Four days

The heavy rains today feel like foreshadowing. 

This is my last week abroad…  I fly from Frankfurt to Heathrow late Friday afternoon, get to spend some quality bonding time with Heathrow Airport until just before noon on Saturday (hooray airport all-nighters), land in Houston mid-day, and then finally re-enter the beautiful City of Roses at around 9 pm – probably with somewhat apocalyptic levels of jetlag, sleep deprivation, and general dazedness. 


I don’t have much more on my project to do in the remainder of my time here, so the plan for this week is to spend time with my German friends, the Rhein, castles, the forest, visit St. Hildegard’s reliquary once more… and pack and move out.  Migration is always a mix of emotions, perhaps especially so this time around because I have been abroad for a relatively long time, perhaps because I have fallen a bit in love with Deutschland – or at least with the life I’ve been able to have here these past two months.  It is strange, the way this river looks like the Willamette when it’s raining, the way the hills wear the same grey veil, and the way the deciduous trees are strikingly green against the white sky.  The forest here smells different in the rain, though, and I’m not entirely sure why. 

Perhaps it’s the nettles. 

I am very curious how these six months on foreign shores will have changed the way I see my native country.

I am also extremely excited to see all of my Portland comrades, though I will most assuredly miss the wonderful friends I’ve made here in Germany. 

(Unfortunately, I have all of 3 minutes of internet left, so I can’t expand upon those thoughts right now.)

I may or may not post again before I’m back in the States.  Until then, friends!


If you happen to find yourself in the Portland International Airport around 9 pm this Saturday…..  😉  Wave a sign or something, I’m likely to be in quite a blur.

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Abbey visit part 2

This last week was a super one.

I went back to the Abtei-St. Hildegard to interview the nuns about their music making and their patron saint.  Luckily for me, the sisters found a nun for me who spoke some English, so we conversed in half-German and half-English and were able to understand one another. 

I’ll spare you the musicological details, partially due to my internet hourglass running down, but I now have a mission from the nuns, though I can’t begin to undertake it until I’m back in the states with English translations and the original Latin available to me.  Schwester Lydia told me that if I want to understand what music meant to Hildegard, I should take the title of her collection of songs – Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum – and learn how she uses each of those words individually in her writings, what she means by each of them, and how she uses them in various combinations.  Then, when I put Hildegard’s usage and meaning of these four words together, I’ll understand. 

Mission accepted. 

(…as if my curiosity would let me turn it down…)

Also, I acquired the Source of Sources.

It’s the latest critical edition of ALL of Hildegard’s musical works, complete with her morality play Ordo Virtutum.  Basically, someone with a doctorate and several other degrees did what I was doing with my transcription project, but with ALL the extant manuscripts, combined them, edited them, and boiled them down into the complete edition I now possess.  But wait, there’s more!  It also has all the background information about all of the sources (such as where and when they were created, where they are now, their entire contents, etc.) and several indexes with important details about all of the pieces.  Essentially, this wonderful book has everything I was trying to compile all together in one place in modern (square) chant notation, which makes performance easy while maintaining the original neume shapes as best as possible.  JACKPOT. 


There have been several days that I’ve literally flipped through this book and sung all day long.

Last Saturday, I went to Mainz for a fantastic evening of medieval music put on by Capella Antiqua Bambergensis, a magnificent group of musicologist-scholar-performers.  They’re one of the few medieval ensembles I’ve interviewed who are all classically trained early music specialists.  They also do such daring things as perform the Nibelungenlied and the Song of Roland how they may have been performed in a feast hall hundreds of years ago (I have a recording, it’s pretty exciting).  Getting to hear them and then talk to them afterwards was incredibly inspiring.  The two main bits of advice they had for me were 1) improvisation is the key to performing this music (we’ve only got small fragments of tunes, they’ve got to be elaborated upon, especially when playing in an ensemble), and 2) put together an ensemble and make music.  Find some people and do it.  The scholarship and research is all very important, yes, but music is fundamentally a living thing. 

Oh, and their wind player makes all of his own instruments and they’re incredibly beautiful. 

If you’re in Portland this summer and want to make some medieval music with me….


