“To find the Grail!”

One of the great things about being a dilettante medieval scholar is all the great medieval literature I have read. When I started college my first English class was “Middle English Verse Romances.” It wasn’t a class for freshman, but the prof — who later became my friend and mentor — let me in. I did OK, but differently from the other kids. For my final paper I wrote instructions about how to write a Middle English Verse Romance. How much of the actual course work did I read? Not a lot. Once away from home, I revealed myself to be a very confused and all over the place 18 year old. But something stuck…

As time went by and I wandered into the residue of the medieval world in Switzerland (why make it easy, right?) I fulfilled my quest to be a medieval scholar. It would have been a lot easier in English, but, oddly (not really oddly) Medieval German and Medieval English are kind of close. Even the name of the focus of my first medieval passion — the Swiss village of Gfenn — is a word that still exists in English but has faded from German — fen.

A great treasures from the time is the Minnesang, lyric poems in German. Lucky for me (and everyone?) they were all collected in the 14th century for a Swiss guy — Herr Manesse — from Zürich. Remember; no printing press — imagine!!!! The Codex Manesse is now at the University of Heidelberg. What a treasure — with paintings depicting something about each of the poets.

Reading the German poems of the era wasn’t too difficult (but it was difficult…). Then, one evening in a used bookstore, my quest for a bilingual collection was satisfied. The poems are beautiful. The people of the time come alive in those old words. These are from the 13th century.

Alas, all my years, where have they disappeared!
Have I dreamed my life, or is it real?
That which I thought was something, was it something?
Perhaps I have been sleeping but do not know it.
Now I am awake, and all seems strange…
(Walter von Vogelweide)

I know that feeling… Last time I felt it was 2019. I had gone to Denver to meet up with friends. My city was gone.

and…this prompt and my direction here could only be completed by Monty Python. Terry Jones was a very fine medieval scholar. His series on the Crusades is both on target and fun to watch.

“Well, How did You Get Here?”

Yesterday, I had a surprise in Del Norte. My friends and I went on an adventure and “did” Del Norte. Our jaunt led us to the nostalgia shop where I found a bunch of prints of fine art. In one of the boxes were framed prints from the most unlikely place — the Codex Manesse. Huh??? What were THEY doing in Del Norte? I exclaimed something profound like, “Huh???” Corey, the store owner said, “I knew sooner or later someone would know what those are.”

I tried to explain but it made no sense to her. I was (honestly) a little shaky from the surprise and it was an alien world to her, completely and totally alien. Finally, we did the phone thing and I wrote stuff down for her and now they will be labeled as what they are.

You never ever ever know what will show up in the San Luis Valley. The Codex Manesse is a late 13th century early 14th century collection of songs and poetry, some were written in the 12th century. They were compiled so that they would not be lost. It was a huge, expensive effort funded by a Zürich man, Herr Manesse. With the poetry and songs are portraits of the poets. I love them. They show the poet in “action,” along with emblems of his life, coats of arms, helmets, flowers, some poets’ names relate to animals (Vogelweide for example: Vogel means bird…) and the animals are depicted.

Walther von Vogelweide ❤️ He wasn’t among the prints in Del Norte

The Codex is now at the University of Heidelberg. As I explained all this to the store owner, I had to “come out” as a Swiss Medievalist Historian. For a few minutes I felt as bizarre and out of place as these prints are, but in a good way. The San Luis Valley is full of surprising things (how many alligator rescues are there even in the WORLD?) and people. I just wonder how they got there.

I wasn’t tempted to buy them, much as I loved them, and as much as I wanted to look at the backs of the prints. I don’t have to. I guess if they had been the poets from the Codex that I like very much, I might have but…

The colors on the Codex are all described in a wonderful book I just bought On Divers Arts by Theophilus Presbyter (pen name) written in the 12th century. — the black ink might have been made of oak gall or by the method Theophilus describe — hawthorn bark and wine. His recipes for colors read to me like witch’ recipes.

