Completely Irrelevant Post about an English Woman with Leprosy Living in 13th century York, England

The other evening I watched a program — Medieval Dead — which is about disease in medieval times. It features recent discoveries in archeology and paleobiology. The episode I watched was “Pestilence and Disease” which looked at a dead person who’s interested me since I learned of her; a woman who was found during construction on Dixon Lane in York, England. I know, I know, it’s a little odd but the woman had leprosy and as you may or may not know I’m an amateur expert on the reality of the medieval leper. In fact, I don’t even think the term “medieval leper” should exist but I don’t think “homeless” should be a noun because it makes homelessness a social institution.

Yes, I’m a weirdo.

The show did pretty OK for a 45 minute show on medieval disease. What they got right is that during medieval times, people with leprosy weren’t sent to remote islands, but had a role in society. BUt…

Some things bothered me. One was the portrayal and assumption that people in the Middle Ages were miserable because they didn’t live like we do. That drives me nuts. First, they lived like THEY did; their world was their world and they lived in it as it was. I’m pretty sure they were as happy as we are in our world. Their world was normal for them — fraught with danger though it was — they had been born into it and didn’t know about any other world. I am 100% sure that if humanity survives another 1000 years, they are likely to look at us with the same pity and condescension the show looked at the lives of people in the 13th century.

Second, because this was (allegedly) a science driven program the literature of the era played no part in the narrative. Medieval literature says just about everything about medieval times, including the attitude toward lepers. I will never understand why science has such a repulsion to the “softer” arts (and vice versa). It’s nuts if you’re going to look at people in the past and their lives. Just like us they wrote and spoke of themselves and described the salient philosophical features and assumptions of their times from the inside. We can learn about the diet of this York woman from the dense calculus on her teeth, but her beliefs? Not at all.

Third, the term “Dark Ages.” I really really really hate that. “Well, little Johnny, mom and dad are sorry you had to be born into these dark ages. There will be light ages, but we’re in the dark ages.” First, they were actually filled with colors, faith, travel, poetry, theater, music, painted buildings (outside and inside). Darkness inside their houses? Probably but that’s what they knew. We feel sorry for Abraham Lincoln learning to read by the firelight but that’s what HE knew. Poor Abe? No. JUST Abe living in his time and place. My mom and her sisters didn’t have electricity in their house, either, and it was the 20th century.

Fourth, dirt. The Middle Ages have an undeserved reputation for being dirty. They were far less dirty than the Renaissance. Anywhere the Romans had been, their public baths were left behind and, in the medieval cities I know, were used by people until the Black Plague hit them hard. The effect of the plague on European life was drastic and profound. It changed European life forever and, IMO, dispelled the universal allegory and paved part of the road that led to the Reformation. The high Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries) were, except for the feuding, a pretty well cultured and comparatively hygienic time.

And lepers… In the persistently allegorical world of Europe in the high Middle Ages, lepers had a place, a real place and a kind of status that led to the building of numerous leper churches and hospitals. Helping a leper was a short road to salvation after death. St. Francis was hugely influential on the minds of his time and one of his kind gestures was kissing/helping a leper. And then there was Christ healing lepers on one of the gates of Jerusalem known as the Leper’s Gate. And the program never mentioned the inalterable fact that leprosy is not very contagious.

And the life expectancy myth. Lots of people lived long lives in medieval times. They didn’t die at 40 (the median age). MOST babies died and many women died in childbirth, skewing the life expectancy down quite a ways. I know who my medieval ancestors were and they all lived into their 80s. Most of their children, however, didn’t make it to 10 years old. 80 + 10 divided by 2 is 45.

I mention all this because it’s totally irrelevant to our times (or is it?) and also because if I could learn all of this (which is factual) without having a degree in history or the mastery of any European language (though I can read French and Italian pretty well), how come this program takes the dim route? Is it their belief that they would shock their audience? Some very fine historians have already explicated this — or how would I know it? And yet science thinks it’s discovering something? Or is it that we get off on feeling we’ve progressed as human beings, so far beyond the sorrowful meager lives of people in the Dark Ages? After all the time I spent “in” the Middle Ages I like those people. I admire their struggles and their world view has something to recommend it. How can we learn from history if we cloak it in the idea that our world is superior? How can we even know what it is if we do that? To look at people from the past is like visiting a foreign country with its own values, laws, assumptions, beliefs and culture.

Thanks for listening.