(also, if you’re trying to get in touch with me via email right now, I don’t have the ability to respond)

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Due to an unfortunate falling-out between me and the Internet Gods, I lost internet access in my apartment about two weeks ago.  I now have to pay 2 euros an hour to use a computer at the local internet cafe, as there are no free wifi hotspots in Bingen and the library connection is excruciatingly slow and doesn’t let me post anything anywhere or check my email. 

Sadly, this means blog posts will be few and probably far between for the next three weeks and won’t involve any pictures.  It also means that I’ve essentially lost access to all of my secondary sources, meaning that I won’t be able to do nearly as much on my thesis as I wanted.  😦  Also, transcription has come screeching to a hault.  I may have to print out some of the pages of the online Riesencodex. 

Fun fact:  German keyboards are really strange.  For instance, Z is where Y is on English-language keyboards.  Tzping is an adventure.

However, despite the lack of blog posts, VERY EXCITING THINGS ARE HAPPENING!

The past two weekends, I’ve gone to two medieval festivals – Spectaculum Worms and Spectaculum Oberwesel – and interviewed 7 performers/performance troupes that specialize in medieval music (with varying degrees of historical authenticity).  In addition to having a rolicking good time, I’ve learned that medieval music is a HUGE deal in Germany, as are these medieval festivals.  They don’t mess around.  There’s no electricity allowed (exception: the main stage), after nightfall all the lighting comes from candles, torches, oil lamps, and other fire-based constructions, and part of your entrance fee pays for a small ceramic cup as disposable cups and other disposable foodwares are banned.  They’ve also got a distinct advantage over American festivals in that there are actual castles and most of the inner town buildings have been preserved since the 16th century.  The attendees are also really serious about their medieval experience; sure, there are varying levels of costumedness, but the percentage of historically-garbed people is incredibly high. 

The highlight of Spectaculum Worms was definitely getting to see Corvus Corax perform live.  As a historical musicologist, I really truly should not love them as much as I do…. but they are medieval rockstars and I’ve loved them since high school.  They built all of their instruments (including beautiful, beautiful, beautiful 14th-16th century continental european bagpipes °drool°) by hand based on historical models and play music from historical sources, but they transpose this music into the modern context of a rock concert, complete with amps, effects, lighting, and eyeliner. 

I mean… what’s not to love? 

And just when I thought it couldn’t be any more epic, a torrential thunderstorm came through.  SO MUCH EPICNESS.

A thought about authenticity:  We simply cannot relate to medieval music in the same way people of the medieval era did.  We have a completely different cultural context full of media overload and extreme volumes.  Perhaps it is possible to be authentic to the original experience of the music – wild raucous party – by performing it in a way that evokes that experience for a modern audience with a modern cultural context, i.e. rock concert.  We don’t know enough about medieval music to definitively say that secular medieval party music didn’t sound like Corvus Corax (except without the amplification), so perhaps in their presentation they are indeed being authentic to the spirit of the music and its time.

Or maybe I’m just trying to justify how awesome I think they are.  That thought is still a work in progress.

The next weekend at Oberwesel, there was a woman performing and discussing Hildegard chants.  I got to speak with her extensively afterwards, and we’ve came to remarkably similar interpretations of her music… and remarkably similar strategies for reaching those interpretations.  It was pretty fantastic to carry on a (long) conversation with someone else doing this same vein of integrated research and performance.  🙂

Also, last week I went to the ruins of the Disibodenberg monastery, the place where Hildegard spent around the first 40 years of her monastic life.  The ruins have been taken over by forest, giving the whole place a very mysterious and timeless feel.  Sadly, I can’t upload any photos, so you’ll have to take my word for how magical it is.  Seriously, I’ve never seen so many four-leafed clovers in my life.  The entirety of the ruin-grounds was covered in them.  A giant, three-trunked oak now grows just inside what was once the door of the main church building.  I think Hildegard would (and probably does) approve.

The end of my hour is coming fast upon me, so I must leave off here.  Ta!

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Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard – first contact

Today was pretty incredible.

