Books and Literature

Holding Tight and Letting Go

One of my Christmas gifts was a copy of The Faddon More Psalter: The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure (John Gillis; National Museum of Ireland, 2021). The Faddon More Psalter is a circa 800 CE book of psalms dug out of an Irish bog in 2006. This is remarkable in itself, but more remarkable still is that the book, despite being very degraded after having spent more than a millennium in a bog, was nonetheless intact enough for its conservators to reconstruct much of its structure and portions of its text. Two important discoveries during this process were, first, that the psalter remained in its original jacket (reportedly a very rare finding for a surviving early medieval codex, as most were rebound over the centuries) and, second, that its leather jacket contained fragments of papyrus, evidence of cultural and trade linkages to the eastern Mediterranean.

Of all the fascinating analysis in Gillis’ illuminating book, the subject that interests me most is how the psalter ended up in the bog in the first place. Gillis considers the possibility that the psalter had gotten into the bog inadvertently, perhaps dropped by an errant monk or lost during flight, before determining, based on available evidence, that the book was likely deposited intentionally.

But if so, why? Why would someone deliberately bury (or sink, as seems closer to the case) a holy book in a relatively remote corner of a bog? Gillis discounts the possibility that the psalter was concealed from marauding Vikings or hidden during local conflict, given that its simple cover and humble contents made it unlikely to have been considered a material treasure — or threat. It could have been stolen and buried out of malice–but the presence of a leather satchel and calfskin pelt (used, it is inferred, to cover the psalter) at the find site suggest more tender motivations. With this in mind, Gillis posits a third option: that of a ceremonial burial or votive offering. Speculating, Gillis suggests the psalter could have been buried as a deathbed request: perhaps a monk, nearing the end of his service on Earth, asked that the psalter be buried near the place of his ministry.

However the psalter ended up in the bog (and Gillis suggests we will likely never know), its deposition seems to have reflected one of the most consequential and bifurcated kinds of choices: between holding tight and letting go. And its discovery, similarly, highlights the paradox of its deposition. Had the psalter been held onto, like the dozens of other psalters that would have been in use at monasteries then operating in the region, it almost certainly would not have survived to the present day. Conflict, migration, fire, wear, indifference, revisionism, and time itself have done away with most ancient books. To read about the lost libraries of Alexandria is to feel some tug of the tides that sweep writing and ideas away, but most books vanish quietly, without fanfare or mourning. Even books that have survived have often done so only in greatly altered form. Medieval codices were regularly reworked into new books, and the study of fragments has become an exciting subset of medieval studies. But it is exceedingly uncommon for an early medieval book to survive in its original form, thus the paradox that deposition in the bog–letting go–was the reason the Faddan More Psalter survived.

What people hold tight to and what they let go of is a subject of considerable and longstanding interest to me, and has more recently become a major focus of my research. Why do we keep the things we keep? Why do we throw so many other things away? What forces (perhaps beyond our control, as forces so often are) compel us to leave things behind, and what hold do those things–abandoned, taken, lost, destroyed–retain on our souls? What are the consequences of holding on when we should let go–or letting go when we should be holding on?

It is a strange time for our culture, one in which the holding or persistence of an object receives so much less attention than the cycle of its manufacture and marketing and its disposal or repurposing. Objects, like people, are now in seemingly constant motion–and we seem to notice them only when, suddenly, they stop. Hence, perhaps, the widespread public fascination with the saga of the Ever Given, a Japanese/Taiwanese/Panamanian/German cargo ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal in March of 2021, blocking nearly 400 container ships and holding up billions of dollars in trade–a potent metaphor, in multiple ways, of globalization, the state of the pandemic, and concerns about the contradictions of consumer capitalism.

I am very interested in what happens in moments when the movement of things pauses, and this is one of the reasons why I find the Faddan More Psalter so fascinating. Through its discovery and the process of its conservation, the book has become a kind of still life: a moment snipped out of the tapestry of time. As such, it is not only a revelation (of book history, of early medieval religious culture in Ireland, of the nature of trade and communications networks prior to 1000 CE) but also a meditation (on vanishing and persistence, of time itself, and of the consequences of keeping or letting go). The mystery at the heart of the Faddan More Psalter–what it meant to its possessor; how (and how long) it was kept; why it was deposited in the bog; what it can mean to its contemporary conservators and viewers–is the most enduring thing about it, so close to the heart and yet as ineffable as a thing can be.

Image source: National Museum of Ireland, via Brent Nongbri’s Variant Readings.

Gardens in their Seasons

This morning when I woke up, the house was cold. I went around, closing windows and doors. The sunrise was fuchsia, signalling a change in the weather, a shift in the season.

At mid-morning the air is cool and breezy. There are cardinals in the cedars, and finches at the feeders. The east-facing tips of the trees are turning colour, and the gutters are littered with leaves.

For breakfast I had wild apple sumac jelly on toast. A warm treat on a chilly morning. A good day for seasonal tasks of keeping: sorting the mittens and scarves, decorating the front porch for Thanksgiving, making a rustic apple pie. Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown: Shanah tovah um’tukah to all who will celebrate.

The picture above is from an old book, Gardens in their Seasons, published in 1912 (my copy a 1919 reprint). This is a charming, gently instructional book, written for young readers and wonderfully illustrated. I bought my copy at The Monkey’s Paw moving sale in the spring, and have kept it on my desk ever since, consulting it nearly as regularly as one would a book of days.

Of fall, the book notes, “Autumn has come; it is the time of ripening. [….] The hush and the stillness of late summer has been broken.” During this season, the book explains, the trees and flowering plants expend the last of their energy generating seeds to be spread by passing creatures or the wind. Readers are invited to “gather the prettiest and the best of the coloured leaves of the autumn,” to press into biscuit tins between layers of sand to dry and preserve their rich colours.

