Penguin Biscuits

What with the cold and the gloom, I haven’t felt much like shopping for biscuits these last few weeks but I did p-p-p-pick up a penguin or eight from the local supermarket to see me through this wintery weather. It does the heart good to look in on the impromptu party they’re throwing in the writing room this week. The little fella with the hat and horn-blower is my favourite. (And before anyone asks, yes, they’re all from the same household.)

Penguins were a lunchbox staple of my childhood and I was happy to find they still come with jokes on their wrappers (‘How did the penguin pass his driving test?’ ‘He winged it.’). Judging from the plumage, these are probably kings or emperors. There’s no penguin design on the bar itself, a modest chocolate sandwich, but there’s something comfortingly solid about this species and they’ve certainly had their sincere and not so sincere imitators over the years from the dubious Puffin take-off to the high-flying Australian Tim Tam.

Penguins are not a feature of medieval bestiaries. The earliest possible sighting of any that Europeans were aware of may well have been the flightless ducks observed by the crew of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama on his expedition to the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 (if so, the penguins surprised them by braying like donkeys). It’s a pity because bestiarists of all people would have appreciated this bird’s admirable qualities, its endearing clumsiness on shore and gracefulness in water for example, and still more its powers of endurance.

We’ve had need of that power these last few weeks. Collectively I suspect this has been the worst winter in recent memory in Britain and certainly within my lifetime. It’s been tough in ways few could have imagined a year or perhaps even half a year ago. And yet here we are. I understand better now why so many of the New Testament writers make such a virtue of endurance; it may not be the most appealing fruit of the spirit to try to cultivate, but how necessary it is for the long haul. ‘If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere,’ as Heaney put it, a quote that’s been circulating in lockdown for obvious reasons.

‘February’ in a 15th c. Book of Hours from Burgundy. (NY Public Library MS. Spencer 43, fol. 7r)

For the New Testament writers, the power of endurance promises us something more solid than simply wintering it out for the sake of survival, of gritting our teeth and rolling with the punches, although it’s definitely contained an element of that for me this month. St Paul tells us that it builds character and character hope, which begs the question of how we can find ways of enduring that allow us to emerge from this season in a stronger position spiritually than when we went into it?

When I look back to some of the toughest periods of my life before the pandemic I can see ways in which this strengthening process was already beginning. I haven’t doubted God’s presence with us throughout all this but I have come face to face with my own insufficiency to weather these new challenges without help, both from other people and from Him. There’s been a humbling and a levelling in that: a recognition that we’re all human, all vulnerable. But also new revelation that God’s grace has always been sufficient, his strength made more and more visible in our lives when we trust him with our weakness. So today my prayer for us all is that we might not only endure through this season but grow in hope and strength through it, inspired by the p-p-p-perseverance of the Penguin.

Further Delectation

What are the rival claims of the Penguin and the Tim Tam to biscuity greatness? Which Antarctic explorer was better at drawing penguins? How does a bird the same weight as a baby hippo get itself back out of the water? All your questions answered by the experts!

Enjoy a short but interesting read on medieval iconography for February from Princeton’s Index of Medieval Art site. Or if you’re impatient for the spring to come it may help to know it started on the 7th of February in the medieval calendar as the Clerk of Oxford explains in this lovely piece on early medieval celebrations of spring and its poetry.

No feathered friends where you are? Take a little time to tune in to some live penguin action from California. Recommended for a relaxing mini-break with a coffee and biscuit:

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Gingerbread Stars

It’s a bit of a tradition for me now to make Gingerbread Stars for Christmas. It’s an inexpensive, easy homemade gift for the holiday season and much appreciated by the recipients. The recipe is my Mother’s and produces more than enough to give to different sets of friends, a tin or two for the workplace and leftovers for house guests. My only addition to the recipe is a little freshly grated ginger as well as the dry ground but it can be made just as well without.

