In the theme of Valentine’s Day, I am looking at recent, and not so recent, treatments of forbidden love. My favorite version of this theme is the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde — which dates to as early as the 12th century, but also is claimed by at least four communities: the Irish, the Cornish, the French and the German.
The volume above is a twelfth century poem by Gottfried von Strassburg. The Arthurian legend of Tristan, a knight in the realm of King Marc, has been one of literature’s most tragic, and may have been the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet. The love potion drunk by the two lovers forces the couple to betray Isolde’s husband, Marc, Tristan’s lord, forcing a rift between nations. Should they have stolen away together? Were they acting on free will? Was it the fault of the potion? Or of the stars? It’s a puzzle that continues to fascinate writers. Tristan and Isolde’s tale involves a lot of magic and a good deal of herbalism,
to wit – the treatment of Trsitan’s wounds when he washes up unconscious on Isolde’s home short, the site of their meeting.
Was his shipwreck an act of fate or something he, himself, caused to happen, in search of his true love?
My latest literary love is The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Like The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivy, this fairy tale update pays excellent tribute to its Russian origins.
The protagonist, Vasya, is both feisty and motherly, dreamy and demanding. She holds her own against a church patriarch who keeps the rest of her village in terrified thrall. Vasya is the inside/outsider we can’t wait to watch defeat the monsters with her gifts of foresight, her ability to communicate with ancient spirits and to tame animals, especially horses. The horses in Arden’s novel were, in fact, my favorite characters. They are true superheroes and they accompany Vasya at the very worst of times and propel her on missions against great foes.
Vasya’s adversaries are The Bear, a monstrous brother to the ice prince/death spirit who governs the forest and commands the weather. The Bear has been imprisoned semi successfully until this moment by his brother, but upon this particular winter, when villagers have finally ceased to pay tribute to the ancient spirits, he reclaims his strength to fight the ‘humani’ who he’s despised this last millenium. The only person able to fight The Bear is someone capable of seeing him, and Vasya inherited such vision from her supernatural mother, herself a seer. Vasya, however, is the last of her kind, and she is fated to fight her battle against bad spirits, alone.
There is a bitter priest in this tale who conspires with the mean stepmother to betray Vasya. There are numerous siblings, and a brother with great bravery who shows true colors in battle alongside his sister. There is a terrifying fight with body-snatcher deamons who in habit the corpses of the recently departed (and a macabre scene at a graveside that reads like a vampire tale.) My favorite scenes are with the winter prince. He is shy, powerful, romantic, gallant, and spectral. He is capable of miracles but also gets his feelings hurt when Vasya doesn’t show him adequate gratitude. He owns heroic horses who leap buildings and speak in full sentences. There are some great tragedies in this tale and atrocious betrayals, but also tender scenes between parents and children, siblings, masters and servants. The life of the 14th century was brutal, most particularly in winter, and from this story it seems likely that many starved to death or killed so that they could avoid it. If such hard times led to the invention of house spirits, oven spirits, protector gods, I’m not a bit surprised.
French peasant medicine and Medieval lifestyle
My newest WIP, The Peddler of Wisdom, features a lady healer in 17th century Provence. Above is a Flemish alchemist of the same period. Such a mess! In fact, almost all the paintings I found of the period feature a room of total chaos, random diagrams, tumbling crockery, and poor sanitation. In most of them, as well, the scientist looks completely perplexed, usually while examining a jar of urine, or, here, a troubling document. None I’ve found so far show success or true healing or gratitude. Makes you wonder why anyone ever went to see the physic/man of medicine if this was what the office looked like! Oh, and there’s almost always a dog in the scene. Such a picture of health.
What I’ll look for now is evidence of women in the field. They surely were — as the midwives and, according to English documents I’ve found, could inherit the tittle of apothecary upon the death of their husband in that profession.
But did the women ever allow themselves to be observed in the art of healing? I wonder – since so many suffered being called “witch.” They were often hiding behind another trade, I figure. Will need to do more work on that.
My middle grade novel, Sacra Furta, owes its plot to the vigorous research I did on village life in 14th century England. See below for some outstanding links.
Great Medieval research links:
Medieval Studies Theme Page
Great women of the Middle Ages
The Rule of St. Benedict