Archive for ‘politics’


“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.

“Let us close our eyes; outside, their lives go on much faster…”

In modern cities, crowds and commerce and cars drown out the ring of mere bells—but this Friday, if you hear a faint pealing from an Episcopal church, know that it marks the feast-day for three medievalists. Two of them, English-born church architect Richard Upjohn and painter and stained-glass artisan John LaFarge, deserve to be remembered, but pause a bit longer to consider the third and most eccentric, architect Ralph Adams Cram, who clamored to rebuild the medieval world in a greener, more placid America.

Born in New Hampshire in 1863, Cram was the son of a Unitarian minister, but seeing the cathedrals of Europe at 23 drew the young man to Catholicism—almost. Enamored of medieval ritual at a time when becoming Roman Catholic would have been gauche, Cram instead embraced Anglo-Catholicism, a form of High Church Anglicanism, as did many Episcopalian intellectuals in the urban Northeast who adored Catholic aesthetics more than they loved the theology.

Cram looked at every skyline and imagined it dwarfed by spires. He was the architect who changed the style of St. John the Divine in New York City from Romanesque to Gothic; he worked for a time on Washington National Cathedral; he designed “collegiate Gothic” halls and other buildings with medievalist touches at Princeton, Wheaton, Richmond, Sweet Briar, and USC; and his firm built scores of churches that stand as neo-Gothic monuments from Pittsburgh to St. Paul. (In 1901, Cram literally wrote the book on church building.)

For Cram, medievalism was more than an aesthetic conceit. After World War I, he saw ruined societies doomed to one of two fates: a slide into a new Dark Age, or a return to ugly, worn-out modernism. Doubling down on his historical predilections, Cram offered, instead, a third way.

“It is in no sense a programme,” he insisted in 1919, with doubtful modesty,

it is still less an effort at establishing an ideal. Let us call it “a way out,” for it is no more than this; not “the” way, nor yet a way to anything approaching a perfect State, still less a perfect condition of life, but rather a possible issue out of a present impasse for some of those who, as I have said, peremptorily reject both of the intolerable alternatives now offered them.

Cram’s proposal? Americans should live, like medieval people, in walled towns.

Much of Walled Towns, Cram’s truly peculiar 1919 book, is a vision of Beaulieu, an imaginary burg situated “about forty miles from one of the largest cities of New England” in a spot that meets Cram’s criteria: arable land, a river, and “some elements of natural beauty.” We can drive to this happy outpost, but the gate house is our last chance to hail the outside world by telephone and telegraph. We’re required to garage our car—but we may, if we wish, pass through the gate on a rented horse. The walls of Beaulieu defend the reveries of an architectural fanatic: a gate that resembles Warwick Castle, a church like St. Cuthbert’s in Wells, a college that blends New College, Oxford with St. John’s, Cambridge, and a town hall inspired by the Hôtel de Ville.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears notes that “[s]ince Cram’s death in 1942, historians have dismissed him as an elitist crank, a reactionary in art and politics,” which oversimplifies his life and work. What makes Cram so interesting today is how awkwardly his equal hatred of democracy, socialism, communism, and anarchism meets the political assumptions of the early 21st century.

Cram’s Walled Towns forbid usury, stock markets, production of goods for profit, and all forms of advertising. Walled Towns forbid steam power, but not water mills or, surprisingly, hydroelectricity. A Walled Town is self-sufficient:

That one town or district should be given over to to the weaving of cotton or the spinning of wool; that shoes should chiefly be produced in Lynn, furniture in Grand Rapids, glass in Pittsburgh, beer in Milwaukee, hams in Chicago; that from all over a vast district the raw material of manufacture should be transported for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, to various howling wildernesses of highly specialized factories, only to be shipped back again after fabrication to be used or consumed by many of the original producers, was and is one of the preposterous absurdities of an industrial system supported on some of the most appalling sophistry that ever issued out of the Adullamite caves of political economy.

In the Walled Towns all this is changed . . . As each town has its own special products, maintained always at the highest standard, the market never fails.

In a Walled Town, only landholders may vote, and daily life is ruled by guilds—not, Cram stresses, the folk sentimentalized by a wistful William Morris, but a true restoration of the medieval guild system, which Cram calls “the precise antithesis of collectivism, socialism and trades-unionism of whatever form.”

