Archive for ‘medievalism’


“The time has come to conquer, and I’ll provide your end…”

Back when Turkey was up for membership in the European Union, pundits wondered: What’s “European” about the Turks? Not my country, not my continent—if the question still matters, then others can hash that one out. It so happens that at least in one respect, the Turks aren’t all that different from their neighbors to the west. I was intrigued, but not surprised, by a grand burst of Turkish medievalism reported in The Economist:

In a mighty motorcade, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, descended on the sleepy town of Malazgirt near the Armenian frontier on August 26th. He came to celebrate a millennium-old victory that Turks hail as the dawn of Muslim domination of these once-Christian lands.

Largely forgotten in the West, the battle of Manzikert in 1071 saw Seljuk Turks, led by King Alp Arslan, crush an imperial Byzantine army said to be twice their size. This Turkic push into Anatolia laid the foundation for the Seljuks’ eventual sucessors, the Ottomans, who took Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, in 1453 and whose empire at its peak extended from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Erdogan’s commemoration of a 946-year-old battle is a bid to woo Turkish nationalists . . . At Malazgirt, he linked the failed coup to the medieval campaign.

“We faced an assault on July 15th that appeared to be a coup attempt but was actually aimed at enslaving us…[we] fought the same figures as Alp Arslan,” Mr Erdogan told a crowd of thousands, alluding to wild rumours of Western interference. He was flanked by men posing as soldiers, clad in reproduction chain mail and brandishing scimitars. Other entertainment included displays of horsemanship and archery.

[ . . .]

He has been dusting off other episodes of martial history, presiding over lavish festivities that include fireworks and a laser show to mark the Ottoman victory of 1453. At Gallipoli, he has exhorted Turks to venerate their final victory before the empire was defeated in the first world war and dismembered by the victors.

All of this is darkly, depressingly familiar. On June 28, 1989, not all that far west across the Bosphorus, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia spoke at a ceremony to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The 1389 battle hadn’t been a victory for the Serbs; it was one of a series of defeats that left the Serbs under Ottoman rule for quite a long time. In poem and song, Serb nationalists turned the calamity into a spiritual victory, a martyrdom on behalf of Christian Europe that the West never honored or even acknowledged. To Serbs, Kosovo was holy ground: a battlefield, a birthplace of saints, a homeland pried from their grip in the Middle Ages and denied once more by the region’s Albanian Muslim majority. The battle was so meaningful among Serb nationalists that Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on its 525th anniversary. Yes, Balkan medievalism helped send millions of men to their deaths.

Milosevic’s defenders still argue that the speech he gave that day wasn’t inherently inflammatory, but it didn’t need to be. The location, the date, the conflicts brewing at the time, and Milosevic’s dramatic apotheosis by helicopter all told nationalists a story that cheered them. No one grinds axes without also honing their yearning to use them. The aspiration of Erdogan’s medievalism is the fate of Milosevic’s. That ended badly; this will too.

Diorama of the Battle of Manzikert (via Wikimedia Commons)

“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

As the teacher in my household prepares to steer her ninth-graders through tricky literary currents, she’s revisiting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I’ve hopped aboard and joined her on the raft. I read Twain’s novel when I was 14, but returning to it more than three decades later has been a revelation. I hadn’t expected to find that the natural focus on slavery and race had obscured Twain’s other related ideas.

I’m probably the last adult reader to notice what makes it such a rich and challenging book: the perfect ease of the narrative voice, the tender passages about life on the river, and the wrenching moments when Huck starts to comprehend Jim’s humanity. And holy crow, Huck Finn is an epic catalog of the deficiencies and absurdities of the antebellum South: family feuds of long-forgotten origin; the poisonous grafting of codes of honor to lawlessness and mob violence; and grifters peddling phrenology, cynical revivalism, and mutilated Shakespeare to yokels who fully deserve to be conned. I can’t be the first person to imagine that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes far more to Huck Finn than to The Odyssey for its episodic mythologizing of Southern culture.

What leaped out at me the most, though, is Twain’s full-on satire of people who take their entertainment way too seriously. I’ve written before about the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where the state capitol in Baton Rouge ignites Twain’s rant about the South’s destructive obsession with the Middle Ages:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[…]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

Twain is sincere in his loathing of romanticism, but in Life on the Mississippi he’s too blunt and unfunny about it to sound like anything but a crank. In Huck Finn, published two years later, he more effectively vents his ire through the excesses of Tom Sawyer, whose mania for tales of adventure tests the patience of his more practical friend:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.

One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready.  He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said there was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn’t we see them, then?  He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.

Huck and Tom argue about wizards and genies, and Huck decides to test his friend’s claims. It’s one of many times when he tries on the world-views of others as he struggles to work out his own:

I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it. I got an old tin lamp and an iron ring, and went out in the woods and rubbed and rubbed till I sweat like an Injun, calculating to build a palace and sell it; but it warn’t no use, none of the genies come. So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.

Of course—spoiler alert for time-traveling readers from the 1880s—Tom Sawyer plays a huge role in the climax of Huck Finn when he agrees to help free Jim from imprisonment in a shack. Tom and Huck could easily break him out in a moment, but the liberation has to happen on Tom’s convoluted terms. Day after day, Tom draws out Jim’s captivity by insisting on all the elaborate trappings of a swashbuckling adventure novel: a secret tunnel, a coat of arms, snakes and rats, a rope ladder baked in a pie—there’s even talk of sawing off Jim’s leg even though he could free himself from his chain simply by lifting the leg of his bed.

Many readers find the whole episode tedious and cruel, but the cruelty is the point. It would be easy to see the better-educated, middle-class Tom Sawyer as a lovable scamp who just wants others to share his bookish whims, but in Huck Finn he embodies a trend that Twain found troubling: the triumph of fantasy over reason and reality. Whatever the character meant to him elsewhere, Tom Sawyer is a figure of dangerous foolishness here. Wouldn’t Twain glower disapprovingly at the emergence of fandoms so all-encompassing that they inspire cosplay, cultural squabbling, and vicarious reinterpretations of history? He might have said that what our geeky age has wrought from harmless escapism will someday prove harmful to people who won’t play along. I guess we’ll see.

