More on Nature on the Fringes

In the last post, we noted that, at the edges of things, the order of nature breaks down.  Exhausted by the work of creation, she begins to tire of her labor and the whole tapestry begins to fray.  It resembles the sea, unfathomable and vast, mysterious and dangerous.

There’s another factor on this particular edge, Ireland, which also disrupts the order of things.  Its roots lie in the deep connection between the natural and social orders.  At their heart the two are inseparable, both facets of the larger harmony of Creation as it extends through space and time.  To skip a good bit of exposition on the character of creation in medieval thought, we might get an idea of the general understanding by picturing an infinite and beautifully arranged series of imperfect mirrors, all reflecting a light so bright that it appears as darkness beyond black (cf. fuligin).  The natural and social orders are both a subset of these mirrors, simultaneously interlinking with and reflecting each other, giving us glimpses, tantalizing fragments, of the primal order which underlies them both.

The immediate consequence of this in Gerald of Wales is that the social structure of the bounds of the world mirrors the natural, less refined, unpredictable, raw and not fully formed.  Thus, the barbarism of the Irish,

They are a wild and inhospitable people.  They live on beasts only, and live like beasts.  They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living (101).

He tells us with astonishment of sailors venturing near the extreme edge of the island encountering truly barbarous folk, men wearing only hides who had never seen bread or cheese, even taking some home to show their people as a wonder, who knew nothing of Christ (110-112).  Such men could only exist on the outskirts, beyond the pale of civilization (to say nothing of the customs which Gerald describes on the preceding page, kings confirmed in their dominion by intercourse with a mare).  On the fringes of the edge, where nature herself has grown tired, so to do the structures of man fail to take root.

Thus also, the forthcoming disruption of the Norman Invasion, which precipitated Gerald’s visit to the island and the writing of his account, is presaged by the warping of nature.  A frog, a poisonous beast which ought to have died upon contact with Ireland’s soil due to the island’s natural enmity towards the venomous is found alive after many days,

While the English, and more so the Irish, regarded it with great wonder, Duvenaldus, the king of Ossory, who happened to be there at the time, with a great shaking of his head and great sorrow in his heart at last said: ‘That reptile brings very bad news to Ireland.’ (52)

So too does the appearance of a fish “of unusual size and quality” possessing (among other wonderful things) three gold teeth prefigure the imminent conquest of the country.  Wales, Gerald tells us in his description of traveling through that country, experienced similar portents on the eve of their subjugation by the English.  Beware unusual fish.

Perhaps it is the fraying of nature and the corresponding simplicity of the political order which allows for an immediacy to the Irish encounter with nature, an immediacy which leaves the men closer to beasts, but which gives fuel to the fire of monastic devotion that even Gerald can’t help but praise.  This immediacy, the close connection to nature on the edges, provides the locus for the characteristically Irish devotion of exile and solitude which seeks the boundaries, places which lay bare the energies of nature in which we might glimpse flashes of her Creator and Guide.

Indeed, the predominance of miracles in Gerald’s account are nature miracles, animals behaving strangely, mysterious wells, holy hedges.  Like nature, there is a dangerous inscrutability to the saints of Ireland.  They are a vindictive bunch, inclined towards cycles of revenge and anger, capable of great holiness, but with danger lurking just under the surface (91).  In them we see a mirror of the order of the world in which they live-nature wild, unfathomable, and raw; society barbarous, violent, and unformed-for the sacred is a mirror too.

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Loneliness on the Edge of the World

A passage in J.A. Baker’s obsessive, wonderful little book, The Peregrinebrought together a number of threads which have been tossing around my head lately.  He writes, describing his home in the south of England “out there at the edges of things,”

Farms are well ordered, prosperous, but a fragrance of neglect still lingers, like a ghost of fallen grass.  There is always a sense of loss, a feeling of being forgotten.  There is nothing else here; no castles, no ancient monuments, no hills like grey clouds.  It is just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields.  Dim, flat, desolate lands that cauterize all sorrow.  (8)

The same sense, of loneliness, loss and exile, pervades the Anglo-Saxon poetry that I’ve been enjoying recently.  We might forget it today in the wake of England’s great empire, but the British Isles were truly at the edge of the world in the geographical consciousness of the Middle Ages.  Gerald of Wales in his Topography of Ireland puts it beautifully,

For beyond those limits [of Ireland] there is no land, nor is there any habitation either of men or beasts — buy beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in boundless space through its unsearchable and hidden ways. (31)*

Beautiful, but terrifying.  No wonder then that Anglo-Saxon poetry is so riven with sorrow and loneliness, a desperate craving for the warmth of home and fire.  No surprise also that there’s an almost overwhelming feeling of tenuousness in their poetry and in the writings of authors like Bede, a recognition of just how fragile the security that hall and hearth provide, think Heorot.  Against this background, Bede’s monasteries are anchors, squat fortresses of stability in an ever-shifting landscape.   One can see the appeal.**

At the edges of things, reality becomes frayed.  Gerald tells us

For sometimes tired, as it were, of the true and the serious, [Nature] draws aside and goes away, and in these remote parts indulges herself in these secret and distant freaks (31)

And not only are we at the edge of space but time as well.  The world has grown old and grey, the past faded and fallen into ruin

The days are gone
of all the glory
of the kingdoms of the earth;
there are not now kings,
nor Cæsars,
nor givers of gold
as once there were,
when they, the greatest, among themselves
performed valorous deeds,
and with a most lordly
majesty lived.
All that old guard is gone
and the revels are over
the weaker ones now dwell
and hold the world,
enjoy it through their sweat.
The glory is fled,
the nobility of the world
ages and grows sere,
as now does every man
throughout the world. (83-9)

Nature tires and warps in her decay,

This indeed was the true course of nature; but as the world began to grow old, and, as it were, began to slip into the decrepitude of old age, and to come to the end, the nature of almost all things became corrupted and changed for the worst. (53)

Unsurprising then that she might throw up monsters in the dark, against which all we can do is huddle around the slimmest glimmers of light.

 

 

*Strangely, Irish literature seems to display less awareness of this.  Perhaps they’re so on the edge that they don’t realize they’re on the edge.

**You get a similar sense in a very different context in Richer of Saint-Rémi’s Histories, a book I hope to write about at length later.