Everyone in a Walled Town shares the same religious convictions; if you’re an Episcopalian knocking at a Catholic gate, seek your coreligionists down the road. Here, knowledge of Latin and a grounding in reading, writing, music, and math are universal, but education, which isn’t apportioned equally, focuses on character. The local college is run by faculty and alumni, not by corrupt or neglectful trustees. Walled Towns have no museums, because old and beautiful objects, such as medieval altarpieces, have been restored to their original uses. Walled Towns have fine art theaters, but no movie houses or sensationalistic shows—because in a Walled Town, “all life is couched in terms of true drama and living beauty.”

Given Cram’s fervent pursuit of applied medievalism, he seems to have overlooked “walled towns” that had recently failed. By World War I, American Arts and Crafts communities had waned; New Clairvaux, a commune of Massachusetts farmers and craftsmen founded in 1902 according to medievalist principles, had flopped; Rose Valley, a Pennsylvania arts-and-crafts project based on the utopianism of William Morris, was suburbanized; and the Americans most likely to retreat into anti-modern self-sufficiency were communists and anarchists, like the founders of my failed hometown commune, Fellowship Farm. Did Cram really believe that a Walled Town could be “at the same time individualist, coöperative and aristocratic”?

Cram does leave himself an out, claiming that his proposal need not be taken literally:

“The phrase ‘Walled Towns’ is symbolical only; it does not imply the great ramparts of masonry with machicolated towers, moats, drawbridges and great city gates such as once guarded the beautiful cities of the Middle Ages. It might, of course; there is no reason why a city should not protect itself from the world without, if its fancy led in this pictorial direction…

For Cram, “pictorial direction” is all. Here’s what he sees in 1919: “ragged and grimy children,” “a surly labourer” who “scowled coarsely, and swore, with his cigar between his teeth”; “men in dirty shirt-sleeves”; “children and goats [that] crawled starvedly around or huddled in the hot shadow”; “the mob of scurrying, pushing men and women, a mob that swelled and scattered constantly in fretful confusion”; “dirt, meanness, ugliness everywhere—in the unhappy people no less than in their surroundings.”

By contrast, Cram’s medieval “way out” abounds with “a great lady on a gaily caparisoned palfrey, with an officious squire in attendance, or perhaps a knight in silver armour, crested wonderfully, his emblazoned shield hanging at his saddle-bow.” There is “the pleasant clamour of voices, the muffled chanting of cloistered nuns in some veiled chapel, the shrill cry of street vendors and children, and the multitudinous bells sounding for worship.” Cram may decry utopians from Plato to H.G. Wells, but his Walled Town is itself the trite utopia of an architectural sketch: happy, faceless people strolling through pristine shopping malls or public squares, doing only what their designer envisions, never misusing, abusing, or defacing their earnest surroundings, freed by architects alone from the ugliness of human nature.

A century after Cram built his mental Beaulieu, no one lives in neo-medieval towns, but Cram still left his mark. Countless Americans first encounter medieval forms in the churches and cathedrals he designed, and his neo-Gothic spires and arches adorn campuses where, in the 1920s, Americans began studying the Middle Ages with greater zeal.

Notice, though, how American medievalism has changed. These days, few academics, ecclesiasts, and architects want to live in the Middle Ages. They tend to look back with detachment, while medievalist nostalgia thrives in genre fiction, video games, and Renaissance Faires. Meanwhile, Cram’s odd brand of aristocratic idealism lives on, split into bits across the ideological spectrum.

When Ralph Adams Cram, fiery nemesis of the impersonal, the imperial, the commercial, the cacophonous, writes that “the only visible hope of recovery lay in a restoration of the unit of human scale, the passion for perfection, and a certain form of philosophy known as sacramentalism,” he makes himself easy to dismiss, even as he drapes precious new lights on humanity’s evergreen dreams. But if, in a slough of disillusionment, you’ve ever pined for agrarian simplicity, religious or political uniformity, stark self-sufficiency, aesthetic transcendence, or lasting peace, then you’ve been, however fleetingly, a pilgrim to one of Cram’s Walled Towns—although it’s been a church, a Ren Fest, a Tea Party, an Occupy rally, or a perfectionist corner inside your own mind where you visit your will on the world.