Jim is held captive for far longer than he needs to be because of storybook romanticism. You could see the whole Civil War in that, if you want.

“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

Longtime readers might be surprised by how few medieval-ish doodads we have in our home. My office houses a framed copy of the opening of an Icelandic manuscript and a tiny set of Domesday Book postage stamps, and until recently that was about it. When we began renting a large house in the woods, the owners left us with a great deal to work with: not only sunny flower beds and several acres of bird-besieged trees but also walls with so many nails and hooks for hanging photos, artwork, and curios that we weren’t sure we could fill them all.

We did find art for most of them—but not all. And so a few weeks ago, when I noticed two bare nails over a doorway, I decided to put up some blemmyae.

The myth of the blemmyae goes back to the ancient world, when Herodotus described this race of creatures who resembled headless men but carried their faces in their chests. He placed them alongside other humanoids, such as dog-faced men, who were believed to abide along the coast of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the blemmyae got dragged into texts about the wonders one might find in Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great captures several of them in one romance, and that wonderful liar Sir John Mandeville claimed to have seen some near India. Some medieval writers drew a comically fine distinction between headless men with faces in their chests and headless men with eyes in their shoulders. These beings went by various names, but their legend carried over to the Americas, where Sir Walter Raleigh chased rumors of their existence near what’s now Venezuela.

My blemmyae came from England. Oakapple Designs, a lovely company in South Yorkshire, has acquired the right to make casts of artwork at certain cathedrals and sell them to the public, and the cost is very reasonable. You can browse their assortment of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which runs rampant with angels, bats, dragons, green men, and monks.

According to Oakapple, the two blemmyae over my doorway were made in the 15th century for Ripon Cathedral, where they’re apparently carved onto misericords: folding wooden seats in the choir that can be leaned on in times of need.

I can only guess why people believed in these creatures for so long. Maybe they mistook certain stoop-necked primates as headless; perhaps real tribes of humans wore armor or helmets that gave Europeans peculiar ideas. I find these particular blemmyae rather ambiguous. I’m not even entirely sure what the one on the left is doing with that stick. What I do know is that the carver at Ripon Cathedral thought they were civilized: take note of the clothing and shoes. That’s good enough reason to welcome them into our home—and if they inspire a story or poem, so much the better. I doubt they’ll be the strangest things to emerge from our time in the woods.

“I must admit, just when I think I’m king…”

Last month, when suicide bombers attacked an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the world was aghast that ISIS specifically targeted girls and young women. Unfortunately, no one who understands the pseudo-medieval image ISIS has built around itself was all that surprised. In “Muscular Medievalism,” a prescient article in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Amy S. Kaufman makes important points about the misogyny of ISIS and their obsession with a fantasy version of the medieval past:

[A] key component of muscular medievalism is its need for the suffering and exploitation of women in order to validate its vision of masculinity. In the autumn of 2014, the new caliphate declared that the enslavement and rape of women and girls is central to its ideology. ISIS’s glossy, almost corporate, monthly English language magazine, Dabiq, included an article called “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which explicitly argued, “One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar—the infidels—are taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law.”

After giving several harrowing examples of ISIS’s brutality, Kaufman draws a bitter conclusion:

And yet, despite the explosion of reporting on the fate of ISIS’s conquered territories, the world’s reaction to this horrific violence against women and girls—apart from the usual Twitter outrage—is largely complacent. The enslavement, ritual rape, and murder of thousands of children and grown women—on a scale that would demand immediate action of the persecuted group were anything other than women—is lamented, but ultimately dismissed as part of the “medieval” nature of life under the Islamic State, thanks, in part, to our misguided fantasies about the past.

What does Kaufman mean by that, and why does she implicate all of us, including Westerners? Throughout her article, she draws a provocative connection between the way ISIS asserts its “authenticity” and what we as readers and viewers in the West seek in our entertainment. I hope she won’t mind if I quote her at length:

Take, for instance, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which holds such a revered place in contemporary American popular culture that it’s treated to weekly recaps in respected newspapers like the Washington Post. The author of the epic fantasy series the show is based on, George R. R. Martin, claims to be delivering an unapologetically “real” version of the Middle Ages in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin says he was inspired to pen his particularly brutal portrayal of medieval times because other writers “…were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that.” And if Martin’s novels are any indication, getting it right means saturating the faux-medieval world with rampant misogyny and rape . . . However, Martin explains away the sexual violence in his novels with his vision of history: “Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex,” he clarified to one interview. “It’s medieval.”

For Martin—and his legions of fans—the abundance of sexual violence and the disturbing conflation of sex and rape in the books and on the show are, in fact, markers of medieval authenticity. Indeed, rape-as authenticity is a key component of the show: “It’s not our world,” argued executive producer D.B. Weiss in defense of the rape scenes on HBO’s show, “but it is a real world, and it’s a violent world, a more brutal world . . . It’s a world where these horrible things are definitely pervasive elements of their lives and cultures. We felt that shying away from these things would be doing a disservice to the reality and groundedness of George’s vision.” To be clear: violence against women isn’t just a byproduct of historical authenticity in the show and in the novels. It is, according to their creators, what makes these medieval-inspired works of entertainment authentic. The violence against and degradation of women in the world of Westeros is as important to the “medieval” setting as the armor, the castles, the weapons, and the charmingly fetishized details about food. But using violence against women as a shortcut to bolster authenticity is hardly limited to Martin’s creative endeavors: the casual rape of women and girls, often as a kind of “background noise” behind the “real” plot, pervades almost every work of medievalism that is proclaimed “gritty” or “authentic,” the often-anonymous victims themselves rendered disposable tropes in the service of historicity, from the Channel’s show Vikings to popular games like The Witcher and Dragon Age.

