“The wind and sun are in the words you say…”

Now that melting snow has slathered my garden in dank, fecund mud, I’m ready to wrestle the deathless alehoof and sow my springtime seeds. Of course, medieval people were always outdoors, and a set of charming miniatures found in two ninth-century manuscripts (see the subpar Wikimedia Commons image below) shows some of the activities the Carolingians associated with rural life, one labor for each month. Most make sense—but March is startling. What’s the deal with the guy with a bird and a snake?

The garden-history website Wyrtig offers some clues:

The Romans associated snakes with healing, wisdom, and fertility, and honored them as guardians of the home; the Celts associated them with the goddess Brighid and with healing waters. Two of the first signs of spring were the emergence of snakes from their winter hibernacula, and the return of the ravens to their nests.

That’s a good start, but this figure may have a richer classical pedigree. Ancient poetry and art personified the seasons, the months, and the zodiac. Since the 19th century, art historians have scrutinized manuscripts and calendar poems and produced impressive catalogs, vexed by the question of when these celestial beings withered into mortal men who began wielding scythes and driving plows.

"You take me up to the higher ground..."Check out all twelve figures in the so-called Salzburg Labors. While other months take on discernible tasks, March looks lost. Similar figures in a second ninth-century manuscript each take up an entire page; sometimes they verge on the allegorical, but not always. James Carson Webster, writing in The Labors of the Months in Antique and Mediaeval Art to the End of the Twelfth Century, thinks our bird-and-snake guy is an ancient holdout:

March is illustrated by a curious scene in which a man holds a bird in his right hand and a snake in his left, which is explainable only by the verse of the Carmina Salzburgiana, “Martius educit serpentes, alite gaudet”; it seems thus a survival of an antique tendency to personification, that is, March, as an agent, personified, brings forth the serpents from hibernation.

“March calls forth snakes; the birds rejoice”: so sings this ninth-century poet in a tradition that harks back 800 years earlier to Virgil, who didn’t invent it either:

Optima vinetis satio, cum vere rubenti
candida venit avis longis invisa colubris

The best planting season for vines is when in blushing spring the white bird, the foe of long snakes, is come…

(Georgics, Book 2, lines 319–20)

My garden may not breed Latin hexameters, and snakes take little interest in it, but when I turn over the soil, earthworms squirm in the clods. Robins hear them. I lean on my rake and stay perfectly still; they land at my feet and feast. They come every spring, as they have for far longer than I’ve worked a plot. A ninth-century monk might be glad of this scene: a glimpse of the ancient, diminished but good.
 

“Turn on these theater lights and brighten the darkest skies…”

(Dante in D.C.: solarized Polaroid negative)

Most aspects of medievalism in America don’t baffle me. I understand why we want to lay down European roots through Gothic architecture, I get why the pedigreed chivalry of Charlemagne and King Arthur might appeal to us, and the imaginative pleasures of medieval-ish fantasy are (mostly) self-evident. But Dante? I’ve never grasped what Americans hope to do with him—maybe because the answer turns out to be “everything.”

While Dante helped rally Italian nationalism in the early 19th century, Americans looked to him for different shades of inspiration. Melville saw him as a guide through moral quagmires; Emerson considered him a simple genius; and others longed for his unshakeable certainty in their own supposedly weak-willed and overly tolerant age. Charles Eliot Norton, who promoted the study of Dante at Harvard and established the Dante Society of America, praised the poet for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure). You can imagine the scent of Dante cigars, fondly recall the “Dante’s Inferno” ride at Coney Island, or show off your snazzy Dante earrings. You can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

So is Dante nothing more than a leering cadaver we clothe in our whims? In a blog post about two new Dante books, Cynthia Haven at Stanford suggests that il Poeta has something greater to offer us, a vision as priceless as it is stark:

A more interesting question might be: what does Dante tell us about our world that we do not recognize ourselves? Here’s my take: we live in a time and in a generation that thinks everything is negotiable, and that every psycho-spiritual lock can be jimmied. As W.H. Auden put it, we push away the notion that “the meaning of life [is] something more than a mad camp.” For us, there’s always a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s a strength – but it’s a weakness, too. Maybe that’s why we resist Dante. We don’t realize that some things are for keeps. There’s not always another day. Not all choices can be reversed with every change of heart – and no, our heart isn’t always in the right place. Words unsaid may remain forever unsaid. And perhaps no choice is trivial or innocent: it is the choices that bring us to ourselves, the choices that reveal and work as a fixative for our loves, our priorities, and our direction.

