Archive for ‘France’


“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.

“I watched you try, try to make that girl cry…”

Yesterday, with a speed that can only be chalked up to witchcraft, an ambulance parked at our local high school turned into Facebook rumors about hearsay about sightings of—well, I’m hardly the first to sound the alarm about the latest existential menace to law and order and basic human decency:

The frenzy was born in South Carolina in late August after unsubstantiated reports surfaced that clowns were spotted trying to lure children into the woods. The craze has since ignited a national phenomenon, with scary clown sightings reported in more than two dozen states from Alabama to Wisconsin. While many were hoaxes, a handful of the incidents resulted in arrests: in Alabama, at least seven people face felony charges of making a terrorist threat connected to “clown-related activity,” Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton told the Times-Picayune.

The incidents continue to stack up. Just this week, hundreds of students in Pennsylvania State University swarmed surrounding campus streets to carry out a mass clown hunt. A Connecticut school district said it is banning clown costumes and any “symbols of terror.” And an armed clown hoax temporarily put a Massachusetts college on lockdown.

The issue even made it all the way to the White House, where press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the phenomenon on Tuesday.

One of the reasons I like being a medievalist is that it helps me distinguish the quirks of specific eras from timeless human folly. The former almost always sharpen into the latter when glimpsed through the lenses of distance and time.

In De Grandine et Tonitruis (“On Hail and Thunder”), Agobard, the ninth-century archbishop of Lyons, describes his encounter with a mob of rustics who had captured some “weather magicians” and were ready to stone them to death. He relates, grudgingly, a popular belief that men from a land called Magonia were stealing crops that had been knocked down by hail, which the weather magicians could summon and control, and flying away with the grain in their cloud ships. He also documents his investigations into a rumor that Duke Grimoald of Benevento, Charlemagne’s enemy, was sending men to sprinkle cartloads full of poisonous dust to kill the local cattle.

Agobard refrains from outright ranting, but his frustration is clear:

This story was so widely believed that there were very few to whom it seemed absurd. They did not rationally consider how such dust could be made, how it could kill only cattle and not other animals, how it could be carried and spread over such a vast territory by humans. Nor did they consider whether there were enough Beneventan men and women, old and young, to go out from their region in wheeled carts loaded down with dust. Such is the great foolishness that oppresses the wretched world.

The situation may be medieval, but Agobard’s inquiry into the ways of weather magicians is an evergreen example of what happens when you hack through hedgerows of rumor in a vain attempt to find the crooked byway to the weed-smothered outskirts of truth:

Often we have heard it said by many, that they knew that such things were certainly done in specific places, but we have never yet heard anyone claim that they themselves had seen these things. Once it was reported to me that someone said that he himself had seen such things. With great interest I myself set out to see him, and I did. But when I was speaking to him and encouraging him, with many prayers and entreaties, to say whether he had seen such things, I nevertheless pressed him with divine threats not to say anything unless it were true. Then he declared that what he had said was indeed true and he named the person, the time, and place, but nevertheless confessed that he himself had not been present at the time.
[translated by P.E. Dutton in Carolingian Civilization: A Reader]

I’d cite more of De Grandine et Tonitruis, but a leering figure just crept from the woods. I could be mistaken, but he’s hauling what seem to be a bag of kidneys and a Mexican rat. There’s a farm across the street; if the cattle keel over, we’ll know who to blame. Like peasants before me, I’ll scan the horizon—and chase floppy footprints through ages of dust.

“It seems the music keeps them quiet, there is no other way…”

No matter the ground that’s granted to you,
Whether sand-rotten or silt-riddled,
Whether shoots ripen in rich, sopping earth
To give their full and fattened yield,
Whether high hillsides or handily worked
Lowlands beckon, a level plain,
Or a valley roughened with veering slopes,
It cannot refuse to bring forth for you
Its native plants, provided that you
Don’t louse your labors with laziness…

Walahfrid Strabo (d.849), De Cultura Hortorum (my translation)

Someday I may do what the ninth-century abbot of Reichenau wouldn’t have recommended: cultivate a garden full of medieval European plants. Until then, I’ll revel in my 169 square feet of New World fecundity, a bee-friendly spider-riot of corn, peppers, cucumbers, collards, squash, and beans. I try to be the largest creature on my tenancy; narrow paths and high, uneven fences keep the deer far hence, and I banish chipmunks and mice with a clemency that would put St. Francis to shame.

Even so, my garden cried out for a medieval beastie—and a certain clever loved one of mine decided to oblige.

