Only One Book

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I’ve been thinking lately of the books that I couldn’t live without, the books that have inspired my life, fired my imagination, and opened my mind. The list is long and when I engage in the ‘game’ of deciding which five books I’d take to a desert island, I admit that I always find myself extending the list by a book, or two, or twenty. Certainly, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would be first in the survival pack; then, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, for its truth and beauty;  the complete works of Shakespeare (yes, I realise this is probably cheating); then, for the magic of the story and the skill of the writing, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet;  and for its sheer genius, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

But what about … ? And ….? And I can’t ignore ….?

This is a game that I always lose and, in my defeat, I’m sometimes drawn to think of those hardy medieval souls who might have possessed only one book for their whole lifetime. Because the production of medieval manuscripts was such a costly and labour-intensive task and the level of literacy so low, few individuals actually owned a book.

I remember, many years ago, in the magnificence of the old British Library  (then in the British Museum),  putting in my request for an original, 13th century manuscript of Ancrene Wisse, a work that I was researching as part of my thesis on medieval religious and mystical writings. When it was finally retrieved (4 hours later) from the ‘backroom depths’, two librarians asked if they could join me at the reading table for a rare ‘look’ at this rare manuscript.  I recall it being a tiny book, about 15 x 15 cms, bound by two pieces of thin, and very fragile wood, back and front, connected by a leather spine. Inside were about sixty pages of yellowed/grey, thick, rough-cut parchment. And on both sides of these pages, written in the cursive of the time, was the ‘guide’ for how an anchoress (subject of a future post) should conduct herself in the anchorhold where she was immured, for life. I realised that this little book had been held and read, probably every day, by a woman who had been locked in a little cell attached to a church; and in this little cell she had lived out her whole adult life. And there she would die, and even be buried there in the ‘in-house’  pre-dug grave (as recent archaeological investigations into anchorholds have revealed). How precious that book must have been to her because it was, most likely, her only book.  How fascinating to me were the signs of fingermarks where she had held the book over many readings. How intoxicating was the smell of the dusty parchment which I, like a Pavlovian dog, responded to by conjuring up the whole scene of the woman sitting and reading in a very dank, dark, and cold purpose-built cell.

For me at that time, having a researcher’s Reader’s Ticket to the British Library was like being a child with unlimited access to a sweet shop. I was able to order up manuscripts I’d only dreamed of.  The illuminated manuscripts  I viewed were breathtaking in the richness of the ink colours and thick gold embossing that adorned each page’s rubric. But, if I could choose only one manuscript to take with me to a desert island, it would be the little, unadorned Ancrene Wisse.

What book would you choose?

Blue Moons and Seventh Heaven

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On Monday night (Australian Eastern Summer Time) the moon will be the closest full moon to Earth since 1948. It is a rare occurrence – we will wait until 2034 for the full moon to be this close to us again.

Earlier this year, in May, we were blessed with the less rare but still special lunar event of a “blue moon”.  Astronomically speaking a “blue moon” refers to the presence of a second full moon in a calendar month. Such a moon is usually not “blue” (though prevailing atmospheric conditions can sometimes give it that hue) but as it occurs only once in approximately 2.7 years, it’s not surprising that we  use the expression, “once in a blue moon” to refer to something that hardly ever happens.

We invoke our glorious night skies quite often to express something rare or wonderful. We might be “over the moon” when we’re extremely pleased. When we’re really enraptured by something we might say we’re “in seventh heaven” and that expression has its origin in a much earlier conception of cosmology.  In medieval times, the (then known) universe was geo-centric . That is, while we now know that our Earth is just one of several planets (eight, actually, since Pluto was “demoted” from planet-status), the people of the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was the centre of everything and that the visible planets and stars (including the Sun) revolved around it.  These concentric zones of revolution were called “spheres” or “heavens” and, in ascending order (moving outwards from the centrally located Earth) the “celestial bodies” were arranged as follows:

  1. The Moon
  2. Mercury
  3. Venus
  4. The Sun
  5. Mars
  6. Jupiter
  7. Saturn

Beyond these bodies was the Firmament (the area of “fixed stars”) and encircling that was the Primum Mobile (the “prime mover” of the whole operation), and outside all of that was the Empyrean of God.

At death, it was believed that people left Earth and, after negotiating the other encircling elements of Water, Air and Fire, continued ascending through each planetary sphere until they reached the “Seventh Heaven” which was about as close to God’s Heaven, and thus “heavenly bliss”, as could be imagined.

Today, cosmologically speaking,  we might have to journey quite a bit further to reach such bliss but it’s always good to “wish upon a star”.

The Colour Purple

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November in Sydney is all about the colour purple. Overhead, the jacarandas are in full bloom and, when the wind gusts through, many of those blooms are blown to the ground to form a soft purple carpet underfoot.

In the ancient and early medieval world, the dye known as “royal purple” was prepared from the secretions of the predatory Murex snail. The snail is still found in the shallow, coastal waters of the Mediterranean and its harvesting for the dyers’ “palate” has been documented to at least as far back as the Phoenicians. However, as between 10,000 and 12,000 murex were needed to produce one gram of purple dye, it was an expensive process and the resulting product was very highly prized. Thus purple became limited in its use to the preparation of cloth for the garments of the wealthiest in society. And it was a very short step from there to purple’s association with royalty. By the Middle Ages the “royal purple” was being replaced by (dark) blue as the royal colour of choice because of the difficulties in securing regular supplies of the murex purple.

With all of this in mind, I quite like the irony of seeing common garden snails inching their way across my backyard’s purple jacaranda carpet: this time, the snails are “on” the colour purple, not “in” it.