Just before Christmas, I checked out “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. The title was misleading, since the art wasn’t inspired by Dante; the works only echoed his concepts and themes. “The concern here is not with the Divine Comedy or Dante,” explained the curator, “but with something truly universal.” How gloomy, but how unsurprising, that another interpreter of Dante, another artist in search of the timeless, doesn’t discern that they’re one and the same.

“It’s not the way you have your hair, it’s not that certain style…”

After the artists at a major art center in Virginia asked me to do some writing for them, I was delighted when they kept me busy for nearly two years—and surprised when their work pushed me back toward the visual arts after a 20-year lapse. I’m now fumbling with media I saw others handle so masterfully, but the most challenging project by far has been prying (sometimes literally prying) interesting photographs from three mid-1960s Polaroid Land Cameras.

As I’ve written before, A Land Camera is not versatile. Although it has a focus bar and other manual controls, an electric eye presumes to do much of the squinting. There’s no zoom, development time depends on the air temperature, and the prints leave behind photographic placentas in strips of chemical-drenched litter.

I don’t aspire to be a photographer; I’m learning to use only this type of camera, with all its quirks and severe limitations and almost no reliance on Photoshop. Using a Land Camera is like writing a poem within strict formal constraints: Certain flourishes are simply impossible—but if we practice a little, what can we make it do?

It helps to have an obsessive theme—and so from time to time, I haul my cameras out into the world in the hope of framing glimpses of medievalism in snapshots. Over time, maybe, this project will find its focus.

* * *


I love the little neon mujahed on this sign in Ocean City, Maryland. Four things helped me take this low-light photo: a tripod, a homemade Lego camera stand, electrical tape, and a beatifically indifferent night manager.

Although Ocean City is flashy and bright, I had to keep the shutter open for five seconds, which shows you just how light-hungry these old cameras can be.

* * *

I spent the day before Columbus Day doing research at the Johns Hopkins library—but when I was done, I roamed the city looking for something medieval to photograph. There’s a statue of William “Braveheart” Wallace along the reservoir in Druid Hill Park, but the afternoon light fell far more serendipitously on this Christopher Columbus monument from 1892.

What hath Columbus to do with the Middle Ages? He loved the travel stories of Mandeville and Marco Polo, he was beguiled by medieval legends about marvelous islands to the west, and on his third journey, he was sure he’d located the Earthly Paradise. He hoped his Atlantic voyages would ultimately convert the Chinese emperor to Christianity and help fund a new crusade to reclaim Jerusalem. Quoth historian Luis Weckmann: “Columbus, the first link between the Old World and the New, stands in a clearer light, perhaps, if we envisage him not so much as the first of the modern explorers but as the last of the great medieval travelers.”

* * *

No, gnomes aren’t medieval, but they are rooted in 19th-century European medievalism, and there’s certainly a medieval tradition of wee woodland beings making trouble for us humans. Some Anglo-Saxon charms even blame certain types of pain and disease on wicked little “elves.” (Plus, this gnome is made out of felt, the discovery of which is rather dubiously attributed to saints Clement and Christopher.)

At only four inches high, this fellow gave me a excuse to practice using the special Polaroid “close-up kit.” This picture doesn’t illuminate anything particular about the American penchant for medievalist fantasy, but it did teach me that when you’re on your belly in the grass at noon on a hot summer day photographing gnomes with an antique camera, the cops slow down to get a better look at you.

 * * *

This Gothicpalooza facade on the bagel shop at 36 East Main Street in Newark, Delaware, contrasts sharply with the quaint Colonial Revival campus of the University of Delaware campus just footsteps away. The facade’s two beasties have looked down on the drunk and the un-drunk alike since 1917, when the building was a pharmacy. As I wrote back in 2013, I’m convinced they were inspired by specific grotesques at Notre-Dame in Paris.

* * *
“…but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shall be wel.”

Sometimes you get lucky. In the crypt of the National Cathedral, there’s a stark little chapel lit only by indirect sun. On a frigid afternoon last January, I leaned on a pew and snapped a quick picture of this Good Shepherd statue. The resulting image startled me; with these old cameras, light and luck are always intertwined.

Last year, Fuji stopped making this fast black-and-white film, so I’m brooding, dragon-like, over a hoard of it. It’s possible that I’ve chosen the wrong tools for the task, and that lingering traces of the Middle Ages demand a sharper lens. We’ll see. For now, I’ll keep learning how to use old cameras that thrive on what shadow and sunlight demand.