Yesterday Bear and I were out at the Refuge which is probably a huge surprise to all of you, but there you have it. It was a wonderful, silent walk except for a couple of jets flying over the fly-over area. The geese I saw a couple of days ago seem to have made their way further south at the end of the big storm that hit the Rocky Mountains a couple of days ago. There were no ducks. Just a couple of small brown birds brave and hardy in the rushes. White mountains in all directions, infinite visibility, and in all of this one hungry Harris Hawk skimming the ponds and the grasslands for a sleekit mouse, unsuspecting rabbit, chipmunk or pretty much anything. I watched him, savoring the silence and the beauty of his flight, sorry for him that it was so hard to find food, and thinking of the past month, “Well that was wonderful but I’m glad it’s over,” meaning all the social life I’ve experienced since November 20. The only “chore” (hardly a chore) remaining (so far) is a drawing of the little Episcopal church here in my town.

I felt a little strange last night thinking that the protagonist in my novel, Martin of Gfenn, ends his life with a walk in the fens. “Gfenn” is an archaic Middle German (Swiss) word for wetlands or swamp — fen. When his heart is troubled or he needs to get away from the community, he goes for a walk in the fens. Martin is basically walking in the fens near the leper community as often as he can and looking at the faraway alps as if they were “distant blue and white promises.” I don’t know any writer who doesn’t, in some way, write from his/her life. When I wrote the book, the only fens I had any acquaintance with were THOSE fens, and I believe in medieval times, they were much more “fennish.”

It would be really cool if there IS such a thing as a “collective unconsciousness” from which we draw knowledge we don’t know how we have, people we were in the past, ancestors etc. telling us stories from somewhere and here, in our own lives, we find those things and know they belong to us. I will always wonder HOW I got that story. The absolute insanity and urgency of events that led me there were really like a great hand taking me by the throat and saying, “It’s now or never, Sweet Cheeks.”

After Hamlet talked with his father’s ghost and learned of his uncle’s betrayal, his friend, Horatio, says the meeting is “wondrous strange.” Hamlet answers, “…therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Meanwhile, someone did get to eat out at the Refuge yesterday or night before last. I think a coyote or two managed to get a low-flying duck.

Feathers, matted grass, bloody bird breastbone.

Thoughts about Selling a Painting to a Stranger

(Somewhat a reprise from my other blog)

Yesterday, I went to the opening of the little art show at the Rio Grande County Museum. I was filled with trepidation. I showed up about 11:30 and was immediately met by a huge (masked) smile from Louise who runs the museum. She was in the gift shop, behind the counter, taking money from a young woman who turned to look at me. 

“That’s the artist,” said Louise. I had to go meet and greet. I’m a friendly shy person, that first of all, and as for being an artist? Someday I’ll get to the bottom (or I won’t) of how I feel about that. Anyway it’s complicated. The young woman told me she had just bought a Christmas tree ornament I’d painted. 

“Which one?” I asked her
“This one. It’s the Valley, right? The river?”

These are tiny. Basically 2 x 3 inches

“Yeah. And Mt. Blanca.” 

“I love it,” she said. “I love all your work. Do you do bigger paintings or just those medium sized?” She gestured toward “my” room.
“I have bigger paintings, but I hurt my shoulder and didn’t think I could hang them. I did last year.” 
“Fair enough,” she said. I thanked her and went on to see the show, feeling embarrassed and a little weird. I have never interacted with a buyer before, not one I didn’t know.

I found my artist colleagues that I haven’t seen since last year and chatted for a bit then walked around to see the show which is very beautiful. The wandering and chatting went on for a while, and while I was engaged in a conversation with a colleague’s voluble husband, I noticed another colleague with the young couple (who’d bought the ornament) in “my” room. She was actively engaging with them and my work. I saw her tell them to take a business card. I saw her lead them around the room — as if she were a docent! — looking at all my paintings. The husband came up to me and said something that I should be able to remember, but don’t. Essentially could he get a deal on one of the paintings, the one in the featured image. I said, “Sure. I really want to sell it.”

“What kind of deal? And why do you want to sell it?”

“I’ve had it for a while. I’m just ready to look at something else. Let me go see what I’m asking for it, OK?”

“Sure.” I understood it was going to be a gift for his wife for Christmas. I came back, gestured with a number, and we made the deal. I’m sure his wife knew. Meanwhile my colleague’s voluble husband engaged with the wife. I boxed up the painting and stuck in a pack of Christmas cards that she’d told me earlier that she liked. They were very excited to have my painting and he paid me more than I asked. Afterward they told me all the things they liked about the painting and I just felt weird. I invited them to come back to the museum on December 11 when I’ll do my reading. I hope they do. 

