to allow the release of what was regarded as “excess blood” in the bodily humours. The pole’s white-coloured spirals, then, stood for the bandages that were applied to stem the wound at the conclusion of the “treatment”.

In the days before anaesthetic, surgery required a steady hand and it was not unusual that the surgeon was a woman. Her more delicate hands made the removal of anything from haemorrhoids to cataracts seem a little more bearable to the hapless patient.

cataract surgery

Medieval surgery for cataract removal

Something to think about next time you’re at the hairdresser.

As Above So Below

zodiac-2

One of the most read sections in today’s magazines is the Horoscope. This suggests that even if we deny a belief in the direct influence of the stars and planets on our daily lives, we at least entertain the possibility that people of the same star sign might share some broad personality characteristics.

In the Middle Ages no such ambiguity existed. Everything in the world was understood to be connected to everything else in some way, and the idea of “as above, so below” held sway. What existed in the heavens above, existed in the world below. As everything, everywhere, was thought to be composed of various combinations of the four elements – earth, fire, water and air – when something moved or changed in the heavens above, human bodies reacted below. Medieval people had witnessed the effects on the phases of the moon on the Earth’s tides so why wouldn’t the body’s elements similarly respond? And respond even more markedly to the (apparent) movement of the stars and planets in the sky. The influences of the heavens above were believed to be particularly influential on the body’s health (or ill-health), with the different astrological phases influencing different parts of the body.

Thus, “Zodiac Man” was born as a handy guide to pinpointing general ailments and weaknesses in the body. Broadly, here is a summary of the correspondence between zodiac signs and those susceptible bodily parts and functions:

Aries – Head, eyes, adrenals

zodiac-1

Taurus – Neck, throat, shoulders, ears

Gemini – Lungs, nerves, arms, shoulders, fingers

Cancer – Chest wall, breasts

Leo – Heart, spine, upper back, spleen

Virgo – Abdomen, bowel, liver, gallbladder, pancreas

Libra – Lower back, buttocks, hips, kidneys, endocrines

Scorpio – Reproductive organs, pelvis, urinary bladder, rectum

Sagittarius – Thighs and lower legs

Capricorn – Knees; and bones and skin generally

Aquarius – Ankles, blood vessels generally

Pisces – Feet

So … thinking of your own star sign, do any of the weaknesses ring true? (Not that we believe such things today!)

 

Thanks for the Memory

memorypalaces_small

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.

Love is in the Air

medieval-love-letter

In a few days time, the hearts, chocolates and premium-priced roses will be eagerly snapped up by lovers and would-be lovers, keen to demonstrate their devotion to the object of their affection. 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 celebrated on 14th February.

As it happened, too, the medieval people (particularly in 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 there it was: the amorous nature of the day was set … for better or worse.

Journey AND Destination – Pilgrimage

pilgrimage

Whan that April with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which engenred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the Yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

(Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales)

The medieval obsession with pilgrimage, immortalised and used as the basis of Chaucer’s great work, The Canterbury Tales, was a firm feature of medieval life. As Chaucer indicates, once Spring settled over the land, and the people were freed from the hardships of a rigorous Winter, folk of all types planned and set out on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, then as now, meant a journey with a spiritual objective to a religiously-significant destination.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages ranged from small journeys to the shrines of local saints, to more arduous and lengthy journeys to religious centres with soaring Gothic cathedrals, right up to the most demanding travel of all: the prized destinations of Rome, Compostela and the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Along the pilgrim routes which criss-crossed Europe, centres of economic prosperity arose in the service of catering to the pilgrims but, in reality, there was very little “vacation” to be found in these journeys. The pilgrim roads were fraught with dangers. It’s no coincidence that Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims met at an appointed time at the Tabard Inn so that they could make their pilgrimage in the company of others. A pilgrimage was a dangerous undertaking and no-one in their right mind would travel between the medieval walled towns and cities alone, day or night. It was not only the wild animals en route that pilgrims feared; it was the desperate humans who lurked, ready to rob and injure unsuspecting travellers.

While wealthy pilgrims travelled on horseback, all the others walked. Inns along the way provided accommodation but most of these were basic at best. “A bed for the night” rarely meant “a bed of one’s own”. The Great Bed of Ware, for example, was notable for its capacity to sleep fourteen people. The Pilgrim’s Guide written in 1140s is one of several surviving medieval “travel guides” that offer helpful hints to travellers and it warns of the error of eating the heavily spiced meat served by some inn keepers; such spice, it explains, is used to disguise meat that is “off”. The same guide also warns travellers to beware of paying for drinks served in very large tumblers since the quantity of liquid therein is often very small.

