Archive for ‘writing’


“And we’re strangers here, on our way to some other place…”

After Becoming Charlemagne came out in late 2006, I spent nearly two years talking about the early Middle Ages wherever anyone asked me to do so—at libraries, bookstores, museums, senior-citizen programs, even a tea salon in a suburb of New Orleans. I had several templates for speeches, all of them customizable for different venues and occasions, including one really fun presentation about the founding and early decades of Baghdad. But when the branch of the University of Maryland where I was teaching asked me to give the plenary address at a conference for writing instructors, I got a little more nervous than usual.

I’ve never been a writing instructor—I don’t have the necessary patience—so I wondered: What did a part-time medievalist have to say to teachers who do some of the English department’s hardest and least glamorous work?

As is so often the case, once I reframed the question to be less about myself, I found there was plenty to say after all.

Here’s a transcript of the speech, edited to remove introductory banter, a couple of brief tangents, and legions of unflattering “ums” and “ahs.” I wish it hadn’t taken so long to post this somewhere, but hey, if something is worth saying, maybe it’s still worth saying eleven years later.

* * *

“The old wine of ancient learning”:
The medieval classroom and its lessons for modern writing instructors

Plenary address, Fourth Annual UMUC July Writing Conference, Adelphi, Maryland
Friday, July 27, 2007, 9:30 a.m.

Thank you for the invitation to come speak to you all this morning. It’s always an honor to be asked to give a talk, but it’s even more of an honor to be asked to speak with colleagues about writing, and putting some of what we do here at UMUC in its historical context. I’m really humbled by, and grateful for, the invitation.

Now, because I teach medieval literature and write about medieval history and culture, I wanted to do a little digging to find something appropriate and relevant to talk about. As Matt pointed out, I recently wrote a book, two little books, about Charlemagne, the king and emperor who was a patron of education and who, like many of our UMUC students, came to scholarship fairly late in life, but with tremendous passion. Charlemagne and the great teachers of the early Middle Ages revived and perpetuated ancient and time-tested educational methods, which helped keep learning alive for the past 1,200 years, so I thought I’d spent a little time this morning discussing the pedagogical traditions we inherited from them—what Charlemagne’s chief advisor, a man named Alcuin, referred to as “the old wine of ancient learning.” It’s a tradition that all of us in this room are working in to some extent or another, even if we’re not necessarily aware that we’re doing so.

So why look to the early Middle Ages? It’s an era commonly dismissed as the “Dark Ages,” and perhaps understandably so. Europe was a collection of competing kingdoms and tribes, very few people were literate, monasteries were the sole repositories of surviving knowledge, and the first universities were more than 300 years away. In fact, the brightest, most perspicacious people in Europe during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries couldn’t have imagined a day when there would be a sufficient number of literate, well educated people to populate such an institution.

But when you look at the manuscripts, the classroom texts, and the teaching methods of the early Middle Ages, you find habits and practices that I think would warm the hearts of pretty much everybody in this room. You find, for example, an obsessive attention to what today we would refer to as “literacy” and “critical thinking skills.” We find a true love of learning—even more admirably, a love of language, the nuts and bolts of language: how language works, how you put words together, how you put sentences together, how you communicate with other educated people. And you find that underlying all of this is an incredible sense of purpose, a real sense of mission. Thanks to the efforts of the monks of this era, within a generation or two, literacy was spreading, old books were being copied and preserved at unprecedented rates, and new books were being written for educational use.

So there are really a few things to discuss here this morning: What was this educational curriculum and where did it come from? And also, what made it so successful in such an uncertain and illiterate era?

The answers to those questions contain real lessons for those of us who teach writing, composition, and literature, and in the end I think they leave us with further interesting questions to ponder as well.

* * *

Now as to that first question: Where did this educational curriculum come from? Medieval people didn’t concoct it out of nothing. Medieval learning was derived from ancient Roman educational methods, so let me talk for a moment about what came before.

At the height of the Roman empire, when Rome was prosperous and powerful and stretched from Scotland to the Middle East, young boys began their education with somebody called a litterator, a tutor or a teacher who taught them the basics—who, as the name implies, “lettered” them, and gave them fundamental reading and writing skills. At the age of 12, they attended classes with the grammaticus, a grammarian, where, since they were ancient Romans, they studied Greek and Latin. They read literature, especially poetry, and emphasized grammar and syntax. On the side, they also studied history, mythology, and basic arithmetic. Around the age of 14 or 15, they moved on to the full study of rhetoric. They read prose writers, they practiced composition, and they attempted elaborate written and spoken exercises. They also studied law, philosophy, and science, but usually philosophy and science got short shrift in favor of law. The children of the wealthy were going to need that legal training if they were going to get a good job with the civil service. Some things really don’t change.

The Romans didn’t have a single name for this curriculum. Cicero had referred to it as the “liberal arts” and “liberal disciplines”—artes liberales and liberales disciplina—but he never really spelled out exactly what he meant by them or exactly how many liberal arts were in this curriculum, at least at first. The Latin adjective liberales here indicated an education worthy of a man who was liber, or “free,” but it also connoted courteousness, generosity, honor—in short, the behavior of a cultivated man, anachronistically someone we might think of as a “proper gentleman.”