“…but as for fame, it’s just a name…”

Blackfriars Playhouse interior. Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.

What was it like to see a play in the 1590s? The good folks at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, answer that question at least five nights a week, as unflagging actors stage the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a cozy recreation of Shakespeare’s first theater in London. The Blackfriars is now in the throes of its Actors’ Renaissance Season, the annual late-winter whirlwind where a dozen actors direct themselves and play all of the roles in five plays at once, with only a few days to prepare and rehearse. (There’s a prompter nearby, but it’s a sign of the actors’ immersion in their work that they rarely need to “prithee” him.)

This weekend, we drove down to Staunton for two shows: Aphra Behn’s “The Rover,” which taught me a useful new 17th-century exclamation—‘sheartlikins!—and John Webster’s “The White Devil,” a lurid, over-the-top revenge tragedy packed with vivid metaphors and similes about death and the cruel indifference of nature. “But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men, / For with his nails he’ll dig them up again”—T.S. Eliot parodied those lines, and I was startled to hear the originals spoken by a grieving mother; it’s rare to spot a footnote from “The Waste Land” running loose in the wild.

Because I’ve written so much about Charlemagne, I was also surprised to hear a character name-check the Carolingians during one of Webster’s most frantic scenes: Two women think they’re tricking a scoundrel named Flamineo into a complex, three-way suicide pact, but he’s actually tricking them into revealing their falseness by giving them pistols loaded with blanks. As he feigns preparation for death, he muses on his afterlife—so the Blackfriars actor said something like this:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian, thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart.

A reference to one of the Pippins, but not Charlemagne? That surprised me, so I looked up the full text of the play, and sure enough, the Big C is right where I thought he would be:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, Pompey tagging points, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, Hannibal selling blacking, and Augustus crying garlic, Charlemagne selling lists by the dozen, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart drawn with one horse.
Whether I resolve to fire, earth, water, air,
Or all the elements by scruples, I know not
Nor greatly care—Shoot, shoot,
Of all deaths the violent death is best,
Far from ourselves it steals ourselves so fast
The pain once apprehended is quite past.

What intrigued me here is that either the actor, overwhelmed by having to learn five plays at once, skipped over several of the mighty men who are reduced to menial labor in purgatory—or, more likely, he and his castmates cut the play for time, paring down this overwrought passage to the three names an early 21st-century audience might know: Alexander, Julius Caesar, and…Pippin?

Although they all had the same name, Charlemagne’s disfavored hunchback son who inspired the 1972 jazz-hands musical wasn’t the same guy as Charlemagne’s other son Pippin, who ruled Italy, or Charlemagne’s father Pippin, the first Carolingian king. The fact that a Pippin made the cut but Charlemagne didn’t hints at the priorities of theater people, who know the musical but not necessarily the history behind it—but that’s not a complaint. The Blackfriars’ productions are engrossing and smart, historical figures are doomed to whirl ’round Fortune’s wheel, and Webster knew that drawing sustenance from the mouldering past is part of the natural and necessary gloom of life:

Or, like the black and melancholic yew-tree,
Dost think to root thyself in dead men’s graves,
And yet to prosper?

“Success or failure will not alter it…”

“A thousand skeptic hands won’t keep us from the things we plan,” Alcuin wrote to Theodulf of Orleans at the dawn of the ninth century, “unless we’re clinging to the things we prize.” Despite Alcuin’s optimism, a thorny new translation project has kept me from writing substantive blog posts, but I can share this enlightening array of mid-winter links.

What did a Tolkien expert think of the final Hobbit movie? Michael Drout weighs in.

Steven Muhlberger ponders what it means to be both a historian of the Middle Ages and a medieval reenactor.

Steve Donoghue appreciates Longfellow’s poetry: “the sheer unembarrassed power of it has undimmed power to work if readers drop their cynicism and let it.”

How is Michael Moorcock’s new fantasy novel? Steve Donoghue will tell you that, too.

At New York theaters, Paul Elie discovers Southern Gothic.

In France, Lucy sees smoke, and hears a bell tolling softly for another.

Dale Favier finds joy in the driveway of Copernicus.

Diane Seneschal concludes that in teaching, “the remedy is the poem itself.”

Chris at Hats and Rabbits sticks up for Rocky Balboa.

Flavia ponders Facebook taboos and “the pleasures of the private.”

Prof Mondo advises a student not to sweat those youthful fumbles.

Jake asks: What incentivizes professors to grade honestly?

