Recipe found in medieval mystics writings was probably for ‘dragges’

Margery Kempe was known for religious fervour, and a list in the manuscript of her pioneering autobiography has been analysed as a prescribed cure for her fits

It is a case that has intrigued historians, psychiatrists and theologians for the last 80 years, but an academic has found what may be the oldest known attempt to diagnose Margery Kempes erratic religious behaviour. A recipe for medicinal sweets, written 600 years ago in the back of the medieval mystics memoir, has been deciphered by Dr Laura Kalas Williams and the Exeter University-based researcher is convinced that it reveals an attempt to prescribe a cure for Kempes notorious fits of devotion.

Though the recipe, written in the final portfolio of the 1438 manuscript, has long been known to scholars, it had hitherto proved impossible to read. Dr Andrea Clarke, the British Librarys lead curator of medieval and early modern manuscripts, suggested multispectral-imaging technology be used to reveal its secrets. Kalas Williams and two colleagues, Professor Eddie Jones and Professor Daniel Wakelin, were then able to decipher the ingredients and discovered it was a cure for flux, defined in the Medieval English Dictionary as a pathological flowing of blood, excretions or discharges from any part of the body, or dysentery.

The recipe translates as containing: Sugar with aniseed, fennel seed, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger [to make the] confection and to [then] beat them together in a mortar and heat them in the manner of food and drinks and dry first and last eat. Photograph: Board of the British Library, Dr Andrea Clarke and Christina Duffy

Kalas Williams said she was convinced the recipe was a response to the mystics various bouts of illness as well as her copious crying. I dont think [the recipe] has been written there randomly, the academic said. The book tells us that at one point, she suffered a terrible episode of flux (probably dysentery) and was given extreme unction, thinking she was going to die, so the presence of this recipe at the end seems more than a coincidence.

A middle-class mother of 14, Kempe lived in Norfolk from about 1373 to 1440. After the birth of her children, she took a vow of chastity, and for the rest of her life undertook pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Italy and Germany.

Described by Kalas Williams as the Marmite of medieval mystics, she was infamous for loud cries and boisterous weeping in church and dramatic displays of religious devotion, which included mystical visions that placed her at the heart of the action during the nativity and crucifixion. They also made her as many enemies during her lifetime as they did followers; she was arrested for heresy and narrowly missed being burned at the stake.

Kalas Williams admitted her thesis was controversial. Scholars have speculated about the significance of the recipe since the manuscript was rediscovered in 1934. Though medieval books often feature arbitrary jottings because parchment was expensive, no other random notes appear in the manuscript, which was dictated by the mystic between 1436 and 1440, initially to her son. There are many other annotations in the book, but all of these directly engage with the words on the page, in dialogue with the content, the academic said. This makes it improbable that the recipe is a random, thoughtless, annotation.

The original manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe. It is thought to have been finished and bound between 1442 and 1450. Photograph: Board of the British Library, Dr Andrea Clarke and Christina Duffy

Initially, the recipe was thought to be for a drink to cure the flux, but the thermal imaging revealed it to be dragges herbal sweets used to refresh the palate and cure a variety of ills. The ingredients sugar, aniseed, fennel seed, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger were luxuries at the time.

The manuscript, which is the only surviving copy of the memoir, thought to be the oldest autobiography by a woman in the English language, has proved controversial since it was rediscovered in the 1930s. Many attempts have been made to explain Kempes profuse weeping, collapsing and roaring while under the influence of her visions. As well as epilepsy, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, it has been posited that the mystic suffered postpartum depression, as her first extreme religious experiences and demonic torment followed her first difficult pregnancy.

Kalas Williams dismissed attempts at diagnosis as anachronistic and preferred to use Kempes memoir to understand the medieval view of womens bodies and health. For me, Kempe is a tenacious figure, determined to be heard in a culture where womens voices were not supposed to be heard, and brave enough to express her emotions publicly and viscerally, added the scholar, who is writing up her findings for academic publication later this year.

