“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.

“Slipping the clippers through the telephone wire…”

Because I’m monstrously busy, I figure it’s time to bring back some of the more literal monsters featured on this blog from 2009 to 2012. Every few weeks, I challenged myself to wander up to the National Cathedral, where I chose from among its myriad gargoyles and grotesques and wrote a poem inspired by what I’d seen.

With the kind permission of the cathedral, I collected the resulting poems, 53 in all, in a 138-page paperback that you can order online, buy at the cathedral gift shop, or purchase from me via email. (You can browse the first drafts of 51 of the poems here.)

Written for Halloween 2010, the following poem fell from the mouth of a hard-to-photograph gargoyle known as “Stabber.” Visitors to cathedrals are sometimes confused, even startled, by gargoyles that honor irreverence or depict blatant evil. This suicidal, Gollum-like ghoul isn’t equivocal; he knows what he is.


ALL HALLOWS’ EVE

Long live the weeds and the wilderness—yet
What would be left of the wildness and wet
Were it not for the curdle, the canker, the theft
That threaten to render the blessèd bereft?

Our beady-boned eyebulge flits over the burn;
Wily we twitch through the sack-shriveled fern
As the groin-growls enrage us where daggers bite through,
Damning the bloodline that dapples the dew.

Yet rounded in couplets, despair-darksome sneering,
Frown pitchblack poets defy all our leering,
Twindled revisioners burbling like broth,
Donning their Jesuit wind-shriven cloth.

What pumpkin-maws mumble, we ache to express;
Ghouls plunder verses they dare not possess.
Take heed of the unhallowed eyeblight you mourn:
Then know why the saints of the morning were born.


“Kindled by the dying embers of another working day…”

According to one Carolingian poet, October was perfect for harvesting grapes and chasing swine into forests to chow down on autumn nuts. Fireside wine and a pig roast can wait; for now, I can offer only this backlog of savory links.

Literary scholar and critic D.G. Myers has died—but his final blog post, “Choosing life in the face of death,” is a worthy memorial.

Another Damned Medievalist explains what should be obvious: that being an adjunct professor is not at all like slavery.

Nancy Marie Brown considers Icelandic volcanoes on the anniversary of Snorri Sturlusson’s killing.

Added to my Christmas list: Medievalism: Key Critical Terms.

Flavia, a college professor, shares what she learned from doing the work she assigns.

At Book and Sword, Sean Manning meets Ötzi, who died in an Alpine pass some 5,300 years ago.

Jake Seliger knows that the best teachers aren’t always the best credentialed.

Scott Bailey offers a fiction-writing lesson from Robert Browning.

Cynthia Haven pays tribute to murdered journalist Steve Sotloff. Did you know he and his loved ones successfully hid his religion from his captors?

The indefatigable Steve Donoghue reads The Oxford Book of Letters.

Pete at Petelit continues to add to his blog post of memorable opening lines.

Recalling his software days, poet Dale Favier notes that “nothing has been built to specs.”

At First Known When Lost, Stephen Pentz links poetry to moments when life “clicks.”

George, the thoughtful fellow at 20011, blogs about coding and cooking, the pleasures of summer, and overuse of the term “iconic.”

Congrats to Tolkien scholar Jason Fisher, whose blog post became a essay in a reference book.

Daniel Franke wonders about Bill Gates and “big history.”

Diane L. Major remembers Harriet Tubman.

“The story is old, I know, but it goes on…”

With its mix of sunshine and harmless bluster, September brings back-to-school nostalgia—ivy-covered professors, that first fall riot, scoldings for being insufficiently euphoric over sports—and perhaps that’s why the past two weeks have swirled with stories about the woes of humanities types in academia. I’ve watched would-be scholars expire en route to the ferne hawle of full professorhood for 20 years, so I’m guessing that many grad students and adjuncts have newly discerned, with the sort of creeping, pitiless dread otherwise confined to Robert E. Howard stories, that they won’t find long-term employment.

