Archive for September, 2008


“A built-in remedy for Kruschev and Kennedy…”

Growing up in Central Jersey, I never thought to pause and ponder quasi-medieval statuary, mostly because we didn’t have any—or so I thought until this weekend, when I drove through Bound Brook and decided, on a whim, to check out a monument that’s landed in my peripheral vision on and off for more than 20 years.

That’s St. Olga, seated in majesty. Behind her is a memorial church for the victims of Stalin’s famines; behind that is a lovely, tree-lined cemetery; and the entire area is part of the larger headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, otherwise known as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

So who was St. Olga? Before her death in A.D. 969, Olga was the first ruler of the Rus to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Baptized in Constantinople, she ruled Kiev on behalf of her son and sent an embassy westward to Emperor Otto I. She was the grandmother of Prince Volodymyr—Vladimir—who proclaimed Orthodox Christianity the official religion of Rus-Ukraine. You know those emissaries who came back from Constantinople and famously said of Hagia Sofia, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth”? Those were Vladimir’s men.

Olga was not a nice lady. True to her Viking roots, she avenged her husband by burying his killers alive in a ship. She also sent smoldering doves to alight on the thatched roofs of an enemy town, which then burned down.

In Bound Brook, sculptor Petro Kapschutschenko has made a remarkable monument to the Kievan Rus regent. Olga is elevated, as an enthroned Byzantine empress would have been, reminding visitors of her superiority and making it impossible for anyone to look her in the eye. Viewed straight on, Olga seems remote but amused, as if she just condemned the director of a TaTu video—but in profile, her face is a mixture of dignity and visible cruelty.


Next to the church is another striking Kapschutschenko sculpture of a 20th-century archbishop raising his hand heavenward. Also on the grounds are the home and resting place of the local Dutch Reformed dignitary who witnessed the signing of the Declaration of Independence and then returned home to read it aloud to the people of Bound Brook.

But there, reigning at the gates, is Olga. As she deigns to rest her royal gaze on the run-down repair shop across the street, she’s a reminder of the Vikings who lent their name to Russia—and one reason why Russia, a thousand years later, still glares possessively at the Ukraine.

“And as for fame, it’s just a name…”

Sometimes, in these trying times of crisis and universal brouhaha, we’re presented with evidence that even as the pillars of civilization crumble all around us, medievalism remains a sturdy riverside mill of robust economic growth.

Behold: Charlemagne shower gel.

As the neat Roman blog Eternally Cool points out, Charlemagne is one of the worthies immortalized by the ZIRH Warrior Collection, which includes shower gels inspired by Ulysses, Alexander the Great, Cyrus of Persia, and Julius Caesar. Now, with all due respect to my amici at the eCool team, the “cooling icy scent” of Charlemagne, which offers the natural astringency of chestnut seed, totally conquers the citrusy, skin-softening properties of Caesar.

“But wait,” I hear yon straw man cry, “is Charlemagne shower gel historically accurate?” Frankly—yes, I said “Frank”-ly—the question offends me. Anyone who’s read The Life of Charlemagne ought to remember the passage where the emperor conditions his royal tresses with chestnut-seed extract. It comes right after the concubine asks him “Are all these your guitars?” and then expresses amazement that the royal baths are larger than her whole apartment. It’s in Einhard, people—look it up!

“There’s safety in numbers, when you learn to divide.”

It’s been a wobbly week in the world of finance. AIG—bailed out! Lehman Brothers—bankrupt! Marty’s Shoes—out of business! But, as Charlemagne famously observed, “you roll your dice, you move your mice,” a reminder that the theories behind financial derivatives have a longer pedigree than we often give them credit for. In fact, scholars are currently debating how medieval people assessed, managed, and diversified risk.

First, check this out: in June 2007, the Electronic Journ@l for History of Probability and Statistics devoted an entire issue to “medieval probabilities.” Contributors to the issue explore the medieval roots of the theories and applications of the risk-management industries of later centuries, finding that

[t]he writings of some late XIIIth or XIVth Century Franciscan theologians provide the most interesting place for such discussions. In their view, the aleatory element of a commercial contract could be evaluated in its own terms, and possibly sold separately.

According to another article, which discusses late-medieval maritime insurance, the merchants who underwrote sea voyages didn’t have a statistical basis for evaluating risk, but they did base insurance premiums on such factors as the ship, its captain, the distance of the trip, the season, and the type of cargo. Interestingly, Giovanni Ceccarelli finds that the 16th-century underwriters of one French merchant ship were sensitive to ways that changes to contracts might damage the insurance market as a whole; he also finds that the use of coinsurance, exemption clauses, third-party reassurances, and temporary partnerships meant that “businessmen could rely on a wide range of multi-faceted instruments that allowed a flexible strategy of risk diversification.” Ceccarelli is the author of an entire book about how medieval people became increasingly sophisticated about games of chance until “‘risk’ ultimately became perceived as an ‘object’ that could be commercialized and quantified in economic terms.”