IMG_3139 2Each year I’ve meant to write about the great gingerbread making and each year time has overtaken me. And so each year I’ve taken photos with great optimism — these, from 2016, interposed in my phone’s camera reel with a trip to see the RSC’s King Lear at the Barbican — all ready for a bestiary entry which never gets done…

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This year of course will be different. Instead of a busy, relatively carefree Christmas in company with much of the UK I’ll be having a careful, relative-free one. I know this whole year has been an exercise in letting things go, and I count myself lucky I have a Christmas bubble (bauble?) with nice people in it and that my losses have been extremely mild compared to those of many others, but I did have a little cry on Sunday adjusting to the fact I definitely wouldn’t be travelling up North. It’s been a long year, hasn’t it? And while there will be many challenges to navigate in the new one so many of us wanted to be able to take a break from it all for a few days and escape into something a bit more like the Christmases of the past.

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Gingerbread itself offers a tangible link to Christmases much longer ago. It’s been a treat in Europe since at least the eleventh century, when it was given as a gift by monastic houses or baked as a delicacy in royal kitchens or (later) sold at Gingerbread Fairs. The taste of ginger — like the cinnamon and nutmeg which can also be added — helps convey something of the flavour of those older Christmases. Early modern recipes tend to be lighter and sweeter, but eating and exchanging gingerbread is still a Christmas tradition and still permissible in the time of Covid — a way in which we touch hands, however lightly, with that medieval world.

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If the gingerbread-making evokes the warmth of past Christmases, the stars make me think of the hope of the Christmas story too — one accessible not just to the rich and mighty, but the poor and powerless. Especially for them in fact as we learn in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of wonder at God’s mercy. And in the midst of everything else that’s going on — or not going on — right now, is one astronomical event that will make this particular Christmas memorable for another reason: the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on the evening of Monday the 21st of December will be a bright spot on the horizon if the weather is good enough for us to view it and you can find more details on what and how to look for here. It’s the first time a planetary ‘star’ this spectacular has occurred for hundreds of years, which naturally brings to mind the story of the wise men (in Latin, magi) journeying to Bethlehem because of the unusual star that appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, which modern astronomers think likely to have been a conjunction or near conjunction of planets between 7 and 2 BC. Fittingly enough, its appearance this year coincides with both the Winter Solstice and the day appointed for the Antiphon, O Oriens (O Light), echoing Zechariah’s prophecy of a saviour appearing like a star

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death

As the Clerk of Oxford reminds us, these Advent Antiphons are traditionally sung at Vespers “in the early dusk of a midwinter evening, [as] ancient songs of longing and desire in the darkest time of the year” and in Christ we have a saviour who entered the world just when he was most longed for and needed, and who in the end provides a deeper comfort and more lasting hope than any breakthrough vaccines or changes of politics.

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These songs of hope and longing have a special resonance for me this year. It’s easy to romanticise the medieval celebration of Christmas because of our distance from it, but like Zechariah before us, medieval revellers knew what it was to celebrate in darkness and the shadow of death — aware, as we too are more keenly aware, of the instability of life and its brevity and fragility. Many of our most hauntingly beautiful Carols have come to us from this medieval past as well, with their message of hope and joy even in times of great turmoil and sadness. One written in fifteenth-century England that I know is going to be ringing in my head this week is “This Endris Night I saw a sight, / A star as bright as day…” Thinking of all celebrating this year in less than ideal circumstances, and the hope that shines out brighter than a star in the darkness.

Further Delectation

Make your own gingerbread — so many recipes to choose from! – or explore this fascinating history of the gift-giving of gingerbread in monastic houses.

Listen to this evocative setting of This Endris Night by Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a whole service of medieval carols at Great St Barts (the oldest church in London), or perhaps this lovely rendition of the Magnificat and Wexford Carol if you prefer something a little more early modern.