When someone questions the decency of our fondest shows and books, it’s tempting, and awfully easy, to recite a familiar refrain: “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.” But to answer too quickly is to evade self-examination. Even though I think there’s too much moralistic finger-wagging at artists and writers these days, there are ethical dimensions to reading and watching television, especially where the Middle Ages are concerned. Goodness knows I’ve heard plenty of parents complain about the overwhelming influence of the “Disney princess” franchises on their impressionable daughters. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, harmless in themselves, possessed antebellum Southern planters with such absurd visions of chivalric grandeur that Mark Twain blamed him, not facetiously, for the Civil War. Centuries earlier, the Spanish conquistadors who hacked and slashed their way through the Americas were obsessed with chilvaric romance, seeing the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan not for what it was, but as a magical city out of the sprawling tale Amadis of Gaul—and seeing themselves as the latest wave of crusading heroes, called to convert, conquer, and rule.

Even though Kaufman isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?

“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien 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.”

“No risk, I’ll whisk them up in no moonlight…”

When Harriet Tubman let an author of sentimental children’s books write her first real biography in 1869, she knew she’d be cast in some curious roles. Abolitionists had already dubbed her “Moses,” and John Brown, who sometimes referred to her with masculine pronouns, had loved to address her as “General.”

Even so, when I read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, I hadn’t expected to see Sarah Hopkins Bradford liken her subject to one of the most complex figures of the Middle Ages, a saint, a warlord, a visionary, and a child—but there she is, on the very first page:

It is proposed in this little book to give a plain and unvarnished account of some scenes and adventures in the life of a woman who, though one of earth’s lowly ones, and of dark-hued skin, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name (we say it advisedly and without exaggeration) deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with the names of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale; for not one of these women has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than has this woman in her heroic and successful endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed and suffering race, and to pilot them from the land of Bondage to the promised land of Liberty. Well has she been called “Moses,” for she has been a leader and deliverer unto hundreds of her people.

By 1869, well-read Americans had tried to make sense of the Maid of Orleans. Mark Twain published Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc that same year; two years before, abolitionist and women’s-suffrage crusader Sarah Grimké translated a French biography of Joan into English. Somebody, somewhere, may have dimly recalled Female Patriotism, or the Death of Joan of Arc, a 1798 play by Irish-born newspaperman John Daly Burk. If these works have anything in common, it’s a sense of Joan of Arc as enviably childlike. Perhaps from there it was an easy leap to the paternalism that even open-minded white Americans felt about their black countrymen.

But I think there’s more to the Tubman-Joan connection than that. In an engaging 2003 bio, Kate Clifford Larson provides a well-researched life of Tubman that offers glimpses of a Joan-like figure for anyone hoping to find them. Tubman was a nurse, a spy, and a scout during the Civil War, but she was also a warrior who led a daring and brutal raid on Confederate ships in South Carolina―and like Joan, and indeed like many memorable women and men of the Middle Ages, she was also a religious mystic.

When Tubman was in her teens, an overseer threw a two-pound weight at a fugitive slave; he missed him, but hit Tubman square in the head. This freak accident, the source of lifelong pain, helped turn her into a fearless leader who inspired (and sometimes terrified) the people around her:

Tubman broke out, often unexpectedly, into loud and excited religious praising. If this injury caused her great suffering, it also marked the beginning of a lifetime of potent dreams and visions that, she claimed, foretold the future. Some of her dreams eventually took on an important role in Tubman’s life, influenced not only her own course of action but also the way other people viewed her.

Larson offers temporal lobe epilepsy as a scientific explanation for Tubman’s visions, but she stresses the need to understand the influence of African culture and evangelical Protestantism on what, to my mind, are visions that also wouldn’t be out of place in the Middle Ages:

Sounds of music, rushing water, screaming, and loud noises would overcome her without notice. Her dreams, visions, and hallucinations often intruded amid daily work and activities. “We’d be carting manure all day,” Tubman once explained to an interviewer, “and t’other girl and I was gwine home on the sides of the cart, and another boy was driving, when suddenly I heard such music as filled all the air.” Soon she began to experience a profound religious vision, “which she described in language which sounded like the old prophets in its grand flow.” Persistent shaking by her fellow slaves brought her back to reality, though she protested that she hadn’t been asleep at all.

[…]

Such experiences reinforced her notions of an all-powerful being that guided her through her life, protecting her and providing divine instruction. Tubman “used to dream of flying over fields and towns, and rivers and mountains, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.’” She claimed she had inherited this ability from her father, who “could always predict the weather, and that he foretold the Mexican war.”

I dug into the Tubman-Joan comparison and was surprised by how much there was to find―but less surprised that the notion thrived and faded with trends in the culture at large.

Bradford likened Tubman to a white European warrior-saint in 1869. That makes sense: Before the Civil War, Joan of Arc turns up in one of the most important cultural magazines for budding Confederates, the Southern Literary Messenger. She’s the subject of a romantic poem that calls for national defense, and in a bitter, blustery review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she’s the exemplar of everything Harriet Beecher Stowe is not, an “unsexed” knight whose chivalry gives her a rare exemption from having to act like a lady.

By the time Bradford wrote Tubman’s bio, though, chivalry was up for grabs. The Civil War was over. Black Southerners were heading to Congress, and the Freedmen’s Bureau sought to educate former slaves, some of whom helped draft new state constitutions. Abolitionists and African Americans and radical northern Republicans all must have marveled as racial taboos and prejudices looked ready to collapse. Casting Tubman as Joan of Arc didn’t just pay tribute to her complexity; it also acknowledged that she was comparable to white people and fully human, perhaps even superhuman―and it tweaked conquered Confederates as well.

The comparison caught on. An 1896 profile of Tubman in The Woman’s Era, an African-American newspaper, picks it up without apology:

So at the very beginning of this new day let us all meet in the benign presence of this great leader, in days and actions, that caused strong men to quail this almost unknown, almost unsung “Black Joan of Arc” . . . The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.

But that’s the black press; white readers may have felt otherwise.

Suddenly it’s 1897. Reconstruction has failed. Racist white Democrats have prevailed in the South; Civil War veterans are already holding genial North-South reunions; all eyes are on railroads and the West; and a country obsessed with business and finance is starting to haul itself out of a four-year depression. Sarah Hopkins Bradford revises and reissues her Tubman biography as Harriet, the Moses of Her People. Deprived of the dignity of a surname in the new title, Tubman is now quoted in dialect, and her sharp edges have been bravely bent down and taped over. Such is the national spirit of compromise. Tubman is still Joan of Arc, but Bradford, flaunting her own refinement, now calls her “Jeanne D’Arc.” Since the comparison pleases her, she trots it out a second time:

Her color, and the servile condition in which she was born and reared, have doomed her to obscurity, but a more heroic soul did not breathe in the bosom of Judith or of Jeanne D’Arc.

