Archive for February, 2009


“I like hammering nails, and speaking in tongues…”

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” The Internet, in its collective wisdom, attributes this chestnut to Charlemagne, even though the old emperor seems to have uttered it no earlier than a UPI “thought for the day” distributed to newspapers on April 2, 1989. (A 1920 article about the study of French inexplicably attributes this same saying to “the great Spanish monarch, if it be he.”) Like other things Charlemagne supposedly said, it’s the sort of thing Einhard or Notker might have wanted him to say, and several quotation dictionaries and educational treatises have accepted that he did. People love this quip because it seems to say something profound. I’m just not certain it’s true.

Ten months ago, I decided it was time to learn German—not dabble in German to pass a watered-down reading exam, not fake it by squinting at German hard enough to sweat out the Old English cognates, but really learn the language at the fastest pace my schedule and the local curriculum allowed. Since then, I’ve taken classes that have raised my fluency from “feeble” to “mostly feeble,” I’ve learned love songs, hymns, and party tunes, and and I’ve looked upon lists of irregular participles and despaired. I’ve also remembered what it’s like to be a student.

After you spend ten years as an adjunct, familiar texts come around just often enough for an awkward reunion; they’re the old friends with whom you have too much history but also too little in common. Meanwhile, you stare past those piles of personal reading: novels that somebody forced on you; books bought on a whim; discards from strangers who passed through your life. Back then, the thrill of ignorance made everything a mystery, and each new book promised wisdom. Now, folded pages lead you back to useless secrets: verses and lines that were, for a while, the language you shared with someone who probably doesn’t remember. Trace a swirl in the dust; whole shelves smell like bookstores that long ago closed.

And so, ich lerne Deutsch. I download old pop songs that torture German ears; they’re fresh and intriguing to me. I despise crosswords—but I finish my first childish kreuzworträtsel in German with pride, having done what I couldn’t do a year ago. I flip through collections of Rilke, dictionary handy, wandering with pleasure through century-old poems that carry no personal associations, only the ones they acquire today. Sometimes I’m stopped by an opening line: Ich glaube an alles noch nie Gesagte…

The books on my syllabus all seem a little more strange to me now. Thomas Malory, William Morris, Tennyson—to my surprise, they each have something new to say. They tell me that Charlemagne had it all wrong: A new language doesn’t give you a second soul; it refreshes the one you’d forgotten you already had.

“Midnight, headlight, find you on a rainy night…”

When Chaucer praised his Clerk by writing that “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche,” he probably never pictured the poor dude trying to do both of those things while also holding down a full-time job. Such is the state of things here at “Quid Plura?” headquarters. Those of you who have pre-ordered Becoming Charlemagne II: The Curse of Lothar’s Gold will have to wait longer than I’d hoped. Fortunately, you won’t have to wait long at all to hear the pitter-patter of sundry links.

At The Economist, “Charlemagne” ponders the global ascendancy of English and the counterintuitive downsides for native speakers.

Commenters at the New York Times travel blog hate this guy who begs his way across Europe.

Lingwë mulls over the plurals “oxen” and “foxes.”

The world’s hardest-working royalty-blogger is now on Twitter.

K.A. Laity is writing a novel 500 words at a time.

Steve Donoghue reviews a new translation of Boethius. (One hopes it abounds in theology and geometry.)

Ephemeral in New York recalls the tuberculosis of yesteryear.

“Quid Plura?” readers fall into two camps: people who want to know how Icelandic sheep’s head jelly is made, and terrorists.

My Life in Books finds an odd little book: a short story in twelve languages.

L.C. McCabe finds a fantasy adaptation of Orlando Furioso with a really awful cover.

On Valentine’s Day, Alpheus remembered how the Brownings fell in love.

Speak Swedish? Know your runes? The Riksantikvarieämbetet is looking for runologists.

Did you know the Beach Boys recorded in German? I sure didn’t.

Call your cable provider if you think you need the Clive Clemmons Inappropriate Heavy Metal Response Channel.

“When I am king, dilly-dilly, you will be queen…”

“You ask if I love you,” Charlemagne famously wrote to Queen Fastrada from the Avar front. “What can I say? You know that I do, and that this is just one of those games that we play.” The occasion for that letter was Valentimes, a little-known Frankish observance held on February 13 to honor a Roman citizen whose martyrdom in the jaws of a vicious bear was, historians now believe, a case of mistaken identity. Although little is known about Valentime, the Vatican recently named him the patron saint of supermodels and the illiterate, and the memory of his martyrdom lingers in a centuries-old custom by which undemonstrative men send costumed toy bears to their lovers as tokens of affection.

