Archive for ‘travel’


“I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…”

Twelve hundred years ago tomorrow—January 28, 814—the Franks lamented the death of a tall, paunchy, mustachioed king whom they already knew was one of the most important people in European history: Karl or Charles the Great, Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne. His biographers cataloged the omens that presaged his death, and poets insisted that all the world wept for him. But they mourned too late; the old man they interred in the cathedral had long been lost to legend and myth.

The Charlemagne most of us know is a literary creation: a chivalric ancestor, an Arthur-like figure encircled by heroes, an enigma whose name legitimizes fundamentalist prophecies, spurious movie quotes, heavy-metal concept albums, and (mirabile dictu) overpriced shower gel. Across centuries, Karl’s propagandists can rightly claim victory—but as someone suspicious of power, I’m interested in a different judgment of the man, one that shows how some people felt about him when he wasn’t yet cold in his tomb.

In 824, on the island of Reichenau, a book-obsessed monk named Wettin fell ill. He crawled into bed and suffered terrifying visions: First, he saw an evil, robed spirit looming over his bed with torture devices; then he went on a vivid tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven led by his own guardian angel.

From his deathbed, Wettin recounted his revelations to a monk named Haito. Two years later, one of Wettin’s former students, Walafrid Strabo, rewrote the account as a long poem, “The Vision of Wettin.” Walafrid later tutored Charlemagne’s grandson and served as abbot of Reichenau. His flair for poetry and his love of gardening have earned him a tag on this blog and a poem in the gargoyle book, but when you’re assessing Charlemagne, one scene from his “Vision of Wettin” really stands out.

Here it is, hastily translated (by me) from Latin into metrical, alliterative lines:

 Casting his eyes over the landscape,
 He beheld the late king of the high-born Romans
 And all of Italy unable to move,
 Rent by a beast that ravaged his genitals;
 Left free of ruin was the rest of his body.
“Explain this!” cried Wettin, witless with horror.
“Many things fell to this man in his life:
 Attempting to nourish a new age of laws,
 Goading the teachings of God to prosper,
 Nobly protecting his pious subjects,
 Eventually reaching that rare summit
Where upholding virtue invites sweet praise,
But here he is held under horrid conditions,
Enduring great pain and punishment. Why?”

“This torment engulfs him,” his guide replied,
“Because he disfigured with filthy pleasures
His noble deeds, and doubted not
That his sins would be subsumed by his goodness,
Ending his life in the usual sordidness.
Even so, he will toil to attain splendor
And delight in the honor his Lord has prepared.”
               (MGH Poetae II 318–319, ll. 446–465)

Make what you will of the prospects for Charlemagne’s soul; after his death, people grew comfortable recording in writing what they’d likely been saying for years. Heirs and hangers-on had reasons for praising or damning the actual man—but before long, medieval people were more interested in letting the real Karl rot while recasting “Charlemagne” to suit their own needs. In the year ahead, we’ll rediscover how true that still is.

Tomorrow’s anniversary kicks off the “Karlsjahr,” a flurry of Karolocentric commemorations, exhibitions, symposia, and other events coinciding with the septennial Catholic pilgrimage to Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aachen. The city will host three major exhibitions of artifacts and art; an artist will install 500 Charlemagne statues in a public square; and a new Aachen Bank card will show off the famous reliquary bust. The town of Ingelheim will host an exhibition, and the abbey church in the Swiss village of Müstair will serve up a display about Carolingian architecture, a “collage-opera” about Charlemagne’s imperial coronation, and a comedy performance, “Karl and the White Elephant”—and these are only the events I’ve discovered so far.

For 1,200 years, Europeans have crafted a Karl for all seasons. Later medieval kings grafted him to their family trees, Crusaders invoked him, the French made him an icon of education, and Napoleon and Hitler believed they were continuing his work. His latest incarnation is also explicitly political: When the 1957 Treaty of Rome created the European Community, the six signatory nations covered almost the exact same territory as his empire. The EU’s headquarters in Brussels, the dull Charlemagne Building, enshrines him as the patron saint of European unity—and someday, perhaps, of murky bureaucracy. Statues rise, stained glass dazzles, and the source of the legend is lost.

In Becoming Charlemagne, I likened Karl’s tiny capital to the king himself: “almost civilized and unexpectedly alive: ambitious, forceful, clearly Christian, slightly cruel.” He once slaughtered helpless Saxon captives, an atrocity that shocked his contemporaries, and it wasn’t always propitious to be his relative. His failings, both personal and political, were as great as his ambitions.