This morning I decided to go to the abbey for the first time, but I was still plagued by all sorts of doubts about it.  After missing two ferries, I came back to my apartment to get lunch, looked at the nuns’ reassuringly friendly faces on their website, and tried to work up the confidence to go back out and make contact.  At first, I skimmed over the word Heiligsprechung because it was unfamiliar and I assumed that it referred to some sort of preaching (literally ‘holy speech’).  But it kept popping up attached to a date, 10. Mai.  Curious as to what I missed last week, I read further.

In case you didn’t see my last post, (SAINT) HILDEGARD HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY CANONIZED.

Jubilation.  Triumph.  Bolstered by this incredible news, my fears fell to the wayside and I was off across the Rhein to Rüdesheim, Eibingen, and up the hill to the Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard.

Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard

This visit was mostly intended for me to get a feel for the convent and the layout of the abbey, to observe a bit as an outsider before leaping into philosophical conversations with its inhabitants.  Mission:  successful.  I got to see nuns at work in quite a broad spectrum of functions – as counselors/listeners/advisers, gardeners, historians, jewelers, ceramicists, authors, vintners, singers, and facilitators of religious service.  This abbey also has a manuscript restoration specialist, whom I look forward to perhaps meeting at a later date.  I was struck by how these women are all experts at one craft or another – or many – and use those skills to serve and perpetuate their convent.  They sell the wines and wares they create during the ‘work’ periods of the day designated by the Rule of St. Benedict, the proceeds feed back into the abbey, and the resulting community of people is as diverse and multi-talented as St. Hildegard herself.

They’re also all – from what I can tell – immensely friendly and welcoming.

Entrance to the Abbey church

Every Wednesday at 3 pm, the nuns hold a half-hour meditation on Hildegard’s messages at the Eibingen Wallfahrtskirche (or ‘pilgrim’s church’), where Hildegard’s remains are enshrined.  It didn’t occur to me that this church wouldn’t be on the abbey grounds.  Luckily, I had the sense to ask a nun instead of wandering about in search of it, and shortly thereafter took off careening down the hillside through the vineyards back to Eibingen.  I made it just as the facilitating sister was setting up her stereo, though I hardly noticed how amusing a sight that was – staring down the pews at me was the brilliant, golden, gemstone-encrusted reliquary containing Hildegard’s embalmed heart, tongue, skull, and bones seated on a marble pedestal underneath a giant mosaic of one of her illuminations.  Transfixed, I lit a votive candle with the horrible clang of coin into collection box and sat as unobtrusively as possible in the otherwise empty church.

It’s really hard to be invisible when you’re the only one sitting in a large space.  It’s also impossible to be silent sitting down into an old, wooden pew.  Thankfully, another woman diffused the awkwardness for me by appearing out of nowhere and sitting down in the front next to the nun.

All of the discomfort fell away when Hildegard’s music started to billow forth from the nun-stereo.  Most of the recordings that she played are the same ones that I have and listen to somewhat obsessively, but in the large and cavernous space they sounded oddly new.  Then the sister started to speak.  I could only understand about two-thirds of what she said, but from what I could tell it was a combination of Hildegard’s words, other established theologies, and her own thoughts – I’m sure that crafting at least 1/3 of the text in my own mind probably smoothed some things over, but there was something magical in the combination of words, music, relics, and general ethos of the space.

Afterwards, I came up to the sister.  The first words out of her mouth were “you’re new here, aren’t you?”  I managed to bumble out an introduction and a bit about my research, to which she simply nodded and told me to go up to the reliquary.  “Physical connection is good for the soul.”  With that, she picked up her stereo and disappeared out a side door.

She was right.

The reliquary also includes small relics of Sts. Giselbert, Rupert, and Wigbert.  The four plaques in the middle depict the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, prudence, and moderation.   This reliquary is processed through Eibingen to the abbey every 17th of September, Hildegard’s feast day.

By the time I left, it was only an hour until Vespers, so I trekked back up to the abbey and pondered about the grounds.  The inside of the abbey church is absolutely stunning, slightly Coptic in decorative style, and covered in paintings of Biblical stories, local (almost entirely female) saints, and images from Hildegard’s life.  There are some great pictures of the inside here on the abbey’s website.

