medieval, research

Lapidary prose, or, what is a lapidary anyway?

The title of this blog comes from the common usage of lapidary, which is a person who polishes gemstones. There is another usage, which is a medieval symbolic compendium about gemstones; my choice of title betrays my bad habit of editing things to death, as well as reflecting my academic background. Although I wrote a master’s thesis on the symbolism of gemstones in two medieval works, not wanting to bore my readers, I looked at Wikipedia to see what it said about lapidaries. I was surprised not to see the meaning of medieval compendium, because there is a pretty good description of bestiaries, which are a medieval symbolic compendium of animals.

Medieval authors and readers loved encyclopedias, catalogs, lists and symbolism; the physical world was a veil over the true meaning of objects and events. Treatises were written to explicate the true meanings of objects in nature. Lapidaries are lists of precious and semi-precious gemstones, giving the physical, medical, and symbolic meanings of each stone. Bestiaries do the same for animals. For some reason, the symbolism of the bestiary has survived the centuries better than its counterpart, the lapidary. The lion as the king of beasts? That concept comes from the 13th century bestiaries. However, who today thinks that amethyst chases away idle thoughts and causes greater understanding? If lapidary symbolism had survived to the present day, every college student in the world would wear amethyst, because it is supposed to keep away drunkenness. In the 21st century, we no longer have the common symbolic system that was taught in the schools and shared by all educated people in the Middle Ages. We do have some common symbols; depending on the context, most readers will understand dawn as new beginnings and hope, and sunset as a decline or death.

Beyond the few symbols that remain from the bestiary and other traditions, the closest symbolic system in our literary past is the language of flowers, popular in the Victorian period, but which still holds sway today. Why do we buy a dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day? Because the language of flowers held that the red rose is the symbol of passionate love. There are more examples of the common symbols that all readers understand, but they don’t seem to fit into a standardized system anymore.

I like the idea of a world with more symbolic meaning than what meets the five senses; that sense of there being more to everything is part of what attracted me to medieval literature. Do you think that there are systems that I am just flat out missing? How do we as writers imbue meaning into objects and events?

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