Feast your eyes on this beautiful fifteenth-century nativity detail from the Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau (Walters MS W.174, fol. 17v) with the starlight lancing through the thatch of the stable roof as in so many medieval nativity scenes:

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Jammie Dodgers

Way back at the beginning of the second lockdown I found myself craving Jammie Dodgers. As luck would have it they were on special at the local supermarket, but it had been so long since I’d bought them I was surprised to find their appearance and branding had undergone a bold cosmetic change. You can still see the old swirl-top pattern I remember in this recent article by Rachel Cooke, which confirms my view that many are turning to comfort biscuits in these trying times. In sympathy with the zeitgeist, the design now resembles a spillage at a jam factory. Still, these ones look very pleased with themselves sat on a plate in my new digs:

The company who make Jammie Dodgers, Burton’s, have been producing them in one form or another since the late 1940s. One — possibly apocryphal — story links them with Roger the Dodger of the long-running Beano comic. When I researched them further however, I found that the same biscuits have been in the news this year for distinctly un-comical reasons and we may find them in even greater demand this festive season if the Delivery Workers Guild goes ahead with its strike. So even comfort biscuits haven’t managed to dodge the shadow of 2020, it seems…

We listen to the evening news with its usual recital of shabbiness and horror, and God if we believe in him at all, seems remote and powerless, writes Frederick Buechner. But there are other times – often the most unexpected, unlikely times – when strong as life itself comes the sense that there is a holiness deeper than [the] shabbiness and horror and at the very heart of darkness a light unutterable.’ The apostle John might have agreed with him: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, he writes in the prologue to his gospel, written in the glow of the extraordinary life of his friend Jesus of Nazareth.

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Light overcoming the darkness is also the message of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which begins this evening with the lighting of the first candle of the Menorah. Another apocryphal story tells how the Jews took back their temple after the Greek King Antiochus IV captured it in around 164 BC, desecrated the holy places, and made every effort to stop them practising their religion. At the re-dedication of the temple they only had enough of the consecrated oil to last for one day but the supplies miraculously stretched for seven until the new oil could be ready for burning. John gives us a glimpse of Jesus celebrating the festival in winter walking in Solomon’s Colonnade, a long pillared walkway not unlike a medieval cloister.

‘What if God became a human and lived with us?’ is the question John sets out to answer and you can read his gospel and the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ life or watch this recent TV adaptation if you want to know more of what happened along the way. I’ll admit I’m more than a little biscuit-obsessed these days, but to me the heart in the centre of the Dodger’s new splat speaks of the wonder of the Incarnation: of God looking on us with compassion in all our pain and confusion, horror and shabbiness, and sending himself as a human right into the heart of the mess.

BL Harley MS 4382 f.139

Further Delectation

Have a read of the Beano’s biscuit jokes (straight out of the Christmas Cracker school of humour) or have a go at making your own festive Jammie Dodgers.

Help support essential workers this Christmas. Let delivery companies like DHL know you’d like them to look after their drivers better. Ask your MP to support a pay-rise for NHS staff. Or consider whether you could help those on the frontlines of the food poverty crisis.

Prepare for Christmas with this medieval homily and meditation from the Clerk of Oxford’s modern counterpart. Listen to a beautiful twenty-first-century rendition of one of the oldest, loveliest hymns on the incarnation:

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Sicilian Mystery Biscuits

My friend Samina went on holiday to Sicily earlier this September in what now feels like the golden window before the second wave broke upon us. On returning, she informed me she’d brought me some gluten-free biscuits she’d been given in the hotel. Here they are on location in another friend’s flat:

For a number of years I’ve been advertising an informal biscuit classification service but these samples have been tricky to identify. They’re presumably manufactured in Sicily or mainland Italy, but the Italian word Samina was given for them is a generic one. Taste-wise they’re not dissimilar to the cocoa-flavoured bourbon (which hails from Bermondsey as it happens!) but more crumbly and powdery. And perhaps because they don’t contain any wheat or dairy products, these are a lot less solid and quickly melt in the mouth…

The search for a name reminded me of how anonymity has been the lot of so many medieval writers, thanks to different approaches to authorship and manuscript transmission (no such thing as copyright!) as well as the inevitable obscuration of their histories over time. In a very literal sense, it’s by their works that we know geniuses like the Pearl poet or the Wakefield Master, which leaves these mystery biscuits in good company.

