I read a news story today about scientists who recreated a medieval potion based on instructions found in an ancient manuscript. The recipe called for garlic and cow bile, among other homely ingredients. The result was a liquid that wiped out an MRSA infection when other antibiotics had failed.
It’s one of those stories that makes me wonder how far we have really come. Skeptics would point out that a thousand years ago, people routinely died of ailments that today are cured with one round of meds. Life was shorter then, and unless you were rich, it was relentlessly hard. Wars raged nonstop over religion, land, and treasure. Random violence was a fact of daily existence.
Some of that sounds like way back then, but more of it sounds like now. We may have instant gratification through technology, but we also have Sandy Hook and ISIS. We live longer, but not necessarily better. We have vast stores of information and dwindling reserves of wisdom. Our medieval ancestors had the unicorn tapestry and the Ghent altarpiece and the Book of Kells. We have Kim Kardashian and Twitter.
I confess to being a medieval nerd. Given a shot at time travel, I would set the dial for somewhere between the 12th and 14th centuries. Growing up in New York, I haunted the Cloisters, a reconstruction of a medieval monastery overlooking the Hudson River. On spring days, the interior garden was a kind of oasis, scented with hyacinths and the blossoms of espaliered pear trees. Water bubbled from a fountain transported piece by piece from some mossy Gothic ruin.
When I was a student in Paris, I sometimes climbed the 387 steps to the heights of Notre Dame and lingered among the gargoyles. The view was spectacular, but it was the musty scent of old stone, the worn treads of the curving staircase that I remember. Eight hundred years of footsteps, eight centuries of people trudging upward, stopping for breath, pressing on.
My favorite museum was the Cluny, built on the site of Roman baths and full of echoing, tapestry-hung rooms and crowded with Madonnas. There was one in particular I loved, a young girl carved from wood. She wore a faded gilt dress and was visibly pregnant and clearly joyful. She might have walked in from a side street in the quartier, so at home did she seem there.
The first time I saw the cathedral of Chartres, I thought it was an optical illusion. Rising out of the plain like a vision, the spires pointing skyward, it seemed to demand some response, something beyond a quick scramble for the guidebook. Like Notre Dame and my other favorite medieval haunts, Chartres is hors du temps, outside of time. In its dim interior, the shadows fall as they did in 1220, and 1350, and 1480. The air smells of incense and dust and prayer. The woman lighting a candle might be wearing jeans and ballet flats, but her face in the flickering light is timeless. She could be the wife of a 12th-century stonecutter, or a noble lady from a nearby chateau.
A learned professor once warned me about romanticizing the Middle Ages, delivering a brisk lecture on sanitary conditions, the Black Plague, and the odds of surviving childbirth. Not everyone had access to the garlic and cow bile potion, after all.
I get it. But I wonder if anyone will ever romanticize the 21st century. A thousand years from now, will they preserve antique cellphones and iPads, puzzle over the design of devices made to be replaced annually?
I think of the stone steps and the gargoyles, the ageless sight of a cathedral rising from wheat fields.
I think of the artisans who would not live to see the whole but built their part as though the world depended
on it. Maybe the world did. Maybe it still does.
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