The choir of nuns was positioned in a wing off to the left of the altar, invisible to the people in the pews, which made their singing seem to come forth out of nowhere.  I’m very intrigued by their musical choices – rhythmically, it was fairly even except for a tad of acceleration on downward scales and a very small bit of playing with the text’s internal rhythm.  Occasionally during a responsory the soloist would take a (very) little bit more liberty, but the tutti verses were always more reserved.  What was most intriguing for me, though, was their use of an organ accompaniment that seemed to be improvised.  The nun-choir was singing the traditional plainchant (none of Hildegard’s today, though), but the organist was supporting that monophony with triadic harmonies that sometimes made daring use of 7ths, 9ths, and unexpected dissonances.

Food for thought, and certainly for conversation later on.  Now that I’ve explored the abbey on my own terms, I’m ready to speak with the sisters about their patron saint and her music.

I crossed the Rhein again reinvigorated.

Hildegard statue outside the abbey church.


I look forward to the day I can sing Hildegard’s chants in front of her reliquary.

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Breaking news!!!!!  Last Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI officially declared Hildegard of Bingen to be a saint.




I can’t believe I didn’t hear about this sooner.  I thought the date was set for some time in October.  I am so happy.  While this does nix my plan for doing my lecture-recital on the same day as her canonization, HILDEGARD IS OFFICIALLY A SAINT NOW.


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The Set List

One month down, one month to go.  Today, I took stock of where I’m at, formulated a strategy for my remaining time, and narrowed down my repertoire choices.  I want to present a vocal program that is a good representative sampling of Hildegard’s work, so I’ll perform at least one of each type of chant.  My bare-bones set list is as follows:

Antiphon – O virtus Sapientie (memorized and ready to go), O rubor sanguinis (almost memorized)

Sequence – O ignis Spiritus Paracliti (analyzed, memorization started)

Responsory – O vos felices radices (still need to transcribe)

Hymn – to be decided.  All of Hildegard’s hymns are long, intricate, and vocally challenging, which means this decision needs to be made carefully and I’m not yet sure which hymn best suits my voice and interests.

I’ll probably add a few more antiphons.  They’re generally compact and more straightforward than the other chant types, which means I can show a more varied selection.  Hildegard’s sequences and responsories are often quite long (which is true for the ones I’m performing), and while they’re wonderful, I think more than one of each would imbalance the program and risk tiring my listeners out.

Hildegard also wrote a morality play, Ordo virtutum, but I won’t be performing any of the music from it.  I think it would be odd to present sections of Ordo without the entire context, and the songs in the Symphonia will be quite sufficient to do justice to Hildegard’s oeuvre.


Where do I go from here?  My primary source readings are as complete as they’re going to be in German, and I could amass secondary sources until the end of time.  I recently read an article about applying ethnomusicology techniques to early music, essentially seeking out the living musical descendants of the repertoire you’re trying to recreate and learning from them.  I already have this partially factored in to my project with the Benedikterinnen Abtei St. Hildegard, but I’m seeking out more opportunities to experience chant while I’m over here.

On the broader topic of performance practice, I’m extremely curious how different ensembles make their musical choices – and there are medieval festivals abound in Germany during the early summer.  I’ve found a couple not too far from Bingen in the next few weeks that have quite a range of performers (from the obviously scholar-historian sort to the (ahem) perhaps less historically informed) and my plan at this point is to go observe them, talk to them, learn why they do things the way they do, and get a feel for current trends in medieval performance.

It seems strange to me that there can be such a thing as a ‘current trend’ for a historically-based artform…  but the early musicology articles I’ve read so far present a huge spectrum of opinions and ideas seem to come and go in waves of popularity.  I’m very excited to hear  what the living practitioners of this music have to say about their methods.

And, of course, I still have to study and prepare the chants myself.  🙂


It is likely that my posts will get more frequent and far more interesting in the near future.  I’ve done my best to avoid tossing out somewhat boring updates such as “only 1000 pages to go!” or summarizing the most recent article I’ve read.  Fear not – more fieldwork is on its way!