The expression ‘to make a name for yourself’ is first recorded in medieval English although the search for fame is ever-present in human history, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Great British Bake-off. In Chaucer’s hilarious, philosophical dream vision The House of Fame, we see the capricious workings of Fame first hand when the narrator– a bumbling bibliophile called Geoffrey — is kidnapped by a talkative eagle and taken to Fame’s Palace. Most of the people he sees there come begging to be remembered for their good works and some for their bad ones. A few pathetic souls want fame without doing anything to deserve it, and a few, a very few, come asking for their names to be forgotten, giving ‘not a leek’ for fame nor renown because their good works were only done for the love of God.

From BL Royal MS 2 D.13

Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things, wrote C.S. Lewis in his dream vision, The Great Divorce. Chaucer too would have agreed that God’s value system has always been radically different from that of the world’s. In Jesus we have a saviour who chose not to be born in a palace but a stable, to live a life of obscurity for most of his time on earth, and who said that many who were first on the world’s stage — the big names and influencers as we tend to view them — would be last in the kingdom of heaven.

As Archbishop Justin reminds us, this Armistice day is also the centenary of the burial of the unknown warrior at Westminster, a modern Everyman who represents the sacrifice of many whose names and histories have been lost. Contra the fickle gods of earthly fame, it’s a relief to think that the real arbiter of eternal worth is the eternal God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden. Who knows all the names that are written in heaven long after they’re forgotten on Earth.

Further Delectation

‘Let your works be dead…’ A beautiful piece on the House of Fame by the British Library’s Kate Thomas.

‘I don’t give a leek’, ‘Go pipe in an ivy leaf’ etc. Brush up on your medieval expressions.

Research Sicilian Almond Cookies, which look delicious and are also gluten-free (and dairy-free). May have to have a shot at making some during lockdown!

And finally, biscuits have been much in the news of late thanks to the publication of Lizzie Collingham’s new book which two friends drew my attention to, one in this fun article.

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Latvian Beciņas

The very generous Dr Davis has been foraging for biscuits again and this month we have two exciting new specimens from the Baltic States, both of which resemble mushrooms. On opening this parcel I did wonder if he had picked them straight from the forest but the great clerks of the internet helped me identify them as Beciņas ar šokolādes micītē (mushrooms with chocolate caps).

IMG_1723 The sponginess of the stalks and firmness of the caps reminded me of Jaffa Cakes although they look a bit different. The root of the stalk is dipped in chocolate and poppy seeds and they really are delicious with coffee. If you’re wondering how they get their distinctive shape, they’re baked in special pans with mushroom-shaped moulds. I was excited to discover the Beciņas are a Latvian specialty and a work colleague tells me they have something very similar in Lithuania, albeit with white instead of dark chocolate.

IMG_1728With half of the country covered in woodland, walking and foraging in the forest is a popular Latvian past-time. The official mushroom picking season lasts from August to October although happily these specimens can be found all year long. For a whole week in July I looked forward to my mornings with coffee and Beciņas and foraging for a moral for this biscuit got me thinking about everything wild spaces have to offer us. 

iuThis lovely painting of a forest glade is by German artist Ernst Ferdinand Oehme. Such scenes are called Waldinerres in German, which sounds a little like the Middle English Wyldrenesse or wilderness. Like the forests of medieval romance, the wilderness can be a place of refuge but also disorientation. A place where our old props and certainties are taken from us. This may feel bewildering (‘to be lost in pathless places, to be confounded for want of a road’) but as a friend of mine from the Wirral says it’s in the wilderness that God speaks. 

In one of the great medieval adventure poems of the fourteenth century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain embarks upon a journey he never expected, accepting the deathly challenge of a mysterious green knight and riding deep into the ‘wyldrenesse of Wyrale’. I won’t give too much of the plot away — the whole story is worth reading and it’s marvellous — but it’s fair to say that what Gawain finds in the forest is not victory or defeat (or mushrooms) but a powerful dose of self-knowledge. In the process he also discovers that the knight waiting for him at the Green Chapel is not the dread opponent he thought but something far kinder and wiser and harder to fathom.