There’s heroism and praise in Bradford’s revision, but she no longer makes the page-one Harriet-Joan connection “advisedly and without exaggeration.” A woman who once “deserves to be handed down to posterity” is now “doomed…to obscurity.” Within a few years, comparisons to a medieval European saint will start to bother white writers, even when Tubman impresses them―as in a 1907 article in the New York Herald that got picked up by newspapers nationwide:

There is not a trace in her countenance of intelligence or courage, but seldom has there been placed in any woman’s hide a soul moved by a higher impulse, a purer benevolence, a more dauntless resolution, a more passionate love of freedom. This poor, ignorant, common looking black woman was fully capable of acting the part of Joan d’Arc.

Look at what’s happened: In four decades, comparing Harriet Tubman to Joan of Arc has gone from natural and straightforward to unlikely and ironic. At best, Joan is a “part” she was able to act.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans formed their own secular cult of Joan. French nationalists rallied round the saint in 1870 after the humiliating loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Americans, looking to Europe for trends, were beguiled by her purity, her simple faith, her romantic communion with nature. In 1915, a statue of Joan got its own park in Manhattan. Determined to out-spectacle D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille released his movie Joan the Woman the following year. Joan was drafted during World War I, serving as a model soldier and the subject of poems and articles in Stars and Stripes. A illustrated biography for children hit the shelves in 1918, and her equestrian statue first looked across D.C. from Meridian Hill Park in 1922.

At last, Joan of Arc was whatever America wanted her to be―except black, except a battle-ready warrior, except an aged ex-conductor on the Underground Railroad. According to Kate Clifford Larson, by the time a well-intentioned radical started researching a new biography of Harriet Tubman in 1938, publishers shooed him away. Random House in particular “balked at her being compared to Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc was quite a few things Harriet Tubman was not, and vice-versa. Tubman wasn’t a child hero, a martyr, or a national symbol. In fact, Larson’s bio shows that she wasn’t like anyone else; she deserves to be remembered in all her complex and baffling humanity. Still, it’s remarkable that for a few promising years, comparing Tubman to a visionary child warrior saint felt right and just. That we’re now surprised by a colorblind metaphor doesn’t speak well of the century since.

“Let me set the battlements on fire…”

Mark Twain wasn’t joking when he griped that Southerners’ obsession with the chivalric novels of Sir Walter Scott helped cause the Civil War. In Life on the Mississippi, he laments that Scott had “run the people mad, a couple generations ago, with his medieval romances,” inspiring “maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world had seen”:

The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it.

I kept Twain in mind last week when I visited Antietam National Battlefield, the site of the single bloodiest day in American history: September 17, 1862, when Union and Confederate armies clashed, taking 23,000 casualties between them. The rangers at Antietam give thorough and informative talks, and I visited some of the famous sites with all due solemnity—but then I stumbled onto medievalism in the cemetery just to the south.

According to architectural historian Catherine Zipf, the job of designing and beautifying Civil War cemeteries fell to Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during and after the war. Every cemetery was to have a superintendent’s lodge, and Meigs standardized the design: each lodge was located near the gate or the edge of the cemetery, shaped like an L with a porch and reception hall, and built in a scaled-down French Second Empire style. Here’s a good example from Glendale National Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia:


(Glendale National Cemetery, Richmond; photo from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website)

After 1865, the Second Empire style was popular for federal architecture, most notably in the then-new State, War, and Navy Building next to the White House. Zipf argues that the style screamed modernity and federal control, especially when the government dropped these lodges into Southern cemeteries, where they contrasted starkly with the Greek-revival porticoes of big plantation houses. The Confederate dead were usually excluded from these cemeteries, and the huge “U.S.” on the second stories of the lodges was not subtle. Meigs let no questions linger about which side had won, and what that meant for the conquered.

So then why does the lodge at Antietam look like this?

What an odd, dreamlike blending of castle and house. According to a memo on this lodge by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, the federal government ran 80 national cemeteries by 1880, but Antietam was one of only two originally established and run by a state. Maryland got the jump on things by convening its own cemetery commission, sending the Confederate dead to be buried elsewhere, and hiring versatile D.C.-based architect Paul Pelz to design and build this lodge in 1867. The Park Service helpfully points out its distinctive features: “stone walls, turret tower with battlements, pointed arch windows, and a gable porch with crossbracing vergeboards.” (The latter term was new to me.) The tower gave veterans and visiting mourners a view of the battlefield, but this little castle didn’t earn fealty from locals. According to the Park Service, ne’er-do-wells loitered in the cemetery, incurring the wrath of superintendents who demanded that they stop using the grounds (in the words of an 1881 War Department inspector) “as a lounging place for the floating part of the citizens, canal men, loafers, young fellows and their sweethearts.”

So why is the lodge at Antietam so unlike its counterparts in other federal cemeteries? American medievalism surged in the 1870s. Tourism to Europe had never been higher; at Harvard, Henry Adams became the country’s first professor of medieval history; other campuses would soon start hiring medievalists and building in neo-medieval styles; and New Yorkers were drawing up plans for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I suppose it’s possible that the Maryland cemetery commission chose a versatile architect simply because they wanted a trendy building.

Yet I think something bigger is going on here. Maybe this little castle reflects Maryland’s ambivalence as a slave state that stayed in the Union, neither northern nor southern in its economic mainstays or social sympathies. That’s one way to explain why a cemetery that excludes the Confederate dead would evoke the chivalry that drove wealthy Southerners to war. Maybe some Marylanders hoped to pry medievalism out of Southern hands by claiming the symbolism as a spoil of war, quashing its power by making it fully American. Maybe the house-and-tower design says that domestic tranquility is buttressed by military defense. All those things may be so—but the most likely explanation is that the lodge at Antietam is a reaction to horror, a fearful attempt to push the bloodiest day in American history—in 1867, still a fresh wound—back into a romanticized past, making it romantic, heroic, less awful to face.