May in Bingen – sunny and windy

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Eye Strain and Exhaustion, or 2000 pages down

With my (unrenewable) inter-library loan books due on Monday, the past week has been a mad dash through Primary Source Land – hence the lack of exciting updates recently.  Unfortunately, this endeavor has been largely fruitless, or at least hasn’t provided me with textual source material specifically about rhythm.  Apart from the Letter to Mainz, music isn’t directly discussed anywhere – though singing and various instruments do pop up throughout the texts.  Admittedly, in the end I resorted to skimming for keywords and I’m sure that between my speed and my often dubious German comprehension I’ve missed some of the more subtle references.  I’ve probably even missed some of the blatant ones.  Hopefully my future meetings with the nuns of the Benedikterinnen Abtei St. Hildegard will prove more helpful and possibly direct me to specific passages of primary source material.

Though I may still lack supporting evidence of rhythmic interpretation, I do have a far better understanding of Hildegard’s cosmology and a more finely tuned sense of her use of metaphor.  There are sets of images that run through her entire body of work, both in theological prose and in song texts, and having a sort of roadmap to this imagery will certainly come in very handy when it comes to musical chant interpretation.  I very much look forward to re-reading these works in English (and possibly Latin!), and I think that when I do I’ll have a much deeper comprehension of what Hildegard is saying.

Since this aspect of my project hasn’t provided me with the material I was hoping for, I’ll have to rely even more heavily on the other elements – manuscript study, vocal preparation, and discussions with the nuns – and whatever presents itself as I pursue those.

Hildegard on a wall near Basilika St. Martin.

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Rhythm, Resolution, and Reverberation

I’ve consumed about 450 pages of Hildegard’s letters in German translation at this point, and when noon came around today all the words on the page turned into unrecognizable symbols.  Once again I put on my trusty thinking feet and went out for a wander…. and after several vineyards full of dandelions gone to seed, I ended up in the nearby village of Weiler bei Bingen.

Weiler bei Bingen

Churches are pretty easy landmarks to navigate to, and from what I’ve gathered so far, they’re often the oldest buildings in the town.  I’m not sure how old this one was, but unlike most of the churches I’ve tried to investigate, it was unlocked!  Tangent:  it’s always pretty awkward trying to open the door of a locked church.  Inevitably someone walks by just as you fail and there’s that moment of accidental eye contact as you turn around…

But this time, I was successful.

It felt great to sing in a non-apartment space for the first time in quite a while.  The acoustics struck me immediately – the high, vaulted Gothic ceiling combined with the stone/tile walls and floor made the space extremely resonant and full of reverberation.  A single, short note filled the entire building for several seconds.  The sound of my 20 euros for a votive candle dropping into the little iron collection box was deafening.  As I sang through O virtus Sapientie, there were times when three or four notes hung in the air at once, blossoming against one another before falling into the next sequence of pitches… and this got me thinking.

In a space like this, increasing speed means losing clarity.  The faster the notes happen, the more they will be overlapped by other notes.  On the other hand, linger on a pitch and it absorbs the space.  This leads me to think that the text absolutely must play a central role in interpreting chants in spaces like this – spaces like those Hildegard would have used – otherwise the important parts of the text get lost in the echoes.  Keeping the reverberation in mind allows for the potential to play with clarity and ambiguity as it relates to the subject matter, specific words, and melodic motives.

For example, in the middle of O virtus Sapientie, there is a line that reads tres alas habens [three wings you have], followed by quarum una in altum volat [one of them soars on high], et altera de terra sudat [the second exudes from the earth], and then et tercia undique volat [and the third flutters everywhere].  The ‘wing that soars on high’ gets, well, a soaring melodic figure (including the highest note in the antiphon), and the ‘second earthly wing’ gets a much lower, slightly altered version of that same figure.  In the case of these two lines, the notes themselves communicate their textual meaning – especially since the line that directly precedes them introduces these ‘three wings’.  This is a place in which the reverberation could serve to heighten the sense of motion – quicken the rhythm and the resultant overlapping swirl of pitches very much evokes Hildegard’s image of three-winged Wisdom.