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Both in entering and easing out of lockdown it feels like we have all been plunged into a season of stillness, and whether that feels liberating or terrifying the silence has its lessons to teach us. Be still and know that I am God, Psalm 46 reads, and in stilling ourselves we invite that knowledge to fill us. In the forest. In the wilderness. In our own pathless places. In the pause in the middle of the morning for coffee and biscuits. 

Further Delectation

Another great Northern poet, Simon Armitage, introduces Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and you can read the poem in Middle and Modern English via Luminarium.
Can’t get to the outdoors right now? Take a virtual tour of Latvia’s lovely forests and castles.
This week’s magical Story from the Borders of Sleep. This latest podcast, written and narrated by Seymour Jacklin, is all about hermits, forests and the wisdom of green places.
Too busy for all this? You may need to ruthlessly eliminate hurry. Here’s some help to make a start on it.
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Iced Garden Biscuits

It was my birthday again last month and given the lockdown situation I really hadn’t any expectations for it beyond loafing around on the roof terrace in the sun. So it was a lovely surprise to receive this box of biscuits from my Mum – and not just any box of biscuits but these hand-iced masterpieces from the Biscuiteers Baking Company, a bright star of the biscuit scene in London.

IMG_1695 2.JPGAs you can see, these ‘homegrown’ biscuits are garden themed and, like the masterpiece of creation itself, full of that beauty and attention to detail that marks the work of a true craftsperson. So beautiful in fact it was hard to bring myself to eat them but I made a start with the trowel on the grounds that it had got a little cracked on its way out of the box. Having shovelled the first one in (chocolate shortbread, delicious) I decided to give  it a bit of welly, and after that… Well, I was quite proud of myself for making them last more than a week in the end. Whatever recipe they use for their biscuit base, it’s built to last.

IMG_1765I’ve written before about the Parable of the Sower. It’s one of the best known stories of the gospels and one of the few parables where Jesus provides a gloss on the meaning for his audience: the seeds are the words of God and the soil is the hearers’ hearts, which may at times be soft or stony, choked by weeds or eager for new life. It’s also a picture of what happens at the very beginning of God speaking to us: a seed, a thought, takes hold and with it a little glimmer of hopefulness. A promise of growth to come.

IMG_1707This week I came across a further application of the story I think the medieval clerks would have approved of: what do we do when the seed of something wonderful drops into our lives? It might be a new idea, creative vision, word of faith or moment of insight. What part can we play in helping it thrive?

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Wellcome Library MS L0027234

Light and water, space and shelter, vigilance and tenderness, patience and encouragement. Keeping on believing, waiting and trusting until you see the new thing springing up… The laws of nurturing the spiritual life aren’t that different to those of the organic one, really. In yet another great gardening parable, Jesus speaks of a mustard seed planted in the ground:

It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants: it grows long branches and birds can make nests in its shade…

The Kingdom of God is like that, he says. It may start small but it grows!

Further Delectation

Shameless promotion of the Biscuiteers’ wares. While away a pleasant hour admiring their decorative arts.

Still in lockdown or bored of your new fangled garden? Here’s a no-nonsense approach to designing a medieval one.

My friend Amy alerted me to this erudite blog post from English Heritage on biscuits past. Something to savour after your gardening’s done?

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Macarons

To my mind, the Macaron (or French Macaroon if you want to be all English about it) is a bit like a Jaffa Cake in that opinions differ as to whether it’s a biscuit or not. You’ll be in no doubt this bestiary comes down firmly on the biscuit side of the argument from the existence of this entry, but on reflection it might be more strictly categorised as bakers’ confectionary (biscuit class). Previously I’d seen it as my calling to consume rather than concoct these lovely little creatures, but then around Easter I received the following kit from my sister grâce à the Honeywell Biscuit Company:

93818632_10158313733984859_6053972565121040384_oTruth be told I’ve had a bit of a thing for Macarons ever since a visit to one of Pierre Hermé‘s stores in Paris on a day that just turned out to be le jour du Macaron (a proof of providence if ever there was one). The high almond content made me hopeful this biscuit might be medieval in origin and legend has it that its first appearance was in the monasteries of medieval Venice, but the most exciting chapter in its history came when Catherine de Medici took the recipe to France, where it was eventually refined into the delicate sandwich form and produced in every colour and flavour the heart could desire. 

