Friday 30 May 2014

Medieval Women, flowers, sex, motherhood

Medieval woman was constantly reminded of God's will and his divine justice. In fact everyone was, men, women and children. The notion of heaven and hell was very real, so real that, throughout the Middle Ages, churches contained wall paintings reminding the people, rich and poor, of Heaven's blessings and Hell's terrors. Women during this period were classified according to their sexual status. They were virgins, wives or widows and they were, of course, also mothers.

Church Wall Paintings informed men and women of sin

Sexual intercourse was part of God's original plan. If Adam and Eve had not eaten the apple- a sin of pride- they would have had intercourse. Otherwise how would they have obeyed God's order to increase and multiply (Genesis 1: 27-8) ? By this rationale, if women chose to be virgins in paradise they would have been thwarting God's intentions. It was, therefore, after the 'fall' that the concept of lust crept in and, thereafter,became the problem for the medieval Church; not sex. If lust was not controlled it could lead to eternal damnation. The only legitimate outlet for sex was marriage. 'Marriage was ordained by God. Monasticism,' writes historian Henrietta Leyser, 'was instituted by man.'

This gave rise to the idea of mutual conjugal debt. St Paul wrote, 'Let the husband render to his wife what is her due, and likewise the wife to her husband.' It does not take much imagination for us as we glance backwards from the perspective of a more liberated 21st century to see the problems this presented for women.
The Medieval Woman

Two main medical theories about sexual differences existed during the medieval period. Galen said that female anatomy corresponded to that of a man. This theory also suggested that women must ejaculate her seed for there to be conception but could not conceive without enjoying intercourse. It seems on a first reading, egalitarian. Yet, what does this theory suggest for the medieval woman who conceives a child after a rape? However, just as unfair, Aristotle saw women as defective males with the male anatomy turned inside out. Women were perceived as the 'weaker vessel.'

The Weaker Vessel

Male seed was precious. It could not be wasted. Female seed was dangerous so women must purge themselves of bodily excesses. Menstruation was a part of this. Intercourse was also part of the purging process. Obviously not when a woman had her menses.

It was thought that women's seed and menstrual blood were dangerous to everyone and everything. It could turn wine sour, destroy crops. It could kill off bees and dogs tasting it could get rabbies. Even gazing at a menstruating woman might have dire consequences. Another theory comes into play here.

Health during the medieval period was all about balancing humors. This theory had been taught by Hippocrates and was inherited from Ancient Greece. The medieval believed that there were in existence four humors that must be in a state of balance. These were four elements: fire, air, earth and water. Three categories corresponded to these: heat, cold, dryness and moisture. Then the bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm; third the temperaments: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. Men and women were different. Men were hotter than women. They had physiological and moral superiority. Women had a lack of heat which made for physical weakness and untrustworthy nature. Women were more sexually greedy than men because their cold uteruses were in need of having hot semen to warm the uterus.
Wikipedia, The Four Humors

In the Trotula, a Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine written in Salerno in the 12th C we find that this defect was considered a sign of a less perfect life form. 'Women were unable to concoct ( cook) their ingredients as thoroughly as men.' ( Introduction). Men were able to exude residues through sweat and the growth of facial hair. Women, however, would accumulate excess materials from their bodies and this could lead to disease, an humoral imbalance. This imbalance was menstruation.

Menses became called a woman's flowers because trees without their flowers will not bear fruit. Women without their flowers will be deprived of offspring. Menstrual blood works like a tree. Before bearing fruit a tree must bear its first flowers. Nature had in effect established a purgation to temper woman's poverty of heat. Thus the 'flowers'. It was a vernacular term for menstruation used by rich and poor.

Childbirth was risky. It was believed that saints dispensed their favours equally between men and women. Mothers in the course of difficult labours would offer prayers to the Virgin and to Saints. St Margaret, a saint who was swallowed and spat out by a dragon, had unrivalled powers of empathy with the process of labour. During their ordeal women, surrounded by midwives, might seek comfort by listening to readings from her life.

Childbirth came to rich and poor, the village and the castle alike.

Girdles, known as birth girdles, were popular aids to birthing. As early as the 11th C Bald's Leechbook suggests that in a case of difficult labour a woman would put prayers upon her girdle to help ease the birth. At Westminster Abbey the monks guarded the Virgin's own girdle which had been given to them by Edward the Confessor. It was loaned out for aristocratic and royal births.

Image of St Margaret

So, Heaven, Hell, Saints, God's Will, were all notions that permeated the medieval mind. These were ideas that also existed in a misogynist society. As regards sex and motherhood, women were the 'weaker vessel.'

To read more I suggest:

Medieval Women, Henrietta Leyser, 1995, Phoenix Press.
The Trotula, edited and translated by Monica H.Green, 2002, University of Pennsylvania Press.

There is much on this subject in my new novel The Swan-Daughter to be published by Accent Press on 18th September 2014 as an e book and in December 2014 as a paperback.   