It’s like the raft of the Medusa, only less cheerful: economists analyze the job market for English Ph.Ds.

“Na na na na na na, make my mind up for me…”

[I originally posted this on September 16, 2010. Some of the details are out of date, but the sentiment is appropriate for today.]

When I was 20 years old and no paragon of intellectual maturity, I drew a weekly comic strip for my university paper. The strip had its smarter moments, but more often it served as a vehicle for what I deluded myself into believing was provocation. I advocated seal clubbing, and I called for all campus disputes, however minor, to be settled with firearms. I graduated no longer convinced that most cartoonists are brave tellers of truth, because honestly, nobody cared. My biggest critic was a jerk who called me at home to tell me I’d misstated the number of people in the Rolling Stones. He called me “buddy,” in the snidest possible way.

One strip did cause a problem. A single panel depicted a haloed, self-satisfied Jesus handing Mary a souvenir. It read: “My Son Went to Hell and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” When I asked a Christian friend if he thought the comic was appropriate for Easter week, he shot me a look of deep parental disappointment. He also let it pass.

The editor-in-chief of the newspaper did not. Because his letters page had recently hosted a contentious debate about religion, he told me he planned to end the discussion of religion in the newspaper for a while. Therefore, any depiction of Jesus on the comics page was out. “But I don’t want you to be Bil Keane,” he assured me. “I want you to be edgy!”—a weirdly confident lie from a young man holding his first position of authority. We spoke by phone for an hour. When we were done, he confessed that he didn’t understand my comic anyway.

Citing time constraints, I declined to draw a replacement. That week, the newspaper ran 20 square inches of blank space. A year later, I left cartooning behind. The editor-in-chief joined the New York Times. I didn’t really know him, but Google tells me he’s still climbing the career ladder at the paper while teaching journalism nearby.

These days, I have zero interest in provoking or offending, and I find most attempts to tweak the religious to be lazy at best. Even so, my cartoonist years seemed all the more idyllic when I read this morning, with horror and nausea, that Molly Norris of the Seattle Weekly has ceased to exist:

The talented cartoonist who launched the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” on Facebook, and then regretted and withdrew her proposal, has nevertheless had to go into hiding — moving, changing her name, washing out her identity — at the suggestion of the FBI. It’s just like the witness protection program. The government, however, will not be picking up the tab. She will.

Norris viewed the situation with characteristic humor: “When FBI agents, on a recent visit, instructed her to always keep watch for anyone following her, she responded, ‘Well, at least it’ll keep me from being so self-involved!’”

Some quick background: when someone on the “Revolution Muslim” Web site threatened to kill the South Park guys for a segment that included a depiction of Muhammad, Comedy Central caved, and Norris responded by drawing a cartoon. Someone other than Norris started an “‘Everybody Draw Muhammad’ Day” Facebook page based on her drawing, and she became the obvious target.

How permanent is Norris’s identity wipe? The Seattle Weekly explains:

She likens the situation to cancer—it might basically be nothing, it might be urgent and serious, it might go away and never return, or it might pop up again when she least expects it.

In my own speech, I choose reticence, but I take a very liberal position otherwise: As far as I’m concerned, if you’re breaking no other laws, then you can say whatever you want, draw whatever you want, and deface or defile anything that’s your own property, be it a flag, a holy symbol, an effigy, you name it. However, in return, I reserve the right to judge you, denounce you, lobby against you, tell others how wrong you are, and speak vociferously in reply. Speech invites consequences, and I’m open to arguments about responsible, voluntary limits. That said, I’ll always put threats and violence on the far side of that line, and I’ll never suggest that in a free society, an artist or writer was asking to be forced to erase herself from existence.

So yes, despite being a pretty inoffensive writer, I took the news about Molly Norris personally, just as I did in 2008 when I read that Sherry Jones’s publisher was firebombed. I’ve written a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion. While nothing about my take on the early Middle Ages is all that wild, what’s to stop some hateful, publicity-seeking pastor from hagriding me, or some Islamic fanatic from registering his disapproval via DaggerGram? If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?

In a few days, Banned Books Week will roll back around. Writers and teachers and academics and librarians will wear “I read banned books!” buttons, trumpet the cause on blogs and Facebook, and assert their superiority to the withered River City shrews who object to the dandelion-sniffing scenes in Naked Came I. Like many religious practices, it’s a liturgy everyone recites but few really live. On the day a woman begins erasing herself—for how long, no one knows—for drawing pictures and writing words, the National Cartoonists Society is spotlighting Li’l Abner, while the day’s offerings on the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists website take inconsequential stands against Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, Fidel Castro, and that dingus pastor in Florida.