On the other end of the spectrum, elongating a pitch has a similarly powerful effect.  This antiphon, like many of Hildegard’s musical works, ends with a downward half-step resolution.  Previously, I’d been extending that penultimate pitch simply because I enjoy the sound of that tension and resulting release, but in the cavernous church it took on a more powerful character.  Holding out the second-to-last note allows it to be the only pitch resonating in the space before the resolution to the tonic pitch.  This creates an incredible sonic sensation – first, pitches from the last phrase linger, a little muddied, then the penultimate pitch dominates and fills the space, creating clarity and tension at the same time (the ear knows it’s battling against the tonic pitch), and then when it finally resolves downward, that penultimate pitch is still ringing and clashing until its echo fades into the one all-consuming tonic pitch.  It’s absolutely magical.


Next mission, figure out the architecture and acoustics of the buildings Hildegard’s music would have been sung in.

Fields upon fields of seedy dandelions.   It was surreal when the wind picked up.

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Seven things my first three weeks have taught me

This is my first time doing a fairly monumental research project.  It’s also my first time living in a non-English speaking country.
Needless to say, it’s been quite the adventure so far.
  • Germans speaking English are at least as self-conscious of their linguistic abilities as I am…
….but we understand each other and can carry on conversations on most topics.  Talking about different German regional accents versus English regional accents is particularly fun, especially when people attempt a Southern drawl.
  • Hildegard isn’t going anywhere.  Take a break.  She’ll be waiting when I get back.
Seriously.  Being passionate about my research topic is a double-edged sword.  On one side, I’m super excited and motivated to learn all the things… but on the other side, I have a tendency to take in more information than I can actually digest in a short period of time.  Medieval history isn’t going to change.  Primary sources from nearly 1000 years ago aren’t going to evaporate and their original authors aren’t going to revise them.  There might be some sort of archaeological breakthrough, but I’m not holding my breath.  Taking breaks means maintaining sanity.
  • Switching to a related-but-different research topic is not taking a break.  
Nice try, Erika.  Going from primary source reading to finding and consuming articles about medieval performance practice or the development of chant notation or the use of instruments in church music or any number of tangentially related topics is not taking a break.  It’s fascinating, but not the sort of refreshment my mind needs.  (Reading stuff in English also doesn’t count as a break.)
  • Mid-day naps help me process information.
Naps are delightful.  Naps count as breaks.  Taking one in the middle of the day allows me to rest and recover mental stamina and synthesize things I’ve read without my head getting too much in the way.  It also makes me feel like I have more hours in the day.  Naps are super!
  • Sometimes going outside is intimidating, but DO IT ANYWAY.  
Complete isolation is not healthy.  It’s a little like leaving tea leaves in a kettle for too long.  Steeping in my own thoughts and research in my own apartment in my own somewhat-trilingual world for too long leads to general saturation and existentialism.    Interacting with other human beings is great, and thinking about it is harder than actually doing it.
  • Reading in nature is great, but not efficient for me.
It’s not that I can’t concentrate, I just end up concentrating on other things.  Things like the direction of the wind, the shapes in the clouds, the newly-blossomed hawthorns, cormorants fishing in the Rhein, the hawk that’s just found a thermal and is now spiraling upwards…..
….but also,
  • My best ideas happen whilst wandering about.

Exhibit 1 – This Peregrine’s natural habitat.

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Pteridophyta, or the Fern, or der Farn

Fern is very hot and dry and has a little bit of juice in it.  It holds within itself great power, namely such a power that the devil flees from it (and it even has certain energy which is like the power of the sun.  As the sun lights up dark places, so the fern chases away apparitions, and even evil spirits disdain it).  In the place where it grows, the devil rarely practices his deceptions.  The fern avoids or shrinks back from any home or place where the devil resides.  Thunder, lightning, and hail rarely fall near a home where there is a fern.  Magic and incantations of demons – as well as diabolic words and other phantasms – avoid a person who carries a fern with him.  


A human being has both good and evil knowledge, and good and bad herbs were created for him.  Fern sap has been placed for knowledge, and in its honest nature, goodness and holiness are signified. 


If a person who is forgetful and ignorant holds fern seed in his hand, his memory will return, and he will receive understanding; thus he who was incomprehensible will become intelligible.

(Physica, 29-30)

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