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Sex symbols: what does a blue hankie in your left back pocket mean?

Hal Fischer took the language of the instruction manual and applied it to the jocks and leathermen of gay San Francisco in the 70s. He explains the code

In one of the first photographs Hal Fischer composed for Gay Semiotics, we see two sets of male buttocks, each clad in high-cut, form-fitting Levis. One sports a blue bandana in the left back pocket, which, according to the overlaid text, indicates that the wearer will assume the active or traditional male role during sexual contact. The other has a red bandana in the right back pocket, indicating that the wearer takes the passive role in anal/hand insertion. But, the text cautions dryly, red handkerchiefs are also employed in the treatment of nasal discharge and in some cases may have no significance in regard to sexual contact.

Made in 1977, when Fischer was in his 20s, the Gay Semiotics series is a wonderfully poker-faced portrait of queer male culture in San Franciscos Castro and Haight-Ashbury neighbourhoods at their carefree apogee. As well as deciphering the codes of hankies, key chains and earrings, Gay Semiotics guides us through archetypes, street fashions and various BDSM practices. Forty years on, the images can now be seen at Project Native Informant in London, along with other Fischer works from the 1970s.

The work was very subversive, and I still get a kick out of that, says Fischer, in London for the shows opening. I wanted people to see the photographs first, then get up close. I wanted there to be a certain innocence when they started reading, then of course theres a little shock, and some punchlines, then people start laughing.

The meaning of earrings, from Hal Fischers Gay Semiotics. Photograph: Hal Fischer

For Fischer, the humour, the labels, the instructive text and the use of greyscale all served to undermine the romanticism that still surrounded photography in the US at the time. Its a visual language borrowed from banal instruction manuals. Even the images dealing with domination are composed with a lightness of touch and salting of humour that is decidedly unmenacing. I dont think someone who was really into the S&M culture would be drawn to these, because theyre really too playful, says Fischer, pointing out that in his experience, giggling is something of a mood-breaker in such situations.

It was reading Lvi-Strauss the anthropologist, rather than the manufacturer of denims that inspired Fischer to codify the dress and behaviour of San Franciscos gay community. Anthropologically, this was going on all around me: it was amazing and nobody was dealing with it like that, so I just went for it.

Unlike the distant anthropologist, Fischer was quite literally embedded in the culture he portrayed. Fischer encountered one of his subjects hanging around outside his local cafe, and another at Guss Pub. The chap who posed for the Basic Gay picture worked in the photo store down the street. Its where youd go on Wednesday and put in your marijuana brownie order, because then Brownie Mary if she wasnt in jail would drop off the brownies on Friday.

An explanation of Dominance. Photograph: Hal Fischer

All the men from the Jock in his snug satin shorts to the leatherman with a cockring on his epaulette are sporting their regular clothes. Fischer was inspired by the German photographer August Sanders People of the 20th Century in portraying his subjects on their own terms. The thing that appealed to me about Sanders work was the idea of letting the person present themselves to you. I did not tell these people what to do, what to wear or anything.

The figures selected for inclusion are, by and large, those who Fischer was interested in looking at himself: It is, on a certain level, a lexicon of my own desires, though maybe a little broader than that. I didnt put in anybody in drag and there were people in drag around. I was part of the clone group.

The codes and dressing-up fulfilled an important function at a time when the ability to read a situation accurately was imperative: The reality of some of this is, back in the day, if you hit on a straight man, it could have had not-good consequences.

Shortly after completing the works on show here which also include the 1979 project A Salesman, in which a naked man with a moustache appeared on a billboard in San Franciscos Castro district Fischer decided to cease working as an artist. Today his photographic output is largely restricted to iPhone snaps of his dog, Jasper albeit in appropriately extravagant costume. When I had my first solo show in 1977, the critic part of me kind of took over. I thought to myself, Youve hit the perfect moment, everything has come together. Culturally, youre doing this at exactly the right time. Art-wise, youre involved in something that has methodology and is conceptual. Most people dont even get this once. And Id got it.