Nowadays the Macarons’ perfect roundness, evenness and sheer melt-in-the-mouth gorgeousness make them a pleasure of the highest order and what a feast of colour they provide for the eyes! I’m particularly in awe of those master bakers who excel at making them as they’re difficult to get right. I might not have plucked up the courage to try the kit at all were it not for a friend dropping some of her experiments round. Ellie has been perfecting the art of macaron-making during lockdown:

IMG_1610My kit from the Biscuit Company included a couple of icing tubes to pipe chick faces onto the Macarons after assembling them, but I decided not to make things too complicated for myself on my first try. I got off to a good start with the filling (butter icing and homemade lemon curd) but a rookie error in placing one tray of Macarons on the wrong side of the baking sheet which cost me in presentation later. Dropping the tray on the floor was the best bit – apparently it helps with eliminating air pockets – but the macarons still emerged from the oven a little cracked. What they lacked in texture they made up for in taste, however. The ‘shell’ was just a few millimetres thick, the ‘white’ beautifully light and tender, and the ‘yoke’ even softer and richer with that lemony burst at its heart.

IMG_1673The Macaron is a biscuit of great taste and beauty, but it’s also incredibly delicate – a delicacy in every sense of the word. Thinking about its fragility, I’m moved to reflect on the way the unwelcome intrusion of the pandemic into our everyday lives has ushered in a season in which we’ve become acutely aware of our own vulnerabilities and not just to the virus. For some it might be the ability to earn a living, preserve a peaceful home or stave off loneliness with face-to-face contact; the challenge of having too much time on your hands or paradoxically not enough. For many the membrane between our work and home lives has become a lot thinner now colleagues Zoom us from their kitchens and public figures speak to us from their at-home studies, often with family members drifting in and out. It can be hilarious but also homely and humbling to have this glimpse into each other’s domestic lives. A daily reminder that we’re all human with or without our public faces on.

These thoughts could easily lead into a meditation on the instability of life as depicted in the great wisdom literature of the bible, but many of us have already been wrestling with these lessons over the last few weeks and months. Instead I’m drawn to the comforting words about Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, quoting from the prophet Isaiah:

He will not crush a bruised reed or put out a flickering candle…

Tenderness towards the bruised and struggling has always been part of God’s mission and character. One positive outcome of the present time would be if as a society we learnt to be more compassionate and protective of the vulnerable, fragile places in ourselves and others.

Further Delectation

These days before Ascension Day are rogation days in the Church’s old calendar and you can read about them in the Clerk of Oxford’s blog here. It’s a time to bless the land, which seems peculiarly apt this year when in the quiet of lockdown nature has been such a blessing to those who are able to get outside to appreciate it.

May always feels such a medieval month and here’s another interesting piece by Michael Warren on medieval birds and birdsong. If you’re into medieval literature, you might like to pair it up with a reading of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.

For anyone living alone or feeling alone right now, you might enjoy this beautiful recording of Sheppard’s Libera Nos (Deliver Us) by The Sixteen, which must be one of the loveliest things to come out of lockdown. Lots of love.

