Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Forgetting Book

I had the most amazing dream last night. It was another one of the genre---like that dream of the smoky-berry-blood perfume 'Venisonwood'---in which I am contemplating in enormous detail an object which doesn't actually exist, but nevertheless, here it is, in the dream, and which by appearing to me seems mysteriously to enlarge the world.

I am looking at a Cambridge University Press hardback, by a (non-existent) medievalist called Elaine Cooper, called The Forgetting Book. The back-blurb was as follows.

THIS book examines the story of one of the most extraordinary documents, and lives, of the late Middle Ages. In early fifteenth century Bruges, a prosperous, literate, and upwardly-mobile merchant's wife named Joanna van der Weyden made an extraordinary decision, while still in her late teens: she would write down every dream she experienced. Joanna's own name for this unparalleled document was Het Vergetenboek, the Forgetting Book. In it she would record her dreams every morning for twenty four years.

Joanna's Forgetting Book was not rediscovered until 2008, and Elaine Cooper is the first medievalist to make an in-depth study of its value as a resource for social, cultural, and psychic history. While medieval literature abounds in dream-visions, the form is intrinsically artificial and convention-bound; a book containing the actual, lived dreams of one individual is without parallel. Joanna recorded over three thousand dreams, and Cooper shows that these are a rich resource for reconstructing the interiority of a late medieval woman, and of the culture of which she was a part. Her dreams---hallucinatory, bewildering, frightening, and sometimes exquisitely beautiful---reveal precious details of her lived emotional, economic, cultural, and religious worlds. They include her ambivalence about the pregnancies for which she longed, her anxieties about the much-loved, unpredictable husband she nicknamed 'Jacquinetto', and most strikingly, her powerful sense of living in an world the horizons of which were radically expanding, both inwardly and outwardly.

Joanna was convinced her dreams had meaning, and Cooper examines the medieval and biblical dream-theory on which Joanna drew. She appears to have known something of alchemy, astrology, classical mythology, and of the mystical writing of the Beguines; occasional poignant moments seem to point back to the rural folklore of her childhood. Her primary source of authority, however, was always her own soul: in this her book resembles nothing so much as Carl Jung's Red Book, in which the great psychologist recorded a decade's worth of dreams and inner images. Joanna's book shares with Jung's what is perhaps its most staggering quality: its extraordinarily beautiful, unique illuminations. Joanna, wealthy in her own right and alone for long periods while Jacquinetto travelled between the Hanseatic ports on business, took the bold step of commissioning exquisite illuminations for her dreams, which were then bound into the book. Even more extraordinary, these seem to have been for her eyes only, and executed under her exacting supervision. Joanna's dream-examination emerges, Cooper argues, as a kind of prayer, a discerning of God's meaning and intentions for her; her Forgetting Book is, in some sense, a private and intimate Book of Hours composed under Joanna's own interior authority.

Astoundingly revelatory of a single medieval woman's intellect, education, and fraught, passionate inner life, the discovery of the Forgetting Book of Joanna van der Weyden must now rank as one of the most field-changing events in medieval studies in decades. As well as a study of the book's meaning and context, the volume includes a full translation and commentary on Joanna's text. Forty seven illuminations are reproduced in colour.

* * *

In the dream I could see the illuminations, beautifully reproduced in colour. One was of a dream Joanna had after numerous miscarriages in her early twenties. She was desperate to give her husband an heir, and the dream presaged her first successful pregnancy: she records of the dream that the fire gave her a son. In the illumination, she is kneeling in the darkened, stone-flagged main room of her house, looking nervously into the large fireplace. A calm, bearded man with a burning face is standing up in the fire. Red and gold flames lick his robes and hair. He is handing something out to her with both hands---a crab. Joanna, who recognised the crab as the symbol of the sign of Cancer, and of the moon and motherhood, knew from this that she would become pregnant.

Another illumination showed a dream that was in some way crucial---alerting Joanna to the fact that her husband was not being honest with her about their financial affairs. It showed Joanna asleep in a richly embroidered bed (alone, strikingly) and over her head float a number of objects: a black horse's head chesspiece; her husband's sleeping head; an egg.


Aside from the irritation that I would very much like to read Cooper's The Forgetting Book, I now have to think about what this dream means for me. After all, Joanna'a dreams are my dreams: dreams within dreams within dreams. Baffling.

1 comment:

Cerdo said...

I wonder if Joanna reading this book was the inspiration for the wonderful little fragment showing the Magdalene reading by her distant cousin Rogier to be found in the National Gallery.

I thoroughly enjoyed this. The book sounds as if it would be a fascianting read.

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