Gifts of New Year Days and Knights

January 2, 2013

medieval Christmas

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.

Every time you go away

December 15, 2012

plane taking off

       Every time you go away …

 

This morning, in the blue brilliance of a Sydney summer morning, I farewelled my youngest as she departed to fly to London to meet her fiancé for their Christmas together. My daughters –  all three of them – are well and truly adults, but every time they go away (and there have been many departures, several for quite extended periods, in the last decade) I feel the short, sharp slap of time passing, and that peculiar, piquant sense of wonder that the tiny baby that I once held in my arms is now independently adrift in the big, wide world.

Of course I never say “goodbye” to my children; instead I employ “farewell” in all its rich connotations. The first part of the word comes to us from the Old English (before 1000A.D) faran, which meant “to journey”. Today, to “farewell” someone is to wish them a good journey. Sometimes we apply the word “fare” to food, too, as in the phrase “hearty fare”, and this usage seems to have come into the language around 1200 A.D when some travellers paid for their voyage with food.

So, “farewell” my dearest child, happy travels and safe return. And here is a poem I wrote for you, and for all the travelling children, and for all the mothers who bravely farewell them.

Going

Go to Gate 25.

Now boarding.

A kiss, a clutching hug,

As if my arms can absorb your essence.

“Be safe; please call when you get there.”

“Yes, Mum. Don’t worry. Love you. Gotta go.”

And you do. Smiling. Your step light with freedom.

And I stand, silently watching you go,

Wondering … at the speed of life.

A summer’s day.

Early, the sky already pink with promise

Of heat and a never-ending childhood.

On the morning grass a tea-party is arranged.

Daughters, dolls, teddy bears in attendance.

And I, always the guest of honour,

Put a muddy teacup to my lips

And say, “This is delicious. Any more?”

There was always more then.

A sigh, a shrug.

I stand forever, staring after your disappearing form,

Then turn with resignation towards the carpark.

Outside, a blue sky stretches wide in welcome of your flight.

Life hums and bustles round me,

Pushing me forward, away from you.

A roar overhead, a glisten of silver in the sun,

And you’re uplifted

And carried to your destiny.

Singing in Summer

December 2, 2012

Surfers Holiday & Mothers Day 2010 009 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 differennt 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 recording of it by the Lumina Vocal Ensemble at http://youtu.be/ZWWEHAswpFI . 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!

The Colour Purple

November 11, 2012

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.

The Shape of Things

November 4, 2012

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.

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.

“Yes” Power

October 26, 2012

In 1934, in the dark recesses of an old English family library, a rare fifteenth century manuscript came to light. Scholarly investigation revealed it to be what is now known as The Book of Margery Kempe, the life story of an extraordinary medieval woman who answered “yes” without hesitation when she thought God was calling her. Today, some regard her as a mystic; others as a sick, or attention-seeking woman but, whatever the truth, Margery gives us a surprising lesson in devotion and perseverance.

Margery was born in 1373 in the Norfolk town of King’s   Lynn where her father, John Brunham, had been the Mayor for five separate terms. At twenty years of age Margery married John Kempe and within a year of the marriage, had given birth to her first child. She went on to have a further thirteen children but the first birth was especially decisive as, immediately following it, Margery experienced what we now would probably describe as a post-partum psychotic episode but which Margery herself describes as being tormented by devils. Margery explains that the relief from this episode came in the form of a personal visit from Jesus and this unexpected encounter set her on her life’s quest of serving God.

Margery did nothing by halves. Believing that Jesus had appeared to her during her illness, she emerged from her sickbed and began to spend a great amount of time praying, arising at two or three in the morning and making her way to church where she would pray until midday and then again in the afternoon. She confessed to a priest twice and, sometimes, three times a day, in particular seeking forgiveness for an early sin which she had avoided confessing for many years. She adopted stringent fasting and the wearing of a hair-shirt made from the coarse cloth on which malt was dried. It was in these early years, too, that Margery reports receiving the ‘gift of tears’.

This gift, in particular, with its associated crying and wailing at even the mention of Jesus’ name, saw Margery shunned by many who witnessed the extreme behaviour. Such was her disruptive influence that some priests refused to allow her in the church when they were to preach. But Margery persisted in her devotions, feeling that her original “yes” to God was a promise on which she could not renege. She also felt compelled to embark on numerous and extensive pilgrimages and travelled, over several years, to the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Norway and Germany, as well as important pilgrimage sites throughout England. This was an amazing undertaking in the 14th century and even more remarkable for a (sole) woman.

Then, as now, Margery’s travels and general behaviour garner divided opinions on the authenticity of her mystical calling. That is, while there is no doubt of her devotion, her motivation for, and expression of it remain a matter of considerable debate. Putting this debate aside, however, there emerges a wonderful and unexpected consequence of her “yes”…

From The Book we know that, though Margery was illiterate, she managed to dictate her story to an unidentified scribe. Six hundred years after she lived and was almost forgotten, the finding of the manuscript of her life story gave the world the great gift of the first autobiography in English.