But take a second look: There’s a remarkable, complex person beneath centuries of rhetoric and legend. It’s the rare leader indeed who can smile at endless flattery, enjoying obsequious poems praising him as a second David, yet still demonstrate, through his actions, that he knows he isn’t the apotheosis of his civilization—that the future needs books, buildings, and institutions that endure.

At this, Karl failed—but 1,200 years later, individuals, nations, and vast institutions still clamor for a piece of him. This summer, through music, theater, religion, and art, his heirs will convene in the shadows he cast. The Christian emperor, the lustful king, the cold-hearted brother, the egomaniac, the mourning father, the blood-spattered warlord, the pragmatic diplomat, the debatable saint, the barely literate patron of learning—there are myriad Charlemagnes to remember, and nearly as many we choose to forget. The story goes on, and the “Karlsjahr” in Europe is about more than the past, so look closely: Amid all the tourists, new Charlemagnes rise.

“Won’t you fly across that ocean, take a train on down…”

“The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion,” wrote Washington Irving in his satirical History of New York, the 1809 book that made the 26-year-old Manhattanite one of America’s first literary celebs. Two centuries later, Irving’s “Knickerbocker History” is by turns funny, baffling, and obscure, but what intrigued me was how full of Charlemagne it is:

The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion, and even the names and achievements of Wouter Van Twiller, Wilhelmus Kleft, and Peter Stuyvesant, be enveloped in doubt and fiction, like those of Romulus and Remus, of Charlemagne, King Arthur, Rinaldo, and Godfrey of Bologne.

As it turns out, Irving was a bit of a Charlemagne buff. Elsewhere in the History, his alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker looks to the Carolingians to explain why New York City’s “ancient magistrates” were chosen, naturally, by weight:

As a board of magistrates, formed on this model, think but very little, they are the less likely to differ and wrangle about favourite opinions—and as they generally transact business upon a hearty dinner, they are naturally disposed to be lenient and indulgent in the administration of their duties. Charlemagne was conscious of this, and therefore (a pitiful measure, for which I can never forgive him) ordered in his cartularies, that no judge should hold a court of justice, except in the morning, on an empty stomach—a rule, which, I warrant, bore hard upon all the poor culprits in his kingdom. The more enlightened and humane generation of the present day have taken an opposite course…

Jolly old Diedrich Knickerbocker also trots out several mock-heroic references to Roland, the “Orlando” of romance. Two of them occur in battles between Dutchmen and Swedes, while the third anchors a preposterous yarn about the death of trumpeter Antony Von Corlear, whose race to aid his fellow Dutchmen is stymied when a devil drags him to the bottom of the Harlem River:

Luckless Antony! scarce had he buffeted half way over, when he was observed to struggle most violently as if battling with the spirit of the waters—instinctively he put his trumpet to his mouth and giving a vehement blast—sunk forever to the bottom!

The potent clangour of his trumpet, like the ivory horn of the renowed Paladin Orlando, when expiring in the glorious field of Roncesvalles, rung far and wide in through the country, alarming the neighbors round, who hurried in amazement to the spot…

Irving later visited relatives in England (where he wrote two of his most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and spent 17 years wandering Europe. He had mined German folklore for two of his biggest hits and expected further inspiration. “I mean to get into the confidence of every old woman I meet with in Germany,” he told a friend, “and get from her, her budget of wonderful stories.”

The romantic New Yorker, pushing 40, soon met the drab reality of history. Visiting Aachen in 1822, he noted in his journal that he had seen the “fountain with bronze statue of Charlemagne” and “Charlemagne’s Chair in Town Hall,” both of which are still tourist landmarks, but he saved his grousing for a darkly amusing letter to his sister:

I am disappointed in Aix-la-Chapelle. To me it is a very dull place, and I do not find that others seem more pleased with it.

[. . .]

This is the birthplace, and was once the seat of empire of Charlemagne, that monarch so renowned in history and song. His tomb is in the cathedral, and is only marked by a broad slab of black marble, on which is the inscription, Carolo Magno. The Cathedral is an extremely ancient, venerable-looking pile. Every night I hear the hours chimed on its bells; and the midnight hours announced by the watchman from its tower. The Germans are full of old customs and usages, which are obsolete in other parts of the world . . .