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Almond Thins

I first realised all this panic-buying was getting serious when I got a phone call from the biscuit aisle of our local Sainsbury’s. The shelves weren’t completely empty, my housemate told me, but it was slim pickings. We both laughed incredulously as she listed the few types of biscuit the other shoppers had left us. In the end I went with these Almond Thins:

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C. was shopping for me because like many people in our part of South London, I’d had to self-isolate with coronavirus symptoms. I still can’t be sure what I experienced was the virus but several days of odd fiery fevers and chest issues make it likely, and poor Southwark has been hit very hard. Both the sickness and isolation have felt like a battle at times and I was lucky my symptoms were relatively mild. We’re not really used to sweating it out through long periods of feverishness, which would have been a much commoner feature of life in medieval times. The night the worst of the fevers broke I woke to blessed stillness to hear a bird singing outside my window and just at that moment it was the loveliest sound in the world.

Another milestone of recovery was the return to coffee and biscuits. I might never have discovered the all-buttery consolations of the Almond Thins were it not for the present crisis, just as I might never have discovered the goodness and faithfulness of so many people in my life if I hadn’t been ill. From both far and near, friends and family have prayed for me, messaged me, cooked for me, brought me food or paracetamol and just generally cheered me on through the days I’ve felt anxious or vulnerable. The last few weeks may have been short on biscuits but they have been very rich in love.

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Walking round the neighbourhood on my daily constitutionals it’s good to see signs of hope and solidarity, from the cheery messages on local businesses to the brightly painted rainbows in children’s houses inspired by the andrà tutto bene pictures in Italy (a motto Julian of Norwich would have loved). Yes, we’re all still reeling from the disruption to our old patterns of life, but it helps that we’re in this together and so many people are finding creative ways of reaching out to one another even when we’re physically apart.

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From BL Royal 20 C V

Plague is one experience no sane person would ever want to share with the Middle Ages yet here we are exposed to what would have seemed a very medieval anxiety once. Familiar works like Everyman, the Danse Macabre and even the Divine Comedy were all shaped by the necessity of navigating death someday, though to Christians it was never an end but a doorway. The whole Memento Mori tradition, often seen as morbid in our own time, was meant to help people live more purposefully in the here and now. 

Part of this hard-won wisdom is learning to separate the things that matter from the things that don’t matter. Saving lives matters more than leaving the house whenever we want to and we’ve a new appreciation of the value of many ‘low-skilled’ jobs. Many of the things that preoccupied us a few weeks ago have come to seem trivial, old grudges not worth holding on to. Minor irritations and inconveniences are put in their proper place. ‘Stay safe’ is the new ‘Kind regards’.

Souls are like athletes writes Thomas Merton, and this Lent it feels like we’ve all been given our own marathons to run. Yes, our lives will never be the same again, and for a time they may feel thinner and more constricted, but at the end of this I pray we’ll emerge richer in ways we can’t see right now. “I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, even as your soul prospers,” the apostle John wrote in one of his letters and this is my prayer for us all in the coming months.

Further Reflection

So many medieval writers offer comfort in times of trouble and sickness. These last weeks I’ve been drawing from Julian of Norwich (Malcolm Guite’s post on her work might be a good way in if you haven’t read her) and, in a later age, John Donne. Texts available free with other out-of-copyright works from Project Gutenberg.

Has the plague closed your theatre? Many wonderful institutions have been releasing content to help us keep our spirits up through the lockdown. Thursday night is now theatre night thanks to the National Theatre. You can also visit a museum from your living room, listen to beautiful music from the Berliner Philharmoniker or watch an opera streamed from the Met in New York.

Make a call. Write a letter. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. There’s so much we can do to support each other even from a distance, so keep on reaching up and out.

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From BL Stowe MS 955, Le Petit Livre d’Amour

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Czech Poppy Seed Biscuits

My amazing Czech friend has been baking again, although these excellent specimens aren’t a traditionally Bohemian biscuit but a recent recipe from a Czech magazine. Makovky can be translated as little poppy seed biscuits and these come with a nice sticky centre of lemon curd. Crushed poppy seeds are a common ingredient of Czech baking and give the biscuit dough its marble-like appearance here. Maybe it’s all the scalloped edging, but to me there’s something baroque about their elegance such that they wouldn’t seem out of place on the dressing table of an eighteenth-century belle (or indeed the coffee table of a twenty-first-century one!)