So on Friday, if you laugh at the impulse to build a Walled Town, be more charitable than you imagine he was, and let the bells ring for old Ralph Adams Cram. They’re always ringing somewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take off your hat, sir, there’s a tear-stained eagle passing…”

Yes, we have heard the glory of the Founding Fathers, how the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, but this coming Sunday also marks the 234th anniversary of our birthright as Americans: the plodding bureaucracy that almost gave the United States a cool, medieval-themed emblem.

On that first Fourth of July, Congress handled a fair amount of business, but before they adjourned for potato salad and horseshoes, their penultimate motion was this:

Resolved, that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.

I’m no fan of group work, but that’s a committee I wish I’d seen. Franklin, for his part, offered a grand biblical vision:

Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.

Adams was gung-ho on an allegorical painting that depicted

a succession of appeals to the young Hercules, by female impersonations of Virtue and Vice or Sensuality . . . . Vice speaks first and points out the flowery path of self-indulgence; Virtue follows and adjures Hercules to ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.

Jefferson, meanwhile, was chasing forest murmurs of his own. As Allen J. Frantzen explains in Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, Jefferson proposed an embryonic vision of Manifest Destiny, complete with a rarity in American allegory: Germanic barbarians. “On one side,” says Frantzen,

he wanted to picture the mythical Anglo-Saxon warriors, Hengst and Horsa; on the other, he wanted to portray the Chosen People following a pillar of fire. Jefferson saw Hengst and Horsa as ideal leaders of a free and democratic people who were, at least in Jefferson’s imagination, “chosen” to live in a free world of individual rights and communal blessings. The English Constitution and Common Law were Saxon “legacies” for Jefferson, a time of wide-spread liberties for freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons, a pre-Christian Paradise destroyed by Norman-led feudalism and restored by the Magna Carta.

Jefferson’s take on the Anglo-Saxons wasn’t unusual for the time. In the 16th century, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, busily promoted the notion that England’s break from Rome marked the restoration of a pure and primitive church. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, parliamentarians were so awed by the venerability of English legal and political institutions that they hailed the Anglo-Saxons as a nation of freedom-loving democrats: elected kings! assemblies! jury trials! common law! For centuries, English churchmen and monarchs and politicians squinted, wallowed in wishful thinking, and selectively saw themselves in the Anglo-Saxons—thus giving Jefferson a myth on which to help found America.

After establishing the study of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Virginia, Jefferson further hoped to stabilize a young nation by rooting Old English in the national elementary school curriculum. Looking ahead, he proposed ways to make Old English spelling more comprehensible to the statesmen and humanists charged with propagating Anglo-Saxon institutions in America. “As the histories and laws left us in that type and dialect, must be the text books of the reading of the learners,” he wrote, “they will imbibe with the language their free principles of government.”

In the end, fourteen people on three committees spent six years working out a design for the Great Seal of the United States; only the Eye of Providence, “1776” in Roman numerals, and the motto E Pluribus Unum survived those initial Franklin-Jefferson-Adams brainstorming sessions. Horsa and Hengist failed to stake their claim, and Thomas Jefferson failed to found an America where surveyors measure farmland in “hundreds” and Old English leaps from the tongues of country lawyers.

Had Jefferson been a more persistent medievalist, Americans might still have spent this weekend grilling meat and blowing stuff up, but we might also have swelled with pride to celebrate the founding of niw rice, geacnod on freodome and gegiefen to þæm geþohte, þæt ealle menn beoð gelice gesceapen—without having to turn to graduate students to tell us what that means.

“Somewhere, they’re meeting on a pinhead…”

Just when I start to feel bad for viewing legislative “emergencies” with skepticism, disinterest, and disdain, along comes a pearl like the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which was hastily passed last year after the brouhaha about lead paint on toys. As it turns out, the breadth of this law and its interpretation by the Consumer Products Safety Commission have potentially disastrous implications for EBayers, antiques dealers, clothing makers, small business owners, and other industrious folks. Tim Gebhart at Blogcritics explains how the new law also governs the sale of used children’s books:

Under the CPSIA, a children’s product is one designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger and the guide specifically includes books in its list of such products. The guide does say, though, that the products that can be sold include “Children’s books printed after 1985 that are conventionally printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play.” Plainly, the CPSC believes the law applies to children’s books printed before 1985.

