Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A Boar's Maw...

One curious image that I had kept of a piece of art seen in my childhood, but retained only as an unidentified haze in my mind, finally turned out to be that of a Medieval illumination. Delighted to come across the intriguing picture again - some fifty years after initially seeing it a child – I was able to learn of its significance in the Middle Ages. It is an odd scene – I recalled staring at the dark boar with its powerful jaws bearing down on the trunk of a tree whilst a curious character perches at the very top, his funny claw-toed feet pointing down. Looking at it today, this unsettling mix of menace and melodrama creates an almost sinister effect, albeit a little comic.
In fact, this was one of the illuminated pages from the 14th century treatise on hunting Le livre du Roy Modus et de la Royne Racio (1354–1376), attributed to Henri de Ferrières. King Modus (referring to ‘good practice’) enters into discussion with various individuals about the nature of animals and the manner in which they should be hunted whilst Queen Ratio (‘reason’) explains how animals behave. Such was the importance of hunting in Medieval times that studies were devoted to its art so that its rituals could be observed and honoured in the correct manner. The precise terminology, and rich symbolism and ceremony of the hunt were expounded in Le Livre de Roy Modus which often acted as the reference to subsequent works such as Livre de Chasse (1387–1389) by Gaston III Phėbus, Comte de Foix.
Far more than a mere bawdy and boorish sport, hunting was thought to represent idealized noble virtues that it brought to the fore. In times of peace, the hunt not only enabled knights to practice and perfect their martial skills to fight for king and country, it also presented royalty and nobility alike with an honourable passtime of sophistication, skill and great finery. In some respects, it was almost on a par with the ceremonial acts of worship, with the chase and kill seen as rituals of redemption and purification, offering the huntsman the tantalizing promise of paradise. Hunting was likewise associated with courtly love – fin amor – expressed in the troubadours’ poetic music that developed the notion of chilvaric romance in 12th century southern France before spreading far further afield. Indeed, love and courtship followed the same stages as hunting – pursuit, struggle and conquest – with purity and virtue reflected in the deeds of the Medieval knights of valour just as they were in the mythological figure of Diana the huntress, goddess of the moon.
Through Medieval bestiaries most creatures were given symbolic importance, often representing religious sins, vices or virtues, and hence hunting could be seen as an act of faith. Deer-hunting was the most noble form of the art as the stag – preferably a white hart –lauded as a symbol of Christ Himself, pitted against the Satanic serpent that it would readily track down and trample. As the stag represented the words of Jesus and heralded Christian virtues, you might well wonder why it would then be deemed appropriate to slay it, but bloodshed was indeed an essential rite in the proceedings. A perhaps more ‘suitable’ quarry, on polar opposites to the virtuous stag was the beastly boar which fell into the same category as other ‘beste noire’ creatures of ‘stinking feet’; the bear, wolf and otter, according to Queen Ratio in de Ferrières’ treatise,. The good queen indeed listed a number of the boar’s base characteristics; black and bristly, raging and rampant, proud and petulant, low and lawless, fearless and ferocious. At best, it was a brutish yet brave beast, ready to stand its ground and defend it to the last with its dagger-like tusks and formidable force. At the worst, the boar was taken to be an anti-Christ, or at least its mouthpiece, spewing evil words to exhort sin, so much so that after death, its tongue had to be pierced with a sword and its heart and entrails burnt rather buried or fed to the hounds.
Unlike the noble stag that could be pursued and shot at with arrows before being dealt a final blow to the neck, the boar had to be charged at head on, if possible. Rather than immobilizing the boar with a lance wielded like a jousting weapon, from a height (horseback) or hurled from a safe distance, it had to be struck with a special sword, thus demonstrating great mastery and even greater courage. The boar would thrash and thrust at hounds, huntsmen and horse alike, its tusks fully capable of killing pursuers and tormentors in the ensuing struggle of literally epic proportion until finally incapacitated. The poor much-maligned boar – not much has changed over the centuries! At least what passed for the defiant ‘pride’ of the unrepentant boar in Medieval times had been lauded as commendable bravery in early Anglo-Saxon culture where pagan gods and spirits were worshipped. The image or form of a bellicose boar would often feature on helmets or battle weapons, offering sacred protection to warriors such as Beowulf, leading them to hold their ground and fight to the end…
On my illuminated boar, the usually voracious, ferocious gaping mouth – known as the maw – appears slightly comic as it casually closes around the spindly trunk of sapling tree bearing a rather underwhelming anti-Christ. The latter looks on, the whites of his widened eyes glinting in contrast to the dark, stark talons on his hands and feet and the spikes on his crown. Although unable to understand his full role here, I am quite content just to have tracked down this particular beast after all these years. What did the illuminator intend centuries ago, I wonder? Why was the anti-Christ boar trying to dislodge this hapless Anti-Christ?
Just by chance I happened to see a boar attack in the 1994 film, La Reine Margot by Patrice Chéreau whilst trying to track down scenes filmed in l'Ancien Collège des Jésuites in Reims (today Sciences Po)... This was an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas père, dealing with the life of Marguerite de Valois, entwined with the French Wars of Religion, leading to the Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy of 1572 with the slaughter of the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants). In both novel and film, king Charles IX is turned on by a boar during the Royal hunt...
« Les dogues ! cria Charles, les dogues !... » A ce cri, le piqueur ouvrit les porte-mousquetons des laisses, et les deux molosses se ruèrent au milieu du carnage, renversant tout, écartant tout, se frayant avec leurs cottes de fer un chemin jusqu'à l'animal, qu'ils saisirent chacun par une oreille. Le sanglier, se sentant coiffé, fit claquer ses dents à la fois de rage et de douleur. « Bravo ! Duredent ! bravo ! Risquetout ! cria Charles. Courage, les chiens ! Un épieu ! un épieu ! - Vous ne voulez pas mon arquebuse ? dit le duc d'Alençon. - Non, cria le roi, non, on ne sent pas entrer la balle ; il n'y a pas de plaisir ; tandis qu'on sent entrer l'épieu. Un épieu ! un épieu ! » on présenta au roi un épieu de chasse durci au feu et armé d'une pointe de fer. « Mon frère, prenez garde ! cria Marguerite. - Sus ! sus ! cria la duchesse de Nevers. Ne le manquez pas, Sire ! Un bon coup à ce parpaillot ! - Soyez tranquille, duchesse ! » dit Charles. Et, mettant son épieu en arrêt, il fondit sur le sanglier, qui, tenu par les deux chiens, ne put éviter le coup. Cependant, à la vue de l'épieu luisant, il fit un mouvement de côté, et l'arme, au lieu de pénétrer dans la poitrine, glissa sur l'épaule et alla s'émousser sur la roche contre laquelle l'animal était acculé. « Mille noms d'un diable ! cria le roi, je l'ai manqué... Un épieu ! un épieu ! » Et, se reculant comme faisaient les chevaliers lorsqu'ils prenaient du champ, il jeta à dix pas de lui son épieu hors de service. Un piqueur s'avança pour lui en offrir un autre. Mais au même moment, comme s'il eût prévu le sort qui l'attendait et qu'il eût voulu s'y soustraire, le sanglier, par un violent effort, arracha aux dents des molosses ses deux oreilles déchirées, et, les yeux sanglants, hérissé, hideux, l'haleine bruyante comme un soufflet de forge, faisant claquer ses dents l'une contre l'autre, il s'élança la tête basse, vers le cheval du roi.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Sunrise and Sea...