This term “liberal arts” continues to pop up even after the heyday of Rome and well into Late Antiquity, even as there were fewer of these “proper Roman gentlemen” roaming the Forum. For a while there’s some disagreement in Late Antiquity about how many liberal arts there even are. Some say nine, but most agreed that there were seven, in two groupings: a primary grouping of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic; and a secondary grouping of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. (A few ancient writers tried to squeeze medicine and architecture in there to form nine, but those never really stuck.)

Fast-forward a few centuries, and this was the basic educational philosophy, this curriculum of seven liberal arts, inherited by early medieval people.

They knew from reading the centuries-old works of Saint Augustine—Charlemagne’s favorite writer—that this curriculum was essential. Saint Augustine had said in his youth that the liberal arts “are learnt partly for the conduct of life, [and] partly for the understanding and contemplation of the Universe.” And by the year 800—the high point of the reign of the king and emperor Charlemagne—this curriculum was thriving.

Of course, the world was a very different place by this point. The Roman Empire was a memory; the social institutions of Europe had devolved and were rather unsophisticated, by the standards of a few centuries earlier; and Christianity, not Roman paganism, was the predominant belief system.

Yet this same basic liberal arts curriculum endured, and even gained new life, in the hands of these early medieval monks. The grouping of four secondary subjects—arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy—had already been known for centuries as the quadrivium. But the grouping of the three primary subjects got its name around this time. Sometime around the year 800, the curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic became known as the trivium. This is literally, in Latin, the place where three roads come together; it’s also where we get our modern word “trivia.” Most people think that “trivium” is an old Roman term, but in the context of education, it’s not—it’s a medieval term.

So that’s where the curriculum came from, and how medieval monks found themselves in possession of it.

But what did these early medieval monks do with the trivium once they devoted themselves to it? And why and how where they so successful?

* * *

Well, they put their own early medieval twist on the old Roman subjects of the trivium.

At the core of it, of course, was grammar, with “grammar” very broadly defined. We think of it as a narrowly defined subject today, but to them it wasn’t. It was the study of literature, both secular and religious, but it was also “grammar” as we define it now: letters, words, parts of speech, even handwriting—orthography—and vocabulary. They began their study of grammar by memorizing the psalms. The psalter, the Book of Psalms, was their primer. They combined a tremendous amount of memorization with an emphasis on the underlying technical aspects of language. They used all these Late Antique writers and early medieval authors—Donatus, Priscian, and St. Isidore—and they had many newly compiled dictionaries and glossaries to help them understand exactly what it was they were reading.

When they were ready, when they had sufficiently studied grammar, they, like their ancient Roman counterparts, moved on to rhetoric and studied, among other books, the works of Cicero, or new books closely based on Cicero’s writings. (We would consider these books heavily plagiarized from Cicero, but they didn’t have those sorts of intellectual-property issues; they were able to get away with imitation in ways we wouldn’t allow today.) They learned practical skills when they studied rhetoric, and I find the list of these things rather interesting. They learned how to write a letter of condolence; how to describe a king (in a flattering way, of course); how to compose—and I love this one, we should all assign this at some point—a debate between winter and spring, the old classical debate genre, which they took up in the Middle Ages as well. They also wrote letters announcing the election of a bishop or the death of a member of their local community. And they learned how to do this with metaphors, rhymed prose, parallelism, and a host of other rhetorical skills drawn from ancient writing and ancient examples.

The rhetoric manuals from this time are really remarkable. I dug into one in preparation for coming to give this talk today. Medieval authors read Cicero and imitated him very closely, and in these early rhetoric manuals, rhetoric has a grammar all its own, with five parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery; and three types of questions: demonstrative, deliberative, and judicial; and four types of disputes and debates—and so on and so forth, with all sorts of classifications and sub-classifications, with clearly defined rhetorical strategies outlined and described and meticulously classified along the way. I can tell you that the precision and thoroughness of medieval thinkers is dazzling when you first encounter it. It doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of medieval people as backwards.

Once a student sufficiently mastered rhetoric, he moved on to dialectic, which as far as medieval people were concerned was essentially logic: how to use language accurately by focusing on precise definitions and logical arguments. Here they did syllogistic exercises, often in question-and-response format. In the classroom and in the textbooks of the time, there are these great medieval dialogues between a thinker and whoever the king or prince happened to be, so conversational yet so precise, clear examples of the Socratic method in action.

Keep in mind that medieval students had the added difficulty of having to do all of this in Latin, which they were studying on top of speaking their own vernacular languages. At every step, they were encouraged to read the best and most difficult Latin texts available; they were encouraged to confront and engage with writings produced by the finest minds, such as Cicero and Virgil and Saint Augustine—and, of course, King David. Ultimately they did so that they could understand and interpret the most important text in their world, which of course was the Bible—but a great deal of rigorous work involving pagan and secular authors was required to get them to that point.

One dialogue in a rhetoric textbook quotes Charlemagne himself as saying this:

I confess…that to me these requirements appear at first glance to be very pleasant and just and moderate. But as I look at them and come to understand them, I see that they postulate constant exercise and daily practice, and that they cannot be perfectly fulfilled except by unremitting thought and close study.