I realized through all this that I might be a painter, but as a professional artist, I’m not very experienced. I have to keep at this show thing until I’m as good at it as the colleague who helped me. It’s not the first painting I’ve ever sold, but it was the first one in that way, in that scenario, to someone who didn’t know me at all. It felt very different and validating that, yeah, I’m doing this.

Later I was talking with a friend about the experience. How does one talk about one’s own art? I know that people analyze paintings and want to know about techniques. I know there are philosophies and theories of art. I understand the major art “movements” — if not what they all represented, I know that they existed. I know many people — both painters and appreciators — approach paintings with a theory of something, a theory of colors or shapes, all kinds of things. When one of my colleagues looked at my paintings yesterday, she mentioned, “There is a lot of white.” I know that comment meant something to her. To me it didn’t. I just said “Yeah” because it is true. Paintings of snow are going to be white. So what is painting for me? What am I trying to “say”? Achieve? I don’t even want to go there. I just want to paint.

Last night I had kind of an epiphany about me and my artist’s novel, Martin of Gfenn. Martin is an artist and a leper. He has to fight against time and the community Commander’s lack of comprehension to paint the walls of the newly built (1244?) chapel of the leper community where he lives. He argues on behalf of painting the walls of the chapel, the importance of painting for communicating the message in scripture. Finally, he just paints (draws) an important element around the east window of the chapel and, seeing it, the Commander understands. From then the only thing Martin has to fight is the encroachment of the disease.

So here I am. As I talked to my colleagues yesterday — most of whom are at least my age — it hit me. It’s always been that for me; paint IN SPITE OF — because of — life.

“I hate logical plans. I have a horror of set phrases that instead of explaining reality tame it in order to use it in a way that is no use to anyone. I don’t approve of definitions or labels. Labels should go on suitcases, nowhere else. Myself, I should find it false and dangerous to start from some clear, well-defined complete idea and then put it into practice. I must be ignorant of what I shall be doing and I can find the resources I need only when I am plunged into obscurity and ignorance. The child is in darkness at the moment he is formed in his mother’s womb.” Federico Fellini

The Truth About the Medieval Leper, Part IV

Leper Knights

The Hospital of St. Lazarus in Jerusalem was located just outside the Leper Postern where it was believed Christ had healed a leper. There are a great many stories as to the origination of the Knights of St. Lazarus, but, as explained by David Marcombe in Leper Knights:

It would appear…that the order established itself in the 1130s on a site outside the St. Lazarus postern, though the first unambiguous reference is a grant by King Fulk in 1142 giving land in Jerusalem ‘to the church of St. Lazarus and the convent of the sick who are called miselli’ . (8-9)

During this time, the word “hospital” was closer in meaning to our word “hotel” than our word “hospital.” The Hospital of St. Lazarus was a hospital in a more contemporary sense. Any Templar, Hospitaller, or Teutonic knight in the Holy Land who contracted leprosy, would go to live at this hospital. A second hospital was built at Acre. These men became the legendary Leper Knights of Jerusalem.

There is something desperately romantic in the image of leprous men in chain mail charging Saracen hordes ahead of the other troops. It’s logical they would have fought. Leprosy develops slowly in otherwise healthy individuals. A leper knight might have a few good battles left, and certainly he would have had the will to fight. Death by sword, mace, spear, battle-axe, boiling oil, lance or arrow would certainly be preferable to the excruciating saga of leprosy.

The Knights of St. Lazarus are said to have participated in many raids and battles,“… wherever there was fighting between Christians and infidels, knights of the Order rallied to the support of the Holy Cross…They considered themselves the ‘living dead’, these ‘men who walked alone’; final death in the defense of the Faith held no terrors for them.” (Order of St. Lazarus) Leper knights are known to have participated are the Battle of La Forbie in 1244, the battle which marked the end of the Frankish Kingdom in Palestine. All eighteen leper knights were killed, as were most of the European forces. The Leper Knights were also present for the final siege of Acre in 1291.

Crusading knights who returned from Europe with leprosy, or who developed leprosy after their return could live in one of the communities of the Knights of St. Lazarus that were literally “springing up” all over Europe. They were built in lowlands to keep the lepers’ breath away from healthy people, and usually near cities, often with convenient alms boxes located near main roads. Followed the Rule of the Knights of St. Lazarus, based on the Rule of St. Augustine; not all residents were former knights, but all followed the Rule. It must have presented an interesting paradox when men whose souls were absolutely saved by fighting for the Cross ended up with a disease that was a badge of sin. Grand Masters, Preceptors, and Commanders of Lazarite communities were required to be lepers, a custom that vanished as leprosy vanished in the 14th century.

