Archive for December, 2007


“Merciless, the magistrate turns ’round…”

And so the old year draws to a close, even as this site enjoys an influx of new readers. Welcome! Here are a few “best of” links to give you a sense of what this blog is about.

Not surprisingly, a hectic round of book promotion meant that 2007 was, for me, the Year of Charlemagne. Whether or not you’ve read Becoming Charlemagne, you can still enjoy my translation of “The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier”; ponder what Charlemagne would have thought of the European Union; discover a country song about the Frankish king; and join us as we debunk, possibly, the best thing Charlemagne never said.

(Despite my best intentions, no one heard my pleas to turn Becoming Charlemagne into a CGI-festooned Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. We do live in barbaric times.)

Here are some mini-essays about modern medievalists whom I think you’ll be glad to have met: Icelandic translator Bernard Scudder, Belgian historian and national hero Henri Pirenne, and American polymath Henry Adams.

In a frenzy of febrile Latinity, I translated some poetry by Theodulf, the ninth-century bishop of Orleans. Check out the old Visigoth’s thoughts on a stolen horse, a child’s dream, a self-defeating fox, and blessed libations; then consider Theodulf’s legacy of haughty medieval snark.

Here in Washington, I found another corner of ninth-century Europe in the garden at the National Cathedral, while Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” came to life on my neighborhood sidewalks.

This fall, all the cool kids weighed in on Beowulf. Despite never having been especially cool, I wrote about the movie as the legacy of postwar Anglo-Saxonists and tagged it as perfect for eleven-year-old boys.

Now and again, I returned to my native New Jersey. I celebrated the anniversary of the humble Commodore 64, told you a story about the other Twin Towers, and explained how I challenged James Joyce for the hand of a girl. (No, really, I did.)

Thank you, all of you, for visiting this site. The occasional medieval pun or dalliance with a toy trebuchet notwithstanding, I’ve tried to write blog-posts that repay your effort and time; in return, you’ve given me generous links, lively comments, and readership stats that continue to increase. I chose the name of this blog hastily, not knowing how the site would fare or whether people would really want to read it—but if the year that’s passing is any indication of the year that’s to come, I may need to reconsider that question mark.

“The check’s in the mail, and I’ll see you in church…”

Someday soon, Karl der Grosse and I will have to part company—but I’m glad that day has not yet come. Otherwise, I’d never find neat stuff like this in my mailbox.

Yep, that’s a Charlemagne stick puppet, made by none other than medievalist and puppeteer Jennifer Lynn Jordan. Thanks, Jen!

Perhaps Jen’s puppet can help us answer the timeless question posed by something else I recently got in the mail.

Of course, most readers of this blog know that Charlemagne wasn’t exactly renowned for keeping his trousers up in the first place. Alas, this ad doesn’t answer the question it poses; it only promotes a free brochure that does promise an answer. I haven’t yet located a copy of that brochure—but, as another legendary bearded figure once sang, the road goes ever on and on…

“It isn’t the mice in the wall, it isn’t the wind in the well…”

After a long hiatus, Dave at Studenda Mira has returned with a seasonal snippet from Ireland, one that may link the distant rituals of the Iron Age with the modern observance of St. Stephen’s Day in West Cork.

While you’re at Studenda Mira, don’t miss Dave’s post from earlier this year about our visit to the Salarian Gate. Let me tell you, it’s good to have friends who know that going to Rome is about more than merely gawking at the Colosseum. (Although we did that, too. Honestly, how can you not?)

“Check if you can disconnect the effect, and I’ll go after the cause.”

What do you fear, O Jeff’s mom’s 1970s Christmas candle?

What do you fear, O humble waxen villager of yore?

“I have smelt them, the death-bringers…”

Behold: Gingerbread’s Bane!

Lest you think we’re all talk and no action here at Quid Plura?, we decided to try out an item that featured prominently on our own medieval gift guide. I’m pleased to report that this build-it-yourself tabletop trebuchet performed wonderfully, flinging nuts more than 25 feet across a rainy backyard, terrifying an imaginary gingerbread burgermeister, and earning a “cool” from our resident four-year-old.