Those of us who harbor a passion for historical accuracy will observe Valentimes Day with ursine solemnity. However, because the spirit of Valentime demands that we tolerate misguided readers who venerate saints of far more dubious provenance, we offer this bouquet of music videos about love and romance to get you through a highly emotional weekend.

The great Louis Jordan loved Caldonia in spite of himself.

Neil Finn could have told him: she will have her way.

Boleslaus II may fought for his people’s independence, but in the 1970s we recognized only one macaronic Polish prince: Moja droga, jacie kocham…

Roger Miller at his best: “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go.”

The year was 1985, and Kid Creole couldn’t answer a simple question: “Why can’t you be like Endicott?”

To my knowledge, there’s only country song about the effect of faster-than-light space travel on a long-distance relationship: “Benson, Arizona.”

What do you get when you filter an English nursery rhyme, the inexpressibility topos, and mid-1980s progressive rock through the liver of a disheveled Scotsman? “Lavender.”

Jersey guy Pat DiNizio puts a sober Smithereens spin on “Well All Right” by Buddy Holly.

Got halitosis before that big Valentimes date? Take a handful of Mighty Lemon Drops.

Guys, today isn’t the day to drunk-dial the girl you lost to cocaine.

John Waite, of all people, gives us a heartfelt cover of “Girl From the North Country.”

I didn’t think much of the Sting song “Fields of Gold.” Then I heard the late Eva Cassidy perform it.

“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.

“He sits in the canyon with his back to the sea…”

Every few years, I’m asked to teach Arthurian literature, a gig that’s led to a curious custom here at “Quid Plura?” headquarters: In the week before we talk about The Mabinogion, I fly the Welsh flag above my television. When the week is over, the flag gets folded and stowed, but not before I’ve caught up on several years of Welsh news, reread the relevant scholarship, and startled myself daily with the sight of a huge red dragon by the bathroom door.

What more can I say? Y Ddraig Goch ddyry gychwyn! Let the red dragon show the way to this dubious assortment of Welsh-themed links.

Amazon user G.R. Grove has kindly compiled a list of novels set in medieval Wales.

Watch the first part of an eight-part BBC documentary about Owain Glendywr.

Need a fix of Welsh? Listen to BBC Cymru, partake of their “Learn Welsh” Web site, or dabble in the language with the Cardiff School of Computer Science.

The Digital Medievalist has a FAQ on learning Middle Welsh.

Last year, locals officials made a wonderful mistake on a Welsh-language road sign.

What’s more Welsh than a male voice choir singing the national anthem? Possibly a male voice choir singing “Myfanwy.” (You’ll find the lyrics here.)

If you ever need accommodations in Snowdonia, pop over to the Plas Gwyn Guest House. The proprietor cooks a fine breakfast and stocks a nice library of maps for the overzealous hiker.

While you’re there, gawk from the highway at Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern supposedly tried to build his tower on the shakiest of foundations.

If you want to follow in Patrick McGoohan’s footsteps and be chased by a giant inflatable white ball creature thingie, Plas Gwyn isn’t far from Portmeirion.

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a “Welsh language hip hop 80s style badminton video.”

To my knowledge, there’s only one song about a wheelchair-bound savant who takes a break from starting World War III on his cell phone to wax nostalgic about his Welsh upbringing. Here it is.

“…I can live off the chickens in my neighbor’s yard.”

In the past two years, I’ve enjoyed the work of the writers and scholars whose sites comprise my blogroll. This weekend, as the kolbolds and bugbears on Capitol Hill flay all meaning out of the word “stimulus,” there is something you can do to support hard-working writers: you can buy their books.

So everyone is blathering on about “infrastructure,” but what really happens when shady politicians bicker over pet projects? Let Steven Hart enlighten you. Read his timely and terrific book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway.

In September, when Germans marks the 2,000th anniversary of the battle of Teutoberg Forest, you’ll want to have read Adrian Murdoch’s book about it, Rome’s Greatest Defeat. If you’re looking for highly readable introductions to Late Antiquity, check out Murdoch’s other books, The Last Pagan and The Last Roman.

Olen Steinhauer is a novelist to watch. His police procedurals set in Communist Eastern Europe beautifully evoke a sad, broken world, and his forthcoming spy thriller, The Tourist, has garnered lots of advanced praise.