Endowing leper houses gave nobles a way to accomplish their temporal and spiritual goals. It helped protect their earthly fortunes and ensured them and their families a shorter stay in Purgatory, if not a place in Heaven itself. For a rich man to share his riches with “Lazarus” by donating land and buildings to military/religious orders was especially appealing as these groups had the power, training and arms to protect their lands. For example, in the Glatt Valley north of Zürich, a long-running border dispute between the Duke of Rapperswil and the Baron of Toggenburg was settled when Toggenburg and Rapperswil jointly gave a large piece of land to the Knights of St. John Hospitaller. Rapperswil also gave land to the Order of St. Lazarus. (Hugener) The two large properties created an immense buffer zone in a strategic, volatile Swiss valley.

In England:

[t]he Order of St. Lazarus built up a moderate landed estate scattered over a very considerable geographic area because of the benevolence of an extremely wide set of patrons…Benefactors included kings, noblemen and gentry, but it was the peasant farmers who made up the majority in terms of numbers of grants, if not in terms of the volume of property granted. (Marcombe 65)

Francois-Oliver Touati in Archives de la Lepre explains the urban localization of leper hospitals in France saying that wealthy donors wanted to have their compassionate generosity visible to others and close to home where it could be administered easily. Touati tells of the Viscomte of Saint-Florentine who, in 1184 had pledged a regular gift to the Dilo Abbey of 4 cents per year for the care of lepers to procure for him and his family a place in “the bosom of Abraham.” Touati goes on to explain that there were hundreds of acts of this kind, done by the same type of person to procure the same goals:

Un acte semblable a des centaines d’autres, de même type, de même objets, de même milieu aristocratique en faveur d’un monastère don’ le donateur attend en retour la prière pour son âme et celle des proches, une garantie pour l’éternité. Rien que de très ordinaire… (Touati 35) (Basically that for aristocrats, endowing a leper hospital was a guarantee to the donor that he/she will go to Heaven; such actions were very common)

“Yeah but, leprosy was an epidemic, right? Isn’t that why they were marginalized and persecuted?” 

In a word, “No.”

Nor were they necessarily “marginalized” or persecuted.

The rapid increase in the number of hospitals built for lepers during the late 12th and early 13th centuries (in Britain the number rose 80% from the 11th to the end of the 13th century, with similar statistics in France and the Holy Roman Empire) led historians to believe that leprosy was widespread during this period. Some historians argue that a rise in Europe’s population and crowding and poverty in the urban centers increased the incidence of leprosy. Other historians have contended that medieval doctors confused leprosy with other diseases.

Recent paleo-historical research shows that leprosy arrived in Europe in the 7th century and increased in the population very slowly, with a slight increase during the 300 years of the Crusades. The statistical ratio of lepers to the general population has not changed from the 12th century to today, roughly 1-2 to 10,000 people (WHO) Leprosy of the 12th and 13th century did not occur in the same populations in which we see leprosy today, that is, the very poor. Excavated cemeteries in England and France reveal that at any one time a typical Lazar Houses sheltered fewer than a dozen lepers. Certainly not ALL medieval lepers were housed in leprosaria, Lazar Houses, but excavations of other cemeteries have brought up very few leper skeletons. Clearly, there were never so many lepers in Europe that the average person was certain to see one. By the 14th century, leprosy had essentially vanished in Europe, returning to its pre- Crusade levels. Medieval doctors correctly identified leprosy.

Until a cure was found lepers were treated with rest, fresh air, cleanliness, and a healthy diet. 12th and 13th century men and women who gave their lives to the care of lepers provided their patients exactly this kind of care, in semi-monastic communities, regulated by the Rule of St. Augustine. Accepted and cared for rather than persecuted, the most stringent punishment a leper faced for breaking the rules of the Lazar House was expulsion. By the end of the 13th century very few lepers remained in northern Europe, and “Lazar House” began to describe a facility for housing the very poor.

The word “leper” combined with the word “medieval” still evokes the image of pitiful people in desperate need of a miraculous cure, wandering around with a disease horrifying in its ugliness and terrifying in its contagion, begging for help. However, for people of the high middle ages, lepers were powerful allegorical expressions of the true nature of human life, bearing on their outer body the corruption all humankind carries within. The leper provided medieval men and women a test of faith and the opportunity to move closer to their own salvation if they found the courage to show compassion to the Dragon Princess.

In Other Leper Stories….

Aue, Hartmann von. Henry the Leper: a Swabian Miracle-Rhyme. Trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Boas, Adrian J. Jerusalem in the Time of the Crusades. London: Routledge, 2001. Bruehlmeier, Markus and Michale Thomaschett.

Commandery of the Order of St. John at Bubikon. Bubikon: Ritterhauscesellschaft. 1999.