There’s a whole online community of trebuchet enthusiasts centered around Trebuchet.com. Why am I not surprised? I once witnessed, when the competition was still in its infancy, the annual trebuchet-intensive “Punkin Chunkin” in Delaware, but now, thanks to TrebuchetPlans.com, you no longer need to be a physics obsessive to build your own full-sized siege engine. Heck, you can even run the Atreb or TrebStar simulators to optimize your rig for maximum flingability.

If you prefer to confine your sieges to the tabletop, you can graduate from the affordable trebuchet shown above to this expensive, 140-piece working replica of the “Warwolf” of Edward I—but if you’re really desperate (and one pathetic cheapskate), you can make an office-supply trebuchet out of paper clips and batteries.

Of course, if you do decide to join the proud company of trebuchet-builders, whatever the scale, remember the motherly admonition that’s as prudent as it is timeless: “Thine eyen out wilt thou shoote!” And then prove her wrong, marveling as diseased bovines sail like angels over your neighbors’ fences.

“Rhymes so loud and proud you hear it…”

And this was, as thise bookes me remembre,
The colde, frosty seson of Decembre.
Phebus wax old, and hewed lyk laton,
That in his hoote declynacion
Shoon as the burned gold with stremes brighte;
But now in Capricorn adoun he lighte,
Where as he shoon ful pale, I dar wel seyn.
The bittre frostes, with the sleet and reyn,
Destroyed hath the the grene in every yerd.
Janus sits by the fyr, with double berd,
And drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn;
Biforn hym stant brawen of the tusked swyn,
And “Nowel!” crieth every lusty man.

— Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Franklin’s Tale”

“And he threw away his looking-glass…”

Before finally filing your grade sheet away, you take a glance back at your students: the hagglers, the flatterers, folks who can’t spell; the brilliant readers, who see patterns you never imagined; the passionate few, who discover the works of a lifetime; the ghosts, who drift into the classroom with hollow-eyed stares and who float out again just as empty; the religious and the irreligious, who shock each other with their very existence; the lazy, who are stunned when your deadlines disrupt them; and the sensitive poets who wish they were jaded, who work to be altered by nothing at all.

You also remember the doomed. Some, in the end, cry out like Faustus at midnight. Others, too few, clamber like Brunhilde onto the pyre, restoring their honor and earning their human dignity, if never a passing grade.

At the same time, the Christmas cards arrive. Some come from strange new places; most bring news of career advancement and snapshots of happy babies. Your horizon, still full of students, widens well beyond the back rows of any classroom, and you remember why Alcuin wrote these words to King Offa:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, 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 about 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.

Alcuin knew: teaching asks more of you than mere lectures, discussions, and hours of rote emendation. The futures of others now fall in your hands. That grade sheet, he’d tell you, is blind to your days of frustration. It recorded the trust that you dared to assume; it’s a plain declaration of hope.

“Probi fuimus, sed non durabimus…”

For all its opulence, the palace was a hall of drear. It glittered, but as the chamberlain observed, it had long ago ceased to shine. Enthroned, the pope passed the afternoon, as usual, without so much as a whisper. He had become just another of the chamber’s countless statues, a decoration to be dusted, an object of occasional veneration. Clerks and notaries flitted beneath him; they attended to petitioners and saw to the snuffing out of candles.

The chamberlain sighed. He wished for a window. How many more hours of misery awaited him? The incense stung his nose. He ached for a cup of wine.

“A chanter from Seville to see you, sir.”

The chamberlain blinked. The little priest before him was sweaty and red. Was this forgettable creature always so twitchy? No matter; it was time to be a tyrant.

“The Holy Father has no interest in Andalusian vagrants. Send him away.”

“Sir, you really want to see this.”

They always promised marvels. What came instead? Puppet shows. Mimes. That donkey with the law degree.