What, then, is a used book store to do if it has such a book? Here are the “practical” options, according to the CPSC:

— Test the book;
— Refuse to sell it, which means disposing of it if already in inventory;
— Using “your best judgment” based on knowledge of the product; or,
— Contact the manufacturer.

I can summarize it more easily: test or toss.

Thrift stores owners, librarians, and book dealers have scrambled to understand what this nonsense means for them. Delightfully, the American Library Association has declared that the law doesn’t apply to them unless Congress tells them otherwise. Meanwhile, Gebhart notes an exception in the CPSC’s voluminous guidelines:

Of course, there is one other option not in the CPSC’s list. According to the CPSC guide, used “vintage children’s books … sold as collector’s items” are exempt because they are primarily intended for children. I’m guessing, though, that renaming the children’s book section “Collectibles” probably won’t cut it.

It’s a clever notion, but let me offer something even better. Years ago, while researching a now-dated piece for Salon, I learned that even though the sale of first-class relics—i.e., actual bits of saints’ bodies—is prohibited by canon law, it’s fine to sell a reliquary and then throw in the relic as a “gift.”

The charming dishonesty of this loophole notwithstanding, rare book dealers can learn a few tricks from latter-day simoniacs. If, for example, I were selling a $4,800 signed, first-edition set of The Chronicles of Prydain, I’d update my listing to reflect post-CPSIA reality: that the lucky buyer who agrees to pay $4,800 for a lovely (if slightly used) cardstock Amazon.com bookmark will also receive a rare set of autographed novels—an elaborate bookmark-holder offered purely as a gift.

As a medievalist, I’m committed to the prospect that Jesuitical hair-splitting can shield book dealers from official attention and delay their persecution by sputtering bureaucrats. Much of the CPSIA is probably unenforceable, but I love the image of a hapless prosecutor forced to argue from first principles against centuries-old casuistry. Having responded with all due dignity, the rest of us can take up worthier pursuits: gnawing on lead-lined books and arguing over how many angels can dance on our legislators’ tiny, tiny heads.

“…even if you do got a two-piece, custom-made pool cue.”

The figures are eloquent. Of 109 sovereigns, 65 were assassinated, 12 died in convent or prison, 3 died of hunger, 18 were castrated or had their eyes put out, their noses or hands cut off, and the rest were poisoned, suffocated, strangled, stabbed, thrown down from the top of a column or ignominiously hunted down. In 1058 years there were 65 revolutions of palace, street or barracks and 65 dethronements.

— René Guerdan, Byzantium: Its Triumphs and Tragedies

There’s something to be said for the peaceful transfer of power, isn’t there?

“…but on the way, you know that I will abide.”

Living through history is unnerving. As an unknown number of visitors descend upon the city—a million strong? Five million? A few hundred thousand?—the urban core becomes an armed camp, the river becomes a defensive wall, and mobs cross the bridges on foot. After clambering over monuments, some folks shack up with locals who’ve turned into hostelers, a few of them are bound to be scammed, and the authorities scramble to react to an influx of tourists whose movements are decentralized and largely spontaneous.

The medieval Romans may not have draped patriotic bunting across the facades of their buildings, but 710 years ago, they braced for unprecedented crowds. In late 1299, apparently with no official prompting, pilgrims began streaming into Rome, driven by the widespread belief that the year ahead offered special blessings to those who visited the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Here’s Paul Hetherington on what became the Church’s first Jubilee Year:

The word spread like wildfire through Europe, and even by New Year’s Eve of 1299 a great crowd had assembled at St. Peter’s to greet the opening of the Jubilee Year at midnight. From then on, the crowds flocked to Rome from all over the known world. No one had ever experienced anything like it before. The crowds were so massive that the papal police had to institute a keep-right system for all the crowds crossing the bridge on foot that led over the Tiber to St. Peter’s . . .

The spontaneity and scale of the Jubilee took everyone by surprise. Even the pope, Boniface VIII, seems to have been nonplussed by it, and only issued the decree authorizing it late in February 1300. The various estimates made by contemporaries of the numbers that visited Rome vary so wildly that none can be regarded as trustworthy, but it was probably somewhere between one and two million.