We, too, will often not know the repercussions of saying “yes” in our lives, of being willing to undertake a difficult task or of making a commitment. We can only have faith that something good will come of it (and hope that it doesn’t take quite as long as Margery Kempe’s “yes” for its effect).

Only One Book

October 18, 2012

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 … ?

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 the first “look” that anyone had taken at this manuscript for a very long time.  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” to 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.

At that time, for me, to have a researcher’s Reader’s Ticket to the British Library was like being a child with a gift voucher to a sweet shop, ordering 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.

Interviewing Doctor Hildegard

October 10, 2012

Just a few days ago Pope Benedict named Hildegard of Bingen a “Doctor of the Church”. In doing so the Pope has elevated Hildegard to such illustrious company as St Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and St Catherine of Siena.

Mind you, the bestowal of such an honour has taken a while, considering that Hildegard was born in the Rhineland in 1098. Fortunately her remarkable work – writings on her visionary experiences, natural science, music compositions, and a play – were preserved and find a ready audience to the present day. Her deep interest in the natural world, her visions of all creation as a vast “cosmic egg” and her beautiful and somewhat humble description of herself as “a feather on the breath of God” appeal to our modern sensibilities but not all of her work is quite so palatable and I sometimes wonder what sort of reception she’d get if she presented the same insights personally today, perhaps on TV. I explored this idea in one of my recent poems. (The words are mine not Hildegard’s but they’re certainly based on her writings and ideas) …..

Interviewing Hildegard

“INTRO rolling … and you’re on Camera #3 in …. 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … on”

“Good evening everyone and welcome to this week’s “Interview”.  Tonight it’s my pleasure to talk with an extraordinary woman.  Visionary, author, playwright, composer, scientist, abbess, and the Catholic Church’s most recently recognised saint, let’s hear it for …  Hildegard of Bingen

(Tepid canned applause)

So Hildegard, you were born in the Rhineland in 1098. And, amazingly, you’re still around today.”

A small child, clever, precocious. The tenth of my family, I was tithed to God.

A frosty morning, the light pale through the woodland.

A bird on a low branch, piping piteously in the approaching Winter.

A gust, the bird is shaken, uplifts itself on startled wings, and lets a feather flutter downward.

It hovers in its descent, and I, breathing out a hoary breath, try to send it back,  skyward.

The breath and feather coalesce, and I am that breath, and I am that feather,

A feather on the breath of God.

Still morning, still frosty, I arrive at Jutta’s anchorhold,

And there I’m held gently for my education.

Do you see the young girl? Eager. Enraptured. The best of my class, I am betrothed to God.

And then, a crowded abbey, warm and welcoming, a female family home.

What do you recall of your life in the abbey?”

Darkness, holding its breath in expectation of Matins.

The moment comes, the prayer rises,

The darkness exhales in exultation, and is filled with light.

On the morning air, a bird expands its breath,

Spreads its wings

And rises in song, with my song, with our song

In praise of the earth from which it rises

And of the air in which it soars

And of God in whom it lives.

“And your visions. What of them? You are often called a visionary, a seer.”

I am a seer, seared by God in the fiery furnace of far-seeing Love.

A burning pain, flashing specks of light before my eyes.

They hover in their ascent, and I, breathing out with painéd breath, try to expel them, skyward.

The fire and the pain coalesce

And God is the light,

And I am the phoenix,

God’s own phoenix,  forged in fire,

Frightened, enlightened.

Engulfed.

 Hmmm. People enjoy your music today. Why do you think that is?”

There are heavenly harmonies  …

That charm the stars to dance,

That fill the flowers to bud,

That quicken wombs, and that raise men

To heights of wonder.

They stir the sun to redden,

And whip the wind

To quiver the trees, to shake the leaves,

To caress our faces so that we breathe in God.

 “Yes, this talk of trees reminds me that you do seem to have some strong views on ecology. Can you share them with us?”

The universe, an egg, cosmic and vast,

Bright with fire, dark with shadows,

Fragile, full

Of God, full of creation.

Fire, water, air, ether, earth,

Hungry for the food and breath of Life.

Around us, and below us, all is green

And seething with food, with the Spirit’s life

For those who embrace and do not fear.

“And you’re big on herbal remedies, too, I believe.”

The beauty of the cosmic-egg macrocosm is reflected in the tiny microcosms of the earth-egg.

An egg-earth garden, medicine for our soul.

A stone, full of celestial fire,

A stream, full of stormy clouds.

A branch, God’s arm; a fish, God’s son.

A woman, God’s mother.

An earthworm, lowly and   _________________________

“Well, thanks, Hildegard, but that’s all we have time for tonight. If you’ve more to tell us, please leave your website details with the producer and we’ll be sure to direct our audience right there. Let’s give it up for Hildegard of Bingen.”

                (Tepid canned applause)

“And … credits rolling. We’re done.”

Pests, Ink and Red-Letter Days

September 26, 2012

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.

Thou Shalt Not Quill

September 19, 2012

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 (and their preparation is a topic for another post) 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 preserved the idea (and a version of the implement) in the “pen-knife”.


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