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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SIXTY SIX Women and Rules

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

I'm not sure how the conversation turned to rivers and their uses. The big German rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, have been used through the millennia to cross the continent and so have the Rhône and the Loire, which connect (with a short overland hop) the Carmargue to the Atlantic.

A few years ago I travelled up the Loire from Orleans to the source of the river in the Ardeche. It was a tame photographic expedition – but there were beautiful things to photograph, none more so that the Abbey at St. Benoit-sur-Loire where St Benedict's remains were brought from Monte Cassino in the seventh century.

Fleury Abbey at St. Benoit-sur-Loire (c)meirionharries

Benedict did not found an Order as such (though it is called one). He simply prescribed rules for monastic life that communities could adopt: to this day Benedictine congregations are autonomous.

The official Benedictine website explains:

The Rule of St Benedict consists of a Prologue and seventy-three chapters, ranging from a few lines to several pages. They provide teaching about the basic monastic virtues of humility, silence, and obedience as well as directives for daily living. The Rule prescribes times for common prayer, meditative reading, and manual work; it legislates for the details of common living such as clothing, sleeping arrangements, food and drink, care of the sick, reception of guests, recruitment of new members, journeys away from the monastery, etc. While the Rule does not shun minute instructions, it allows the abbot to determine the particulars of common living according to his wise discretion.

Benedict's Rule was based on his own experience as a monk and as the Abbot of Monte Cassino and drew on books of instruction, including the anonymous Rule of the Master. But he did not simply copy: his Rule is a masterpiece of intelligence, humility and practicality - an organisational blueprint for small religious communities that has endured for fifteen centuries.

According to the Venerable Bede, Benedict had a twin sister, Scholastica, who founded the women's branch of the Benedictine Order - a convent at the foot of Monte Cassino, where Benedict was Abbot. Once a year, they would meet in a nearby house to talk and worship together. 'At their last meeting Scholastica knew that she was near death, and at the end of the day she begged Benedict not to leave. Of course, by his own Rule he could not stay and he refused her entreaties. So she prayed - and a huge storm broke over the house, trapping Benedict.

"What have you done?" Benedict asked.

"I asked you and you would not listen. So I asked my God and he did listen".

Benedict and Scholastica (Klosterkirche Elchingen)

Scholastica did not, however, seek to adapt the Rule of Benedict to meet the needs of women and as female monasteries grew more prevalent, changes became urgent.

Hildegard of Bingen and Heloise, wife of Abelard and Abbess of the Oratory of the Paraclete (they were almost exact contemporaries), both argued that Benedict's Rule needed to be adapted for female communities. Their reasons were practical, not spiritual or even based on traditional gender roles – after all, monks did the washing and the cleaning. Their objections were based on anatomical difference: the prohibition against clothing under the habit; manual labour – Heloise pointed out that women could not take on tasks that make “nearly all men stagger and even fall”; and then there was the potential impropriety of Benedict's injunction that monks should meet a visitor to their monastery and “treat him with all courtesy and love”.

Hildegard and Heloise had other things in common. Both were renowned scholars: Heloise, through her letters to Abelard, remains an important figure in the development of French literature. Both were fortunate in two respects: they lived during the twelfth century renaissance when population, economy and knowledge were all expanding. In their lifetimes, monasteries and convents were intellectual and artistic centres so that nuns had access to the best libraries; when the locus of study shifted to cathedrals and the rising universities, women were excluded.

Both were also physicians: Heloise had been tutored well by Abelard and Hildegard acquired her skills through practical experience. At some point after taking the veil, Hildegard was put in charge of the Infirmary at Disibodenberg. Her role would have been wide-ranging; her infirmary would have served the local community and she would have learned from a range of medical specialists – bone-setters, herbalists, blood-letters, and midwives - and had access to medical texts in the monastery library.

Running an infirmary required a deep understanding of the medicinal properties of various plants and Hildegard made her own medicines from those gathered in the wild or grown in the infirmary's herb garden. Some ingredients needed to be bought - sugar, ginger, galangal, anise, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron, liquorice, and caraway. And she would have made her own ointments and enemas, as well as medicinal ales and wine.

Hildegard was renowned as a spiritual healer and there is an apparent conflict between her spiritual healing and the practical medicine of the infirmary. For the latter, she wrote two 'medical' tracts - but claimed they were Divinely inspired.

Physica catalogues the medicinal properties of 230 plants, 37 types of fish, stones, and animals, and Causae et Curae describes the causes and cures of a range of diseases - "Whoever has a toothache because of the purging of noxious humours from the brain, should take equal amounts of absinthe and verbena, and cook them in a good, clear wine, which should be drunk after adding a little sugar. The cooked herbs can also be put on the painful teeth when the patient goes to sleep, and so he will be healed”.

I have a copy of Physica - an endless source of fascinating insights:

- salmon “is not good for any person to eat because it stirs up all the bad humours in a person”;

- “If someone has jaundice, strike a bat gently, so it does not die. Tie it over his loins”

- “A woman who is having difficulty in childbirth … should place a lion's heart on her umbilicus for a short time, not long. The infant will loosen and quickly come forth”.

It's easy to poke fun but actually Hildegard was correct in much of what she said. For her, human health and the health of plants rested on the same principles of balance. The medieval world was based solidly on agriculture and the four humours that we know from the Greeks were to Hildegard the key elements in agriculture - land, rain, wind, and sun. The foundation of health was balance: she offered an original concept of the healthy life - viriditas, the 'greening power' that sustains plants, also sustains us.

These days, her simple precepts for health have become the Hildegardian Diet, followed assiduously across the world. The website lists food and drink that Hildegard says are good for us. Her top tips are spelt, chestnuts, fennel and chickpeas – and, of these, I would suggest going for fennel:

In whatever way it is eaten, it makes a person happy and brings to him a gentle heat and good perspiration, and makes his digestion good. Eating fennel or its seed every day diminishes bad phlegm and decaying matter, keeps bad breath in check, and makes one's eyes see clearly .... A person whom melancholy is harming should pound fennel to a liquid and rub it often on his forehead, temples, chest and stomach. His melancholy will stop.

The good thing about German cuisine is that it is fennel heavy. Restaurants offer roast fennel; baked fennel with Emmentaler cheese; fennel salad with apples, lemon, oil and vinegar; fennel sauerkraut; fennel and carrot soup; shaved fennel salad with mint, walnuts and sherry vinegar; warm fennel salad with potato and bacon; sausages with braised red cabbage and fennel; whole bream baked in fennel and orange (also a Race Marshal speciality).

The monk of Mount Angel Abbey talk about why the Rule of St. Benedict has lasted over 1500 years -

The story of Heloise and Abelard -

A day in the kitchen of Hildegard of Bingen -

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