I’d love to give that to every one of our students as they get ready to study writing and literature.

Charlemagne was right: the trivium was not to be breezed through. In fact, developing the ability to read, write, analyze, argue, and understand was a lifetime project. It began, in youth, with memorizing the psalms; it required years of composition practice and a tremendous amount of memorization and imitation; and it ended—if it ever ended—with being able to write original poetry in Latin, which many educated people were never able to do, and which even the best-educated people often got wrong.

But this was “lifelong learning” in the truest sense of the term. No matter what an educated person went on to study, whether he dabbled in music, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, you name it, he never stopped studying grammar; he never stopped being obsessed with language; and he never stopped improving his own rhetorical skills.

The poets of the ninth century were very certain about this. A witty Goth named Theodulf who was bishop of the city of Orleans wrote a poem in which Grammar is an allegorical figure. She stands at the root of a tree that represents all knowledge.

Theodulf writes:

The entire tree seems to proceed from her, because no art can be brought forth without her. Her left hand holds a whip, and her right hand a sword: the first is to drive the lazy, the second is to weed out vices. And since wisdom is in the first place everywhere, a diadem [a crown] adorns her head.

So Grammar was the queen and the root of all knowledge. (Of course, Theodulf can’t get away without a dig at some of his lazier students. He’s a bit of a wiseguy by ninth-century standards.)

The standards he discusses in this little excerpt from his poem about the seven liberal arts are supported in many of the other classroom texts, poems, and other accounts we have from the early Middle Ages.

Amazingly, we have one manuscript, in the library at St. Gall in what’s now Switzerland, that’s the personal notebook of a well-educated abbot from around the year 850, and it demonstrates how medieval people truly made a lifelong commitment to studying language. The abbot’s name was Walahfrid Strabo—Walahfrid the Squinter. If any of you are gardeners, you may have seen references to Walahfrid. He wrote a famous book about gardening, and he tended a famous garden at Reichenau, and if you visit the National Cathedral and go into to the Bishop’s Garden here in D.C., there’s a little “garden room,” as they call it, devoted to the era of Charlemagne, with little signs with snippets from Walahfrid Strabo. (I like seeing these little snippets of the Middle Ages popping up unexpectedly.)

When he wasn’t writing, Walahfrid was the personal tutor of the Emperor Charles the Bald. And he apparently kept this notebook, this little vademecum, that he took with him wherever he went. It’s amazing we even have this.

It’s 394 pages long. It includes mathematical tables, medical texts, excerpts from chronicles and calendars, even a very clever little drawing of a labyrinth. Walahfrid was clearly, from his notebook, a man with a keen mind and a very broad range of interests.

But 169 of these 394 pages, around 40 percent of the book, are devoted to grammatical texts: examples of usage, excerpts from great writers, and guides to poetic meter, all things he could use later while refining his own writing. Many of them are excerpts from writers from Late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages, writers on grammar and rhetoric.

Can you imagine if 40 percent our students’ personal reference libraries years after they graduated still consisted of grammar and composition manuals and notes from your classes that they still used to improve and refine and perfect their writing? That may sound horrifying at first—you may thing, “gee, I didn’t send them out into the world sufficiently prepared”—but this wasn’t a sign of the weakness of their system; it was a sign of its strength. Prestige and reputation were bound up in your writing abilities. You didn’t want to look silly or ignorant when writing for other educated people.

So if you were a medieval person, no matter what you studied, you were always returning to the roots of your education in grammar. You were always, essentially, to use a phrase that’s been bandied about in the past few years, “writing across the curriculum.” You saw yourself as never really having completed English 101—and that was a good thing.

* * *

Fortunately—for them and for us—this emphasis on the Liberal Arts in general, and the trivium in particular, was a remarkable success. After the year 800, books were produced and copied at an unprecedented rate. Around 1,800 manuscripts or fragments survive from Western Europe before the year 800—but from the ninth century alone, we have more than 7,000 manuscripts or fragments. Quite a few of them were ancient books that we wouldn’t have today if medieval monks hadn’t copied them. For example, we wouldn’t have Cicero’s Philippics, in which the great orator rants about Mark Antony, if monks hadn’t seen fit to copy it in the early Middle Ages. No ancient copy of the book survives—the oldest is a ninth or tenth-century copy.

These were people who cared so deeply about the treasures of the past that in their zeal to preserve books and make them more legible, they developed a new form of handwriting. Today, scholars call it “Carolingian minuscule,” but you know it as the so-called “Roman” font on your word processors. It’s not “Roman” at all—that’s a mistake by typesetters of early modern books. It’s a medieval Northern European handwriting—and 1,200 years later, those lowercase letters are still used in nearly all printed books today.

So, not only did they keep the liberal arts curriculum alive, they kept alive a culture of literacy, a culture of the book—a culture that bore additional fruit 300 years later, during the twelfth century, when those traditional seven liberal arts were enhanced by Aristotelian logic and combined with law, medicine, and theology, as monastery and cathedral schools evolved into the first universities. The university was the medieval institution that set European history, and Western intellectual history, on its way. All of us here today are a part of this centuries-old tradition, and in fact we’re continuing it, 800 years after some teachers came together to form guilds in places like Paris and Bologna.

