The Most Beautiful Book on Earth

I have always been drawn to the Medieval era of European history. I even prefer the Celtic font above all others. If reincarnation is actually a thing, I often imagine I was a dangerously smart, albeit uneducated, woman back then. Nobody famous. We can’t all be kings and queens. No, I would have been a farmer’s daughter or a milk maid, and my life would have been nasty, brutish and short, but I’d have been a leader for all that. I love reading everything I can about that period. It feels strangely familiar to me. Like home.

So I was really excited to see this article, entitled The Medieval Masterpiece, the Book of Kells, is Now Digitized & Put Online. I’ve long thought this was the most beautiful book on earth, and I’m not alone in that assessment. It’s the most elaborate illuminated manuscript extant, and now, for the first time, we get to gaze upon every bit of it, all 680 pages, online, for free, here. What a treasure.

This book, believed to be from around the year 800, wasn’t really created to be read. It is a work of art, first and foremost. The illuminated portions of the text are so abstract as to be nearly illegible, and it’s quite clear that the rest of the words weren’t taken very seriously by the scribes. It basically is the four gospels of the new testament, but whole sections are missing, and long passages are mistakenly repeated, and some are even paraphrased, as if taken from memory rather than the source. Page numbers, added much later, include a duplicate page number. According to Wikipedia, the tables included in the Book of Kells, meant to allow the reader to cross reference the gospels, a table of contents of sorts, are actually useless since the chapters were never numbered. This book was all about the illustrations.

We cannot be sure how much of the book is missing, but the current tome ends partway through the gospel of John, and it’s believed that several of the illuminations have been “lost”. And by lost I assume stolen, because how do you lose one page of a book and not another? I admit that these illuminations are definitely suitable for framing. (I wouldn’t mind having one as a tattoo, if I could put up with the pain and could find an artist capable of such outstanding work.)

While researching this post, I also came across a feature length, award-winning animation entitled The Secret of Kells. I’m really surprised it isn’t more well known. It’s a fictional story, inspired by the book. You can see shadows of the book’s art in its brilliant illustrations. The music and the story are a surreal delight as well. I highly recommend it.

It really makes me happy, knowing that such beauty as the Book of Kells exists in this world. Humans aren’t merely destructive after all. We are capable of creating things that are magical. This gives me hope.

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Off Limits

There’s nothing on earth that makes me want to do something more than being told I cannot do that thing. Not that I’m going to disobey The Law writ large. I won’t even shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Laws are generally put into place for the protection of society. But some arbitrary rules and decisions are just absurd. And some long-standing traditions with no basis in logic could stand to be modernized.

Even as a child, when I would hear that a book was banned by our school district, I’d make it a point to read that book. Fortunately my mother was very supportive of this. She believed we should have access to a variety of points of view, and then form our own opinions. So I read quite a bit.

I once met a man from another culture who was horrified that I was “allowed” to work the graveyard shift. “They let you go out alone at night?” First of all, who is “they”? I’m a 52 year old woman who lives alone.

I experienced that same look of horror when I rented a car in Turkey. They made me drive it around the block to prove I could before they’d let me have it. And sure enough, in the rural areas in particular, I soon noticed that I was the only female driver.

So imagine my thought process when reading about Mount Athos, in Greece. It’s a region that has 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries, and women aren’t allowed on the entire peninsula. And it has been thus for nearly 2,000 years. I’ve never wanted to go somewhere so badly in my entire life.

Their reasons for this ban are very strange. They claim that the Virgin Mary once was on a ship that blew off course, and when she landed on Mount Athos, she liked it so much that she asked her son to let it be her garden. And so it was decreed, somehow, from on high. (As they say, it’s who you know.) And because of that it became out of bounds for other women.

Whatever.

But these monks really take it to the extreme. They won’t even allow female animals there even though they do a lot of farming, so their eggs and milk must be imported. They do make an exception for female bugs and songbirds, because, let’s face it, that would be a bit difficult to control. But they also make an exception for female cats. I’m guessing that has to do with rodent control. (Come to think of it, what keeps out the female rats? It’s a slippery slope!) Who knows what their rationale is.

So I’m lower on the pecking order than a bug. Nice. I’m that big of a danger to their society. Insane.

A few women have made it to Mount Athos, I’m happy to say. A Serbian Emperor once brought his wife there to protect her from the plague, but she wasn’t allowed to touch the ground the whole time she was in residence. Cooties!

One woman, Maryse Choisy, once disguised herself as a man, and lived there for a month. She then wrote a book about it. Good for her! A Greek beauty queen then followed her example in the 50’s, and it was such a scandal that it was written up in Time magazine.