First, at the Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann asked why the number of grad students in the humanities is growing. Then, Slate ran a piece about the awkwardness that still hangs about people with doctorates in the humanities who land “alt-ac” careers—that is, jobs where they don’t teach college. Apparently, though, there aren’t enough such lucky people, because a few days later, Salon covered adjunct professors on food stamps.

With all the attention this subject now gets in the press, I can only hope that fewer souls will fling themselves into the hellmouth—but maybe academia shouldn’t have undone quite so many in the first place. While reading about medievalism in recent days, I found two historians who sensed where things were headed long ago.

The first was Karl F. Morrison, who wrote “Fragmentation and Unity in ‘American Medievalism,'” a chapter in The Past Before Us, a 1980 report commissioned by the American Historical Association to explain the work of American historians to their colleagues in other countries. Morrison writes candidly about his field, but he also makes an especially prescient extrapolation, which I’ve bolded:

There was also an expectation in the “guild” that investment in professional training would, in due course, fetch a return in professional opportunity.

By 1970, these benefits could no longer be taken for granted. By 1974, even the president of Harvard University was constrained to deliver a budget of marked austerity, reducing “the number of Assistant Professors substantially while cutting the size of the graduate student body below the minimum desirable levels.” The aggregate result of many such budgets across the country was a sharp reduction in the number of professional openings for medievalists, and an impairment of library acquisitions and other facilities in aid of research. Awareness of this changed climate impelled a large number of advanced students to complete their doctoral dissertations quickly, producing a bulge that is noticeable around 1972-1974 in our tables. For many reasons, including the deliberate reduction or suspension of programs in some universities, it also resulted in a decline in the number of graduate students proceeding to the doctorate.

In effect, the historians who became qualified during this period without being able to secure professional employment constitute a generation of scholars that may be in the process of being lost, casualties of abrupt transition. There is no reason to expect that the demographic and economic trends that so sharply reversed their professional expectations will alter before the end of the century, and this projection raises certain quite obvious possibilities regarding the diversity and renewal of the profession.

Fast forward to 1994. Norman Cantor was gearing up for his fourth year of professional besiegement after the release of Inventing the Middle Ages, a book for non-academic readers in which he sought to show how the formative experiences of certain 20th-century medievalists explained the ways they interpreted history. Fellow historians didn’t like his blunt biographical approach—and so in “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” a little-read article in The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Cantor hammered back at “establishment dust-grinders” and noted, in passing, the crummy academic job market and the prevalence of certain “alt-ac” career paths even then:

Within academia a fearful conservative conformity prevails. The marginal employment situation has a twofold negative impact. First, it discourages innovative minds and rebellious personalities from entering doctoral programs in the humanities. People in their late twenties and thirties today with the highest potential to be great medievalists and bridge academic medieval studies and popular medievalism are a phantom army, a lost generation. Instead, for the most part, of climbing the ladder at leading universities they are pursuing careers (often regretfully and unhappily if well-paid) in major law firms.

Second, even if imaginative people take Ph.D.’s in medieval disciplines, they face the job market and particularly once they get a prized tenure track post they encounter a chilling intellectual conservatism that frustrates expressions of their best thoughts and deepest feelings.

I like Cantor’s claim that academia is literally conservative. After all, people are still fretting over problems that he and Morrison noticed decades ago. It’s September 2014, yet Rebecca Schuman at Slate can still write: “The academic job market works on a fixed cycle, and according to a set of conventions so rigid that you’d think these people were applying for top-secret security clearances, not to teach Physics 101 to some pimply bros in Sheboygan.”

The early blogosphere was rife with humanities grad students and adjuncts wavering between disgruntlement and despair; the much-praised Invisible Adjunct rose up to unite them in discussions so civil that I can scarcely believe I saw them on the Internet.