* * *

At the same time, you may be interested to know that there’s a modern movement to bring back the trivium in secondary schools. I recently discovered this after assuming that I’d be speaking this morning only about the hypothetical lessons and uses of the trivium. As it turns out, the Trivium Based Educational Movement is extremely popular among Christian educators and especially Christian homeschoolers.

But even though Christian monks and teachers used this curriculum successfully for centuries, there’s nothing necessarily or inherently Christian about the trivium, with its emphasis on grammar, rhetoric, and logic. In fact, if you search around the Web, you can find dozens of charter schools around the country—public schools with no religious agenda—that are basing their curriculum around the methodology of the trivium.

This is even true locally. If you go to the Web site of the Washington Latin Academy, a new public charter school down the road here in D.C., you’ll see them say this:

Every subject has its grammar, and its developmentally appropriate pedagogy begins with it. In the Lower School…direct instruction, drill, memorization of facts and recitation are essential strategies for teaching and learning. In the Upper School…students are led beyond the grammar to the logic and rhetoric of each subject.

Then the website adds that in these later stages, they employ the Socratic method—just like the teachers and the classroom texts of the early Middle Ages, just like many of you, in your classrooms, in 2007.

* * *

So what can we as writing and literature teachers, or even instructors in other disciplines, learn from the medieval monks who mastered the trivium? What can we learn from their incredible long-term success?

First of all, I think we can derive satisfaction from their very existence. We can take heart in their ability to keep grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic at the core of the curriculum. But their example also reminds us that just by being teachers of writing and composition and literature you—all of you—are working in a venerable and vital field, one that really does prepare students for everything else they will ever do.

And I think we ought to remember that what we teach, and how we teach, and what we discuss here at this conference in the next two days, could very possibly have an impact for centuries.

But I think we can also learn from acknowledging why they did what they did, and attempt to motivate ourselves accordingly.

If you would have asked one of Charlemagne’s monks to justify literacy education and to explain its purpose and importance—or even if you asked Charlemagne himself—he would have been bemused by the question. For these early medieval monks, there was only one answer to the question, and it was extremely obvious to them: the ultimate purpose of an education was to unlock and understand the layers of meaning in the Bible, and thus to save souls. Kings, abbots, and teachers believed that they would have to answer to God Himself if they didn’t educate their subjects and their students to the best of their ability.

This was why the most forward-looking medieval kings and emperors like Charlemagne supported more widespread literacy; why he issued edicts calling for more schools and better education; why he scolded his monks when they sent him incompetent letters; why he tried (unsuccessfully) to learn how to write himself; and why he summoned Europe’s most brilliant teachers to his court.

You see their motives spelled out most memorably, in my opinion, in a charming letter written by Alcuin, who was, as I’ve mentioned, Charlemagne’s chief advisor and one of the best educated men in Europe at the time.

Around 796, Alcuin sends a new graduate of his school back to England, and he sends with him a very tender and revealing letter of reference. It reads in part:

I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander around unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

We can all relate to this very human nervousness about sending a student out into the wider world, but in Alcuin’s case the motive behind it was quite different, and quite un-modern. For early medieval people, the final goal of literacy was a religious one.

* * *

By contrast, if all of us in this room were to explain why we think literacy is important, we’d hear quite a few different answers.

We’d hear that a literate citizenry is vital to a functioning republic; that literacy offers better job prospects; that literacy leads to personal enlightenment, which is its own reward; and perhaps other reasons as well.

Now, I happen to think that all of these very un-medieval answers would be good answers—but if we were to start this discussion, we’d be here for hours, because the responses would be highly personal; all of us would list these motives in different proportions. Some of us would have other motivations still; and hopefully no more than a few of you would have to dig deep to remember why you still do this at all. (We all have those days.)

And even if we all miraculously agreed on the “why” of things, I’m sure we would never agree on the “how”—our methods, our theories, and our classroom techniques.

So even if we don’t have the same reasons for teaching as our predecessors, even if our reasons are far more diverse, I believe we can still admire, maybe even emulate, their consistency and their confidence.

They knew exactly why they did what they did.

And they all worked together toward the advancement of this great continent-wide, communal educational project.

And they weren’t shy about holding their students and themselves to high standards.

And they didn’t let their students wander aimlessly—they made sure they were well versed in the traditions they were joining. They encouraged them to read brilliant and challenging books, and they encouraged a culture that instilled pride in being educated rather than in being ignorant—a culture that made kings and emperors want to be literate, too, and made them want to be great patrons of education.

And they weren’t afraid to acknowledge that their work as educators could not be compartmentalized—that reading and writing and rhetoric were not temporary diversions that were quickly or easily learned, but that they took a lifetime, and that this knowledge, these skills were vital to the survival and progress of their culture.

* * *

That’s why I think a conference like this one can be extremely productive. During the next two days, all of us can move a little bit closer to having, once again, that same shared consistency of purpose and confidence as a profession, while enjoying more of the same shared techniques and methods as well.