Thursday 1 May 2014

Sarah Bower on The Art of Writing

A big thank you to Carol McGrath for inviting me to join this blog hop and for hosting my post. So, relay baton in hand, here I go…

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m lucky enough to be writer in residence in the English Department of Lingnan University in Hong Kong until June. While I do have a teaching commitment, the university has been incredibly generous in giving me a lot of time to write. 
I’m currently working on a novel entitled Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? (and thank you to the totally cool Magnetic Fields for the title) which has three story lines covering life in England and Palestine from 1948 to 2008. Its principals are an Englishwoman with a mysterious past which is revealed to her when she inherits a house on the North Yorkshire coast, and a Palestinian terrorist. The woman’s mother and an artisan baker also play key roles. The chronology is complicated and none of the relationships works out quite the way you think it will. I am trying, with this book, to walk the tightrope of reproducing a sense of the randomness of life’s connections and coincidences while still constructing a coherent narrative.
There are many challenges for me in writing this book. Perhaps, to date, I’ve had the most fun overcoming my ignorance about commercial bread-baking, when the Pump Street Bakery in Orford kindly allowed me to work a shift alongside their bakers. (And fresh-baked doughnuts for breakfast at 4am after a long night kneading dough is possibly the closest to heaven I shall ever get!) My next challenge will be a visit to Palestine in October when I shall be working on the olive harvest as part of the Zaytoun Project Of course, the history of modern Palestine is so well documented one hardly knows where to begin - and in the news again as we speak, with the Hamas-Fatah agreement - but a chance to visit the country, to stay with local villagers and share their lives, if only for a couple of weeks, will be invaluable to me as a writer in helping me to grasp what is pretty much ineffable about the atmosphere of a place - its smells and tastes, sounds and colours.
As part of my role at Lingnan, I’m also working on a contemporary adaptation of Beauty and the Beast for a class of eight to eleven year olds to perform and a paper on fashion in vampire novels for a forthcoming conference on fiction and fashion, and I’m preparing a review of Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel for the e-zine Asian Cha.
My third novel, Erosion, was published on April 28th.
My short story, Restoration, will be published in Unthology 5 in June.

Sarah wrote Erosion under a pseudo-name

How does your work differ from others of its genre? 

Well, I don’t write in any single genre. My two historical novels, The Needle in the Blood and The Book of Love (published in the US as Sins of the House of Borgia), have been variously described as literary fiction and historical romance! My latest book, Erosion is a contemporary literary thriller. I’ve described Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? in answer to the previous question, so I’ll leave it to readers of this blog to define it for themselves.
To be honest, and I think most writers would agree with me here, genre seems to me to be a marketing concept rather than any useful way of defining or describing a work of fiction. When, for example, my US publisher wanted to re-title The Book of Love, I was
uncomfortable because Sins of the House of Borgia gives, to my mind, a misleading impression of what that book is actually about, but they were insistent because they believed it would make the book more marketable. Well, they were right, so I bow to their superior selling skills and take the royalties cheques.

Why do I write what I do?

Simple. My head would explode if I didn’t. I don’t choose what I write, it chooses me.
How does my writing process work?
If I knew that, it might take me less than three years to write a novel!
I am an intuitive writer. The only novel for which I have made a detailed plan was Erosion because it is, on one level, a crime novel and therefore involves elements of puzzle solving, for which you must first construct your puzzle. I undertook the novel as something of an academic exercise, to see if I could do it. It will be for readers to judge if I succeeded, of course! I never usually know where a novel will end, I just have to follow my nose until I get there.
It’s much the same for my short fiction. Some ideas come to me as short stories, some as novels, and I have no real idea why this happens except, I suppose, that the short story form is more fitted to examining a moment, a mood, a single, intense crisis or realisation in a life, and the novel is more a series of actions and consequences.

As for the actual, physical process, let me give you a little glimpse of how I’m writing now. I’m sitting at my table in my apartment on Hong Kong’s Gold Coast. It’s a relatively cool day today, so I have the balcony door open rather than the air conditioner blaring. Birds are singing - black and white robins, spotted doves and something that sounds like a football referee blowing his whistle which I haven’t yet been able to identify. Mimosa is just coming into flower, as is hibiscus and bauhinia. The sea is a still, metallic blue and the mountains on the other side of the bay have that misty, Bali Hai look I shall forever associate with the South China Sea (while not reminding myself it probably derives from the factories in Shenzen rather than any mysteries of the Oriental climate). At this precise moment, I’m probably one of the luckiest writers on the planet…so let’s leave it there, shall we?

As the next writer to be featured in the blog hop, I’d like to introduce Karen Ma, author of Excess Baggage, a wonderful ‘true novel’ about the consequences for one family of living through the Maoist era in China.

Karen Ma is a Chinese-American author and journalist based in Beijing.  Originally born in China, Ma spent her formative years in Hong Kong and Japan, before earning an M.A. degree in Chinese language and literature from the University of Washington.  During her 20 plus years living in Japan and China, Ma worked as a journalist for the Daily Yomiuri, Kyodo News and NHK Radio Japan.  She also wrote for many international publications,
New York Newsday, International Herald Tribune, More Magazine, the Japan Times, South China Morning Post and the New Delhi-based Mint.
Ma’s most recent book is Excess Baggage, a semi-autobiographical novel based loosely on her family’s experience as Chinese immigrants living in Tokyo during the post bubble years of 1990s, published by San Francisco-based China Books in 2013.

Ma is the author of the non-fiction book, Modern Madam Butterfly: Fantasy and Reality of Japanese Cross-cultural Relationships, published in 1996 by Charles E. Tuttle.