Monday, July 16, 2018

Dark Ages



We moderns often think we know it all, that the past was benighted, and we have progressed so far.

The truth is that history is not about forward progress at all. It is about the swings from enlightened eras to dark ages and back. In ways, that is discouraging. In ways, it offers hope. If you think what is happening today is bad, or even good, wait a bit and it will change—much like the weather in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the swing from light to dark is often insidious, almost invisible, until the family next door is taken away in the middle of the night, you see armed guards with dogs at a railway station, or your child is murdered for pointing a finger at someone holding a gun. The return to enlightenment, however, all too often seems to require a catastrophe of such magnitude that there is no doubt that the dark path was the wrong one. Germany of today has come a long way from Hitler, but the cause was the Holocaust, a slaughter so horrible that words remain inadequate. The US finally abolished slavery after the fracture of the Union and approximately 620,000 war deaths, not counting the mutilations and psychological damage.

I wish we learned better from history. Demagogues and dictators frequently do not fare well. Mussolini was hanged upside down like a piece of meat after being shot. Joseph McCarthy died at age 48 from the effects of alcoholism. Yet aspiring demagogues and dictators never seem to learn. They keep popping up. The only thing we can hope is that we see through their paper-thin promises and ploys and cast them aside before they take us to the brink of destruction.

So was the distant past the Dark Ages compared to us? Sometimes, other times not. We certainly know more about science than the medievals did. Yet we lost the recipe for concrete for centuries and still don’t really know how the builders of Stonehenge could be so precise or get those rocks in place. When we walk city streets today, the poor areas are little better (other than better sewage disposal) than in past eras while the folks of greater means get the garage hauled faster and more efficiently. And the best medical advice from medieval doctors sounds all too similar today: everything in moderation and get more exercise.

Of course, we have made improvements, but we should be very cautious about assuming the past doesn’t hold valuable secrets that have been lost. What we arrogantly assume were dark ages compared to modern times might surprise us. Most of all, perhaps, we should never forget the greatest lesson history has to teach us: dark ages will follow brighter ones, just as brighter times will eventually overcome the shadows.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Arthur, the Cat


           I often say that I can’t write real people so anyone, who might have offended me in the last seventy years, should feel perfectly safe. Authorial vengeance is not my style.
            For every rule, however, there is an exception. Arthur, Prioress Eleanor’s cat, is based on a couple of real, adored felines who used to rule in this household.
           Contrary to common assumptions, medievals did have pets. Aelred of Rievaulx warned anchoresses that, although pets were not appropriate to their stern vocation, a cat was acceptable. He was probably being practical, but I also suspect he had his own soft spot for the creatures. A delightful book, Medieval Pets by Meikle-Walker, details the extent to which favored animals were spoiled, adored, and, yes, virtually worshipped. Of course, dogs hunted, and cats were the ultimate mouse/ rat deterrents, but people have always had a weakness for animals. As much as I am not a reptile fan, I do wonder if Eve rather fancied snakes…
           In most literature, primary source or fictional, women who headed religious houses tended to fancy little dogs. Although I like dogs, I decided that my prioress wasn’t a lap dog sort. She has a stern element to her. She insists on a strict Benedictine diet with no red meat and runs her priory with a rational but firm rule.
So why a pet at all? Leadership is a lonely thing, and my prioress isn’t heartless. Besides, red tabbies are irresistible. Tell me: I have had two of them. She also needed someone to talk to when she mused, someone who wouldn’t argue or distract her from the decisions she had to make. In short, someone who would simply cuddle up in a warm ball and purr encouragement.
Nonetheless, Arthur is no spoiled fellow. Oh, he gets treats enough and has a bit of old wool he sleeps on, which rests on Prioress Eleanor’s narrow bed, but he has a job. Every morning, he leaves his residence, heads to the kitchen, and rids the place of rodents. His other function, although it might be one that wouldn’t immediately come to mind, is to provide the priory with generations of equally fine hunters. Cats were not neutered in medieval times, although stallions and bulls were, so, in this house vowed to celibacy, Arthur is anything but… He is so active in this responsibility that it is hard not to trip over his progeny. And medieval monastics were not prim and proper Victorians. Most would have been amused.
As you likely know, I don’t like to change history to suit some whim, but I realized a book or so ago that I had a real problem. Veterinary care in the Middle Ages was not as advanced as it is today. The lifespan of dogs and cats wasn’t long. No shots or tooth cleaning. Must I write of Arthur’s death? The thought horrified me. It was like breaking the rule that one never kills an animal in a mystery. What was I to do?

Cowardly, I punted. Now on my 15th book, Arthur is 12ish. There is no reason I cannot make him the Methuselah of cats. Some must have been. People were known to live long lives even for modern times. But one of these days, I will be forced to make a decision. To be honest, I’m not sure I can write that awful scene and break Prioress Eleanor’s heart…