Archive for ‘Colorado’


“Crossing the central reservation of my imagination…”

I was heartened to find them right where I left them: the Notre Dame chimera and his beak-faced buddy leering over the baggage carousels at Denver International Airport. I landed in Colorado just as the news broke that the state’s cutest pests were busily vectoring some good, old-fashioned plague, and my first thought (after “¡ay caramba!“) was to wonder what other medieval grotesquerie I might encounter.

Medieval Europe casts a strange, slanting shadow across the American West, even before you take into account the culture and traditions of Spanish speakers. (It’s not for nothing that the 1984 book The Medieval Heritage of Mexico is 600 pages long.) For generations, we Americans were fond of imagining that we’d made a clean break from Europe—“Shrouded bards of other lands! you may sleep—you have done your work”—but in the deserts and prairies, that belief is still duking it out with evidence that we’re the blatant heirs to medieval traditions.

False starts abound there, too. At Mesa Verde National Park, we were gawking at Far View House, the ruin of an Ancestral Puebloan home built between 1100 and 1300 A.D., when my wonderfully indulgent traveling companion spotted this:

Could it be? The remains of an Ancestral Puebloan gargoyle that once spewed forth some of the mesa’s 18 inches of summer rain—set in place at the same time Europeans were building great Gothic cathedrals? Could a medieval French architect have been shipwrecked on our shores and then whisked away to the desert by a super-tornado? Perhaps with the aid of medieval Welsh UFO abductees?

Alas, no. Those drainage stones only look old; they were placed there by the National Park Service to draw water away from the fragile sandstone ruins. The two rangers who answered my questions seemed awfully embarrassed that somebody noticed.

In Ouray, Colorado, which bills itself as “the Switzerland of America,” I spotted familiar beasties atop the local pharmacy museum:

As common as prairie dogs, these grotesques are variants of a standard garden-store and souvenir-shop species known as the “Florentine gargoyle.” They usually have dog or cat faces, and they often have chains around their necks. If their ancestors actually lurk on a landmark in Florence, I’m still hunting for them.

Fortunately, other, more perspicacious medievalists have moseyed down this road. In his 1965 article “The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West,” historian Lynn White, Jr., argued that pioneers were “particularly beneficiaries of the Middle Ages” whose “essential equipment was largely the culture of the mediaeval lower classes.” Log cabins? A medieval building style brought to North America by Swedes, reintroduced by the Germans and the Swiss, and carried westward by Scotch-Irish settlers. Stirrups? Eighth century. Spurs? Late 13th century. The distillation of spirits, card games, garter belts, the title “sheriff,” and even lynching? All of them, White argues, were “medieval patterns of preference” that shaped the American West.

Of course, White belonged to a school of historians who were obsessed with showing irrefutable continuity from the Middle Ages to the present. “Indeed,” he surmised, “a good case could be made for the thesis that today the United States is closer to the Middle Ages than is Europe.” In his 1965 article, he’s eager to believe it’s so. He’s not wrong when he claims that the revolver, barbed wire, and the windmill couldn’t have existed without medieval innovations in gunpowder, drawing wire, and water pumping—but sometimes he seems to be trying too hard.

That said, one of White’s revelations is particularly neat. To find traces of the Middle Ages in Colorado, you need to look no further than the countless squares, parks, and museums for the carcasses of a conveyance that most people don’t consider “medieval” at all.

The Conestoga wagon! To generations of Americans—and to the throngs of European tourists I saw at the national parks last week—it’s an icon of the Old West. I’d assumed it was the culmination of 19th-century New World ingenuity, but White makes a case for its medieval-ness.

The Romans, he argues, had nothing quite like it. The earliest example of a harness with padded collars and lateral traces or shafts pops up only around the year 800. Nailed horseshoes, which gave horses traction and reduced wear on their hooves, first appear in the 890s. Finally, around 1070, we see the first evidence for the humble but ingenious “whipple tree,” the rod across the front of a cart that connects the sides of tandem animals to the front and center of the cart, equalizing the pull and making the whole contraption safer and more efficient.

Capable of hauling several people and heavy loads, the large frontier wagon, the longa caretta, is now feasible—just add youthful sinewy races full of manly pride and friendship. “In the early twelfth century,” White concludes, “it appears in essentially the same form which came to dominate the American West in the Conestoga wagon.” O pioneers!

Is he right? I don’t know. Historians bicker mightily about the timing of the first nailed horseshoes, and when I look at the marginal doodad on the Bayeux Tapestry that White believed was the first evidence for the whipple-tree, I just don’t see it. But his explanation is plausible (and great fun), as is his underlying belief in the medieval-ness of the United States:

We Americans greatly puzzle Europeans, including Britons, because whereas every European state assumes absolute sovereignty, even over religion, we are still happily mediaeval in political concepts and deliberately splinter sovereignty quite minutely. The central issue in American domestic politics at present is whether, or the extent to which, our mediaeval legacy of pluralism is still viable.

“The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West” is nearly half a century old, but White could have written those words yesterday—or a decade from now. The road goes ever on and on, leading us back to medieval Europe, even when we’re positive we’re headed west.

“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.)