As someone who writes about people who use the imagined past to carve out identities, argue from authority, resist mainstream culture, or seek respite from the real world, I think I understand why the number of new students in arts and humanities doctoral programs grew by 7.7 percent in 2012, but I can’t claim a moment’s nostalgia for the geeky excitement they surely must feel. Morrison and Cantor both imagined a lost generation, but their jobless contemporaries were merely wandering. For this next generation, that luxury is long gone—as is the prospect of claiming that nobody warned them.

“A legacy of romance from a twilight world…”

Last night, when the U.S. began walloping ISIS militants in Syria, our jets also hit the Khorasan group, hardcore Al-Qaeda veterans who are reportedly expert bomb-makers. When I first heard the news on the radio in my car, I wondered why Al-Qaeda had a group called “Corazón”—some Spanish-speaking faction, perhaps?—but then I realized I’d already written about the original Khurasanis. They were the muscle behind the Abbasids: the third Islamic caliphate, the dynasty associated with Baghdad’s founding and golden age, and the contemporaries of the Carolingians.

The fourth chapter of Becoming Charlemagne takes readers on a tour of Baghdad around the year 798:

In the ritzy Harbiya suburb of northwest Baghdad, the families of soldiers started each day with expectant prayers. In summer, they awoke in their cool basement apartments, or on their rooftops within sight of the Round City, where they greeted the dome at the hub of their city.

As a boy, the current caliph, Harun, had led their fathers and husbands to the frontiers against the Rum, the so-called Romans of Constantinople, the ones whom poets called al-asfar, “the yellow ones.” More recently, they had been paid to quash local rebellions, commanding armies in the service of the caliph. In a caliphate that stretched from northern Africa to India, there was a constant market for well-armed men. Praised by their contemporaries in story and song, these generals rarely lacked for work.

The comfortable estates of Harbiya had been built on that same military might. Only a few generations earlier, these soldiers had stormed out of the eastern province of Khurasan, bringing to power the descendants of al-Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, in a show of force and a flurry of black banners. The Abbasid caliphs had rewarded the Khurasanis with desirable land and jobs for their children, who now commanded the palace guard and ran the police force.

As this blog has long shown, Europeans and Americans love to dress up in medieval costumes, follow pseudo-medieval soap operas on television, construct medieval-ish buildings, and otherwise evoke or re-create the Middle Ages, sometimes to spurn the modern world, more often to carve out a place in it, whether individually or in groups. With their choice of name, the Khorasan nutjobs are heeding that same inexhaustible impulse. I can respond only by marching out one of my favorite observations from scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Holding their own, last orders commanding attention…”

Some of us are so busy spotting medievalism in the modern world that sometimes we need to stop and notice the moments when the lack of it is literally remarkable.

Three days before Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence, the Wall Street Journal ran a curious piece by foreign affairs writer Bret Stephens, who harks back to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Stephens suggests that the Wilsonian emphasis on national self-determination backfired, leading people around the world to the perilous realization that “nations are almost endlessly divisible into smaller entities.” Wilson and his advisers (some of whom were medieval historians) did get it wrong when they cobbled together a doomed Yugoslavia, but Stephens believes that when smaller countries go it alone, they may become dangerous, poor, corrupt, or insignificant.

The point is interesting and debatable—but Stephens’ conclusion is inarguably weird:

Some Scots may imagine that by voting “Yes” they are redeeming the memory of William Wallace. Maybe. The other way of looking at it is as a vote for medievalism over modernity.

Memo to wannabe Bravehearts: The 13th century wasn’t all that fun.

“Medievalism over modernity”! That might seem like a fair way to talk about a referendum that was almost slated for June 24, the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, a key moment in the medieval fight for Scottish independence.

The thing is, I followed the news surrounding the referendum, which was actually held on an otherwise unimportant date in Scottish history. I browsed the “Yes” websites and sat through the videos. Knowing that European nationalists love to dig up and reanimate their shambling medieval ancestors—benignly in countries like Finland, malevolently in places like Germany and Serbia—I kept an eye out for William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other heroes hauled from the pages of Sir Walter Scott.