Hetherington translates an eyewitness account by chronicler William Ventura, who visited Rome at the end of 1300:

It was a marvellous thing how many went to Rome in that year, for I was there and stayed for 15 days. Of bread, wine, meat, fish, and fodder for horses there was, but all at special prices…Leaving Rome on Christmas Eve I saw a great crowd that I was not able to number; there was a report among the Romans that there were then more than two million men and women in the city. Several times I saw men and women trampled under the feet of others, and even I was in the same danger, only just escaping on several occasions. The Pope received an untold amount of money from them, as day and night two priests stood at the altar of St. Paul’s holding rakes in their hands, raking in infinite money…And I, William, was there and earned fifty years and more of indulgence. Each hundred years it will be the same.

Like all pilgrimages, Tuesday’s inauguration and its attendant brouhaha will be a pageant of honor, corruption, villainy, and holiness, so if you’re in town, and if your peregrinations take you to Connecticut Avenue, look for me. Adapting the experience of William Ventura to Washington tradition, I’ll be pacing the sidewalk with ful devout corage and wielding my new favorite medieval-themed religious implement, the money rake. Commit yourself to change—or simply fling cash. I promise it will go someplace deserving. Weary pilgrim, have faith in me: I wol yow nat deceyve.

“The music keeps them quiet; there is no other way.”

Vox populi, vox dei: “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” Reporters and pundits haul out this Latin proverb every election year. Some find it vindicating, others deploy it ironically, but I wonder how many people know where this notion came from.

In the mid-1800s, scholars thought the first writer to record this proverb was the 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury. One Notes and Queries entry delightfully shortened it to “VPVD,” an abbreviation that suggests a lucrative market for motivational bracelets at political conventions four years hence.

My get-rich-quick schemes notwithstanding, VPVD is older than William of Malmesbury—and, like so much else worth knowing, it was first written down during the time of Charlemagne.

Flip through Ernst Dümmler, MGH, Epistolae Karolini Aevi II (Berlin, 1895), and on page 199, there it is, the ninth in a series of responses in a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne:

VIIII. Populus iuxta sanctiones divinas ducendur est, non sequendus, et ad testimonium personae magis eliguntur honestae. Nec audiendi qui solent dicere: “Vox populi, vox Dei,” cum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.

The people must be led according to divine laws, not followed, and by the examples provided by more respectable people. Those who say “the voice of the people is the voice of God” should not be heeded, for the hubbub of the crowd is always rather close to madness.

Note that Alcuin isn’t endorsing this proverb; he’s decrying it.

As fond as I am of de-exoticizing the Middle Ages by pointing out the medieval-ness of many modern experiences (and vice-versa), I suspect most citizens of modern democracies agree that Alcuin was, as the contributor to Notes and Queries put it, “breathing the spirit of a different age.” Then again, whether or not you side with Alcuin on this proverb depends on whether your preferred candidate has prevailed—an opinion we all privately revise every four to eight years.

“On the back seat of the car, with Joseph and Emily…”

Fleeing a hot, crowded brownstone, Tom built his life on a dead-end lane: some trees, a brook, and extra land to parcel out to kids. For decades, he made the commute to the city, but most of his relatives followed him home. They were charmed by the place where he chose to raise chickens, plant string beans, and tinker with gadgets in peace.

The Piscataway soil will never be known for producing fine wines, but the tangle of vines on the side of the house was Tom’s own little piece of Provence. On the morning he never grew tired of griping about, he was tending his few feeble grapes. The sun was high, and the only sounds were birds and barking dogs. Perhaps he stopped to wipe his brow; he surely sneaked a sip of beer and dreamed about the homemade wine to come. Then a stranger slipped into the garden.

Dapper but fat, the stranger was speckled with dust from the road. He fanned his spiny jowls with his hat, introduced himself without a handshake, and eyed the gawky farmer. Uncreative, as all of them are, he asked about the clump of vines. He expressed delight, this bringer of mighty compliments, for who was nearer to God, and who better understood the common good, than a man who coaxed life from the earth?