If that’s the case, then the builders deceived themselves. The first federal superintendent, Civil War veteran George A. Haverfield, assumed his post here in 1879, but a War Department letter unearthed by the Park Service suggests that an unorthodox but presumably generous gesture brought down swift violence upon the house:

Haverfield, having no family with him, had his laborer and the laborer’s wife live in the lodge, and boarded with him. The husband got jealous of the Superintendent, and rather, reversing the usual order in such cases, the husband was shot dead by the accused wife. It was through this sad occurrence that I learned that Haverfield was not living with his family. Had he been, the tragedy would probably not have happened.

(letter from Captain A.F. Rockwell to Quartermaster General, 20 August 1879, cited in the Historic American Buildings Survey report on the lodge)

A graveyard castle, a love triangle, jealousy, murder—the story has all the makings of a lurid Gothic novel, and the longtime closure of the tower gives the lodge a further tinge of mystery. Twain, of course, would have shaken his head. If the architects of the Antietam lodge thought they could romanticize the battlefield, softening the carnage through the heroic haze of knightly combat, then they misunderstood the limits of medievalism. You can’t plaster over the horrors of war; the blood finds a way to seep out in the end.

“Or will these changing times, motorways, power lines…”

On a cold, sunny day last November, I tromped along the Potomac and decided, on a whim, to hike the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. Over several hikes, sometimes with loved ones but often alone, I covered all of its 40-odd miles, rambling north from the canal towpath by the river along the wooded ridge of South Mountain, and finally—yesterday!—trudging into Pen Mar, Pennsylvania, my own ersatz Compostella. Although I foresaw the hours of chilly silence, the protesting soles, the glimpses of deer tails fleeing like ghosts through the brush, I hadn’t expected to stumble onto a medievalist monument by a forgotten poet or a Gothic chapel emerging from medieval shadows—and I certainly didn’t imagine that the Appalachian Trail itself was built upon a mixed medieval metaphor.

“As Roman civilization received ultimately its cleansing invasion from the hinterland, so American civilization may yet receive its modern counterpart.” So wrote Benton MacKaye in “Outdoor Culture—the Philosophy of Through Trails,” his 1927 address to the New England Trail Conference in Boston (republished in the 1950 collection From Geography to Geotechnics). A Harvard-trained forester with excessive faith in central planning, the eccentric MacKaye dreamed up the Appalachian Trail but left it largely to others to build. He wasn’t always thrilled with the result—he wanted a wilderness retreat, where others were happy to settle for an unbroken path—but over time, he imagined that the A.T. held increasingly profound philosophical significance. What began as a place for public recreation became, in MacKaye’s mind, a long, winding pathway toward social reform.

First, though, MacKaye had to reveal his idea, like an oracle, through metaphors and riddles. Early in his 1927 speech, he deploys the first of two medievalist images:

I once saw Douglas Fairbanks in the photoplay Robin Hood. The hero climbs the proverbial tower; with one arm he catches the beautiful lady as she jumps to elude the bad man’s attentions; with the other he continues climbing, then deftly annihilating Mr. Bad Man, he receives embraces nobly won. It was a glorious show. Intensely I imbibed it from start to finish, transferring my personality totally and thoroughly into Douglas’s rugged body. For fifty cents I had been a hero for twice as many minutes. I left the theatre victorious, vicarious, and with my money’s worth. Into this vivid little Utopia I had made my “get-away” from the humdrum of ordinary prosy life.

Here, then, are the two brands: the Utopia of creative thought, and the Utopia of effortless escape; the pipe dream of a Magellan, and that of a movie-fan; the real and the vicarious; the active and the imbibing. Which in the long run is the most fun?

[. . .]

Which would you rather be—a makebelieve Robin Hood, or a real (though diminutive) Magellan? We can be the first for fifty cents; what are the chances for becoming the second?

Like many before and since, MacKaye recognizes that the Middle Ages offer easy escapism, but he responds to the common claim of his era that men had become “over-civilized” by offering an alternative: personal exploration on a trail through true wilderness.

A second medieval metaphor sends “The Philosophy of Through Trails” spinning off in an ambitious and rather startling direction. MacKaye spent his whole life trying to save wild places from the encroachment of cities, and I love his justification for the Appalachian Trail—one of the oddest uses of medievalism (or, perhaps, Late Antiquity-ism) I’ve ever seen:

And now I come straight to the point of the philosophy of through trails. It is to organize a Barbarian invasion. It is a counter movement to the Metropolitan invasion. Who are these modern Barbarians? Why, we are—the members of the New England Trail Conference. As the Civilizees are working outward from the urban centers we Barbarians must be working downward from the mountain tops. The backbone of our strategy (in the populous eastern United States) lies on the crestline of the Appalachian Range, the hinterland of the modern “Romes” along the Atlantic coast. This crestline should be captured—and no time lost about it.

The Appalachian Range should be placed in public hands and become the site for a Barbarian Utopia.

The metaphor continues: For MacKaye, cabins and trails are “but a line of forts” that require a fighting force of hikers: “we must mobilize our real (if diminutive) Magellans—our pioneers of a new exploration.” I suppose he sees no contradiction in federal bureaucracies claiming and preserving land in defiance of civilization, but such was MacKaye’s mind: a whirlwind of quirky notions all swirling around one transcendent goal: restoring a balance between the natural and the artificial in American life. “It is a quest for harmony,” he wrote,

for what is pleasing and not ‘vile’ in that outward world which is our common mind. This philosophy—or culture—is, to my mind, the raison d’etre of the through trail and its ramifications. It is “the why” of the Appalachian Trail, which—let us hope—may some day form the base for the strategy of a “Barbarian invasion,” and for the development of a Barbarian Utopia.

As a regional planner who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, MacKaye generated reports that must have read like prose poems to his more practical colleagues. He once argued that hikers, as a small subset of the population, were entitled to mountains of their own in the name of protecting minority rights. During World War II, in a telling example of an expert unable to see beyond his specialty, he advocated that the United States organize its national defense strategy around watersheds. But despite his knack for cryptic pronouncements, MacKaye was always clear about his radical vision.