There is melancholy in the air, when soft days give way to chilly nights and the moon rises silently above the trees, overseeing this time of gathering in, this season of contemplation.

Reading: The Women’s Patriotic League Cookery Book, 1918

Years ago for a dollar at a yard sale, I bought this well worn copy of The Women’s Patriotic League Cookery Book, published in Brockville (Ontario, Canada) in 1918.

1918 was the final year of the First World War and the cookbook, according to its publishing note, was produced “for the benefit of Red Cross Work.”

During the First World War, Women’s Patriotic Leagues sprung up in cities and towns across the British Empire; in Ontario, there was also a Six Nations Women’s Patriotic League, funded by the Grand River Territory in support of the allied war effort. Women’s Patriotic League activities focused on direct and indirect war efforts ranging from knitting socks for soldiers, fundraising for Red Cross activities, educating housewives about food conservation, supporting families whose loved ones were fighting overseas, and maintaining morale in war-wearied regions.

My cookbook, which sold for $1 in 1918, is filled with “tried and true” recipes standard for the era. But it also has features that make it unique.

First, my copy includes numerous handwritten recipes, most in pencil but a few in black or blue ink. This is a cookbook collector’s dream: to find a handwritten record indicating how the book was used, and when, and by whom. My book has no owner’s name, unfortunately, but the names of many of the women who supplied the recipes written in by hand are included; e.g., “Mrs. garland’s [sic] drop cookies,” “Edie De Wolfe” (“A good Molasses Cake”), “Blanche’s ice box rolls,””Lemon pudding – Stella’s,” “Mrs. C. C. Cooke” (“Xmas Cake”), “Mrs. Jas Davidsons” (“Cake,”) “Aunt Cecha’s [??] Cookies,” “Marie McWilliams” (“Tomato Sandwich Filling”), etc.. Researching these names would almost certainly help indicate how they were connected, likely through a church or other community network in the Brockville or Leeds County region of Ontario.

The handwritten recipes, which list specific oven temperatures suited to the use of an electric range with thermostat (there are also two handwritten “icebox cookie” recipes), also indicate that this book was likely updated by hand for at least two or three decades, even as technological changes may have made some of the 1918 instructions (e.g., “bake in a moderate oven”) seem dated.

Nearly all the handwritten recipes are for desserts or pickles, and as a result it seems hardly surprising that the printed pages with bread, cake and pickle recipes are the ones that appear most used, at least judged by spills and annotations. A few of the printed recipes in other sections have checks beside them, indicating they had been tried and approved, and others have handwritten annotations and substitutions. But for the most part this cookbook reads like a compendium of community events and social gatherings at which fancy cakes–and their recipes–would have been shared.

A second feature of this cookbook that stands out is the section of War recipes, mainly involving substitutions for white flour and refined sugar. The section is prefaced by the following rhyme–

“If you would be healthy, wealthy and wise,
Eat less meat, waste less wheat,
Cut down on sugar and pies.”

–intended, presumably, to bring food conservation beyond the immediate imperatives of supporting the war effort and into the broader domain of frugality and physical health.

There is a lengthy introductory text in the War Recipes section summarizing some important procedural differences between bread made with white flour and baked items made with whole wheat, rye, oat, barley and rice flour or meal, or with potato (mashed or in starch form). It is an intriguing read a century later, at a time when alternative flours are appreciated for their nutrient advantages and lower glycemic index numbers. Indeed, the 1918 recipe for Sweet Potato Muffins (flour, baking powder, salt, mashed sweet potatoes, milk, water, egg) reads like a pared-down version of this contemporary recipe produced by the Canadian Living Test Kitchen in 2009!

The War Recipes section also includes a recipe for Canadian War Cake, which appears to be a simplified fruit cake:

Canadian War Cake

One cup brown sugar, 1 cup water, 1 1/2 cups seeded raisins, 2 tablespoonfuls lard, 1 teaspoonful cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoonful cloves, 1/2 teaspoonful salt.

Boil together for five minutes and cool. When cold stir in 1 teaspoonful soda dissolved in a little warm water. Add two cups flour sifted with 1/2 teaspoonful baking powder.

Baking instructions are not indicated, but I am guessing this is a cake that would be baked in a “moderate oven” for 25 minutes, in keeping with the other recipes.

In all the years I’ve owned this cookbook, I have never yet baked from it. But a surprising number of the recipes seem strikingly current, and when there is time during the summer, I plan to test out a few, such as this one:

Fried Egg Plant

Cut a nice egg plant in thin slices, lay in salt water two or three hours, then steam until tender. Make a better of 2 eggs, 1 teacupful sour cream, 1 teaspoonful salt, 1/2 teaspoonful soda and flour to thicken. Dip the slices of egg plant into the batter, fry till a light brown in boiling lard. Serve hot.

I might even, I suppose, give Canadian War Cake a chance.

The Women’s patriotic League Cookery Book is reportedly a hard-to-find book in print, but for those interested, the complete text is available online here, thanks to Archive dot org and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

[Text and images not to be reused without permission and attribution.]

A Piece of the Storm

“From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That’s all
There was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
“It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”

[Strand, Mark, 1998.A Piece of the Storm. From Blizzard of One. Knopf: 20.]

For twenty years I have loved this poem, the first of many of Mark Strand’s poems and essays I have read and loved. I have the book, with the clipping of the newspaper article in which it first appeared to me tucked into it. I remember the stillness it left in its wake.

For me the “city of domes” was and will always be Kingston, Ontario, where I lived within sight and shadow of its cathedrals. I first read the poem in another city, sitting in a chair in a south-facing window with the domes of another city shadowed and sunlit in the distance.

I awoke this morning with the certainty that has risen in me for months:

It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.