The Truth about the Medieval Leper, Part I

“The Dragon Princess” — the European Leper in the 12th and 13th Centuries
A presentation for the annual conference of the Society for the Independent Study of Social Imagery (SISSI) 2013, Martha Kennedy

Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. (Rilke, “The Dragon Princess”)

My entanglement with Medieval Switzerland is a long story that started when I read How the Irish Saved Civilization — a book I bought because it was a joke! I learned how, in the 9th century, a couple of Irish monks had headed east across the channel from Scotland in small round boats, carrying books and Christianity. I learned how the patron saint of Switzerland is an Irishman (St. Gall). I was enchanted! 

The thing is, I knew NOTHING about the middle ages. In grad school, I’d endured Chaucer such antediluvian irrelevancies only long enough to check off the requirements and move on to what really interested me. I had only been in Europe once, Zürich, in 1994, and I hadn’t liked it. I’d found it claustrophobic and old. After reading Cahill’s book, I wanted to return to Switzerland, find St. Gall and take a long look at everything I’d scorned in my ignorance. At the time, I believed I was Irish, majorly Irish, not the 30 cents to a dollar I truly am.

When I returned to Zürich in the winter of 1997 my friend’s mother told him to take me to see the little church at Gfenn, a village north of Zürich. In evening winter light, I saw the rough stone walls of true medieval church. It was closed, so we returned the next morning. I picked up the informative brochure and decoded the German to learn Gfenn had been a hospital of the Knights of St. Lazarus; a leper community. I was stung by destiny. 

This is what I learned about the medieval leper while researching and writing my novel, Martin of Gfenn, about a young painter who contracts leprosy and goes to live at the Lazariterkirche im Gfenn. Where I could, I relied on primary sources — stories, songs and fables from the time. I was also very lucky to make friends with a Swiss Medievalist Historian — Rainer Hugener, then a grad student at the University of Zürich, whose specialization (and home town) was the tiny area north of Zürich where Martin of Gfenn is set.

The Backward Telescope of Time

Take a short trip in the Way-Back Machine, and imagine walking through the streets of Ghent, Paris or Zürich in, say 1240. 

“The dark ages, right?” 

Yeah at night. This world is very beautiful, and certainly mysterious, even to those living in it. Northern European cities such as Zürich, Brussels, Ghent, Paris, are in the midst of the expansion that will make them northern Europe’s urban centers of scholarship and trade. 

On your way home from the public baths, you smell the scent of freshly cut wood, newly opened stone, boiling sausage, fresh bread. If you’re thinking, “Yeah, right, what about the awful sanitation?” your thought is reasonable, but not necessarily accurate. European cities that had been Roman settlements continued to use the Roman plumbing and baths until the 14th century when the population was so decimated by plague and war that there were no longer human resources to maintain much of anything.

You step back and watch artists perched on high scaffoldings paint the fresh clay and plaster walls of stone and half-timber buildings. If you wander inside and see more painting, here a drapery on the lower part of a wall beneath a frieze of roses; there a wall painted to resemble fur; here a scene from the street below — a vendor cooking sausage.

Wall Paintings, Stein am Rhein

The cathedral is slow to rise. You know you’ll never see it finished. Your neighbor’s grandfather was one of the first stonemasons to work on it. Decorating a column, is a relief carving of this very man as a boy, himself learning to carve. Your friend’s father captured his son’s embarrassment. Now your neighbor is teaching his own son. One large window, set in a finished wall, tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Leper.

Average Lifespan?

I’m always amused when I read that a medieval person lived to be 40 years old, and the historian adds the comment, “…well past the average lifespan.” Infant mortality rates were high as was the possibility of dying in battle. This is not known as the feudal age for nothing.

Warfare was constant. Once these important factors are taken into account and an “average” lifespan of 40 actually means that many people made it into old-age. Still, medieval people certainly had to sort out a perspective to help them accept death. In their world God, the saints, angels and Satan lived together with the human race in a vivid real-time allegory in which all people had a part, and lepers had a special role. Pariah or savior? Pariah AND savior.

Three more parts. Hold onto your hats!!!! 🙂