And my former editor? He’s tweeting about a fabulous new café. We should totally go. We’ll call our book club and talk about the new Franzen novel. Big news: Oprah likes it! What’s it called again?

“Shuffling your memories, dealing your doodles in margins…”

I won’t be sorry to see 2014 sink silently into its grave. It was a year of too much work, too little good health, and almost no time at all for the writing I’d hoped to do.

Even so, when I look back at the year that was, I’m satisfied with the quality of what I posted on this blog, if not the quantity. As you recover from feasting and holiday travel, I hope you’ll enjoy this recap and discover a post or two you otherwise missed.

Thanks for checking in! I’m grateful for your occasional eyeballs; in the year ahead I’ll do my best to make this blog worthy of their ongoing attention.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in medieval-ish books:

We learned at last how J.R.R. Tolkien translated Beowulf into Tolkienese.

I loved Need-Fire, a book-length poem by Becky Gould Gibson about the women who ran the double monastery at Whitby during the 7th century.

Why do people throw themselves into medieval reenactment? Novelist Tod Wodicka offered some answers in his delightfully titled All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in medievalism, American-style:

Traveling in Colorado invited musings on medieval traces in the Old West; the debate rolls ever on.

It’s been a while since Flannery O’Connor was seen only as a “Southern Gothic” writer; she should also be remembered as a committed American medievalist.

This year, I learned that taking pictures with a 50-year-old Polaroid is like composing verse in strict poetic forms, but I went out anyway and sought scenes from medieval-ish America—a project very much in progress.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in creepy international medievalism:

The name of the al-Qaeda group “Khorasan” reminds us of Tom Shippey’s dictum that “[t]here are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

Likewise, why did Gavrilo Princip choose June 28 for the assassination that ignited World War I? He had medieval Serbia in mind.

The Sochi Olympics prompted a look back at W.E.D. Allen’s remarkable History of the Georgian People, which reads like a Robert E. Howard yarn.

As a disinterested observer, I had no opinion on the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum except to note that the Scots themselves set a worthy and decent precedent: keeping their medieval forefathers silent and snug in their graves.

Still, you never know where medievalism and nationalism might intertwine. In Baltimore, I stumbled onto a memorial that uses medieval Poland to sanctify modern heroes.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in translation:

For the 1,200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, I translated Walafrid’s account of Charlemagne in purgatory into metrical, alliterative verse.

I did the same with a poem about the month of November by Wandalbert of Prüm, but I translated part of Alcuin’s “The Debate Between Spring and Winter” into a rather earthier idiom.

To my surprise, my English version of a lament on the death of Charlemagne’s infant daughter was accepted for publication in the summer translation issue of Able Muse.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in academia:

By now, anyone who enters grad school in the humanities must know that the prospects are bleak, but in the 1980s and 1990s at least two medievalists saw this crisis coming.

That said, when journalists summarize academic research, the scholars in question often deserve better—so no, there weren’t as many female Viking warriors as there were men.

“What would an angel say? The devil wants to know.”

[A few years back, I got to join my longtime friend who writes the Ephemeral New York blog as she sought out material for new posts. This 2010 post of mine, which resulted from one of our excursions, strikes me as a suitable seasonal rerun.]

In the murk of winter, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine makes you wend your way backwards through time—across traces of terrible fire, beneath vaulting conceived Romanesque but raised Gothic, past altars that look far older than they are. In the end, behind the sanctuary, is the beginning: the cathedral’s oldest chapel, where the saints of the Eastern church—Origen, Ignatius, Chrysostom, Basil—reign in their respective niches.

Across from them, around the portal, stand columns of angels. Though stacked head to toe, they rarely catch the eye, and they’ve gone largely unnoticed since 1905, when for one week, all New York was called to ponder them.

Gutzon Borglum was 38 years old. He had trained in Paris with Rodin, and his public monuments would soon rise across the United States, but for now, fame eluded him. A decade away from failing to carve Robert E. Lee into Stone Mountain and two decades before sculpting Mount Rushmore, Borglum set his mind and hands alike to a modest task: the careful making of angels.

Strongly nativist even by the standards of his day, Borglum admired the Klan, and the world would soon deem him cranky, stubborn, and confrontational. Yet the sculptor was none of those things on October 4, 1905, when Episcopalian officials stopped by his studio to see his plaster casts:

The clergy were admiring them when the up-State clergyman stopped before two statues, and broke the silence with this:

“Whoever heard of a woman angel?”