“[W]e must widen the access to the sources of life,” he wrote in 1946 after co-founding the Wilderness Society, insisting that his democratic goal was “not to grab off earldoms for some but to open up kingdoms for all.” There’s that medieval dream again: Utopian, in that it’s found literally nowhere, but always attainable, as long as you see it’s not someplace to be, but is something you are.

“…but nevertheless you know you’re locked toward the future.”

Nobody associates the Appalachian Trail with the Middle Ages. I wrote that in haste after discovering a faux-medieval monument in a Maryland park. Now I know better—because if you hike north from Gathland for seven miles, the forest opens onto an old highway and the parking lot of an eighteenth-century inn, and across the road you see this:

That’s St. Joseph’s Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, built in the 1880s to serve as a local Catholic mission church and family mausoleum. The Appalachian Trail now runs next to it through the weeds, but this patch of mountain used to be part of the vast summer retreat of Mrs. Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren.

The daughter of a Congressional Whig, Dahlgren was a Washington socialite and much-consulted etiquette expert. She was widowed twice after marrying prominent men: first an Assistant Secretary of the Interior and then later Admiral John Dahlgren, an innovator in naval ordnance. In 1876, the Widow Dahlgren bought an old inn here on South Mountain, fifty miles outside D.C., and made it her summer home. Although the house looked nothing like a castle, she romantically wrote that it seemed to her “like an old manor-seat surrounded by tenantry.” She commissioned this chapel just as the Gothic Revival style was becoming fashionable for churches, prep schools, and universities.

Dahlgren Chapel (as it’s now known) is a solid and serious piece of work, with no gargoyles or grotesques to override dignity with whimsy and few overt nods to modernity. I’m intrigued by the bell tower, which looks like God reached down and gave it a 90-degree turn: Does it imitate any particular medieval church? Is it unusual to find a cross on both the bell tower and the main roof?

I can’t find the name of the architect—hopefully the group working to preserve the chapel will know—but I did learn something interesting from looking into Dahlgren: she was a highly refined writer with more than a passing interest in the Middle Ages.

You wouldn’t detect a yen for the medieval from your first glance at her ouvre: an etiquette guide, novels about Washington society, a bio of her husband and a collection of reminiscences about living in South America during his naval service, a volume of ghost stories—Dahlgren was as prolific as she is forgotten. She deserves better, at least from Maryland readers, because her 1882 book South-Mountain Magic would be smart and engaging even if it weren’t steeped in medieval metaphors and imagery.

Of mostly local interest, South-Mountain Magic collects Dahlgren’s research into the folkways of her rural neighbors, most of them poor German foresters and mountaineers who weren’t shy about sharing their old-country superstitions. There are stories here about Civil War ghosts on the nearby battlefield, a Native American spirit with its head on fire, jack-o’-lanterns and will-o’-the-wisps, Satanic masses, and even a local wizard whose German spell-book is packed with hexes and cures—which, Dahlgren notes, are always perversions of Christian prayers and rites.

“The prevalence of such a confused mass of superstition as we chronicle, and that too within fifty miles of the very capitol of this vast nation . . . does not prove much as regards a theory of progressive civilization, and the wonderful and special enlightenment of the nineteenth century,” Dahlgren writes with dainty wit. However, her book isn’t a denunciation of occultism and superstition; rather, it’s a careful Catholic argument for studying the supernatural.

Although wary of imitating centuries of “innumerable philosophers and sages, ever seeking for that cabalistic lore, which may overstep the boundary line between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen,” Dahlgren waxes theological: What of the “ecstacies, visions, and mystic revelations” of saints who have been allowed glimpses of Heaven? Might not lesser souls with “lower perceptive powers also seize some flashes of light, sent forth from that Divine emanation that permeates creation?” Don’t poets, artists, and musicians have a gift for apprehending the divine? Dahlgren then proposes a scientific justification: By studying magic, we can better understand the relationship between the material and the immaterial, between actions and causes, just as the study of magnetism and electricity has been productive and informative. For all we know, Dahlgren argues, scientific explanations for ghosts and spells may yet be forthcoming.

Today’s Catholic philosophers will still find Dahlgren an articulate, thoughtful ally, but I’m most interested in her respect for the Middle Ages, which suffuses her view of the world. Even as she catalogs local superstitions, she makes a trenchant point about the present: we’re not as “modern” as we think, and an honest comparison with the past should leave us humble but enlightened, like a desert saint:

There is no study, probably, more useful to give the mind something like a just balance, than the comparison of the various forms of civilization, ancient and modern. And yet when such comparisons are made, as they often are, from a sophistical standpoint, they do more harm than good. The class of minds that stultify this present era, without looking carefully through the long vista of the past ages, very much resemble those people who, staying closely at home, make their own contracted notions the standard of excellence.

The present age passes by St. Simon of Stylites poised on his pillar, and jibes at him as an undoubted madman, quite unconscious all the while that he has gained a wider range of vision from his serene height of contemplation, than the dust-stained pilgrims who revile him as they plod onward in the highway below.

To Dahlgren, modern superstitions are the misguided impulses of a soul seeking true religion but settling on “the lovely legends clinging on to the ardent faith of the so-called ‘dark ages,’ although not received as of faith”:

These accepted legends and traditions, orally handed down from generation to generation, frame in the life of the lowly peasant who believes in them, with the absolute beauty of the brilliantly illuminated border of the quaint manuscripts of that age. These borders enclosed, perhaps, a black lettering, but they expressed the true.

As we write, a vision of another and a better world comes before us. We behold the majestic, solemn repose of the monastery, and standing in a niche, as it were, set apart, a venerable figure, with bared head bowed down over the sacred desk in profound contemplation. For here is the Holy Bible, fondly clasped, with its protecting chain . . .

Such faith was of the past. Now what is of the present?