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It took me a while to think of an appropriate sentence for the Makovky but their flower-like appearance reminded me of that passage on combating worry in the Sermon on the Mount: Consider the lilies of the field. In medieval Europe the lily flower or fleur-de-lis was the heraldic emblem of the French crown as well as having more general associations with the purity of the Virgin Mary, which is why images of the annunciation often include a lily or background of lilies.

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Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are…

Jesus uses the illustration of the lilies rather differently in his sermon. Knowing how prone we humans are to fret about the many things we can’t control, he asks his hearers to stop, look and listen to all the signs of life humming around them, to consider the flowers of the field (or scattered about the hard shoulder of the motorway or pushing their tiny heads through the urban concrete sprawl) and what their brief lives tell us about the one who made them.

…and if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

It’s a good question. Sometimes I feel our peace of mind is continually being sabotaged by the pace of modern life, our own worries for the future and the anxieties that fuel the news — but the more our thought-lives centre on these fears, the more power they have to rob us of our joy and equilibrium. Faith can feel like an impossible ask when worries intrude, which is why taking time out to fill our minds with healthier, happier things is vital. And as we do, we find that faith is less something we have to work up than a trust we’re invited to relax into. Consider the lilies of the field

Further Delectation

Consider more lilies (and medieval reading culture) in these medieval annunciation scenes or read up on the history of the fleur-de-lis and its role in heraldry.

It’s the perfect time of year for creative biscuit making and the BBC Good Food site has a wealth of easy creative recipes.

Consider the rich and vibrant colour-scapes of this medieval annunciation from the Netherlands (from the met museum) notable for its careful observation of plant life:

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Ballerina Biscuits

Appropriately enough given its Norse associations, late November’s biscuit is the gift of a cat called Master Loki and comes to us fresh from the bracing climes of Norway, a favoured holiday destination of Master Loki’s staff. The name of this species is Ballerina and it won’t surprise you to know that the word means the same thing in English as Norwegian or that it is on long-term loan to us from the Italians, who are generous like that. In its size, compactness and solidity the Ballerina has much in common with the popular biscuit brands of Britain, but with one intriguing difference that makes it a paradox of biscuit design: its two very different sides. Here’s the recto:

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And here’s the verso:

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As you can see, this is less yin and yang than Pushmi-Pullyu or perhaps two mass-produced biscuits for the price of one. Not that my tastebuds were at all put out by the incongruity, but intellectually I couldn’t quite grasp the reason for combining these two apparently unrelated designs.

The reason for the name also intrigued me and with a bit of imagination the recto side does look a bit like a tutu. Here’s a little reminder of what other famous ballerinas get up to from the wonderful Gina Storm Jensen, a Norwegian dancer who performs with the Royal Ballet:

Like their biscuity namesakes, human ballerinas combine two excellent characteristics you don’t often see operating together elsewhere: grace and strength. It takes sensitivity and understanding of the way the body moves through space to be able to create motions this exquisitely graceful, and it takes many hours of work to build up the levels of fitness and stamina needed to hold each position and execute each step with precision and care.

It feels like grace and strength of a less visible kind are badly needed in our world at present. ‘Patient endurance is what you need right now,’ counsels the writer to the Hebrews and I think it’s good advice for us. It’s so easy to be caught off balance when temptations to irritation, weariness and worry seem to be coming at us from so many angles. Stepping carefully through the trying days, especially when we are feeling tired or provoked in our spirits, can be a challenge, but I’ve never seen the value of holding our positions with strength and grace quite so much.

Further Delectation

Here for the dancing but having trouble keeping your balance? Try the Biscuit Ballerina – with a cup of tea and a smile.

Learn how to step carefully through the world the medieval way… (a German academic shows us how it’s done!)

The loveliest medieval poem I know of about a little white cat (trans. Seamus Heaney).

Interested in the early Norwegians? Eleanor Barraclough writes about the Vikings as travellers, raiders, converts and chameleons in History Today (the image below is from a C14th MS reproduced there).

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