I saw economic arguments, anti-nuke and anti-English rhetoric, sentimental appeals to independence, and other pleas—but outside of news articles reporting on Scotland’s history of pre-1707 independence, I saw nary a trace of sword-wielding medieval warriors. I don’t doubt that in recent weeks, somebody decked out in costume and kit spoke glowingly of Scotland’s medieval glory, and I hope readers will send me examples—but overwhelmingly, the “Yes” side rooted its arguments not in some politicized dreamland of castles and kings, but in the here and now.

The press has been keen to emphasize that separatist movements in Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, the Crimea, and even Venice were watching to see what the Scots would decide. I assume there was interest in Wales and Cornwall as well. I suppose it’s possible that these movements will conclude that the “Yes” campaigners failed because the Scots didn’t sufficiently use their medieval heritage to inflame nationalistic pride—but if so, that won’t be Scotland’s fault.

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

“Mais nous pouvons faire ce que nous voulons…”

Because I’m monstrously busy, I figure it’s time to bring back some of the more literal monsters featured on this blog from 2009 to 2012. Every few weeks, I challenged myself to wander up to the National Cathedral, choose from among its myriad gargoyles and grotesques, and write a poem inspired by what I’d seen.

With the kind permission of the cathedral, I collected the resulting poems, 53 in all, in a 138-page paperback that you can order online, buy at the cathedral gift shop, or purchase from me via email. (You can browse the first drafts of 51 of the poems here.)

Written in March 2011, “Apologia” was certainly one of the weirder poems, inspired as it was by the indifference of a snake to the shock and hopelessness of his prey. I almost put a poem in the mouth of the rabbit, but then I attended an exhibition of medieval reliquaries in Baltimore and jotted down this note: “snake an antiquarian with a fascination for the Anglo-Saxons, attempting to explain to the rabbit the weird, mythologized larger purpose for eating him.”

The resulting poem is full of New Old English, but my hope is that even people who don’t get a word of it will read it aloud and find it fall familiar on the tongue.

APOLOGIA

Heo cwaeð: “Seo naedre bepaehte me ond ic aett.”
—Gen. 3:13 (British Library MS Cotton Claudius B.iv)

We rede the Saxons sympathised with snakes:
On broach and bract they turve and intertwine
But buckle when modernity awakes;
All laud the wyrm who weaves a wulfish vine.

In retsel-books and wrixled words we find
The Saxons, ever lacertine, bestirred
To grammar-craft, whose duple pronouns bind;
So sundered lives were woven with a word.

(A scene: Some god-forsook Northumbrish monk,
Emboldened by an asp to double think,
Professes wit and unk and unker-unk,
But shrinks from git and ink and inker-ink.)

Now I, who raveled precedent relate,
Propose that we be litchwise intertraced;
The wulf and adder gleam on plink and plait,
Yet no immortal lepus ever graced

The lapidated latch of art divine,
So spurn your sallow scrafe, forget the sun.
For you the relic, I the blessid shrine;
In wit and work alike, we two are one.

 

“Empty-handed on the cold wind to Valhalla…”

For all the violence the Vikings unleashed, their enemies and victims might find cold comfort in the torments Americans now inflict on them. We’ve twisted them into beloved ancestors, corny mascots, symbolic immigrants, religious touchstones, comic relief—and, this week, proponents of gender equity on the battlefield. The medieval past is grotesque, uninviting, and indifferent to our hopes. We wish so badly that it weren’t.

“Shieldmaidens are not a myth!” trumpeted a Tor.com blog post on Tuesday, sharing tidings of endless Éowyns in the EZ-Pass lane to the Bifröst:

“By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons . . . It’s been so difficult for people to envision women’s historical contributions as solely getting married and dying in childbirth, but you can’t argue with numbers—and fifty/fifty is pretty damn good.

Great Odin’s ophthalmologist! Holy hopping Hávamál! Half of all Viking warriors were women?