Medievalism was an important part of nineteenth-century Catholicism, and Dahlgren draws on it to offer one of her era’s most charming Catholic arguments against the pride of modern secularism. Her imagery is particularly appropriate now, given how many hikers tromp past her chapel each spring:

It is a long pilgrimage, to be sure, from the mediaeval ages to the present day, and our sandals are turned into shoes, and our shoes have lost their soles in the toilsome journey. So we are at last here, in the broad light of progress, and we enter a fashionable shop to get others more suited to the advanced ideas around us. We are duly pinched and excruciated, somewhat as we once saw the martyrs tortured, only now there is no motive in our suffering to ennoble it; and finally we are told we have “a fit.” How we sigh for the graceful old sandals, that we wore loosely strapped, without having “a fit,” and not high-stepping, tight-compressing, all-torturing, with thin understanding, iron heels and steel springs, as these. But we are assured that our purchase is of the most improved patent and latest style, and our package is handed us.

As we stretch forth our hands to receive it, what blur or film fills our eyes, once so bright with visions of the glorious past? Can we longer see, or do we dream?—for the shoes handed us are wrapped in the rudely torn leaves of a Bible! “May God forgive the impiety!” we explain. “The Bible,” answers the flippant salesman, “is of no special value; it is spread broadcast in this nineteenth century, not chained to the desk as in the Dark Ages. It is cheaper to us than other waste paper, for it is given away by thousands.”

Today, Dahlgren’s home is an inn again, and the land she called her “sky-farm” has been put to other uses, but her chapel stands as a monument to her medievalism—an open respect for the supernatural as a weirder aspect of God’s creation. “The moods that beset us here,” she concluded, “are not to be measured by conventional standards.”

Medievalism as an alternative to or refuge from modernity has a history as long as modernity itself. In Dahlgren’s lifetime, it would find fresh expression not only among Catholic aesthetes but also through the Arts and Crafts movement, in early chivalry-themed scouting clubs and youth groups, among collectors of folklore, and on the pages of popular novels. What brings hikers here isn’t so different. “Truly, this world is replete in mysteries,” Dahlgren wrote. “The golden thread which connects the ages cannot be destroyed.”

“Spin me down the long ages, let them sing the song…”

Nobody associates the Appalachian Trail with the Middle Ages—but when hikers in Maryland descend from the woods through a gap in the mountains, a chivalrous vision awaits them: a castle-like pile of looming stone that seems like the dream of some long-buried age—which, in a weird way, it is.

That’s the War Correspondents’ Memorial Arch, built in 1896 by George Alfred Townsend on the grounds of what used to be his mountain estate, now a quiet and haunting state park.

Townsend was once a familiar name in newspaper-reading homes. Although he spent most of the Civil War in New York, Philadelphia, and Europe, he rose from modest beginnings to find renown as a journalist and commentator, first by landing a scoop of an interview with General Philip Sheridan and later by covering Lincoln’s assassination. He published widely under the pen name “Gath,” got rich, and built Gapland, his home here on a Civil War battlefield, where he spent decades cranking out novels and poems in a futile bid for literary immortality.

And then in 1896, with sponsors like Thomas Edison, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Joseph Pulitzer, who perhaps didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, he built his remarkable arch.

Looming 50 feet tall, with plaques and inscriptions along its sides, the memorial is a busy confection of sculptures, symbols, and nebulous notions. One local Civil War interpreter argues that many of the writers and artists memorialized on it are undeserving or impossible to identify, a charge the park’s historian denies but doesn’t fully refute, even as she calls the monument “inexplicable to most.” The asymmetry, the allegorical faces of “Speed” and “Heed,” the horse heads, historical quotes ranging from Thucydides to to Froissart to Sir Henry Stanley, a sampling of Townsend’s own verse—there’s much to mull over, but for me the big question is: Why did Townsend build a medieval monument in the first place? Sure, medievalism was thick in the nineteenth-century air, but what the heck inspired him to romanticize journalists with such a showy ode to the Middle Ages?

Fortunately, Townsend left behind a 48-line poem about the memorial—collected in his overstuffed tome Poems of Men and Eventslest posterity be baffled. Here’s a taste of “War Correspondents’ Memorial (at Gapland, Md., 1896)”:

Born so rigid, stony and frigid,
    Moor and Roman it must be,
Long erected, a gate dissected
    From some castle’s feudality;
Or set in the passes, where saying masses,
    Pilgrims, crusaders, kneeling them,
Gazed and trembled, with undissembled
    Joy, in the sight of Jerusalem.
Vale of Catoctin, like jewels locked in
    An azure casket, flash thy lights!
Like the Escorial, our Memorial
    Guards them all from the mountain heights.

Yawning fortalice, thine the portal is
    Freedom opened with her pen….

You get the picture. That’s the medieval section of the poem, where Townsend asks us to believe that the monument is easily mistaken for a Romanesque ruin in medieval Jerusalem or a fragment of the Spanish royal palace—although his private letters apparently reveal that he based the overall shape of the memorial on an arch at at a train station and the facade of the fire house in nearby Hagerstown.

Even so, Townsend’s attraction to medieval forms isn’t arbitrary or aimless. If you spend a few frigid winter days, as I did, paging through Poems of Men and Events and his short-story collection Tales of the Chesapeake, you encounter more than a journalist with lofty aspirations, a hack struggling to be Longfellow, Twain, and Washington Irving all at once. What you find, among so much else, are the dreams of a part-time medievalist, a man eager to matter in the romantic, enchanted sweep of the world.

To read too much Townsend in one sitting is to contend with some dreadful poetry and prose: odes to politicians, the treacly story of a lame Congressional page, the tale of a Jewish loner on the island of Chincoteague that’s so vaguely written I can’t tell if it’s intentionally antisemitic. And then there are the rhymes: “Sugarloaf” and “antistrophe”; “standards plant ’em” and “azure bantam” (in a poem about the Delaware Blue Hens!); and thirteen impressively strenuous attempts to rhyme the name Magruder, among them “brooder,” “alluder,” “interluder,” “concluder,” and “obtruder.” And if, perchance, you need a 40-line poem that uses the Senate rules of cloture as a metaphor for a flirtatious rendezvous, then Townsend is the bard of your wonkiest dreams.