On a side note, there’s currently an active scholarly debate about how medieval people used land to mitigate risk. A 2001 article in Explorations in Economic History suggests that medieval peasants managed risk through land accumulation, and that scattered fields made land “a divisible savings instrument.” Others disagree, contending that landowners became downwardly mobile when they sold off small parcels or that some medieval farmers mitigated risk by joining farmers’ cooperatives.

Are you yawning yet? I hope not; even if, like me, you only dimly understand economic history, you should be able to appreciate these glimmers of medieval ingenuity, belying as they do the lingering modern smugness about the past in general and the Middle Ages in particular. As it turns out, the complicated financial derivatives that are making the market go all higgeldy-piggeldy in 2008 are based on the idea that abstractions like risk can be bought and sold—a concept medieval people, too, were sophisticated enough to understand.

“I must admit, altho’ I don’t like Sunday…”

Recently, we here at “Quid Plura?” headquarters have had too little time for medievalism. As Charlemagne wrote to Alcuin after Elipandus of Toledo dabbled in heresy, “these are the days when you wish your bed was already made.” So here to offset the manic start of your week are decidedly non-medieval links.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports on the endurance of the city’s foremost vendors (and ertstwhile employer of Ignatius Reilly), Lucky Dogs. “The Lucky Dogs crew has between them a half-dozen Ph.D.’s,” the article claims, “and about as many felony charges.”

University Diaries describes what it’s like to live in the house where Ferdinand the Bull was born.

At Work in Progress, guest blogger Sara Dobie discusses how publishing a book isn’t the end of the author’s work, but just the beginning.

My friend at Ephemeral in New York shows you old-timey drinking fountains, Bay Ridge a century ago, and one massive christening gown.

Eternally Cool finds the residents of Pompeii demanding McDonald’s.

Quizzing readers on a new citizenship test, Der Spiegel asks, “Are you smart enough to be German?”

Richard Wright was best known for his books about race relations, but did you know that during the last 18 months of his life, he composed more than 4,000 haiku?

“So I walk up on high, and I step to the edge…”

[Last year, when this blog was new and its readership was still rather small, I posted a story about the Twin Towers during better days. Here it is again, a small tribute to the connections we make with mere buildings.]

He told us about it our entire lives: the Hudson Toimnal, big as a city, born in Manhattan a year before he was. He could glimpse it by chance from his Gammontown stoop, or he could sneak to the rooftop for a better view, peering over three storeys of sooty clotheslines at the peaks of its twin towers. He later spent a decade there, twenty-six storeys up, crawling on beams over deep black shafts as he kept the elevators running.

“That was some building,” he’d say, wiring up a toaster at the kitchen table, cracking a dead can opener in two. “They don’t make ’em like that no more.”

Shuffling to the cellar to study his switches and knobs, he hummed old songs through the few teeth left in his head. We heard the clack of the latch as he passed through the double doors, twin relics of his long-gone career. They were part of a Hudson Toimnal phone booth; he had hauled them home on a commuter train long before the towers came down.

He showed us his past in one fading brown snapshot: It’s 1934, and a skinny mechanic swings from rope-and-rag stirrups; he’s painting the northmost flagpole, a massive “U D S” behind him in awesome reverse. He’s only 25, but his smile says he’s the happiest man in Manhattan, with good reason: He’s hundreds of feet above the busy sidewalks, earning a rare day off from the best job he’ll ever have.

Sixty years later, the man in that photo surprised me. For all his talk about the Hudson Toimnal, he never expressed much interest in seeing its replacement—until one autumn morning, when he said that we should go.

As skyscrapers loomed over the deck of the ferry, I wondered what was happening at work.

“In them days,” he told me, “you wouldn’t dare take a day off. You take too many, they figured they could do without you.”

At the Battery, he gave a punk a cigarette and stared at the piers in confusion. “I don’t recognize none of this,” he insisted, but I pushed him through crowds of commuters and straight into the tourists. They were waiting to take the same elevator we were.

“I sure hope the cable doesn’t snap,” some jerk said, earning rueful snickers on the long ride up.

“Cables don’t break,” came the quiet rebuttal after we reached the top, “but if they do, the brake jaws grab the guide rails. That keeps the car from falling.” He was at home here, and still on the job.

But when we took the final escalator to the observation deck, he was silent for far too long. He studied the skyline. We were now a thousand feet higher than the flagpoles he had painted; all of it had changed.

Sad and lost, he shuffled his way to the western side. There he stopped, and began scanning for landmarks across the river—until, amazed to have sighted a familiar face, he rushed to a viewfinder, stuck in a quarter, and spun it straight toward the street where his childhood was.

He talked for weeks about what he’d beheld. “I thought the Hudson Toimnal Building was something,” he said. “But them Twin Towers…”

We heard less about the Hudson Toimnal Building after that, and for a while I forgot about the fading old photo. Five years later, I saw it again, in an envelope he left with my name on it.

Today, I keep it with a snapshot of my own: An old man visits a famous building that stands on top of his past. His hands grip the railing, as if a good gust might blow him away—but then he smiles, turns his ballcap backwards, and peers through the viewer, squinting to see where he’s been.

“Come, sweet slumber, enshroud me in thy purple cloak…”

To have insomnia and a television is to gaze upon a vivid Chaucerian world of advertisements for products of dubious worth: joint spray for pets, miraculous clean-up cloths, electric roach repellents, and magic detoxifying foot pads. Rarely do these products benefit the sleepless medievalist—until now.