Cawley, Father Martinus, trans. The Life of Alice the Leper. Lafayette: Guadelupe Translations, 1994. 12 December 2007

Druck, Walter and Hans Rutishauser. Die Lazariterkirche Gfenn bei Dubendorf. Bern:Gesellschaft fur Schweizerischen Kunstgeschichte. 1992

Goetz, Hans-Werner. Life in the Middle Ages from the Seventh to the Thirteenth Century. American Edition. Trans. Albert Wimmer. Ed. Steven Rowan. Notre Dame:Notre Dame Press. 1993.

Hugener, Rainer. “Die Gründung des Lazariterhauses im Gfenn.” Heimatbuch Dubendorf 2004. Dubendorf. 2005

“The Leper Hospital, Winchester, 25 March 2001.” Channel 4 Time Team. 25 Mar. 2001. 3 Jan. 2008

Enders, Howard and Carlos M. Morel. “Disease Watch: Leprosy.” The UNICEF-World Bank-WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases.

“History.” The Ritterhaus in Bubikon. For the Young and the Young at Heart. Ritterhaus Bubikon 2012. Web. 27 Dec. 2012.

Lee, Frances and John Magilton.”The Cemetary of the hospital of St. James and St Mary Magdalen Chichester – a case study.” World Archeology. Vol. 21, No. 2 Archeology of Pubic Health. October 1989. 273-282.

Manchester, Keith and Charlotte Roberts.”The Paleopathology of Leprosy in Britain: A Review.” World Archeology. Vol. 21, No. 2 Archeology of Pubic Health. October 1989. 265-272.

Marcombe, David. Leper Knights. Woodbridge:The Boydell Press. 2003

Moore, R.I. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Medieval Europe 950-1250. London:Blackwell. 2007

Peyroux, Catherine. “The Leper’s Kiss.” Monks & Nuns, Saints & Outcasts. Ed. Sharon Farmer and Barbara H. Rosenwein. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2000 pp. 172-188.

Rawcliffe, Carole. Leprosy in Medieval England. Woodbridge:Boydell Press. 2006.

Richards, Peter. The Medieval Leper. New York:Barnes & Noble. 1977.

Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War; the Military Religious Orders. London: Penguin. 1995

St. Suplitius Serverus. St. Martin of Tours. 01 December 2007

De Vitry, Jacques. The Exempla, or Stories from the Sermones Vulgares. Elibrion Classics: facsimile London: David Nutt. 1890

Touati, Francois-Olivier. Archives De La Lepre: Atlas Des Leproseries Entre Loire Et Marne AuMoyen Age. Paris: Comite Des Travaux Historiques Et Scientifiques:Memoires Et Document D’Histoire Medievale Et De Philologie, 1996.

Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. New York:Alfred Knopf. 1978

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!!!! 🙂

A Look at “The Examined Life”

I finally found a journal — one of the infinite stream of tedium series in my studio called The Examined Life, that’s been worth looking into. It’s from 1999/2000 — 20 years ago. That was the time I began reading Goethe. Goethe is all through that journal, a kind of thought conversation with this amazing man, writer as I discovered things in my reading.

At the beginning, I was in the middle of reading Faust and had not yet delved far into Goethe’s words about his life. But it’s clear from this journal that his work had shown me how to think about my own life with more clarity. I wrote:

Who can say…the passage of time, the chronicle of the stray thought, repeated over the years, the one truth we know and the question for which we find no answer strike the rhythm of our blind dance, the ache of our despair. The glorious morning when we remember — once again — who we are. Over and over and over again, we fight for ourselves with ourselves against ourselves. Life is only part crucible. We are perfected on an anvil with the hammer of our hope. (My words to me at age 48)

Now I think my anvil was hope and the hammer disappointment

2000 was a strange year for me. Among other strange things, in the pursuit of love that had been offered, I went to Italy only to find the man in question wouldn’t even talk to me, but left me in the hands of his family. It was an internal nightmare from which I attempted to awaken by walking the streets of Milan and looking at paintings. It was a fairly successful stragedy and not one everyone has access to. But I was angry and lovesick.

Love has always been problematic for me. I understand why now much more clearly than I did 20 years ago, but it’s always implied the loss of autonomy and a kind of surrender. It is something I wanted desperately (for a long while) and something that terrified me. As witnessed in the infinite volumes of The Examined Life have always searched for it while simultaneously dreading it. In this installment of The Examined Life I record the turning point.