But Townsend clearly longs for magic, too. I enjoy seeing places I’ve lived and known well—D.C., Maryland, and Delaware—judged worthy of legend and verse: A boy in Newark, Delaware, accidentally swallows a timepiece as Mason and Dixon survey the area, and he grows up to be an expert watch-fixer. Some hicks in the mountains have an eerie encounter with John Brown. And in one of Townsend’s silliest and most genuinely charming stories, an old man with a blow-hole shambles into a publishing office and claims to have wandered the seas as the King of the Fish. The world of Townsend’s imagination is supernatural and spiritually alive: The poem “Harpers Ferry Sunset” turns the historic town into a setting for Christian martyrdom and timeless enchantment:

Nothing here has since abided
    But the spell of Nature’s spasm,
He the scenery divided
    And his spectre fills the chasm.
Armorers and all their din,
    Feudal times, he gathered in;
Him suspended, where he went,
    He suspended government!
As a whirlpool leaves a tragic
    Rift aghast where it sucked down,
In the camera of magic
    Swims thy maelstrom face, John Brown!

Townsend wants to find myth and magic in nineteenth-century headlines, and sometimes he succeeds. Even with its giggle-inducing reference to “spent balls of scandal,” his prophetic sonnet about President James Garfield is competent enough, and his ode to Rutherford B. Hayes has a metaphysical allure that demanded I re-read it to see if it was better than it seemed. Posterity is ever on Townsend’s mind: a nice 1871 poem imagines the half-built Washington Monument forever incomplete, disdained by a future race as evidence that we were “some brood ingrate with thrift, / And souls unfinished.” The poem made me wish Townsend had paused to hone his best ideas rather than scribble as if being paid by the whim.

Medieval spirits bumble through Townsend’s poetry: Civil War armies are Charlemagne’s troops, the Smithsonian building is a medieval abbey, Jefferson is a second Averroes. Townsend obviously shared his contemporaries’ wistful, romanticized sense of the Middle Ages, so I’m tempted to say that his faux, fragmentary castle stands for martial bravery and chivalrous virtue. But then Townsend does something not so nineteenth-century. In his 1896 speech dedicating the memorial, he explains its purpose: “Its lesson to the neighbors around it is the profitableness of knowledge and of letters and imagination to any people, however they may undervalue these things.” Townsend takes a symbol of war and makes it instead about the peaceful business of writing, reporting, and art.

Or does he? The monument’s main inscription shows a hodgepodge of intentions: “To the Army Correspondents and Artists 1861–1865 Whose Toils Cheered the Camps, Thrilled the Fireside, Educated Provinces of Rustics into a Bright Nation of Readers, and Gave Incentive to Narrate Distant Wars and Explore Dark Lands.” According to one of Townsend’s friends, the Pan-like statue is actually Mercury (or is it Pheidippides?), the faces of the gods represent Electricity and Poetry, and the arches symbolize Description, Depiction, and Photography—but contemporary press reports cited in a 2014 about Townsend don’t offer consistent interpretations of the memorial. Like much of Townsend’s writing, this arch is packed with literary and historical references coherent to no one but “Gath.” Even that pen name, an adaptation of his initials, is an Old Testament reference that speaks to nothing beyond the knowledge of the Bible he inherited from his preacher father. I don’t know what the Middle Ages meant to Townsend; I do know he got lost in history trying to find his place in it.

“Imagine how happy he’d be to know that someone was reading his work,” my girlfriend suggested when she saw me flipping through Townsend’s books. That’s all most writers want: for their stories and poems to exist in the minds of readers who help them outlast their creator. Today, Townsend is remembered only for this architectural folly he built late in life, when he was penniless, reclusive, and desperate for a legacy. “Three score years of pushing quill as the exponent of my hand have become second nature,” he wrote in an unfinished 1913 memoir, “and I hardly understand why I am not still wanted.” Surrounded by stonework ruins, an empty mausoleum, and the indifferent mountains and woods, his arch is now as evocative as a medieval elegy: Fortune is fickle, life is uncertain, and death is assured. That isn’t the romance that Townsend envisioned, but it stands as the story he actually wrote. Hikers at Gathland ponder it briefly, then look to the trees and move on.

“No one could find me on their own, I’m off the beaten track…”

American Halloween may be the most medieval of holidays, even if the omnipresence of New World pumpkins obscures its already murky traditions. Most people carve jack-o’-lanterns, for example, without wondering why the heck they’re doing it. The curious can look to Irish folklore, to a tangle of tales about a scoundrel named Jack whose evil deeds keep him out of Heaven but whose tricks sufficiently infuriate the Devil to bar him forever from Hell. With nowhere to go after death, Jack roams the earth, his path lit only by the glow of an ember in a hollowed-out turnip.

Between the eighth-century inception of All Saints’ Day in Rome and the pre-Christian celebrations of Samhain, I see no harm in presuming that the jack-o’-lantern tradition is medieval too. And so last October I turned to my more sensible half and asked her: “Why doesn’t anyone carve turnips anymore?”

As it turns out, Old World jack-o’-lanterns are weirdly easy to make. Cut off the top, scoop out the brains with a melon baller, and use one of those cheap little mini-saws—they’re sold every autumn as pumpkin-carving tools, although they’re nigh-useless on the real thing—to turn a humble, bulbous root into an eerie little sentinel.

We found these—the largest turnips I’ve ever seen—at a roadside produce market out here in the Maryland boonies. The taproots add unexpected spookiness, and the skin is thick enough that you can hang them with a head full of tea-light without worrying that they’ll break and fall.

Should you suffer pumpkin withdrawal, you can easily give your lantern the traditional jagged leer.

So why did lantern-carving immigrants from the British Isles turn in their turnips for all things cucurbita? Some people have suggested that North American turnips tend to be smaller than their New World cousins, and thus harder to carve, but I don’t think that’s it; rather, pumpkins have one clear advantage over hollowed-out turnips. Carved pumpkins can survive with their dignity intact for days or weeks if the weather’s right and squirrels don’t get into them—but our Old World jack-o’-lanterns lasted only two or three days before their little faces wizened into unrecognizability. A damned soul wandering the night for all eternity needs better visibility than that. On the other hand, turnips are faster and safer to carve and much less messy, so we’re happy to light them along our porch as tokens of fleeting glory, retelling a legend the centuries never quite quenched.