Three women landed there that same year and caused a big controversy. And there have been various movements to allow women in since then, but none of them have taken hold.

It’s not like they are against modernization under certain circumstances, when it suits them. Some of the monks are now taxi drivers, mechanics, and computer IT techs. But women! Gasp! Can’t have that.

But then, they also insist upon maintaining Byzantine time, which commences at sunset each day. That means that their clocks need to be regularly readjusted because sunset isn’t at the same time every day. Talk about stubborn.

And they’re all about doing what’s right for them, and to hell with everyone else. To avoid WWII, they asked Hitler to place them under his protection, and oddly enough, he agreed. So they referred to him as “High Protector of the Holy Mountain”. And that was while he took over the rest of Greece. Wow.

The reason I’d most like to visit, though, is that these monasteries are the repositories of so much medieval art, codices, relics and icons that even though they are trying to catalogue and restore them, they say it will take decades. Such rich history would be a joy to behold.

Men can visit. But only if they have short hair and are over 18 and get all the proper visas, and are preferably, but not necessarily, members of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  That means even Vladimir Putin got to go, but I can’t. (One assumes he had to keep his feminine side strictly under control.)

If this is what faith has to offer, I’ll stick with logic.

mount athos putin

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Why Not Build a Castle?

If I had the luxury of having any career in the world (and some magic guarantee that I’d be able to make a living at it), I would be an experimental archeologist. I love to learn by doing, and there’s no other job in the world that allows you to do just that to such an extreme degree. There’s so much that we don’t know about how things were done in the past, and the best way to figure it out is by actually getting in there with the tools and materials that were available at the time and working it out as you go along.

For example, there’s a medieval castle construction site in the Burgundy region of France that I’d love to check out. It’s called Guédelon Castle, and it’s been a work in progress since 1997. There was an excellent BBC series on it called Secrets of the Castle that I highly recommend. You can watch it on Youtube. It gives you a strong sense of the many things that they’ve learned about the castle building process that were previously unknown.

When you think about history, you tend to think it was all about kings and lords and popes. These were the people whose lives were written about. You also get the impression that life was all about one long series of wars. Those were the events that made the “headlines.” Very little is known about the day to day life of the commoners and laborers. They either couldn’t write themselves or didn’t have the time or supplies. But their lives are worth knowing about as well.

There’s so much to learn from the past. And sometimes the only way to learn it is to actually try to live it. Oh yeah. That’s the job for me.

[Image credit: guedelon.fr]
[Image credit: guedelon.fr]

Rota Fortunae

A friend of mine challenged me to write a blog entry about the Wheel of Fortune. Not the game show, thank goodness, but a much meatier topic: the medieval philosophy about fate. So here goes.

You see this topic coming up over and over again in the literature of the time. They believed that the goddess Fortuna randomly spins this wheel to which we are all attached. If you happen to be on the less fortunate part of that wheel when it stops, well, then, you are in for some bad luck indeed. And, as the carnival barkers say, “Where she stops, nobody knows!”

I happen to have my own completely unsubstantiated theory about the origins of this philosophy. I think it was an invention of the people in power, whether they were religious or political leaders. As we all know, life in that era was nasty, brutish and short for the average person. If they had had time to lift their heads up and look about them, they might just have built up a healthy resentment for their plight, but most of them were too busy just trying to survive.

But just in case, it would be quite handy for the upper classes to be able to instill in the unwashed masses a belief that they had absolutely no power over their own destiny. If there’s no hope for change, there’s no point in bitterness. Resign yourself to your fate. Accept the fact that we’re all tied to Fortuna’s wheel. Don’t ask questions.

I find it quite interesting that when the wheel of fortune was mentioned back then, it was usually in reference to one’s run of bad luck. Unexpected death or illness. Loss of children. You never heard about the people who would have had to have been attached to the top, or “good luck”, part of the wheel when it stopped. I suspect those were usually the royals and the popes. Goodness, no, we don’t want to draw attention to them. That might cause the very resentment that the powers that be were trying to avoid.

I do believe that fate does have a role in my life. Some pretty horrible and pretty amazing things have happened to me that I did nothing personally to bring about. But I also believe that the choices I make influence the path my life takes. If I decide to turn left, I might meet the love of my life. If I turn right I might not. But I’m the one who decides which way to turn.

I don’t think I’m tied to a wheel. I view it more as a pendulum. Age and experience tells me that when things aren’t going well, it’s just a matter of time before the pendulum will swing back the other way. I derive a lot of comfort from that. But I don’t feel helpless. The pendulum is going to swing, yes, but I get to decide which plane it will swing on. That counts for something.

Wheel of Fortune

[Image credit: web.eecs.utk.edu]