The clergy gasped: then the truth dawned upon them. For hundreds of years all over the world art had been depicting angels as female and in no place in the Bible could it be ascertained that angels were other than male.

The questionable figures were two of twenty angels meant for the Chapel of St. Saviour: the Angel of the Resurrection and, more sensitively, the Angel of the Annunciation. “It seems to me,” Borglum would later say, “that it is repugnant to every gentlemanly sense to conceive of a man performing that role. The idea is such a delicate one that I made the figure of even the woman shrink back after she had told the Virgin, as if it was almost too sacred a thing for her to put into words.”

Angelology focused the minds of New Yorkers. After claiming in its report on Borglum that 15th-century painter Fra Angelico had depicted female angels, the New York Times drew the ire of an anonymous Jesuit:

A headline on Page 6 of your to-day’s issue tells the public “We’re Wrong About Angels.” Indeed you are—you.

It would be interesting to know of one period or one picture where art has “depicted women angels.” As for Fra Angelico da Fiseole, he was a follower of Church tradition and of scholastic philosophy: the former of these invariably represents angels as appearing in the likeness of young men, while the latter teaches that angels are really incorporeal and sexless. Christian art, conventionally obliged to choose a sex for its angels, followed the hint given by the language of the Church, which invariably makes the names of the angels masculine—”Sancte Michael, Sancte Gabriel, Sancte Raphael,” never “Sancta.”

A day later, the Times replied with a cheeky editorial:

If Mr. BORGLUM had taken the trouble to read his New Testament in Greek before putting hand to clay on his commission for angels he would have avoided this shocking error in sex. He would have noted that AGGELOS is neither feminine nor neuter, but masculine, and so your angel must show in some fashion that he belongs to the tyrant sex. Bootless the plea that HOMER makes the lovely Iris a messenger of the goddess, and the Edda introduces the Valkyrs, who are tomboys, if you will, but maidens ever fair, as messengers of Wotan. These be pagan toys with which a properly Christian sculptor has naught to do . . . The book—what does the book say? Well, it says that angels are masculine. There you are.

Of course there must be women angels in heaven, for even MOHAMED stocks his Paradise with houris, but they never come down . . . Very likely the sensibilities of lady angels are too fragile to stand the coarseness of human life. Suppose one of them should light upon a wife beater, or see a car on the Brooklyn Bridge with forty men seated and thirty women standing! . . . We believe that with the astuteness of the fair sex raised to a heavenly degree these lady angels leave such chores to the males.

As newspaper nationwide chattered about Borglum’s angels, Dr. William Reed Huntington, chairman of the cathedral’s Sculpture Committee and the most influential Episcopal priest of his generation, fielded odd questions:

“I think in sacred art, as far as I know, face and form never indicate either male or female, but I must confess I never saw an angel with whiskers.”

“Or a moustache, doctor?” he was asked.

“No. Nor a moustache,” he replied.

“From some source or other,” ran a coy report two days later in a Pennsylvania paper, “came a horrid rumor that Mr. Borglum intended to put whiskers on the faces of his angels, so that there could be no question hereafter as to their sex.”

Voices rose, less a choir than a din. The New York Christian Herald hinted that the debate was a silly one, for where does scripture consistently show that angels even have wings? The New York Evening Post cited Emanuel Swedenborg on the existence of female angels. At the behest of newsmen, Jewish Encyclopedia editor Joseph Jacobs sifted through the Kaballah.

Borglum’s supporters minimized what happened next. In 1952, his wife Mary lamented that the affair “put upon the sculptor a stigma, a mark of an evil temper, which he carried to the end of his life.” A sympathetic 1961 biography suggested that the incident never happened at all.

Yet press reports from the following week are clear: Gutzon Borglum smashed the two offending angels:

I felt like a murderer, but that was the only thing to do under the circumstances . . .

I didn’t want an express man to haul them away to be stored somewhere. I didn’t want any one to touch them except myself. So I simply broke them to pieces myself, and I should hate to tell you how I felt when I did it.

Oh yes, I am under contract to do that work for the Cathedral. The word came that the angels must be men, and men they shall be.

That gentle, elegant sculptures proceeded from Borglum’s hands speaks well only of his talent; art and virtue are often estranged. Still, the sculptor showed surprising grace a few days later when he explained his plan for the cathedral’s first chapel:

The group was described by a text from the New Testament: “I piped to you, and ye did not dance.”