Alas, no. “Researchers discovered” nothing of the sort—but that didn’t stop wishful linkers from sharing the “news” hundreds of times via Twitter and countless times on Facebook.

So what’s going on here? Besides conflating “Viking” with “Norse,” the pseudonymous author of the Tor.com blog post misread a two-year-old USA Today summary of a 2011 article by scholar Shane McLeod, who most definitely has not delivered forsaken warrior maidens from their long-neglected graves. No, McLeod simply did the un-newsworthy work of reassessing burial evidence for the settlement of Norse women in eastern England in the late 800s, with nary a Brunhilde or Éowyn in sight.

You can find “Warriors and women: Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD” in the August 2011 issue of the journal Early Medieval Europe. If you don’t have institutional access to scholarly databases, the article is imprisoned behind a $35 paywall, which is a shame, because although McLeod’s piece requires a slow, patient read, you don’t need expertise in ninth-century English history or modern osteology to understand it—just the ability to follow an argument about a couple dozen skeletons in a tiny corner of England at a very specific time in history, plus an openness to the possibility that McLeod hasn’t brought your “Game of Thrones” fantasies to life.

Here’s the gist of McLeod’s article, as concisely as I can retell it:

Focusing only on the area of eastern England occupied by the Norse in the 800s, he looks at one sample of six or seven burials from five locations dating from 865 to 878 A.D. where scholars had made assumptions about the sex of the dead based on the stuff buried with them. He compares them to a second sample: 14 burials from five sites (dating from 873 to the early 10th century) where osteologists determined the sex of the dead by examining their bones.

In the first group, only one person was tagged as female. In the second group, between four and six of the dead, perhaps half of the sample, were found to be female, even though based on grave goods, at least one of them might previously have been assumed to be male, because one of those women was buried with a sword. (Ah, but that woman was also interred with a child of indeterminate sex. What if the sword belonged to her young son? And look: someone in the first group who might have been a woman was buried with a sword, too…)

McLeod’s assessment is this: If we scientifically determine the sex of the dead based on their bones rather that assume their sex based on grave goods, we find more evidence (to pile atop existing evidence from jewelry finds) that Norse women came to England with Norse armies, earlier and in greater numbers than previously thought, rather than in a later wave of migration and settlement. Perhaps the men weren’t “a demobbed Norse army seeking Anglo-Saxon wives,” but intermarried with local women in smaller numbers than historians previously believed.

For the lay reader, that’s a disheartening hoard of unsexy conclusions—and a far cry from the Tor.com blogger’s claim, mindlessly brayed across social media, that “Half of the Warriors were Female.” It’s fantasy, not scholarship, and certainly not science, to interpret one woman buried with a sword, maybe two, as evidence for Norse women in combat.

Shane McLeod deserves better. Working with limited data pried out of ninth-century crevices, he recognizes that his sample size is tiny, that it’s tough to identify burials as “Norse” for sure, and that his findings are only “highly suggestive.” He’s precise, tentative, and conscious of counter-arguments, and he seems willing to go wherever the evidence takes him. His biggest accomplishment, however, is highlighting a major scholarly error. Experts who made assumptions about male versus female grave goods failed to reassess the biases they project backwards onto the Middle Ages—even though doing so is one of the traits even the most pop-minded academic medievalists will often claim distinguishes them from the duct-tape-sword-wielding masses.

Likewise, science-fiction fans are forever congratulating themselves for holding the right opinions on such subjects as evolution, but this time they lazily succumbed to fannish fantasies, failing to question a claim that deserved to be pummeled by doubt. I’ve done tons of social-media copywriting, so I get why that blogger just wanted to throw something out there after a holiday to beguile weekend-weary eyeballs—but come on.

Science doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. Truth demands nuanced consideration of evidence, and reason demands skepticism, neither of which flourish on social media—so if you shared or re-tweeted the Tor article, congratulations! This week, in the name of medievalism, you made the world stupider.