“…That is why I prefer the study of nature which does not allow such sickness to arise. For there we have to do with infinite and eternal truth that immediately rejects anyone who does to proceed neatly and honestly in observing and handling his subject…” Goethe

Goethe had suffered the same love sickness I had. He ultimately gave up on GREAT LOVE, and found someone to spend his life with, but I think it’s different for men than it is for women.

2000 was also the year that I finished the original version of Martin of Gfenn, a 97 page first-person novella. I was pitching it and found an agent for it. Ultimately it didn’t work out — publishers turned it down because it assumed too much knowledge of medieval Zürich on the part of the reader. That was fair. That led me to study, opening a whole world to me.

There is a rejection note of a type we don’t see any more.

This installment of The Examined Life is the first interesting volume so far.

Martin of Gfenn Goes to Del Norte

When I did my reading at the Rio Grande County Museum on December 7 — first from the China book then from Martin of Gfenn — two women came up to me afterward to talk. One of them was very touched by the tiny bit I read from Martin’s story, a part relevant to Christmas, spoke straight from the section of Luke in which the rich man, Dives, refuses to help the leper, Lazarus. It’s — it seems — a fairly obscure passage for many people, but it is the essential scriptural source for the Knights of St. Lazarus and the leper hospitals of Europe’s Middle Ages. It was not obscure to this woman. She was moved by it in a way maybe every writer hopes his/her writing moves a reader.

I was ready to hand her a book right then and there, but I wasn’t there to give away books. I was there to sell them.

Her younger sister said, “Can we find that book at the library?” I had to explain how libraries weren’t very keen on self-published books, but the library in Alamosa did have my books because it takes local authors seriously. I smiled. Even I think there’s something “less than” about a self-published novel. She was gently outraged. “Why? You’re a good writer. These are good books!”

A few days ago she called. She wanted to buy two copies. One for her older sister, the one with the Bible verses, and one for herself. I was torn about charging them the full price, or any price. But I told myself, “Martha, you live hand to mouth as it is. Earning money from your writing or your art is no crime. What’s your problem?”

So we arranged to meet today in Del Norte where I had a doctor’s appointment. We pulled up in front of the library at the same time. She hopped into my car (the blessed Bella who loves ice and snow) and handed me $32. We chatted for a minute. “I sent my brother the China book,” she said. “I loved it. I think he will, too. He’s in Chino,” a city in California.

As is the way here in the San Luis Valley, I heard the life stories of three remarkable adults — two teachers and a nurse. There’s something about the San Luis Valley that launches some pretty amazing people out into the so-called “larger world.” One thing that is always a little tricky is that here people really DO know each other, but I don’t know everyone. I am here from the outside, but no longer an outsider. In the eyes of many of the people I know, and many I have met in the last year, I just fit into a context with which they are familiar and I have no idea. I’m OK with that. I just learn as I go.

I told her there were cards inside and that the pictures on the cards are scenes I’d drawn from Martin’s life.

It was all lovely. What a wonderful moment to cap this amazing year.


Also, since I have some new readers and some people have asked about the geography of where I live, here’s a map. I live in the world’s largest Alpine valley. We are at 7600 feet — that’s about 2300 meters — pretty much all the way across the valley. We are surrounded by mountains, but the valley is pretty flat. That’s about as good as it could possibly be for me. I can always see mountains. Today they are, in words from Martin of Gfenn “Blue and white promises.”

The Best Library of My Life — St. Gallen Stiftsbibliothek

On a winter’s day in a deep and dark December in 1997 I opened a door way that led into a gaudy rococo structure that housing thousands of books I could never read.

It was the Library at the Abbey of St. Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland. I had just dipped a toe into my personal medieval period. I’d recently read How the Irish Saved Civilization (which I’d bought because I thought it would be funny…) by Thomas Cahill, and I was excited to learn that a couple of Irish monks — Columbanus and Gall — had crossed the channel in little round boats and carried the Bible (and other books) up the Rhine. Gall got pneumonia at what is now St. Gallen and left Columbanus on his own to journey to Italy. Apparently Columbanus was a irritated with Gall for being such a sissy, but pneumonia is no joke…

Columbanus and Gall on Lake Constanz (dem Bodensee)

Gall set up a hermitage and a small library with a few books and he gathered followers and saved souls. He is the patron Saint of Switzerland. His animal friend is a bear. The story is:

… that once he was travelling in the woods of what is now Switzerland. One evening he was sitting down warming his hands at a fire. A bear emerged from the woods and charged. The holy man rebuked the bear, so awed by his presence it stopped its attack and slunk off to the trees. There it gathered firewood before returning to share the heat of the fire with St Gall. The legend says that for the rest of his days St Gall was followed around by his companion the bear.