That’s the tarasque, a marvelous and horrifying creature from the folklore of medieval Provence. With the head of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, six bear’s legs, and a turtle shell, the tarasque ravaged the countryside, until St. Martha—the biblical Martha—lulled it with prayers and hymns and lured it into town. Terrified locals killed it, after which they regretted attacking a tame monster, converted to Christianity, and renamed their town in the monster’s honor.

That’s the story in the 13th-century Legenda Aurea, anyway, and it sure did last: I had a vague memory of encountering this critter in another context long ago, so I went back to the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual II from 1983 (don’t judge me) and found this fearsome fellow:

My tarasque is likewise domesticated—or at least domestic. Back in February, when the aforementioned loved one and I were in Memphis, an ice storm shut down the city. We were lucky to be stuck indoors with an assortment of local beer, including the Tarasque Saison from Wiseacre Brewing Company. I liked the can design, she’s got an inventive mind, and three months later, when we saw a garden store shamefully asking 20 bucks for whirligigs made out of nothing more than two beer cans, a wire hanger, and plastic straws, I heard a claim I’ve come not to doubt: “I could totally make that.”

And so a couple weeks ago, having mostly forgotten the matter, I opened a box to find a terrific surprise: a trace of modern medievalism, a souvenir from a recent adventure, and a thoughtful, handmade present all rigged up into one.

After we calibrate the spinning blades a little, the wind vane at the tail should inspire optimal whirling. My garden is now a bit more medieval, if not more dignified. So be it. Such is a blog post befitting July, when the weather is languid, the wind is lazy, and writerly ambition is as tame as a tarasque.

 

“A week without you, thought I’d forget…”

Colorado! Spectacular vistas by day, darkness and quiet at night—all draws for the vacationing medievalist.

I was determined to take a mental vacation, to look past the state’s old, medieval-minded Missions and Gothic Revival buildings and dwell instead on the American West. Mountains! Sand dunes! Cowboys!

The Denver airport had other ideas.

There he was, on a pedestal overlooking the baggage carousels: a familiar face.

This guy is the most famous gargoyle from Notre-Dame in Paris—only he’s not a gargoyle, since he doesn’t spit water, and he’s not medieval, but a modern beastie grafted onto the building during a 19th-century restoration. Architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who oversaw the work at Notre-Dame, called these 54 replacement monsters chimères—chimeras.

In his 2009 book The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, the late Michael Camille explains how these modern “chimeras” entered European and North American popular culture through engravings, etchings, photographs, postcards, paintings, and books—and how quickly the world forgot that they weren’t medieval creatures at all.

Ever since this monster—dubbed le stryge, or “the vampire,” by the engraver who made him famous—first glared down at Paris in the middle of the 19th century, no one has been sure what he is. The embodiment of evil? An icon of Romantic melancholy? An ambassador from an era that predated him by centuries? An antisemitic caricature? Is he bitter and apathetic, or contemplative and morose—or is he being cheeky? And what is he doing in Denver?

According to a nearby wall plaque, Notre Denver by artist Terry Allen has been installed here since 1994: “Historically, gargoyles were placed on buildings to protect the site. These are placed slightly above the travelers’ heads to oversee and ensure that baggage will arrive safely at DIA.” Popping out of a suitcase to protect travelers is a new role for le stryge, who’s now part of the Denver airport’s art program—although few people noticed him until they saw me snapping his picture. (The humungous Gamma World laser space mustang outside the airport is literally far more grotesque.)

Far across the baggage-claim area, le stryge has an unexpected counterpart.

When I spotted this critter, I was certain I’d seen him before. I mentioned to my traveling companion that several of Notre-Dame’s 19th-century chimeras didn’t look “medieval” at all but reflected 19th-century France’s fascination with Egypt. Although that’s true, when I later flipped through The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame, past demonic birds, a goat, an elephant, a pelican, a wild boar, a two-headed dog, a (now destroyed) unicorn, and (lamentably) a Wandering Jew, I was surprised to find that the chimère I remembered didn’t look much like the statue in Denver at all.

Le stryge is the only Notre-Dame chimera who makes that Home Alone gesture, and the birdlike face of this second monster only somewhat resembles one actual creature on the cathedral. This baggage-sentinel seems to be Terry Allen’s own invention, a horror that might exist if late one night, weary from another day of menacing glares, le stryge and his fellow chimera threw back too much Beaujolais nouveau, discovered a shared adoration of Edith Piaf, and one thing led to another…

So what are le stryge and his grotesque partner doing here? I could point out that 19th-century architect-designer Viollet-le-Duc and sculptor Victor Pyanet accomplished something akin to what Grant Wood did with American Gothic by creating something so recognizable and yet so enigmatic that people have never tired of seeing their own beliefs reflected by it.