The people have an antiquated look, particularly the lower orders. The women dress in peculiar costumes. As to the company at the hotels and public saloons, it is composed of all nations, but particularly northern nations: Russians, Prussians, Germans, Dutch, &c. Everywhere you see military characters, in fierce moustaches and jingling spurs, with ribbons and various orders at their button-holes. Still, though there are many personages of rank here, the place is not considered the most fashionable, and there are many rough characters in the crowds that throng the saloons. Indeed it is somewhat difficult to distinguish a gentleman from a common man among these northern people; there is great slovenliness of dress and coarseness of appearance among them; they all smoke; and I have often been surprised to hear a coarse-looking man, whom I had set down for some common tradesman, addressed as Monsieur the Count or the Baron. The weather has been very bad for several days past.

A recent biographer points out that Irving was suffering from an illness, perhaps the gout, which the famous waters of Aix-la-Chapelle failed to cure—but he wasn’t the last tourist to find Aachen underwhelming. A 2003 Rick Steves guidebook dismisses “unassuming Aachen” near the “unromantic Rhine,” and when I sat in Aachen Cathedral on a frigid February weekend in 2008, I heard tourists mumble that the place was too small to have been worth the trip.

Despite their gripes, I found that the “concentrated magnificence” of the octagonal chapel at Aachen repays real contemplation, and trying to see it backwards across a 1,200-year gulf is a worthy (if futile) ambition. Tourists to Aachen wish for eighth-century streets; if Washington Irving’s imagination failed him in Charlemagne’s town, what hope can their be for the Lonely Planet crowd?

Two years after sulking in Aachen, Irving wrote in Tales of a Traveller: “The land of literature is a fairy land to those who view it from a distance, but like all other landscapes, the charm fades on a nearer approach, and the thorns and briars become visible.” He later found his European dreamworld in Spain, especially Granada, where he briefly lived and wrote at the Alhambra. As the author of the most popular 19th-century book about Christopher Columbus, Irving convinced Americans, wrongly, that medieval people believed the world was flat. It’s tempting to wonder what myths he might have spun about Charlemagne if he’d just passed through Aachen in sunnier health. Generations of teachers perhaps can be glad he did not.

(Photo of Aachen taken in February 2008.)

“There’s a picture-view postcard to say that I called…”

[This post originally appeared in January 2005 on the now-defunct blog that preceded “Quid Plura?” It seemed fitting for this week.]

Journeying to Canterbury is no longer quaint. Medieval pilgrims ended the trip tired and footsore and damp, but fields and villages now fly past train windows at speeds that test the imagination of the wide-eyed medievalist. Go ahead: Count the spires. Pretend you’re a motley-clad traveler rambling past hedgerows while a whistling minstrel spurs you on with his idiot’s rendition of “Greensleeves.” The vision fades. In moments, a smokestack or minaret shakes you from your Pre-Raphaelite reverie, as well it should.

In Canterbury, you’ll seek in vain for the pregnant hope that called to medieval pilgrims, but you will encounter the humanity, the “God’s plenty” Dryden saw in Chaucer: throngs of foul-mouthed schoolgirls, market-stall merchants hawking grape leaves and portraits of Elvis in frames. In the holy gloom of the cathedral, docents outnumber clergy; tourists outnumber docents. Beyond the quire, Becket’s shrine once stood exposed to devotional groping; in its place sits a lone candle, roped off for its own protection. In a more fervent and tactile age, parsons and plowmen might have found it disappointing—or maybe they’d distinguish, as we often do not, between things that are transient and things that are lasting and real.

At Canterbury Cathedral, that flame lights the murk where distinctions blur. Stand where Becket was murdered, by arches carved with jagged Romanesque fangs, and the pained reaction Eliot ascribed to the masses is sudden and true: “But this,” he wrote, “this is out of life, this is out of time, / An instant eternity of evil and wrong.” But then you look away from Thomas’s name gouged in red across the floor and those magnificent walls and windows draw your eye up, and up, and up. You’re happy; you’re lost in heavenly complexity.

Thirteen years ago, I found Canterbury with my best friend, almost by accident. Last week, while he hunched over law books in a Cambridge suburb, I went there with his wife, a dear friend in her own right but in 1992 someone I didn’t know existed. Part of my return was a vain attempt to confirm small, cherished myths—Did they move the bus station? Where’s that place we ate breakfast?—but after several cold, quiet hours with fellows like Anselm and Becket I cared less for 1992, 1399, or 1170 than I did for the future. Who will join me next time? Will it be their eight-month-old son, destined to inherit his dad’s sword-and-sorcery gene and his mom’s eye for architecture? Will I pause in those chapels with someone I’ll meet tomorrow, or ten years hence? Will it be someone who’s yet to be born?