We’re sure to disagree about many things, but I hope this conference renews and invigorates us as we get ready to spend days and weeks and months and years convincing students to make rigorous, thoughtful, critical reading and writing as central to their lives as the trivium was to educated people twelve centuries ago.

We can do that by keeping in mind what those medieval monks did with “the old wine of ancient learning”—these distant monks, who, in the words of medieval historian Rosamond McKitterick, “imparted to future generations…the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.”

“…to keep her from the howling winds.”

Last week I attended ninth-grade “gallery night” at our local high school and came away heartened. Asked to create works of art inspired by something they had seen at a nearby museum, sixty kids wrote lucid statements to accompany their exhibits, and they were required to discuss their thinking with adults who put them on the spot. I liked the countercultural lesson: that art isn’t limited to emotional outbursts or mindless spasms of inspiration.

The teacher in my home reinforces the idea in her English classes. She shows the same kids how to scrutinize poems by Whitman and Dunbar so they can map their facets, imitate their forms, and understand that writing and reading are acts of practiced thought. In recent weeks, they’ve also rafted down the river with Huck and Jim, needled the dithering Prufrock, and held vigil in hospital wards with Frederic Henry from A Farewell to Arms. Romanticism, skepticism, generosity, regret, love, loyalty, loss—part of being a kid is growing into oversized gifts, not least among them the realization that your experience, though uniquely your own, has centuries of precedent.

Unfortunately, the worst times in our lives confirm the value of these lessons. I can add nothing but a preface to this unforgettable blog post by scholar and high-school teacher David Salmanson, whose wife died unexpectedly last month:

People keep asking me what they can do for me, and I keep answering that I don’t know yet. People also keep telling me that I seem so composed and that they cannot believe that I can write and think through all of this, but I can. Indeed, I’ve been training my whole life for it, for it’s times like this that the value of a liberal arts education is revealed. Since boyhood, I’ve read and watched Shakespeare and Rostand’s Cyrano and The Bible. I’ve studied history and art and literature. I’ve done science in the labs and in the woods and I’ve stared into the deepest recesses of the universe in the dark of night with astronomers and I’ve stared into the darkest recesses of my own soul with philosophers. So when the unthinkable happened I was ready. I have 10,000 years of human history providing me examples of how to handle myself in the worst times. It’s a handy thing to have on your side.

This, then, is the true purpose of education. We are, again, in one of those moments in history where the liberal arts is under attack for being irrelevant. The calls for job training and “useful” majors is on the rise again.

Majoring in business cannot teach us how to deal with the unthinkable. It may be a path to money, but it will leave you forever poorer.

Friends of the Salmanson family have set up a fund to help with funeral expenses and a memorial scholarship that gives young women the adventure of a month-long hike in the Southwest. If we can’t avert the unthinkable, we can at least respond with condolence and compassion, and we can support opportunities for others to live, listen, and learn. Someday it may help them bear the unthinkable too.

“I can’t be left to my imagination…”

Sometimes, during the busiest weeks, we need to find time to slow down. I did—and in two blog posts about current approaches to art I noticed, and cheered for, implicit heresies.

* * *

First, via Cynthia Haven, comes video of California poet laureate Dana Gioia at the first annual Sierra Poetry Festival in April 2017. I’ve long been a fan of Gioia, but the first seven or eight minutes of his casual talk sum up every simple, contrarian impulse I enjoy in 21st-century poetry, which is as much of a niche pursuit as any can be. Gioia addresses a fellowship he describes as having “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media,” adding that poets aspire to exchange money, power, and social status for beauty, truth, and goodness. If your first impulse is to laugh at that, please think again: Almost nobody makes money with poetry, and doing something you love for its own rewards is actually a lot more normal than hoping your beloved hobby will turn a profit, earn you “likes,” or make you “YouTube Famous.”

The statement that struck me the strongest was this: “We don’t lead global lives.” Heresy! For all we learn from other perspectives and wider views, we can’t escape our own terroir, though many try. At a time when we’re supposed to aspire to be “global citizens,” whatever that is, Gioia preaches diversity of place, of values, of expression. I’m glad he does; those offer something true for all of us.

* * *

And then there’s this from the website Artsy: “Why the Rise of Workout Classes in Museums Should Worry Art Lovers.” Do we really need an “explainer” on this? I understand that some museums have grave financial problems, and I attended several museum conferences a few years ago where older administrators were openly terrified by their inability to attract a younger audience with the attention span of a capsized stinkbug. Turning art spaces into noisy, oniony locker rooms is not the answer. Museums have tried these stunts for a while; symphonies have also tried to cash in with gimmicks like crowd-pleasing concerts of orchestral versions of video-game tunes. In the long run, do these things attract more patrons than they repel? No one has said.

In my 21 years in D.C., I learned to laugh at Capitol Hill workaholics who pretended that a few hours of weekly yoga balanced out their frantic attempts to get noticed after working until dawn on those brilliantly persuasive bar graphs in a sorghum-subsidies report for the assistant to Senator Bedfellow. Learning to be alone to exhume your own thoughts is (to use the language of the stressed) a lifestyle choice—no piped-in soundtrack to every meal, no CNN or Fox News blaring overhead as you try to read a book or reconnect with a friend, no checking your phone every six minutes for nonsense.