It symbolizes the despair of a woman who, finding that her appeal to the man’s higher nature has failed, turns away from him, and only the ensuing silence awakens him.

“I was impressed with the idea in this way,” said Borglum. “I went to a concert with a friend and heard Ysaye play one of Brahms’s compositions exquisitely. I was moved, delighted, enthusiastic, and I turned to my friend to discuss it with him. He was silent, the music had not touched him, we could not meet, and I was disappointed.”

A century later, most pilgrims to “St. John the Unfinished” scarcely glance at Borglum’s reverent, unironic angels, and no one remembers what they represent. At least two of the statues recall a week when angel faces roused pedantry, dogmatism, or scorn in otherwise decent people. Only Borglum, in the wake of his outburst, enshrined a contrary notion: that infamous people can bring about beautiful things.

In a season of hope, pause before Borglum’s angels, which a 1937 guidebook called “worthy of more than passing notice.” They may not move you, but when you know what they’re saying, they never seem silent again.

“And taking in the morning, I sang…”

With its long, discouraging nights that settle over the talented and talentless alike, autumn is a fine time to rediscover minor poets. Take, for example, Wandalbert of Prüm. Born in the 813, the year before the sun set on Charlemagne’s reign, this obscure soul wrote a prose saint’s life, a verse martyrology, and one secular work: a little-read poem with the uninspiring title De Mensium Duodecim Nominibus Signis Culturis Aerisque Qualitatibus, “On the Names, the Signs, the Labors, and the Weather Conditions of the Twelve Months.”

In 366 lines, Wandalbert does exactly what his sets out to do, describing the supposed etymologies of the names of the months, the constellations that reign over each, the responsibilities of laborers in the countryside, and an overview of the weather. With a great deal of diction nicked from the Georgics of Virgil, De Mensium Duodecim isn’t deeply original, and each month follows the same template, which gets tiresome—but then, at unexpected moments, Wandalbert opens a window between his world and ours, and the view is oddly familiar.

Here’s part of Wandalbert’s description of a ninth-century November:

Hoc mense autumnus hiemi decedere durae
Incipit et gelidis conflantur frigora ventis,
Aere sed dubio diversam terra figuram
Concipit, in pluvias Zephiro nunc flante soluta,
Nunc Borea in rigidam speciem concreta furente.
Hinc, cum forte datis licet exercere sub auris
Terram, proscissis committere semina campis
Prodest, autumno superant quae forte peracto,
Porcorumque greges silvis consuescere faetis,
Dum pinguem vento tribuit quassante ruinam
Quercus dumque nemus glandis vestitur honore.
[…]
Quod superest curas genialis bruma resolvens,
Dulcibus ad requiem illecebris vocat, horrida postquam
Ruralem cohibent ventorum flabra laborem.
Tum dulces ludi tumque est gratissimus ignis,
Atque novo oblectat somnum invitate lieo.
[Dümmler, MGH Poetae II, pp. 614–615, ll.306–316, 322-326]

…and here it is translated by me into alliterative, metrical verse:

When November enters, autumn retreats
Before brutal winter, and bitter gusts
Bid cold arise, but in precarious winds
The earth assumes an unsettled mien:
Dissolving in showers as Zephyrus blows,
Or hard and rigid in the rage of Boreas.
But sometimes, the grace of softer breezes
May grant a while to work the soil,
When it is worth placing in the plowed furrows
The seeds left over from the autumn gone by,
And it is good to adapt the droves of pigs
To the fertile woods, where the wind-blown oak
Rains down acorns, its richest leavings;
Then a great dignity adorns the grove.
[…]
What cares remain, kindly winter
Releases, and with allurements sweet
Calls out for rest, as country labor
Halts, hindered by harsh, windy gusts,
And games charm us, and cheerful fires
And new wines prove soothing, and summon sleep.

As a time of fickle weather and fruitless indolence, Wandalbert’s November sounds much like mine. As we stock up for the Thanksgiving feast, I’m grateful to those of you who continue to stop by this site. If you’re busy preparing a massive dinner, I wish you a satiating holiday, followed by “cheerful fires / And new wines” and the deep, restorative slumber we all deserve but all too rarely enjoy.

