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.

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.