The vines gave the stranger a sudden idea: He knew a nearby farmer whose cows were a sight to behold. Their output, he said, was impressive—no, not impressive: magical. This farmer had worked miracles with manure, and the kicker was, he always had a little dung to spare. Picture it: these grapes here growing and thriving, while neighbors and family toasted to each other’s health with the sweetest wine in town. A diligent public servant, he said, might easily procure a bag of this miracle fertilizer and bestow it upon a neighbor in need. Delivery would be quick, and it wouldn’t cost a penny—as long as that public servant knew he could count on a vote or two come November. Speaking of which, was the lady of the house at home?

The two men exchanged promises. Weeks passed, and then months. Only one man kept his promise. Tom remembered; fifty years later, it still made him angry.

By the time we were children, the suburbs had grown up around us, and Chaucerian frauds were sprouting like mushrooms: Combed-over charlatans who failed to hide their disdain as they loped up our porch steps to beg for support. The part-time mayor who never had time for parades or graduations. The priest who crept through the halls at the old folks’ home, buying cheap votes for his patron by handing out kitchen sponges. The sheriff’s sergeant who stole from the pension fund. Judges who snorted cocaine with their staff. Real-estate developers who hand-fed their pet creatures from town hall to Trenton. We were taught to laugh at them; only as an adult did I learn that “freeloader” was not, in fact, a valid civic office.

But sometimes, on a Tuesday, the grown-ups gathered at the kitchen table and unfolded an arcane sheet filled with drawings of dozens of levers. They studied it, they agreed on a time, and then, dressed as if going to church, they herded us into the Pinto. Sometimes we did go to a church; often we drove to a school, or to a building on the nearby college campus. Old ladies waited in line, as somber as schoolgirls in black-and-white photos, and old men talked in tones we never heard around the house. No one introduced us to any adults—we were small, badly dressed, and invisible—but we knew to behave while our elders, one by one, stepped behind a curtain. When they emerged, looking mostly unchanged, we all drove home, with no speeches about privileges or duties. The whole of the ritual spoke for itself.

The earth never shook, and our street still went unnoticed, and nobody told me which outcome was worse: the leader who promised a sack full of crap or the leader who failed to provide it. But we learned to detect its distinctive bouquet, that whiff of impending election. My grandfather taught me the grown-up response: get up, and go, and vote—but hold your nose.

“You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas…”

So one political convention ends, another begins, and I do what I always do during presidential election season: I reach for Njal’s Saga, the story of a 50-year feud that came to a head at medieval Iceland’s great annual judicial and legislative assembly, the Althing. Aside from being a terrific book in its own right, Njal’s Saga is a wise and welcome antidote to two weeks of partisan yakking.

Very little news is actually made at these conventions—so claim the pundits, who argue that the ins and outs of parliamentary wrangling once gave rise to great drama, whereas now we’re stuck with tightly scripted messages and largely mediocre speeches. But consider (he whispered, pushing a mighty army of straw men into place) the alternative. Here, from Njal’s Saga, is what happened at the Althing in A.D. 1011 when human nature grabbed civilized legal procedure by the windpipe and things went all higgeldy-piggeldy:

Thorhall Asgrimsoon said, “There is Skatpi Thoroddsson now, father.”

“So I see, kinsman,” replied Asgrim, and at once hurled a spear at Skapti. it struck him just below the thickest part of the calf and went right through both legs. Skapti was thrown to the ground and could not get up again. The bystanders could do nothing but drag him headlong into the booth of some sword-grinder.

Then Asgrim and his men attacked so violently that Flosi and his men fled south along the river to the Modruvellir booth. There was a man called Solvi standing beside a booth, cooking meat in a large cauldron; he had just taken the meat out, but the water was still boiling furiously. Solvi caught sight of the fleeting Eastfjords men who were almost on him by then.

Solvi said, “Are all these Eastfjords men cowards, fleeing along here? Even Thorkel Geitisson is running. What a lie to say of him, as so many have done, that he is bravery itself, for now he is fleeing faster than anyone else.”

Hallbjorn the Strong was nearby at that moment, and said, “You shall never be able to say that all of us are cowards.” With that he seized hold of Solvi, lifted him high in the air, and pitched him head-first into the cauldron.

Far be it from me to suggest that our political conventions might benefit from kin-based spear battles, but ratings would shoot through the roof. Já, vér kunnum! C-SPAN, are you listening?