“Is there no legitimate business we can conduct?”

“No, sir, not after this.”

The chamberlain gave his usual hand-wave of resignation. Boredom always trumped tyranny, especially on dull winter days.

Moments later, a dark-haired man wearing humble clothing walked quietly into the room. The chamberlain approached him, mindful of protocol.

The Spaniard strode right past the chamberlain and burst into speech.

“Holy Father! Far have I traveled, and strange sights have I seen, but today I bring music that shall warm men’s hearts and give glory to Almighty God!”

The chamberlain rolled his eyes.

“Your Holiness, in Sevilla, the city of my birth, I was a scholar of music in all its myriad forms. I knew the call of the muezzin, the savage chanting of ancient Gaul, the bawdy refrains of the Genoese shipmen. From Cordoba to Samarkand, my name was known to many. Raspy minstrels, cantors from the patriarchal tombs—strangers came from far and wide that I might discover their songs.

“But to my enduring shame, O Holy Father, one form of music was entirely unknown to me. Rumors reached me of a marvelous style of singing, a sound full wondrous to hear. Its secret, travelers told me, was guarded by monks at the ends of the earth, where they sang unending hymns of Saint Nicholas and other Christian subjects too numerous to mention. Desiring to know this music which few living scholars had heard, I left my comfortable home and my company of flatterers, and I chased vague whispers along strange and lonely paths.”

The chamberlain glanced at the motionless pope. Was he asleep? Was he breathing? Had this long-winded fool at last bored the pontiff to death?

“Holy Father, I sought this heavenly choir in the terrible places of the world. I sailed through ice in the realms of the north, where hard men laughed at my desperate quest. I traveled eastward into Araby, but I journeyed in vain, for there I heard only frivolities, and never celestial sound.

“Winter came. Forlorn, clad only in rags, I faced starvation on frigid mountain peaks. Through the intervention of God—for how else to explain that fortuitous day?—I was rescued by the brothers of an order whose patron I am forbidden to name. But there, Holy Father, while I rested, healing through Our Lord’s salvific grace, strange music amazed me as I lay in my cell.

“That miracle I bring to Rome this day.”

At the far end of the chamber, golden doors opened. Three tiny, hooded figures glided silently over the marble.

Bile rose in the chamberlain’s throat. A dwarf act! He crossed himself. These always ended in sacrilege. Where were the guards?

The Spaniard raised his right hand.

“Hit it, boys.”

A weird, piercing music filled the air: an unearthly chant that flowed magically from beneath three tiny cloaks, an eerie, impossible singing that bathed the great hall in a strange and transcendent good cheer. Priests and monks all froze where they stood, beguiled by a falsetto that not even castrati could create. Tears welled in the chamberlain’s eyes. Was this the choir of Heaven or of Hell? The verse of these singers was in some foreign tongue—alien, yes, and yet oddly familiar. He understood none of it, not one single word—but he knew it would haunt him for the rest of his life.

And then, as quickly as it had begun, the singing ended.

The hall was silent for an eternity; no priest or monk dared blaspheme the place with motion—not a cough. Everyone stared at the singers.

Finally, with trembling voice, the chamberlain found nerve enough to ask: “Are you men…or angels?”

The three beings reached up with tiny hands and reverently lowered their cowls. Solemn faces peered out at the world, wide-cheeked faces with prominent teeth set beneath large, benevolent eyes. Their features were mingled in brown, shaggy fur.

The chamberlain gasped.

“What manner of monks are these?”

From far behind him came a stir of precious robes and a voice not heard here in ages.

“Non monachi,” declared the quaking, agitated pope, “sed chipmonachi.”

The giggling of the pontiff resounded through the hall. Priests rushed to his side, desperate to calm him. The chamberlain fell to his knees as confusion around him swirled.

The stranger from Seville folded his arms; then he looked at his singers and frowned.

