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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SIXTY FIVE A Taste of the Medieval

I have spent the weekend cycling round the countryside where Hildegard of Bingen spent her life - the Rheinhessen, the 'land of the thousand hills' (as my legs will testify). She was born in 1098 in Bermersheim vor der Höhe in the loop of the Rhine, south of Bingen itself. Since Roman times, this has been of the great wine growing areas: Tacitus spoke of the tribes in this area drinking wine and beer - while to the east, across the Rhine, there was only beer.

Hildegard was enclosed in the monastery at Disibodenberg for thirty-nine years, before creating her own Benedictine community at Ruppertsberg, where she died on 17th September, 1179. We know her really for what she produced in the last forty years of her life: the books of her visions, her medicine, her music.

I pedalled the fifty kilometres west from Heidelberg to Ruppertsberg in the hope of capturing some sense of her life in these years. Sadly, her convent is gone - apart from a solid wall which railroad engineers hijacked to buttress an embankment. Retreating to the Waldgaststätte Pfalzblick beergarden, I settled in with a plate of herb curd potato cakes and a Schoppen of Schorle (half a litre of Riesling spritzer served in an elegant dimpled Dubbeglas) to await the boom of an approaching Harley.

Preoccupying me was how distant we are from the medieval - not that this era was in any way homogeneous. Take Hildegard's introduction to the church: the tenth child, her parents gave her as a tithe to the monastery at Disibodenberg, a little to the west of Bermersheim. The monks welcomed her with a service for her funeral and then walled their new anchorite into a cell to await her salvation. As Guibert of Gembloux, her secretary late in life, describes, novitiates:

.... were left in the hand of the Lord. Except for a rather small window through which visitors could speak at certain hours and necessary provisions be passed across, all access was blocked off not with wood, but with stones solidly cemented in.

enclosure of an anchorite (c)Corpus Christi, Cambridge

That is unimaginable now; but much else of that period in Germany is easier for us to recapture. In so many towns and villages, much of what surrounds you (albeit often restored) is medieval. Travelling in time feels perfectly possible, particularly when you sit in an ancient market square drinking a locally brewed beer with a lineage that dates back hundreds of years. Or if you dine out, as we did last night, on Saumagen - the thick, meaty belly of a sow stuffed with potatoes, onions and pork sprinkled with marjoram, nutmeg and perhaps cloves, cardamom, and parsley. In the traditional way, the stuffing follows the seasons; I particularly like the addition of chestnuts in the autumn.

(To complete the recipe: The stuffed belly is cooked by being boiling gently and then cut into one inch slices and fried. Saumagen, served with sauerkraut, was a particular favourite of Chancellor Helmut Kohl who served it to Mrs Thatcher.)

Of course, imagination can always leap ages and cultures, until the imagined world becomes a private reality. When I worked in Japan, I was nonplussed by westerners, English and American, who had fallen so much in love with the country that they dressed in kimono and lived the life of Shinto aesthetes long abandoned by modern Japanese.

The military man, General George Patton, was equally a fantasist. He lived his life, and fought his battles, according to the ancient rules of European chivalry. German intelligence classed him as a modern day Don Quixote. Certainly his first sight of tanks in 1917 made him think of the "rattling plate" of knights in armour.

As a boy, Patton inhabited an Arthurian world: his horse was named Galahad and his family, who bred these caprices, took him for summers to the town of Avalon in California where, Patton recalled, "there was an old iron stick in a wall near the house and I used to pull at the thing, quite sure that it was Excalibur”.

Patton was dyslexic and was unable to read until he was twelve – but he knew by heart vast tracts of Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, Walter Scott and the poems of Kipling. His favourite poem was Morte d'Arthur and at the age of eighteen, he composed a chivalric toast:

Oh! here's to the maids for whom they fought,

For whom they strove, of whom they thought;

The maids whose love they nobly sought,

In the days when war was war.

Marriage reinforced the whimsy. Beatrice cut their wedding cake with his dress sword and they spent their honeymoon in Tintagel, where they 'read a lot about Arthur' and Patton wrote verse:

With your learned modern science,

You may prove that we are dead,

Yet e'en now we live among you

As in ages that are sped.

Not did the years wither their make-believe. They went to fancy dress parties as Guinevere and Arthur - and Patton began his letters 'Dear Queen'. When he won the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism under fire, Beatrice wrote: "Georgie, you are the fulfilment of all the ideals of manliness and high courage and bravery I have always held for you."

In return, 'Georgie' composed a chivalric ode:

You are my inspiration,

Light of my brain and soul,

Your guiding love by night and day

Will keep my valor whole.

The Patton Saber (c)wikicommons

Patton became the US Army's first Master of the Sword and he redesigned the cavalry sabre - to this day, the Model 1913 Cavalry Sword is called the 'Patton Saber'. When commanding tanks, he drew on the tactics of the medieval knights in the form of the courageous and committed charge. In one poem he described war as "mistress of the great in man" - so no wonder that almost his last words, as he lay with his neck broken in a car crash, were This is a hell of a way to die.

I had a long discussion with the medievalist Will Nabarro about the difficulties of grasping the medieval. One of the things he said was particularly illuminating: that our sources are almost exclusively written by men. Will cites the Wife of Bath:

By God! If women hadde written stories,

As clerkes han within hire oratories,

They wolde han written of men moore wikkednesse

Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.

The sunlight is glinting from the chrome of the Harley's petrol tank, so time to stop. We will rescue Hildegard from her mausoleum tomorrow.

Patton's longest poem Through a Glass Darkly -

Here are cyclists on the wine route stopping (in the early part of the film) at Deidesheim, very close to Ruppertsberg -

Hildegard of Bingen's Canticles Of Ecstasy -

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Jun 22, 2020

I love this entry, but am a bit confused by your necessarily brief description of Hildegard’s enclosure. Did she really spend 32 years walled into a cell? If so, hmmm, how to put this delicately... how did she bathe and how did they handle her , uh, defecations? And how on earth did she survive —mentally and physically? Thanks, Mei!

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