I don’t know; it’s good not to know. Now that I’m home I imagine two things: One day I’ll wander back through Canterbury, and when I do, I won’t be alone. I may have no need for saintly intercession and miraculous cures, nor boundless faith in either, but to anticipate that next visit is to plan out a new sort of pilgrimage. If that turns out to be one more thing I was wrong about, so be it—but waiting to see who walks beside you is, even for the most aimless of pilgrims, a fine premonition of hope.

“Before you were born, dude, when life was great…”

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring crawfish, bearded with moss…

“But Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “it’s been ages since you reaffirmed your obsession with literary and quasi-medieval statuary!” Indeed, the greatest truths are often the most lamentable. So look who reared his head (and a fragment of torso) today along the bayou in St. Martinville, Louisiana: None other than “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow, author of Evangeline, the epic poem that made Cajun history hip.

In St. Martinville, Longfellow keeps watchs over the “Evangeline Oak,” which offers ample shade just down the road from the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site and a few paces from the lovely Acadian Memorial and Museum.

A block away, in the cemetery of the “mother church” of the Cajuns, is Evangeline herself, looking more sanguine than I’d be after decades of roaming North America in the name of deathless love. As bestsellers go, the poem that bears Evangeline’s name was the Twilight of yesteryear, but these days she gets fewer visitors.

St. Martinville boasts a population of 6,989, but half of those residents appear to be statues. In front of the church stands A.M. Jan, the 19th-century pastor, on a pedestal that tells his story in Latin.

Also honored in the town square is this dapper Attakapa Indian. He’s been here since 1961.

The interior of the church—”it is just the same as when it was built,” a plaque insists, “having been repaired but not changed”—is naturally full of old statues, too many to name.

But let’s not overlook two “Quid Plura?” favorites:

Noah’s wife…

…and our old pal from New Orleans, St. Roch.

Mais où est le patron?

Aha! Here’s St. Martin of Tours, inventing the word “chapel” in front of the old presbytère.

Alas, my camera fizzled before I could get a picture of St. Martinville’s one truly unmissable statue, which depicts Charlemagne engaged in mortal combat with a giant crawfish. I’m sorry you won’t be able to see it, but trust me, dear reader: It was awesome.

“Medicine is magical, and magical is art…”

After he’s wandered the French Quarter for the thousandth time and snapped a sufficient number of crawfish in half, what does the errant medievalist do when he’s in New Orleans? Demonstrating a disregard for common sense which he urges his dear readers not to emulate, he seeks out a shrine to a medieval saint in the city’s Ninth Ward.

In the heart of a half-abandoned neighborhood, the small, above-ground cemetery occupies two compact blocks.

The saint’s shrine is pleasant but unremarkable—until you look at it from the side. Then it become an apse whose cathedral has flown away.

Inside the shrine stands the saint, with a friend. According to medieval legend, Roch miraculously cured the sick while making the pilgrimage to Rome. Eventually he also came down with the plague, but miracles—and food provided by a dog—kept him alive. The dog’s name is unknown, but “it has been reported that some people think the dog is at least as holy as Roch and offer prayers to the dog.”

In 1867, after his entire congregation survived a yellow fever outbreak, the New Orleans priest who prayed for the saint’s intercession raised this shrine in thanks—and, as an inscription over the front door reveals, “in fulfillment of vow.”

A barred alcove holds a collection of tokens offered by the grateful. Most of them represent body parts believed to have been cured through the saint’s intercession. Several pairs of old, awful crutches hang against the wall.

Outside, even as a storm rolls in, the cemetery is peaceful: empty, but hardly sad.

A hint of sadness waits across the street, where a monument to miraculous cures faces the troubles of the 21st century. Rarely have the Middle Ages seemed like the more hopeful place to be.

“And God said, ‘SYS 49152.'”

In Cologne, no traveler looks past the cathedral; its spires fly upward just steps from the train station, the Gothic delights of a large public space that’s otherwise stolid and boxy. Started in the 13th century but not finished until the 19th, the cathedral is full of minute modern touches that seem, at first glance, quite medieval.

Still, when I went to Cologne back in March, I didn’t expect to find a stained-glass window tuned in to such bright modern static. I took one (admittedly terrible) photo and thought to myself, “Just imagine what medieval builders might have done if they hadn’t been stuck with those 8-bit computers.”

It seems my dumb joke was more right than I knew. Designed by artist Gerhard Richter, the 65-foot window was installed only last year, and there’s a method to its pixelated madness. According to Wired, Richter

devised a mathematical formula to systematically mix permutations of the three primary colors and gray. Funny coincidence: 4,096 is also the number of “Web-smart” colors that display consistently on older computer screens, a limitation some Web designers still take into account.