Whenever 'home', I instinctively know that whatever the weather, the view over Mount's Bay will be so spectacular that I am beauty-bound to walk along the path over to Marazion to see St Michael's Mount, or at least the Causeway leading across...
And indeed, just as these incredible atmospheric seascapes never fail, nor do the extremes in weather! Blustery wind of varying force, from playful gusts to the tyrannical gales, mean that any umbrella will be snatched away, upturned and ineffectual against any rain.
However, on this latest visit, the sun was out at the very start of this new year and the light flooded across the bay and beach, just as the waves gently washed over the beautiful old granite slabs that make up that incredible causeway.
And as the tide went out, and the sun rose further, the shadows shifted, stretching and spreading, sending out ghostly silhouettes which somehow seemed appropriate as once I had left 'home' again, to return to where I now live, the whole trip seemed like a dream!

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Song of the Flower...

I am a kind word uttered and repeated by the voice of Nature; I am a star fallen from the blue tent upon the green carpet. I am the daughter of the elements with whom Winter conceived; to whom Spring gave birth; I was reared in the lap of Summer and I slept in the bed of Autumn.
At dawn I unite with the breeze to announce the coming of light; at eventide I join the birds in bidding the light farewell.
The plains are decorated with my beautiful colours, and the air is scented with my fragrance.
As I embrace Slumber the eyes of night watch over me, and as I awaken I stare at the sun, which is the only eye of the day.
I drink dew for wine, and hearken to the voices of the birds, and dance to the rhythmic swaying of the grass.
I am the lover's gift; I am the wedding wreath; I am the memory of a moment of happiness; I am the last gift of the living to the dead; I am a part of joy and a part of sorrow.
But I look up high to see only the light, and never look down to see my shadow. This is wisdom which man must learn.
Song of the Flower (XXIII) by Kahlil Gibran