Thursday, 27 August 2009

Evening at the edges

Popular history likes to state that medieval Europeans were afraid of monsters at the edge of the world, such as races of men with their faces in their chests and others who had dog-heads or who lived balanced on one gigantic foot (a foot that they could hold above themselves as a shield against the sun on hot, eastern days):

 (This is the thirteenth-century Psalter Map; the monstrous races can be seen on the lower right side, the coast of Africa)

The world had an edge wrapping around from Ireland to China and a centre, the walled city of Jerusalem. At the end of time Jerusalem would be renewed as the City of God, but was still imagined stiffly walled (shown here in the Gulbenkian Apocalypse).

The axiom that medieval culture walled out the forest, desert, the ocean and the wild ignores many more complex ways in which they thought about edges and centres, what did or did not belong to God. Where’s the centre in this name of Christ from the Book of Kells? Are the cats, mice and the otter eating a fish marginal to God?

Medieval experiences, ideas and art were actually far more ambivalent about whether what is feared can or should be fenced out than I’ve implied, but I was thinking about the dichotomy partially because of reading this comment by Ann Haskell: ‘In comparison with medieval people, who walled themselves in, leaving their fears and what they were afraid of outside, we in the twentieth-century, have reversed this situation: we have fenced in what was out there and put it in zoos, parks, prisons, hospitals, and nature preserves, the result being that we are now outside, living side-by-side with our fears of their escape.’

Something of this urge to contain what feels dangerous could be heard in the outrage at a dying man’s release from prison last week. Reading a poem about the New Jerusalem I recalled being there a few years ago and  seeing a new Wall trapping a people inside, but also being there another time on the day of a bus bomb. We’ve performed a slow act of reversal on medieval geography so that cities feel dangerous and forests endangered. Perhaps it would help to live in a home that drifted unpredictably between inside and outside, like Sylvie in Housekeeping:

When we did come home Sylvie would certainly be home, too, enjoying the evening, for so she described her habit of sitting in the dark. Evening was her special time of day. She gave the word three syllables, and indeed I think she liked it so well for its tendency to smooth, to soften. She seemed to dislike the disequilibrium of counterpoising a roomful of light against a worldful of darkness. Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic. Lucille and I stepped through the door from sheer night into sheer night.


  1. I like this - very thought-provoking. It's nice too to see someone not being simplistic about the middle ages!

  2. Thanks very much, Elizabeth. I often feel a bit guilty talking about the middle ages as if it's okay to refer to a thousand years in a block like that, but it serves a purpose sometimes...