Richter’s new window pops up this week in a New Yorker piece about—mirabile visucontroversial European stained glass commissions. Specifically, the contemporary design has prompted the locals to ponder the link between art and religion:

More seriously, the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, complained to a local newspaper that it “belongs equally in a mosque or another house of prayer,” adding, “If we are going to have a new window, then it should be one that reflects our faith, not just any faith.” He would seem to have a point, his doubtful reference to Islam aside. (Cologne has been roiled by plans to build a mosque for the city’s hundred and twenty thousand Muslim residents, with minarets that would share the skyline with the cathedral’s towers.)

The window does feel ecumenical . . . The literally paradoxical, if not quite heretical, results of these two projects pose a question of whether, in Christian Europe today, art on celebrated artists’ terms has risen to equality with religion or if religion has sunk to the level of mere art.

At the Kölner Dom, religion is hardly vestigial: when I visited on that gloomy March weekend, any tourists who didn’t wish to sit for prayers and a German-language homily were asked to leave for a while at noon. With its simple commingling of art and religion and framed by concerns about Islam, Richter’s window continues a medieval story; this “finished” cathedral is still being built.

“Come down off your throne, and leave your body alone…”

For more than a year now, I’ve written about Charlemagne, talked about Charlemagne, answered questions about Charlemagne, joked about Charlemagne, fielded emails about Charlemagne, translated poems about Charlemagne, and have otherwise come to see the old boy as a sort of ghostly roommate who makes dubious excuses (“dude, I totally left my wallet in my other rodent-fur cloak”) whenever he’s asked to contribute to the rent.

The thing is, there was one Charlemagne-related thing I hadn’t done—specifically, a Charlemagne-related place I hadn’t visited—and I got a little tired of people expressing surprise about that. So, on a whim and sort of at the last minute: greetings from Aachen.

A few lessons for those similarly inclined: Maastrict-Aachen Airport does not, in fact, service the city of Aachen. However, the airport does give you a wonderful opportunity to discover the Dutch language skills you didn’t know you had while you enjoy a crash course on the bus system of provincial Limburg. In the rain. Next to lots of billboards advertising a museum retrospective about Smurfs.

But you know what? As Chaucer’s Friar Hubert famously declared: It beats being in the office.

“Just a slob like one of us…”

“In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.”

But wait. Where’s Ignatius?

According to the desk clerk at the former D.H. Holmes—now the Chateau Sonesta Hotel—Ignatius was removed two days ago because “someone kept tryin’ to steal him.”

Such an offense against taste and decency! Clearly it reflects the would-be thief’s lack of theology and geometry. Why, it even casts doubts upon one’s soul…

“Takes more imagination when everything’s remote control…”

In 1608, Thomas Coryat—the man described by writer Robin Hunt as “the first pure English tourist”—rambled across Europe, on foot and alone, simply for the pleasure of doing so. Nearly four centuries later, Hunt has set off from England to recreate Coryat’s journey. After announcing this five-month project on the group blog Contemporary Nomad, he promptly began BETWIXT, a site where he’ll chronicle his travels using advantages old Tom never had:

Unlike Thomas Coryat, who wrote in a notebook with a quill pen and whose preparation for the trip amounted to little more than watching The Merchant of Venice and joking with Shakespeare, I have several additional tools at my disposal. These include an Apple laptop computer, Leica cameras, a Tri-band mobile, an I-Pod, microphone and a blogger account.

Follow Hunt’s journey at his blog, a quirky and already overwhelming compendium of anecdotes, photos, observations, and encounters with the oddballs and ancient mariners one necessarily meets on a walk across western Europe. The whole business may strike you as fascinating, bemusing, perhaps even frustrating. I find Hunt’s Coryat-quest an inspiration—even if what it inspires on these restless summer evenings is something close to envy.

“Breaking open doors I sealed up before…”

Years ago, during a cross-country road trip, I convinced my friend Dave to pause for dubious contemplation at the Helium Centennial Time Columns Monument, a fourth-tier attraction if ever there was one. More recently, when we traveled to Rome, Dave reciprocated by suggesting that we seek out what others might consider a similarly minor site. As it turned out, I didn’t need much convincing, because when Dave unfolded his map, he pointed to a place that should rate higher on the itineraries of history-minded travelers, especially medievalists.

And so, rushing to snap a few photos before the sun set, we became the rare tourists who deliberately visit the remains of the Porta Salaria.

I’ll let Dave tell you what we found there. In this brief but pensive piece, he contemplated the limitations of historical travel, especially when the reality of history turns out to be right in front of you—and sixteen centuries beneath you.