Such dangers and hardships were expected, accepted, and to an extent, embraced by the pilgrims because a pilgrimage was understood as a (living) metaphor of life’s journey to God. Everything in the medieval world was rich with meaning; every physical undertaking could be seen as having a spiritual meaning. Life was a pilgrimage and the pilgrimage was life, with all its twists and turns, joys and disappointments, unexpected gains and losses, good company and bad, laughter and tears. In the material world the ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem because it represented the ultimate spiritual destination, the heavenly city of God.

To the present day we undertake tours and pilgrimages to the great holy places of the world. We, too, might stand in awe of the magnificence of a cathedral but, like the pilgrims of a millennium ago, we will also understand the deeper, spiritual significance of such an edifice. Today, too, modern pilgrims walk the five-hundred mile road to Compostela, sometimes in company, at other times alone. In the commitment to the walk, to getting up every day and walking as far as possible, in facing the unexpected experiences that each day on the road presents, the contemporary pilgrim, like his medieval counterpart, is representing in a concentrated form that which we all strive to do in our everyday lives: meet the challenges, enjoy the blessings and keep moving forward, towards a reward – whether we seek it here or in the here-after.

Hildegard’s Marvellous Medicine

hildegards-medicine

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

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

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

New Year Nights, Gifts, and Knights

xmas-tree

Although our word “Christmas” comes from the Old English (10th century) term “Cristesmæsse”, the medieval practices and celebrations of the season were very different to our contemporary celebrations, and gift-giving was certainly not a feature. There’s some evidence, however, of gift-giving at New Year and one of the most interesting medieval stories that deals with the exchange of gifts is an Arthurian story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The story begins in Arthur’s court of Camelot where he and his knights are enjoying frivolous New Year games and gifts. The carefree atmosphere is shattered by the arrival of an unknown giant of a knight who is not only dressed all in green but also has skin of a green hue. Even his horse is green. Now, of course, in the broadest interpretation of this story opening, the “green knight” represents the intrusion of the natural world (and the “old religions”) into a Christian setting but there are more important lessons in this story.

Once the shock of his entrance into the King’s court has subsided, the Green Knight asks for a volunteer to cut off his head. Sir Gawain steps up to the challenge and removes the Green Knight’s head cleanly in one blow. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Green Knight bends down to pick up his own severed head and, propping it under his arm, continues to speak to the assembly. He reminds them that since “one good turn deserves another”, Sir Gawain is expected to seek him out at the same time next year so that he may remove Sir Gawain’s head.

The laws of chivalry require Sir Gawain to honour the request and so, in the biting winter of the following Christmas-New Year period, Gawain sets off on his quest.  His adventures en route to his destiny are too lengthy to describe here but what is really interesting about the fabulous Gawain is that, despite his honour and fortitude, he does eventually accept a talisman – a waist cord of green silk – that, while not allowing him to avoid his fate, will protect him from death. With such help, he still faces the Green Knight, still endures the strike of the axe, but his life is spared. Nevertheless, he must return (alive) to Arthur’s court with an obvious and an indelible scar on his neck. It is a bodily reminder of his human frailty. In addition, he decides to emphasise his lack of total courage by wearing the green cord as another sign of his imperfection. In support of his honesty, all the other Arthurian knights take to wearing green silk belts too.

In this New Year as we make all kinds of resolutions to be better than last year, I think that Gawain and the knights can teach us a valuable lesson about doing our best, honouring our commitments, acting with courage and behaving with dignity. But they can also remind us to accept that, despite our best intentions, we are only human; and our friends and family will love us, scars and all.

Singing in Summer

summer

Summer in Sydney has arrived, with a scorching day sending us in search of the nearest beach. It’s great to shake off every trace of winter so decisively and in our embracing of the (very) warm air and clear skies we’re no different from those who have gone before us.

In the Middle Ages, in Western Europe, the end of the long, hard winter was greeted with joy and celebration. In fact, one of the earliest surviving English songs is in praise of the arrival of summer. “Sumer is icumen in” was composed by an unknown composer in about 1260 in the Wessex dialect. In form the song is a “rota” which means that it is designed to be sung by two or more singers in a “round”, the first singer performing the first part just ahead of the second who, in turn, is just ahead of the next singer, and so on. You can hear a very merry version of it by the Lumina Vocal Ensemble at http://youtu.be/ZWWEHAswpFI or you might like the slower version with its clear Middle English pronunciation at   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMCA9nYnLWo

And, in case you want to sing along, here are the words in both Middle and Modern English.

Middle English

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wode nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Modern English

Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,
cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!