“If they think that’s something,” he muttered, accustomed to such chaos, “just wait ’til they see you fellas dance.”

“Si rex solum unum dies essem, dederem omnia…”

I’m on the run for most of the week, but here are some medieval-themed links to inform, amuse, and delight you on this chilly Tuesday morning.

At Modern Medieval, Matt Gabriele notes a Guardian article about Yuletide medievalism and uses it to make a cogent point: history does not repeat itself.

Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard takes modern readers to task for failing to understand medieval allegory.

Will at Heroic Dreams dispels a few myths about mead and announces that he’s going into the business of making the stuff.

Michael Livingston speculates about medieval plague and the hillside giants of modern England.

Jennifer Lynn Jordan continues Weird Medieval Animal Monday with a terrifying Ivy League quadruped.

Stán Cynedóm links to the YouTube video that all the cool kids are talking about: Eddie Izzard using Old English to purchase a cow in Friesland.

Finally, in a post that approaches elegy, author Steven Hart recalls seeing his first David Lynch movie in New Brunswick, N.J., during the city’s shabbiest years. (And if you don’t think this is a medieval link, then you never saw New Brunswick during the 1970s…)

“And it takes a knight, and a girl, and a book of this kind…”

Gaudeamus igitur! I’m pleased to announce that tomorrow, the paperback edition of Becoming Charlemagne will finally hit the shelves. You can pick up a copy at your local bookstore (including Barnes & Noble, which will be hyping the book on its “new releases” tables), or you can easily order it through Amazon.

This trade paperback is the book as I’ve always envisioned it: compact, affordable, and easy to transport. It’ll make a fine last-minute stocking-stuffer for the history buff in your life—or a great way to spend that precious gift card.

While you’re at it, if you’re in a medieval mood, don’t forget to download my free translation of “The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier.” Free medieval literature in translation! Not even Santa can promise that.

“Ertu þá farin, ertu þá farin frá mér?”

If you’ve visited the Mál og Menning bookstore in Reykjavik, you’ve seen them: rows and rows of original works, many of them tantalizing, most of them inaccessible to outsiders. Unfortunately, we recently lost one of the rare souls who helped to share Icelandic literature with the English-speaking world: translator Bernard Scudder, whose death in October went virtually unnoticed.

Scudder wasn’t the only translator of Icelandic writing, but he was, arguably, the most versatile. He contributed to The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, the massive, five-volume set published in 1997; he translated hip works of literary fiction such as Angels of the Universe and Epilogue of the Raindrops; he introduced readers in North America and the U.K. to Icelandic crime novels, including Silence of the Grave and Jar City; and, God bless him, he helped pay the bills with such gimmicky fare as The Vikings’ Guide to Good Business.

Sadly, no English-language newspaper or magazine has published an obituary for Bernard Scudder. The Iceland Review Web site hasn’t noted his death, and Guardian book-blogger Sarah Weinman only learned of his passing because someone at MediaBistro happened to be visiting Reykjavik.

Even now, the prolific translator remains something of an enigma. Weinman writes:

All we know is that Scudder died suddenly on October 15, that he was married, and that Harvill Secker, Indridason’s UK publisher, commented in a statement that they held Scudder’s work “in high regard and that he was a pleasure to work with.”

Perhaps, in its own way, the obscurity of Bernard Scudder is suitably Icelandic. Consider this notion from the 1955 award speech of Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness:

My thoughts fly to the old Icelandic storytellers who created our classics, whose personalities were so bound up with the masses that their names, unlike their lives’ work, have not been preserved for posterity. They live in their immortal creations and are as much a part of Iceland as her landscape.

Bernard Scudder will never be famous; he won no renown in life, and the literary world will likely forget him in death. Fortunately, his efforts will endure, and for some of us, he will always be an integral part of our Iceland, that stark and beguiling and weirdly secretive country we first beheld with our own startled eyes—but which we only really saw in translation.

UPDATE – January 10, 2007: A UK newspaper has finally published an obituary of Scudder.