I like music. I like video games. Yoga is good for you. I value my smartphone. But I’m zealous about there being one secular place left in our culture that isn’t about bodies rather than minds, or doing rather than thinking, or noise rather than silence, or therapeutic self-improvement rather than grappling with the difficult thinking of older, wiser minds. I suppose that’s my heresy. I support it with my wallet, but for now I’ll continue to live in the woods.

“…with my eyes turned to a different time or hour…”

After translating a poem, I’m always left with a troubling handful of brackets and screws. The bookshelf sure looks like it stands on its own, but anyone peering at it closely, comparing the finished product with the instruction sheet, might spot the small, vital pieces I had to leave out. That’s the frustrating trade-off of this sort of writing, but I like to believe I’m getting better at it—and I’m pleased that one of my poems made it into the summer translation issue of Able Muse.

It’s a fine issue, too, with translations from Catullus, Martial, Victor Hugo, Christine de Pizan, Cavafy, Rilke, Rimbaud, Lope de Vega, and many more. My contribution is modest—ten lines of Latin, an epitaph for Charlemagne’s baby daughter Hildegard translated into alliterative, metrical English—but I’m among poets whose work I admire, including medievalist Maryann Corbett, classicist A.E. Stallings, and X.J. “Nude Descending a Staircase” Kennedy.

Last year, I let my subscription to Poetry lapse after realizing that I rarely found one memorable poem per issue. I put that money toward the biannual Able Muse instead, and it’s proven to be a far more satisfying read. Mirabile lectu, its editors are supportive of poems composed in recognizable forms, but they’re also open to good free verse, prose poems, essays about literature, and even the occasional visual-art portfolio. The 2010 Able Muse Anthology, which collects the best of their first decade, is a worthy introduction to their style and approach. Rather than serve as a one-way repository for CV enhancement, Able Muse feels like a journal its craft-conscious contributors actually read.

I’m busily working on a pile of new translations—and on this sun-baked afternoon, I’m happy to dredge up old “Quid Plura?” posts about this very subject:

“It’s all a patchwork from above…”

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING, FELLS POINT
(1622 THAMES STREET)

The year is low; the yesterdays you spent
Fall numbly, like the numbers on your list.
The least is hope, the promise you invent
In fear.
            Not here. Let everything exist:
In shoes and lanterns, crosses, grout, and brass,
A coin-encrusted sink, a biding throne
Of sundered mirrors, bling, and spackled glass,
Your beaming brings a whirl of scrap and stone
To life in light: the weary walls rejoice.
A greater gift can scarcely be conceived
But one that mends our shards and gives them voice:
Be merry, yes, but better, be relieved,
And rise, and laugh, and listen, lest you miss
Tomorrows no unlikelier than this.

 

“We walked around in circles, singing…”

Ars longa, vita brevis! Although I’m holding down two jobs and working on two new books, I do have several posts in the queue about matters medieval—but until they get done, please indulge me in something atypical for this blog: blatant promotion. If any of these medieval-minded books should strike your fancy, I’d be delighted—and grateful.

When Becoming Charlemagne came out in 2006, I saw it as (among other things) a story about how swiftly time overtakes us. Little did I know that its elegiac mood would soon apply to the many defunct bookstores where it made its debut.

The book tells the story of Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in the year 800—one of the most important events in European history—by showing the early medieval world from the perspectives of people great and small: Frankish peasants, Jewish farmers, the monks of Tours, the caliph of Baghdad, a sneering empress in Constantinople, and world-weary locals in Rome. It’s a five-year slice of history that reads, I hope, like a brisk little novel.

Becoming Charlemagne is available as a paperback or an e-book. (You can also settle in with some popcorn and watch me gab about the book on C-Span in 2007.)

* * *

In the 15th century, an anonymous poet composed “The Tale of Ralph the Collier,” a 972-line Middle Scots romance about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier. Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

This translation, which reproduces the rhyme and alliteration of the poem’s difficult 13-line stanzas, is available in a $9 paperback and a version specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages, or check out the original Middle Scots to see what I was up against.)

* * *

From 2009 to 2012, I posted the first drafts of 51 poems on this blog, each one inspired by a gargoyle or grotesque at Washington National Cathedral. What started as a lark turned serious when the cathedral granted me permission to show their typically camera-shy gargoyles in a compilation of the poems. In return, I’m donating 75 percent of the net profits to them to help repair damage from the 2011 earthquake.

Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles collects the final versions of these poems, plus two that are exclusive to the book. (You can browse a clickable list of the first drafts here.) The book is on sale at the cathedral gift shop and at the usual venues like Amazon, but you’d really be helping this project reach profitability much faster if you bought directly from me, whether using Google Checkout on this page or popping me a payment via Paypal. (Or heck, just send me a check. Questions? jeffsypeck -at- gmail – dot – com.)

“You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time…”

No medievalism this week. Just some links and comments about the humanities, all of them hanging by a common thread.