Behold: the Weird Scarlet Medieval Cowl Thingie.

Whether you’re prancing around wishing you were Dante Alighieri or just the minion of a cackling madman steering his spaceship toward the heart of a yawning black hole, the Weird Scarlet Medieval Cowl Thingie is the chinsy, pseudo-monastic garment you’ve been praying for. Its fibrous, fleecy folds let you live out your quasi-medieval dreams with panache. Why, if I’d had one, I might have updated this site more often in recent weeks—that is, as long as the air of wizardly authority it lends its wearer didn’t distract me from hurling fireballs at legions of screaming kolbolds. (Hey, you have your quasi-medieval vision, I have mine…)

“…and Sunday always comes too late.”

It’s one of those weekends. I’m preparing for class (as a student, not as a teacher) and cooking up a storm. In the past 24 hours, I’ve made red beans and rice with andouille, Szechuan green beans with ground pork, a Mexican chili-and-oregano chicken marinade, and I’m brewing my own ginger ale. Should this blog suddenly go dark, you’ll know I was propelled to Valhalla by a window-shattering supernova of yeasty, ginger-flecked projectiles.

And so, some links to get you through the weekend:

Gabriele at Lost Fort translates a lovely Rilke poem and provides the original German for comparison.

ALOTT5MA has the latest on the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. (Here’s a rough clip from the movie on YouTube.)

Ever wondered what happened to the ’67 Camaro from the John Cusack masterpiece Better Off Dead? You can find it—where else?—at betteroffdeadcamaro.com. (Turn down your volume first.)

Open Letters Monthly features the fifth installment of Green, the weird and wonderful serialized translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Adam Golaski.

Scott Nokes has a Morning Medieval Miscellany full of good stuff.

Got Medieval’s got elephants from medieval manuscripts.

The Gypsy Scholar dashes off a poem.

Steven Hart introduces us to a great travel writer.

The Cranky Professor wonders: Should museums be free?

Finally, everyone remembers Dream Academy for “Life in a Northern Town,” but since it’s September, sample their lesser-known but almost-as-anthemic single, “Indian Summer.” That was the problem with music in the ’80s: too many synthesizers, too few beautiful women on oboe…

“Back to school, it’s a bad situation…”

It’s back-to-school time for teachers and students alike. If you stroll along Massachusetts Avenue looking for inspiration, you’ll find this fellow at the Embassy of Croatia.

It’s Saint Jerome, who’s clearly immersed in his work. If you’ve ever grappled with Jerome’s page-length Latin sentences, you’ve probably made this gesture, too.

For many of you, the coming weeks will call for much sighing and staring at tomes. Whether you’re a teacher or a student, here’s to a pleasant and productive semester—without too much hieronymian clutching of the forehead.

“And as the nail sunk in the cloud…”

Medievalism may be in short supply around here for the next day or so, as we at “Quid Plura?” headquarters stay glued to the Weather Channel. Gustav has its eye on the area of Louisiana where my family lives—but they make me proud, as they’re facing down the hurricane with the wit of Ignatius Reilly, the cruel gazes of my Viking nephew, and all the cynicism of transplanted New Jerseyans who won’t be cowed by storms, or snakes, or the giant mutant amphibious rodents that I’m sure hide under my nephew’s bed.

Anyway, with wind and rain bearing down on the bayou, let’s kill time with a Category Three installment of “weird searches that brought people to this Web site.”

literal coat of arms
If that person knows what “literal” means, then this makes for one disturbing image.

exotic bone splitting combat axes
Wield these while wearing your “literal coat of arms” and you’ll be a superlative whirlwind of smite.

review of literature on shelf life of cumin
Good grief, man, how much cumin did you buy?

unicorn spittle
I’m not saying it’s not the secret ingredient in my homemade pierogies, but…

stimulating grendel lessons
I sense a joke about having only one arm, but I’m too much of a prude to make it.

how to catch a predator series starring chris hansen on dvd
If you need this to stimulate your Grendel, then God help you.

frenzied sharks eating themselves
When my book becomes a Sci-Fi Channel Movie, remind me to include this in a scene.

playmobil war of independence
“I was only a boy when they clipped a rifle in my hand and loaded me onto the troop ship. It was my first time away from home, and I was scared, because I’d never been able to bend my arms. I told the sarge, but he just stared at me. ‘Boy,’ he said, ‘none of these sons of bitches can bend their arms.’ No one laughed; they just smiled and gazed into the distance…”

what part of the book beowulf uses anecdotes?
The part where Beowulf and the other Christians hold a tale-telling contest on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. Be sure to footnote me in your paper.

all we have left is the flowers in the garden to remind us
“You got your poignancy in my sarcasm!” “You got your sarcasm in my poignancy!”

i fought your face, and your face won
Thank heaven for my literal coat of arms.

now i’m fine, but i hear all of those voices in my mind
Ignore the ones that tell you to strangle manatees in the nude, please; but spare a thought for the folks in the Gulf, and hope that they get only rain.