Bad Bishops, Bloodletting and a Plague of Caterpillars

By Sylvia Townsend Warner

Life and Death in the Middle Ages
By Jack Hartnell

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel “The Corner That Held Them” is unusual for its lack of a protagonist. No mortal protagonist, that is. The novel, newly reissued by New York Review Books Classics, follows the fortunes of an English convent named Oby from its founding in the late 12th century through 1382. Characters ebb and flow from the foreground in a curiously swift historical rhythm, often killed off as soon as their stories have begun.

In 1332, for example, the local bishop nominates a certain Dame Emily to be the new prioress. Her fellow nuns loathe her, however, and instead elect Dame Isabella Sutthery, “the youngest and silliest nun among them,” in a protest vote. “The young and silly can become great tyrants,” our omniscient narrator observes, and so Isabella does. “It was not till 1345, when Prioress Isabella choked on a plum-stone, that peace and quiet returned, followed by four ambling years of having no history, save for a plague of caterpillars. In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby.”

This enumerative style parodies medieval historiography, which often took the form of chronicles with dated entries — a subjective list that declares itself objective. Better to miss history’s gaze altogether. Through the gap between the official record and the women’s lives Warner sidles in, bringing the modern novelist’s tool kit with her.

She flits among a large assembly of characters to show that a cataclysm like “the Black Death” was experienced differently by those who came into contact with it. After several locals meet their end to the disease, Dame Agnes observes to Prioress Alicia (successor to mad Isabella) that soon “there will be none left but us old hags.” Alicia bristles, for “though she was in her 40s she did not feel herself a hag.” Agnes apologizes, but Alicia waves her off: “No, no! You did not disturb me. A flea bit me in the breast. As it happens, I was just about to remark that God calls those whom he loves best.”

Warner’s style is delicate and arch, consisting of a gentle skewering of religious ladies that recalls Barbara Pym. Though she teeters on the edge of satire, she lands instead (like Pym or Evelyn Waugh) on poignancy. The nuns strive to be good, and to live up to the ecclesiastical demand that they absent themselves from history altogether. But — whether by dint of plague, unsympathetic bishop, flood or vanity’s insistent whisper — the world just keeps happening to them.

Beneath the surface of Warner’s humor is a quiet but powerful meditation on what it means to be mortal. Death tumbles the nuns one by one, scattering them out of Oby’s story like leaves from a tree in winter. They face their deaths with resignation, even pluck. Dame Isabel (not to be confused with Isabella of the plum-stone) was a sickly nun who “had accepted the idea of an early death; but now she thought that, after all, she would be sorry to exchange the ambiguity of this world for the certitude of the next.”

This life, so full of misunderstanding and half-knowledge, has its joys, Isabel thinks in her last days. “There is pleasure in watching the sophistries of mankind, his decisions made and unmade like the swirl of a millrace, causation sweeping him forward from act to act while his reason dances on the surface of action like a pattern of foam.” Though she doesn’t call this river of causation history, it’s a more apt description of the flow of time through “The Corner That Held Them” than what the chronicles convey.

Because there is no protagonist in “The Corner That Held Them,” the starring role ends up going to the convent itself, which is less a set of buildings than a symbol of the medieval attitude toward the meaning of life and death — making the novel’s reissue a timely curative for our own, disruption-obsessed culture.

A new book about medieval views on medicine helps explain the Oby nuns’ contentment with the cheapness of their lives. In “Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages,” the British art historian Jack Hartnell tackles a difficult phenomenon: the medieval embrace of medical “theories that have since been totally disproven to the point of absurdity but which nevertheless could not have seemed more vivid or logical in the Middle Ages.”

The doctors of Europe and the Mediterranean were not practical specialists but rather scholars of Greek and Roman natural philosophy, which taught a theory of nature composed of four basic elements (fire, water, earth, air). Each was associated with differing levels of moisture and heat. The human body contained four viscous liquids or “humors”: phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile. A doctor’s job was to correct an uneven humoral balance, drying up perceived wetness with spices or relieving an excess of heat with cooling herbs.

While experts promulgated theory, daily care was mostly administered by midwives, apothecaries, dentists and the odd entrepreneurial carpenter. A local barber might puncture your neck to drain three pints of blood if you complained of a headache. In “The Corner That Held Them,” a mad priest has a black cockerel strapped to his head as a remedy. The novel thrums with oozing tear ducts treated by pilgrimage and broken legs resulting in death.

Though the suffering of medieval sick people was real and vast, there is a beauty to their doctors’ rigorous misunderstanding of human biology. They and their patients were unconstrained by science; accordingly, the medieval body had a much closer and more variable relationship with the imagination.

A sweet smell exuding from a burn wound indicated holiness, and for medieval folk it was perfectly plausible that the Italian abbess Chiara Vengente’s heart grew tiny, fleshy crucifixes inside its chambers, discovered when her sister Francesca sliced it out of her chest after death in 1308.

It’s a foreign way of thinking for those of us who prize technological innovation above all else. But we may not be as far from such poetic conceits of the body as we like to believe. The feminist theorist Donna Haraway, for example, has pointed out the insufficiency of scientific language for depicting the world. When a biologist describes a cell process, Haraway argues, she is as much creating the phenomena under discussion as describing a fact. Because language mediates our communication, the ways we think and express ourselves shape the knowledge we put into words.

We are all raised to identify the word “progress” with the Renaissance and its revolutions in scientific method and perspectival drawing. But for Jack Hartnell it’s a mistake to cast the Middle Ages as a muddy and backward time when truth was hidden, onionlike, under layers of superstition and dogma. Medieval culture simply valued different standards. Hartnell cites “continuity, consistency, reflection, an ability to keep an ideal alive come good times and bad.” Thinkers of the era were in thrall to ossified traditions, but their scholarship kept its flame burning through the devastations of plague, destruction and simple mortality.

In other words, they did not suffer the delusions of the 20th century that linger today: that technological advances will necessarily improve everybody’s lives; that individual prosperity matters more than the community’s welfare; that refusing to contemplate death will somehow fend it off. There are richer ways to imagine one’s mortal, fleshly being, the nuns of Oby teach, and other strategies than denial for contemplating its inevitable end.

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