* * *

From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick, 1968:

“You androids,” Rick said, “don’t exactly cover for each other in times of stress.”

Garland snapped. “I think you’re right: it would seem we lack a specific talent you humans possess. I believe it’s called empathy.”

* * *

From a Chronicle of Higher Education story about Google Glass:

[Assistant professor of journalism and communication] Mr. Littau said he hoped to see further application of Glass in the classroom, although he could not say for certain what else it could be used for.

“It’s a device made for the liberal arts,” he said. “The whole device is about putting you in the shoes of the wearer to experience the world through their eyes. An auto-ethnography in history could be an interesting thing to experience.”

Only in a visually obsessed age would we believe that literally seeing someone else’s point of view qualifies as an experience. If that’s true, We Are All Cops Cameramen Now.

What’s it like to view a work of art through filters other than your own? How does someone with a trained ear experience classical music? How does someone feel, from his forehead to his gut, when his daughter is born, his candidate loses an election, or his childhood home is torn down? God help liberal-arts faculty who need Google Glass to develop empathy. To make that imaginative leap, just find time for reading and thinking—which are analog, and not recent inventions.

 * * *

Here’s a more delightful melding of tech and the humanities: Last week, I found a pocket universe of clever people composing poetry in programming languages.

Experiments with computer-generated poetry aren’t new, but for creative works wrought from the human mind, Perl has apparently been the language of choice. You’ll find poems written about Perl, poetry generators for Perl, Perl poems as April Fool’s jokes, and translations such as “Jabberwocky” rendered in (non-functional) Perl. The go-to text in the field is writer and software tester Sharon Hopkins’ 1992 conference paper and mini-anthology “Camels and Needles: Computer Poetry Meets the Perl Programming Language.”

A Spanish engineer and software developer also put out a call in 2012 for contributors to code {poems}, an anthology of verse in such languages as C++, Python, DOS, Ruby, and HTML. The poems couldn’t just be goofs, though; they had to run or compile. An April 2013 Wired story showcases one of the entries: “Creation?”, a poem in Python by Kenny Brown.

I love this. There’s great creativity here—and a reminder that computers speak only the languages we give them.

* * *

In “Cryptogams and the NSA,” which I’m assuming is not fiction, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch recounts how he was indicted in 2011 after he tweaked the NSA by emailing himself snippets of James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins from a proxy server in Peshawar:

“There are a lot of references to mushrooms and yeast in Joyce,” I said. My attorney touched my arm lightly, but I ran on.

“Look—” I took the book up, “There’s a part late in the book. . . Here, page 613. Halfway down the page.” I pushed it across to Fitzgerald:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild. . . 

“See? Fungoalgaceous muscafilicial,” I said. “It’s a portmanteau of different types of cryptogams.”

The stenographer interrupted here, her north Baltimore accent like a knitting needle stuck in my ear. “Are those words in that book?” she asked, “Because – otherwise you’re going to have to spell them.”

She was waved off by one of the US attorneys.

Fitzgerald read the text, or looked at the letters anyway, and then he looked at me again. A kind, blank, innocent look. Unaware of the fear he was instilling in me, not knowing what he was doing, he suddenly twisted the knife.

“And why would someone write like this?”

My silence now. “Why?” I repeated, meekly. I was devastated.

“Just your opinion. A short explanation.” Absolute innocence in asking the question.

My hands began trembling. One of his assistants looked at the clock.

“I don’t know, sir – honestly I don’t.”

“And why would someone write like this?” Because it’s fun; because it’s artful; because government exists not to perpetuate itself, but to protect these odd, wonderful flourishes of civilization. And because it helps us know who the androids are.

“…und auch das größte Wunder geht vorbei…”

Poems, novels, short stories—we expect creative works to be labors of love, but it’s easy to forget how personal a work of scholarship can be to its creator, and how much is riding on the most arcane and specialized tomes. In an atypically personal blog post, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout remembers the low point in his career, when his love for his work was fizzling out:

In 2001 I had been stuck. The success of Beowulf and the Critics was combining with the difficulty I was having in putting together my first monograph on Anglo-Saxon to pull me away from the field. Kalamazoo that year had been a big, depressing disappointment. What other people seemed to find exciting did nothing for me, and the terrible job market had caused a number of my friends to leave academia altogether. The intellectual spark had gone out.  Anglo-Saxon studies was following a path that led only to insignificant but all-consuming quibbling. The field was entangled in miserable thickets of personal and institutional politics, and those who–through the positions they occupied, if not the work they were no longer doing–should have led were instead dissipating the hard-won intellectual inheritance of our titanic forebears (not on debauchery, more’s the pity, but on orthodoxy, groveling, scheming). It was just a radical change from my feelings of immense excitement at ISAS ’95 at Stanford or ’97 at Palermo or ’99 at Notre Dame. I wanted out, to be away from this whole field that I had loved so much.

I clearly remember sitting on the floor of O’Hare airport at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning exhausted (having gone to bed at 3:00 and gotten up at 4:30), bored, and with a five-hour wait ahead of me, thinking that this was going to be my last Kalamazoo. I would focus on Tolkien, get my tenure in a couple years, and spend my energies on my 1-year-old daughter.

