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!

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

dantes-universe

 

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

jacaranda

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.

A Whale Tale

whale_1

At this time of year the southward-migrating  humpback whales can be seen off our  Sydney shores. These magnificent creatures are a source of wonder and admiration for us today but the sad history of whaling demonstrates that this wasn’t also so. In the Middle Ages, the “status” of whales was even more lowly with medieval people viewing them as a source of deception and death. The basis of this view can be traced to the whale’s depiction, and description, in a number of medieval bestiaries. (More on “bestiaries” in another post but, for now, a handy definition of a medieval bestiary is a type of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast).

whale_2     Medieval image of whale and mariners

In 1481 William Caxton (of English printing press fame), drawing on much earlier bestiary definitions, wrote of the whale as being a “fish so huge and great that on his back grows earth and grass” and that this makes the whale appear as if it is an island on which mariners can “come ashore”. Once there, Caxton explains that it is not unusual for the seamen to light a fire on which to cook their food. However, the heat of the cooking fire eventually distresses the whale to the extent that he must dive down under the water to cool himself, thereby taking all the mariners with him to their death. The symbolic interpretation of this is that the whale is as deceitful as the devil, luring men to death (spiritual and physical) when they fail to be alert to the deception, and fall for easy and comfortable options.

Now, how fortunate we are to have an informed understanding of these magnificent creatures and how lucky to be able to catch sight of the whales each year as they make their epic journey along the eastern Australian coast.

Of Baths, Monks & Hairshirts

bathing-1
           bathing2

Today, we humans are very conscious of the importance of bathing for reasons of hygiene but it wasn’t always so. In the Middle Ages, for example, bathing had little to do with cleanliness but was undertaken for either pleasure or restoration of health. On the “pleasure” side, communal baths provided social opportunities, with food and drink being part of the overall experience in a sort of medieval equivalent of the present-day “Gold Class movies”. In fact, the pleasurable and social aspects of community bathing are clearly attested to by the many – rather surprising – manuscript illustrations on the topic.

Very probably because of the frequently  indulgent and decadent quality of medieval bathing,  monks  of that time – although they often washed their hands and feet  –  were limited by their monastic Constitution to complete bodily immersion at Easter and Christmas time only, leaving a very long, hot (northern hemisphere) summer period between washing. Bathing outside those specified times was permitted if a monk was ill as bathing, in moderation,  was believed to be sometimes necessary for the restoration of good health.  Of course, bathing for health reasons always took place in public baths where the drinking of, as well as bathing in, the waters was encouraged. In the fourteenth century, the medical men of Bologna recommended to anyone suffering from scabies that they take a full plunge in the public bath following a vigorous application to the skin of a mix of bran, chickpea meal and saltpetre; and then drink of the waters.

In some cases the mistrust of bathing seemed to exemplify the view that “UNcleanliness is next to godliness”.  St Antony, for example, a hermit in the Egyptian desert during the 3rd and 4th centuries, did not wash any part of himself for at least the last half of his very long life of 105 years. In fact, his biographer tells us that the hairshirt Antony donned when he went into seclusion was not taken off until his death when his followers cut it up and shared out pieces of it as a “holy relic” for each of them.

A hairshirt was an undergarment made of very coarse animal (usually goat) hair that was worn next to the skin where it caused continual irritation. Individuals seeking to mortify their bodies as a form of penance found the hairshirt to be very effective.  Thomas A’Becket (“The Saint of Canterbury”) is said to have been wearing a lice-ridden hairshirt under his bishop’s robes at the time of his murder in 1170. Margery Kempe, a 14th century wife, mother, business woman and mystic, records in her (dictated) autobiography that she wore a hairshirt for a number of years, even during the conception of some of her fourteen children. This gives a whole new meaning to “unconditional love” but also reminds us that our modern olfactory sensibilities are very different, much more delicate, than those of days gone by.

 

The Shape of Things

dinosaur-egg

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.

dog-circle

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 and showed the pre-hatched baby tucked into a perfect circle (Photo #1). On 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 (Photo #2). Dinosaurs or dogs, I think Augustine is right: the circle is a beautiful shape.

 

Thou Shalt Not Quill

thou-shalt-not-quill

On these warm, clear days of early spring in Sydney, the range of distractions for a writer is unending. Who would not prefer to laze in a sunny spot in the garden, sipping coffee and reading a favourite novel rather than sitting in a cold study, staring at a blank screen, and willing inspiration to manifest?

While the lure of sunny distractions is, I’m sure, age-old, I doubt that our medieval counterparts could often indulge in the luxury of writer’s block because, when they weren’t writing, they were probably collecting or preparing their writing implements. Parchment and ink, of course, were crucial but the main medieval writing instrument was the quill. This earlier pen was a flight feather from a large (and moulting) bird. Most commonly, the goose was the provider but swan feathers were also coveted, though not so readily acquired. Smaller quills were obtained from birds such as crows and owls.

The feathers feature a hollow shaft which allowed ink to be held in reserve between dipping. A quill’s plume, while decorative, also often obscured the clear vision of the page for the writer or copyist and, thus, most medieval scribes favoured a stripped feather. Quills were sharpened with a knife and our present-day terminology preserves the idea (and a version of the implement) in the “pen-knife”.

Perhaps then, bird-watching might be considered a legitimate distraction for a writer – much more enjoyable than taking the laptop in for repairs.

Pests, Ink and Red-letter days

oakapple

Spring is really here. I know that because the blow-flies are appearing in the kitchen even before I’ve opened the door in the morning, and the roses are attracting the aphids in swarms.  But even pests sometimes serve a useful purpose. I’m thinking especially of the way in which medieval ink was made. The basic ingredient was the oak apple which, despite its rather inviting name, was actually a “gall” which is an abnormal growth found on plants. Wasps and flies act as the gall-forming “agents” by depositing their eggs in plant tissue. Secretions from the larva stimulate the plant tissue to develop galls which then serve as a protective covering around the larva. This formation process produces high levels of tannic acid in the galls, and this acid is one of the essential ingredients in medieval (iron-gall) ink.

To produce the ink, the tannic acid was crushed and infused in rainwater or vinegar then combined with ferrous sulphate and a little gum arabic which thickened the ink, giving it a better viscosity for its uptake into the quill. The reaction between these three ingredients produced a dark brown to black coloured ink that was well absorbed by parchment or vellum.

Other colours in the medieval palette – evidenced in the beautifully vivid illuminated manuscripts – also required quite a bit of preparation of both chemical and natural substances.  White , for example, was prepared from lead carbonate and, though this resulted in a wonderfully opaque ink, it was also poisonous.

The rarest and most expensive colour of the Middle Ages was blue, made from ultramarine, a powdered form of the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, and sourced only from Afghanistan at that time.  

Red (vermilion), though more easily prepared by combining ground mercuric sulphide, egg white and gum arabic, was also highly prized for its beautiful effects and was used in manuscripts for headings, initials, and rubrics. The rubrics in liturgical calendars usually acted to “highlight” a particular feast day or celebration and we maintain the idea in our expression: “red-letter days”.

In Spring, the vivid colours and fragrance of the flowers make every day a “red-letter day”, pests or no pests.