One of the seven short essays in Gustaf Sobin’s final book Aura, published in 2009, is about the deep, unremitting darkness of medieval times.
And about light, then and now.
We can’t imagine how dark it was. We, with our street lights and electric light switches and automobile headlights and cellphone screens and television screens and flood lights and lighted sports stadiums.
Not without Sobin’s help.
The medieval night was very dark for anyone inside a home or castle or building of any sort. The only illumination was from one or more candles. The churches and the rich had wax candles, but not the rural French, as Sobin explains:
In such humble surroundings, it was more likely that tallow candles were burnt, the tallow itself drawn from the fat of goats, sheep and bovines….
Even if such candles could be considered a marked improvement over oil lamps with papyrus wicks like those employed during the Merovingian [reign, roughly 450-750 A.D.], or the torches and firebrands of pine and birch bark during the Carolingian [751-814], the little rings of light that they shed remained, nonetheless, minimal.
“Those wobbling, incandescent rings”
So minimal were those “little rings of light” that they might, to modern people, seem useless. But Sobin continues:
One can only imagine then, the magnetic attraction that these candles must have exercised over each and every member of a medieval household. For there, about those wobbling, incandescent rings, an entire family would gather not only to take their meals, mend their exhausted work clothes, and sort out seeds for the next day’s sowing but give thanks — pay homage — to the very light that allowed them to do so.
Indeed, Sobin suggests that, for those around the candle, its weak but magical circle of illumination was a physical manifestation of the Gospel message of Jesus to be the “light of the world.”
In other words, the utilitarian brought to mind the sacramental, and the sacramental brought to mind the utilitarian. This candle, weak as it is, pushes back the darkness, as the Christian — the “light of the world” — pushes back the darkness of sin.
Fanciful? Sobin has facts.
Archeologists, sifting through the debris at the site of a medieval French monastery found some 250 pieces of glass in a single pit inside the building. This seemed strange to the investigators, Sobin reports. Why not toss this garbage with other trash outside the walls?
The answer: When the archeologists put the shards together, they realized that they were all pieces from a set of sixteen globe-shaped oil lamps that would have been suspended from a single chandelier.
These lamps were a source of light for a long time, but, when they broke, they “had — one must assume — undergone ritual burial within the walls of the monastery itself.” As vehicles for light, these glass lamps had been sacred.
In contrast with the light from the ubiquitous modern light bulb, Sobin writes, the light from the lamps was perceived as more than light, was perceived as “the source of an everlasting mystery.”
And it doesn’t end there.
This isn’t just a factoid from the past. For the archeologists, for Sobin, for anyone looking at these glass pieces and picturing the life in which their lamps played such a holy and useful role, there is an insight into the reality of existence — the reality of darkness and light, the unfathomable reality of unseeing and seeing. Sobin writes:
In considering…the ritualized deposits of so much shattered glass…, one can’t help but detect, and in detecting, appreciate something of that mystery oneself. On archeological evidence alone, the light it once shed would seem to have been inextinguishable.
The modern person — the modern thinker, the modern who takes this in — is being enlightened about this reality, this mystery, by these pieces of glass.
The light of those lamps is reaching across the centuries to enlighten today.
A lot of ground
In fact, Aura’s seven essays cover only 48 pages. Yet, each is chock full of nuance, subtlety and fecund rumination.
Sobin was working on this book in 2005 when, at the age of 69, he died of prostate cancer. He had an outline for some 15 more essays.
Aura, as truncated as it is, is the concluding volume of a trilogy of books of essays in which Sobin looked at, examined, considered the relics and remnants and other “vestiges” of medieval France for what meaning they might contain for him and his readers. The others are Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (1999) and Ladder of Shadows: Reflecting on Medieval Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (2009).
“A second’s inadvertence”
Consider the bones that he ponders in Aura’s opening essay “Getting the Skeletons to Speak.”
Sobin’s jumping off point is a “somewhat forbidding” study of 250 medieval bones (5th century to 13th century) by paleo-osteopathologists that is “couched in a plethora of anatomical terminology.”
Nonetheless, for the essayist, it’s a study that “abounds in testimony to the human condition.” And he continues:
Over and over, these analyses [of the bones] astonish in their capacity to reconstitute a given circumstance.
A split-second’s inadvertence in the twelfth century, for instance, will be detected — thanks to such meticulous observation — in the latter part of the twentieth century.
As an example, a woman’s fractured pelvis bone can be attributed to a fall she must have taken in which she landed on her left hip. Intense pain was then followed by an insufficient period of convalescence, given the extent of the callus that formed…about the fractured member.
Perfectly legible today, this hypertrophy attests to the woman’s impatience at being bedridden for so long or more likely, the pressures brought to bear on her person to resume her activities.
“The sparks of a certain enlightenment”
Again, for Sobin, the observation of how modern-day scientists can read these old bones doesn’t end there. This isn’t isolated esoterica.
These bones and the work of the scientists link one moment in history (the woman’s fall) with this present moment. Sobin writes:
Out of so much meticulously observed fracture, genetic deformation, and anatomic degeneration, the sparks of a certain enlightenment would seem to have arisen.
Something, indeed, of these anonymously dead, their bones irreparably calcifying in their medieval sarcophagi, hasn’t entirely died.
The potential to communicate
Unsaid, but implied in this observation, is that the continued life that these bones represent — in their “sparks of a certain enlightenment” — is not limited to these bones.
As Sobin shows in his essay on medieval night and light, those shards of glass reach across the centuries to link with us today. They have a life, too.
Indeed, each of the “vestiges” that he examines in this small, intensely rich book telsl hidden stories that reverberate in Sobin’s mind and in the minds of his readers — that take on renewed life in this way.
Unsaid, but implied in all of this, is the reality that these items have always had the potential to communicate to anyone who knew how to look at them.
In a way, they exhibited this aura of life to those who knew how to see. And they exhibited this aura even if no one saw it.
So, too, with you and with me. A thousand years from now, material we touched or material that was as much a part of us as bones will have this potential to communicate, this aura.
These relics of our lives will be pulsing with this aura, awaiting someone in that distant future to look at and understand their message.
And they will pulse in this way whether anyone sees that aura or not.
Patrick T. Reardon