What changed Drout’s life and restored his faith in his field? A book about what he calls “[p]ossibly the most boring set of ‘texts’ in the history of earth.” Whether you’re a scholar, an academic refugee, or a writer itching with doubt, check out Drout’s tribute to a scholar whose meticulous research and logical arguments gave his own work new direction—and “brought the dead to life.”

“Quoting God as you discuss what is right or wrong for us…”

In 1993, a clownish remnant of the Klan marched down Main Street in my college town. The authorities bussed the marchers across state lines and kept them safe from attacks. Jeering locals lined the street, and community groups held a more positive party a few blocks away. The march was pathetic, but it was heartening to see liberal American ideals put into action. No one believed that a few scruffy losers said anything worth hearing, but everyone made sure they were able to speak their minds.

“Quid Plura?” is not a blog about current affairs. It chronicles medievalism in the modern world, and occasionally there are posts about books, photos of pseudo-medieval places, and a little light, gargoyle-inspired verse. I don’t write about politics. I don’t care how you vote. I don’t light my torch and wave it for the new moon on Monday. I’m John Denver at the PMRC hearings. For cripes’ sake, unless it’s in a quotation, you won’t even find profanity on this blog.

However, I wrote a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion—so even when the spotlight is on some inept, ne’er-do-well “filmmaker” and a loony pastor, I don’t find it hard to imagine myself in their shoes. As I wrote in 2010: “If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?”

Should that happen, I hope I won’t be condemned by diplomats, denounced by the Secretary of State, investigated by the Department of Justice, or blamed by the White House. I hope the government won’t ask publishers and distributors of my work to consider shutting me down. I hope my supporters won’t get phone calls from generals. I hope I won’t be encouraged to hide. I hope artists, writers, and scholars will realize it could be them next.

After the 1993 Klan march, everyone wondered whether the government had provided too much protection. That’s a debate I wish we were having now. As it stands, the message I’m hearing is this: If you say, write, or draw something that riles up the wrong people, you’re on your own. That’s disturbing, but I guess it’s useful to know.

“And in this town of disco heat, the dancing of a thousand feet…”

When I was in fourth grade, I wrote to Lloyd Alexander’s publisher as part of some long-forgotten school assignment. Weeks later, the mailman dropped off a few brochures clipped to a generic cover letter. The impersonality didn’t faze me; simply receiving something from a publisher—someone who understood all that cryptic stuff on the opening pages of books—was a treat, not because I was enamored with the arcana of the industry, but because holding that packet was like receiving a transmission from the Mushroom Planet: These people, I marveled, really exist?

As a kid, I didn’t know any authors. I didn’t know any for much of my adult life, either—but I know a few now, and I’m happy to praise them, plug them, and let “QP?” readers know they exist.

Thanks to this blog, I’ve chatted with Alexis Fajardo, a cartoonist at the Charles M. Schulz Studio and the author of Kid Beowulf, a series of charming, all-ages graphic novels. The most recent volume, Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland, is Lex’s humorous take on the Charlemagne legend; it combines his passion for world epics with a cartoonish style reminiscent of Jeff Smith or Albert Uderzo. Chat up Lex at comic cons, especially if you want to bring something home for your kids.

“Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “you don’t seem like the ideal reader for a gay military romance set in ancient Rome.” No, I’m not, but The Soldier of Raetia by my pal Heather Domin is a sharp, engaging read. Knowing her book didn’t easily slot into existing genres, Heather opted out of the publishing industry snake-dance and instead went with Lulu—but hers is the rare self-published novel that’s as solid as anything on the bookstore shelves. Historical Novels Review liked it, too.

Steven Hart and I have yet to meet, but we keep finding people and places in common. He now owns a bookstore near my childhood home, and his 2007 book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway is a perhaps the world’s only page-turner about transportation infrastructure. On the surface, it’s the story of the Pulaski Skyway, but you’ll also learn how America built bridges and tunnels in a far less politically genteel era. (At 224 tightly-written pages, The Last Three Miles is also the perfect length; you don’t have to commit to a 600-page tome.)

While wandering Iceland in 1998, I met William Short, an award-winning acoustic engineer who documented his ten-year study of medieval martial arts in the excellent Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (which I wrote about here.) An increasingly familiar face to Icelandic scholars and reenactors alike, Bill has written a second book, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, a terrific introduction for would-be saga readers who haven’t been sure where to start.

A few years ago, Neville Tencer of British Columbia wrote to me from out of the blue to see what I knew about the Via Francigena, the old Frankish pilgrimage route to Rome. (Alas, I knew little.) Neville and his partner, Julie Burk, laced up their boots and hoofed it through the Alps, documenting their travels in An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage. This news video about their journey makes me want to follow in their footsteps, undaunted by the reviewer who praised the book for telling “the grubby truth about pilgrimage.”

I’ve never met Bill Peschel, but I do read his blog, and I suspect he’s too modest to hype the fact that his book Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes went on sale this week. The book looks like a fun peek into the libertine side of literary history, and I love that Bill has posted the book’s ideal soundtrack on the New York Times “Paper Cuts” blog. Black 47, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel—what’s not to like?