Last year, Leslie Pietrzyk won over my mom, who called Leslie’s novels “much better than that stuff Oprah is always trying to get us to read.” Pears on a Willow Tree focuses on women in a Polish-American family; A Year and a Day tells the story of a girl dealing with a family suicide.

C.M. Mayo’s historical novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, is due out in May, but if you plan to head south of the border before then, you’ll want her much-praised Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.

K.A. Laity is just too prolific. Check out her books about folklore, fiction, film, and religion.

Cartoonist Alexis Fajardo loves a good epic. His all-ages graphic novel Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath is now available, and you can already pre-order its sequel, Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland.

Let’s not overlook the scholars. The inimitable Scott Nokes is the co-editor of Global Perspectives on Medieval English Literature, Language, and Culture, a quirky collection of articles about Chaucer, Boethius, C.S. Lewis, and the Popol Vuh.

Do your plans include a pilgrimage to 14th-century Canterbury? If so, then get to know Will McLean, who regularly blogs about historical recreation. He co-authored the recently reissued Daily Life in Chaucer’s England.

If you’re eager to dig more deeply into the question of how Karl became Charlemagne, look to Matthew Gabriele. He’s the co-editor of the excellent The Legend of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages: Power, Faith, and Crusade.

Charlemagne understood that resourceful people could prosper despite difficult times. “There’s a lot of opportunities,” he famously opined, “if you know when to take them, you know?” Why not put a few bucks in the pockets of these authors and prove the old king right?

“Plastic tubes and pots and pans, bits and pieces…”

Distinctively husky yet tinged with notes of genuine sweetness, galangal is the Alison Moyet of rhizomes. Once upon a time, galangal—which looks like ginger but has its own pungent flavor—was a princely part of the medieval European spice rack. Chaucer mentioned it, Hildegard of Bingen praised it, and 14th-century kings kept it on their shopping lists. Today, galangal rarely turns up in Western recipes, a state of affairs I find deplorable—which is why I’ve established, and urge all of you to support, the “Quid Plura?” Crusade for the Restoration of Galangal in the West.

Shortly before Christmas, I found myself pondering a question for the ages: Since ginger has long done yeoman’s work as the primary flavoring element in its own eponymous carbonated soft drink, is there a good reason why galangal, its mustardy cousin, has never been conscripted into the elite corps of beverage-infusing rhizomes?

A thorough Google search turned up nothing for “galangal ale” except for a few references to a hot, soupy, tea-like drink from Thailand. And so, armed with a ginger ale recipe that worked out well for me in the past, I gathered the necessary ingredients and set out to create a simple, closed fermentation system that would make my inspiration potable.

The recipe was simple: two liters of water, one cup of sugar, a quarter teaspoon of yeast, and—in place of the customary ginger—three tablespoons of fresh, shredded galangal.

I put the whole concoction in a plastic bottle, wrapped the bottle in a plastic bag, and let it ferment inside my unlit oven for a day and a half. When carbonation made the bottle sufficiently dent-proof, I carefully transported it to the nearby home of some friends who had agreed to serve as taste-testers. Nervous, but interpreting the failure of the bottle to explode as a positive sign, we poured a few glasses of chilled, fizzy galangal ale, and we sipped.

You know what? Galangal ale is good.

Galangal ale tastes nothing like ginger ale, nor does it taste like any other soft drink I’ve ever had, but it is delicious. The galangal root gives the soda a strong, strange flavor, like mustard and perfume intermingled, but the sugar complements the galangal perfectly, so what normally might be a bit nasty is instead only a lingering pungency. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s hardly unpleasant. One of my brave taste-testers guzzled it down; another remarked that it would make a very refreshing summer drink.

And so, dear readers, in these trying times of crisis and universal brouhaha, I’ve made a decision: I’m abandoning this whole writing-and-teaching racket to pursue a far more effervescent future. Having taken out three mortgages on my home, I’ve rented an abandoned firehouse and commissioned a graphic designer to create a subtle yet persuasive label that highlights our Middle English brand name.

This spring, when you see my carbonated labor of love in the soft-drink aisle of your local Safeway (or Tesco), don’t keep walking. Drop a bottle in your basket and know that you’re subsidizing the great Galangal Crusade. The West’s most neglected rhizome needs your help—and those high-priced celebrity endorsements aren’t gonna pay for themselves.