Gay Semiotics is at Project Native Informant, London, until 1 April. The book has been republished by the LA gallery Cherry and Martin.

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The Real Reason Dystopian Fiction Is Roaring Back

From the “everything old is new again” files:Bygone dystopian fiction is officially back in vogue. As reported last month, Penguin Random House has seena 9,500 percent sales increase for George Orwell’s1984since Trumps inauguration;that was enough to propel the book to the top spot on Amazon’s bestseller list. The publisher alsosaw enough demand for It Cant Happen Here,Sinclair Lewis 1935 satirical novel about an authoritarian president, to reissue a paperback edition in Decemberand then double down with arobustsecond printrun in January.

Nor is this newfound popularity a reflection of blue-state tastes. At Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas, general manager Ben Rybecksays copies of 1984 and other titles areflying off the shelves. Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho sold eight copies of 1984 in Januarycompared to one in January 2016. And at Book Loft in Columbus, Ohio, sales manager Glen Welchhas seen unprecedented demand. All of a sudden, these books started taking off, says Welch, whodescribes the store’s customers as an even split between liberal and conservative. I havent seen this before, in my 10 years here.

Part of the appeal of these classics, of course, is a morbid strain of escapism: Dystopian fiction enables readers to taste a darker timeline, albeit one that a protagonist invariably triumphs over. The world could be a lot worse, you think while reading.But the thrill goes beyond the vicarious. A dystopian worldview,whetherderived from fiction or real-world events, can have therapeutic valueno matter which side of the aisle your politics belong on.

“We’re Saturated With Dystopia”

Dystopian literature has long given writersa meansofinterrogating the world around them. Orwell conceived of1984under the looming threat of the Soviet Union, and Margaret AtwoodwroteThe Handmaids Taleafter the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. We can work our way through problems by telling stories better, at times, than by writing philosophical treatises, says Chris Robichaud, anethicist at Harvard who teaches a course on utopia and dystopia in fiction and philosophy. You look to fiction to see how people are wrestling with serious problems. That’s valuable for readers as well, especially in a politically divided climate like today’s. We cant look at dystopias as merely some bad slippery slope argument, says Robichaud. Rather, they challenge us: What are the values in this dystopia, and what do they say about our values right now?

In fall 2016, Skidmore College professor Nicholas Junkerman taught a course on utopia and dystopia, with a reading list that includedOctavia Butlers Parable of the Sower and Kazuo Ishiguros Never Let Me Goas well as Trumps acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The English professor planned to include modern utopian narratives as well, but found that 20th-century textsand preoccupationsskewed pronouncedly pessimistic. “Were saturated with dystopia,” Junkerman says. That outlook suffuses not justDonald Trump’s rhetoric (“American carnage,” anyone?), but his supporters’ as well: “‘Make America Great Again’ is about finding our way back to utopia.

Some writers feelthe same way.Last year, Alexander Weinstein publishedChildren of the New World, a dystopian short-story collection about our reliance on technology, as a way to warn readers about a possible future. Now, Weinstein is working on his next book, but its scopeit’s a fictional field guide to a lost continentgives him some agita. Look at this society,” he says. “What am I doing writing about fantastical locations, when the world is going down in flames? Weinstein has no plansto change his current project, although even if he did, the results might not be what one would expect:Its hard to write dark speculative fiction presently, because it all seems quaint in comparison to what’s happening now, Weinstein says.

People naturally gravitate toward a narrative that validatestheir own worldview. For some, President Trumps tweets abouta conniving elite and a corrupt media echo their feelings that the odds are against them. For others, George Orwells chronicle of totalitarian doublethink provides comfort that we’ve fought “alternative facts” before, and we’re still standing. Either way, people are reaching out to dark visions to make sense of an increasingly unrecognizable country. A well-told narrative, truthful or not, can awaken a readers imagination and push them to actionand a neat dystopia is often more satisfying than a complicated truth.

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