At first, the library itself disappointed me. I guess I wanted to open the door and enter the 8th century or something. The current library was built in the 18th century. I find it very difficult to see anything in a baroque room, and the Abbey Library is one step beyond baroque — it’s rococo. It’s so full of embellishments and ornaments that my mind becomes confused.

Main hall of the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall

But once I got used to it — and librarian came to talk to us (we were the only people there) — I stopped trying to see through the gold and stucco and began to see and understand where I was. He showed me a medieval map of the world.

8th or 9th century CE map of the world

You can see that it’s oriented (ha ha) to the East, the rising sun — Christ. All the three continents are surrounded by sea. The map is less for navigating physical space as it is for navigating spiritual space. This is a somewhat unusual medieval map of the world because it doesn’t SAY Jerusalem is the center, but it is. I saw a couple other maps on which cities were drawn, and Jerusalem was always depicted as the largest city and had tall, shining towers. Although I didn’t understand at that moment, having only at that point dipped one toe into the medieval world, that the physical and spiritual worlds overlaid each other and that the physical world was but a metaphor for spiritual space.

Of all the amazing things this man explained about the books in the glass cases, other books on the library’s locked shelves, and books too old and fragile to be touched at all was that there are some written in languages people don’t know any more. Apparently researchers are working on that, but I thought at the time that it is incredibly sad. Here are words written in very difficult circumstances, with oak-gall ink on parchment with quill pens, stories, ideas, beliefs, philosophies, knowledge and experiences that their writers were desperate to transmit to the future. And there the three of us stood — my friend, the librarian and I — discussing how no one could read them.

He took us into a hallway behind the main room — it was modern, gray and white — with doors along it. “All these rooms have people working on this problem.” Just then a young woman wearing white cotton gloves came out of one of the doors and greeted the librarian. I got a vision of busy young people in white gloves behind all those doors struggling to decode old words. I wondered what they would find.

Of all the wonders in the library, though, for me one of the most wonderful was the inscription written in Greek over the entrance which, thanks to Michael J. Preston, I could read on my own.

Medicine Chest for the Soul

I continued to pursue St. Gall in various places in Switzerland that winter, including a trip to Basel to see the Gallus Portal at the cathedral. I learned a lot — not the least of which that ignorance is a wonderful wonderful wonderful thing because once curiosity is awakened, and you chase knowledge, you will get more than you possibly could have imagined.

I didn’t know HALF of what I was looking at that winter, but on my second to last day, my friend’s mom told him to take me to visit a little medieval church near where they lived. The church is in the village of Gfenn, outside Dubendorf, both north of Zürich. And the rest? It’s historical fiction. ❤

Lazariter Kirche im Gfenn

More than Finesse

I like to write and that’s kind of a problem at the moment because the project I have now is nothing but a random collection of vignettes. I don’t see the whole project. I haven’t even figured out (or seen?) who the protagonist is. Of course, it’s set in the dim past about which we don’t have a lot of knowledge. It’s set in the early 13th century, before the beginning of a historical moment that some Kool-aid drinkers call the “Renaissance.” But the more I delve into this historical moment the more convinced I am that there is no such thing as a “Renaissance” and it was just a “Make the Papacy Great Again” thing. In real life, Europe was in a building, painting frenzy long before MPGA, halted, for the moment, by the plague in the 14th century.

The story is set in Verona, Italy, during the time when the REAL Montagues and Capulets were feuding. They aren’t part of my story. Buildings that are now old were new, some unfinished. Imagining the city then is very difficult partly because I haven’t been there in 15 years and, if I were to return now, I would have a hard time finding it under the concretion of time.

But, I know what to do. Keep writing. Something will come clear or it won’t and, as I prepare to “launch” the China book (sort of like a three year old bottle rocket in drizzle) I remember why I write.

I thought of this last night as I was watching — am still watching because I didn’t finish it — a movie called “Morning Glory.” It’s entertaining. Besides two stars from “my” era (Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton), it features a young woman with “dreams.” Early on in the movie she loses her job, and her mom sits her down and does what she can to dispel those dreams. “When you were 8, it was cute. When you were 18, it was inspiring. At 28, it’s just embarrassing. Stop now before it becomes heartrending.” Somewhat of a paraphrase but generally OK. I wanted to slap the mom. Everyone has a right to pursue their dream. Trying to protect someone from failure is cruel.