“The walls are white, and in the night…”

“Perhaps I have created a medieval study,” wondered Flannery O’Connor in 1960 after a professor of medieval literature penned a piece in a Catholic magazine that likened her novel The Violent Bear It Away to the movie The Seventh Seal. Sharing the essay with a friend, O’Connor was bemused: “Which reminds me, have you seen any films by this man Ingmar Bergman? People tell me they are mighty fine & that I would like them. They too are apparently medieval.”

I wonder, then, what O’Connor, a rigorous Catholic, would have made of the news that the Episcopalians just made her a literary saint:

This week, Flannery O’Connor was inducted into the American Poets Corner at St. John the Divine, the “only shrine to American literature in the country” (or so a church representative told me). Upon entering the cathedral for the small induction ceremony, attendees were greeted by two gigantic, sparkling sculptures suspended from the ceiling—they are phoenixes, part of an installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, but at first glance you might mistake them for peacocks, like the ones that O’Connor raised on her family’s Georgia farm, Andalusia . . . Those who spoke during the ceremony stood in front of a shining cross, towering choir stalls, and giant pillars illuminated with glowing yellow lights. A booming echo made them sound like somewhat unintelligible voices from beyond. The effect was fitting, evoking simultaneously O’Connor’s keen sense of the ominous, the numinous, and the ironic.

I don’t know if O’Connor visited the magnificent cathedral when she lived in New York City for a while in 1949. As a Catholic, she might have found modern Protestant cathedral-building a marvelous, misguided quest for transcendence, but the vast Gothic interior also might have engaged her intellect and gladdened her soul. After all, O’Connor grew up across the street from a gargoyle-festooned cathedral in Savannah and later lived on a farm called Andalusia, a name she encouraged her mother to restore. It’s been a while since she was seen only as a “Southern Gothic” writer; she also deserves to be remembered as a committed American medievalist.

By the time O’Connor attended college in 1942, her medievalism was apparent. She wrote poetry only briefly, but her later dismissal of her own juvenalia is knowing and sly. “All of my poems sounded like ‘Miniver Cheevy,'” she quipped, recalling the pathetic drunk in E.A. Robinson’s 1910 poem who wishes he’d been born in an age of chivalry. As an adult, she had little interest in romance and legend: Her philosophy professor would recall how much she hated the irreligious dismissal of the Middle Ages in the textbook he assigned, how passionately she studied the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and how keen she was to debate with him when he argued, from an anthropological perspective, that medieval Christianity was polytheistic.

“She knew Aquinas in detail, was amazingly well read in earlier philosophy, and developed into a first-rate ‘intellectual’ along with her other accomplishments,” George Beiswanger later wrote. “It soon became clear to me that she was a ‘born’ writer and that she was going that way.” Beiswanger took such pleasure in their sparring that he recommended her to his alma mater, the University of Iowa, and helped her land a scholarship for graduate school.

In 1948, while wandering the grounds of Yaddo, O’Connor described herself to other artists at the colony as “thirteenth century” as she immersed herself in a book on scholasticism and medieval art by French Thomist Jacques Maritain. “Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian”—she underlined that passage in Maritain’s book, and when she visited the Cloisters during her stint in New York City the following year, she was amazed to find support for Maritain’s exhortation in a Virgin and Child statue that showed both figures laughing—”not smiling,” she emphasized to a friend, “laughing.”

While writing her first novel, O’Connor read the lives of three female saints—Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, and Teresa of Avila—and was irked when the public found the resulting book pessimistic rather than comic. “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist,” she told a friend, “whereas I would like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” Fascinated and challenged by the prolific saint, she joked about applying Thomist principles to the least events in daily life, including her mother scolding her to go to bed during her nightly readings:

If my mother were to come in during this process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being external and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing.

Soon after she was diagnosed with the lupus that would destroy her kidneys, O’Connor made two commitments: the first, to write like mad; the second, less formally, to St. Thomas Aquinas himself. In 1953, O’Connor purchased the 690-page Modern Library volume of selections from his work—and settled in for the rest of her life.

As she hobbled around Andalusia on the crutches she called “flying buttresses” and immersed herself nightly in Thomistic theology, O’Connor did what other medievalists do, from malevolent nationalists to benign reenactors: She redacted the Middle Ages down to the aspects that gave her full purpose and strength.

As for being enshrined as a poet by Episcopalians in an unfinished Gothic cathedral in Manhattan, O’Connor was too Southern to have told them that she was anything but flattered but also too Catholic not to have issued gleeful theological challenges to priests who would have stammered and sought for rejoinders in vain. Then, in private, mindful of her favorite statues, she would have laughed, and let her amusement linger long after the light went out.