Or perhaps artist Terry Allen, who appears to have a sharp sense of humor, got one over on the Denver airport authority by casting the miseries of air travel as downright “medieval.” One screeching infant or some surly cretin kicking the back of our seat, and we all might make such a face.

(Related post: Spotting the grand-nephew of the Notre-Dame chimeras on a pharmacy in Newark, Delaware.)

“Look down, look down, there’s twenty years to go…”

When you’re young, it’s easy to miss the obvious. Skulking around the University of Delaware in days of yore, I wasn’t unaware of this building on Newark’s Main Street, just footsteps from the campus—but I didn’t appreciate its striking Gothic facade, and until last weekend I hadn’t really looked at…

…the canine gargoyles on either side of the entrance.

Now prospering as Newark Deli and Bagels, the storefront at 36 East Main Street began life in 1917 as the Rhodes Pharmacy. The building was designed by Richard A. Whittingham, an architect of the Maryland division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. (His other works include a now-gone greenhouse on the U.D. campus and the reviewing stand for William McKinley’s 1897 presidential inauguration.)

I’ve not yet found reason to believe that either Whittingham or his client, pharmacist George W. Rhodes, were gung-ho for Gothic architecture—but maybe this cool little building says it all. (It used to have parapets!)

By 1917, American Gothic was passing its prime among church architects even as it picked up steam among the designers of college campuses. Its use on a commercial building is rare enough to earn 36 East Main Street a spot on the National Register of Historic Places—but I’m convinced that the gargoyles of Newark, Delaware, were influenced by a much grander building thousands of miles away.

Notre-Dame de Paris! Its gargoyles are iconic—especially the bitter critter on the cover of this book—but even many medievalists aren’t aware that he and 53 of his fellows aren’t medieval at all, but the products of an ambitious 19th-century restoration.

Michael Camille tells this story well in The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. By the 1840s, Notre Dame was a ruin; the cathedral had been cursed as a symbol of medieval irrationality, denuded of royal statues and other symbols of féodalité, and wrecked by weather and time. In 1843, in the wake of Victor Hugo’s fictional tribute to the cathedral’s former glory, architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-de-Duc began restoring Notre Dame—which included commissioning sculptors to create the replacement monsters he dubbed chimères. Camille documents how these modern “chimeras” entered European and North American popular culture through engravings, etchings, photographs, postcards, paintings, and books—and how quickly the world forgot that they weren’t medieval creatures at all.

The 54 chimeras are a lurid lot. Partly inspired by France’s 19th-century fascination with Egypt, their fellowship includes demonic birds, a goat, an elephant, a pelican, a wild boar, a two-headed dog, a (now destroyed) unicorn, and (lamentably) a Wandering Jew. Most of them, though, are humanoid animals—which brings us back to the dog-faced beasties of Newark, Delaware.

Look at this fellow, and then consider a few of the chimeras from Notre Dame:

(Above left: Michael Reeve, via Wikimedia Commons; above right: Chosovi, via Wikimedia Commons.)

(Above left: vintage postcard of the “ape-satyr”; right: John Taylor Arms, “A Devil of Notre Dame,” c. 1929)

The Newark grotesques don’t look like any one of the chimeras on Notre Dame, but they’re arguably a loose composite of several of them. Those big, bent arms that allow the creature to lean menacingly forward are common to several of the chimeras, and we could easily build the (relatively tame) faces of the 1917 Delawareans from the ears, mouths, brows, and noses of some of these 19th-century forebears.

So did Richard Whittingham or George Rhodes dream, like Miniver Cheevy, of medieval glory?

Did they see the Notre Dame chimeras in illustrations of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame? Or in the paintings of Winslow Homer? In the photography of Alvin Langdon Coburn? On postcards from family and friends?

Are Newark’s chimeras barking in defiance of home-grown architectural forms? (Weirdly, these creatures came to life the same year the University of Delaware settled on Colonial Revival, a sensible but decidedly un-Gothic style that still predominates across the campus.)

Or maybe Rhodes considered his pharmacy a cathedral and saw his work as a sacred calling?

The fun thing about American medievalism is that there’s rarely a single reason for this stuff. Just as people in 2013 have complicated motives for studying, idealizing, or reenacting the Middle Ages, Whittingham and Rhodes might have offered explanations that combined the personal, the social, the religious, and the political.

Twenty years after ignoring 36 East Main Street for reasons I’ve long since forgotten, I’m glad I looked up. You never know when the place where you first met Charlemagne and Chaucer will reveal to you, just over your head, the bewildering traces of somebody’s medieval dream.