Plenty of people back in the day tried to talk me out of writing. Why? What in the world did my writing have to do with them? Success or failure, either of them, both of them, belonged to me. People who do this? I figured they’d been talked out of their own dreams and their arguments were nothing more than expressions of bitterness and envy. LIFE is the outcome of following a dream. Success is something else altogether, the confluence between vision, effort and the zeitgeist.
I haven’t always wanted to be a writer. I have always been a writer. I don’t know why. During the Great Purge of 2015, I found early stories I’d “written” (scribbled) and had asked my dad to read to me. He saved some. His last Christmas gift to me was a pen and pencil set. I lost the tag that went with them, but it said, “Keep writing.” The tag in the photo came from the other gift he gave me that year; his copy of the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam. He died in February, 1972 of complications from Multiple Sclerosis.

Over the years the question of “being a writer” redefined itself. At one point I thought being a writer meant fame, not writing particularly. You write something and you get famous and you’re a writer. Then I read an essay by William S. Burroughs about Kerouac. Burroughs was asked if Kerouac was a writer, meaning real writer like Faulkner or Hemingway or someone in the context of the time.

Well, Kerouac, Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote. And many people who call themselves writers and have their names down on book jackets are not writers and they can’t write.

When “being a writer” meant simply writing, my idea changed. Then there was the “so what?” of it, the how. I got my answer to that question from a character in my first novel, Martin of Gfenn when he has to choose between painting over a bad painting (fresco) or scraping it off the wall and starting over. The work itself deserves the best I have to give it even if “nothing” ever happens with it.


I’m looking at old posts and eliminating those that just don’t have any reason to hang around, taking up space and not being read. But this one? I think it’s worth reposting. It’s based on the old style of Daily Prompts and I’ve included that, too. It was originally posted on my birthday five years ago. 🙂

January 7, 2014 Write about anything you’d like, but make sure that all seven colors of the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet — make an appearance in the post, either through word or image.

“Let the sun stay in my back, unseen!
The waterfall I now behold with growing
Delight as it roars down to the ravine.
From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing.
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing.
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strive:
In many-hued reflection we have life.”
Goethe, Faust II, trans. Walter Kauffman

m-EkoN8lNLXW1r_M7xjEIgAWe were just girls, nearly women. Young women. It now seems very long ago and very far away. “A secret, fraternal, Masonic organization for girls of teen age.” Love, religion, nature, immortality, fidelity, patriotism and service. The two offices I held during those brief years were Nature (yellow) and Service. Sweet prophecy? I couldn’t know back then, aged fourteen, that love of nature and service to others as a teacher would turn out to be my life.


Denver's pridefest parade through downtownWe sat on a grassy hillside in Cheeseman Park looking down toward Colfax. We couldn’t see the street, but we could hear the commotion, yelling and music.

“You wouldn’t march in that? Why?”

“It’s ridiculous. If ALL they are is the way they f… then they need more than a parade to save them. I hope I’m more than my ‘sexual preference.’ Preference? Who’d choose this? I’m shut out from the basic, most natural, most common unit of human society. I won’t have a family. I won’t have a wife and a house and all of the things other people take for granted. I’m not ‘proud’ of it.”

I knew this was true. I knew that however much I loved him — or he loved me — that love was not going to change a certain basic and elemental fact of his nature.

“You’re not ashamed of it, are you? That’s…”

“No. What is there to be ashamed of? It’s a simple fact of my existence. I have to make a life around it. Everyone makes a life around something. Come here, life.” He pulled me toward him. “You know those guys marching in that parade? They wouldn’t understand this.” He kissed me long and hard. “It’s all one or the other for them. They’re more narrow minded than straights.”


sspaceRainbow flags hung over balconies with the big word, “Pace” printed on them. Italy was “on our side” in the fracas in Iraq. It didn’t occur to me what that meant until I wandered around the Pinacoteca of the Castello Sforza and found galleries that were open in 2000 were, in 2004, closed.

A scaffold surrounded the cathedral, too, and I wasn’t sure if it was for repair and restoration or for something more sinister. The sanctuary was shut to everyone but people who were there to pray. There was no wandering around its cavernous interior, visiting chapels and looking at paintings, sculptures, reliquaries and puzzling over their makers and the aspirations or sorrows of those who loved them in centuries past. 

I was relegated to the crypt and there I saw the place where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine. I tDuomo_di_milano_sivualttarihought about that. In writing Martin of Gfenn I’d developed a kind of friendship with St. Augustine. Martin’s Commander refers to St. Augustine often and the Rule of the Order of the Knights of St. Lazarus is based on St. Augustine’s rule for life in a religious community. I had read St. Augustine’s Confessions and pieces of The City of God and overall I’d come to like him, too. I went down the narrow stone steps to the bottom of the cathedral, the bottom? I was sure that it was not. I was sure that if there were steps I would go down and down and down until I would find myself at the beginning of time.