Archive for June, 2010


“They let us in, so I’m feeling all right…”

“I like to go where, sometimes, they refuse,” quipped Alcuin in a letter composed during a heat wave at the end of the ninth century, likening his humid chamber at Tours to the fires of Hell. “Yes, I remember last Saturday night,” replied Charlemagne wearily, “but I’m feeling cooler now.” As the Franks found relief in swimming holes and breezy groves, so may you find shade in these summertime links.

Lawyers know that unicorn flesh is not, in fact, “the other white meat.”

Jake Seliger interviews Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians.

Maggie Stiefvater talks about revising novels.

Adrian Murdoch serves up recent books on Late Antiquity.

Steven Riddle reads “Sonnet V” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

When you write a book, people with little to no publishing experience turn into marketing gurus whose outlandish recommendations for self-promotion make the ShamWow guy look like Emily Dickinson. That’s why I relished author Maureen Johnson’s contrarian manifesto about “branding.” (Via Lynn.)

My friend at Ephemeral New York discovers “the birdmen of an Upper East Side building.”

If one of Chaucer’s sneakier pilgrims got lost in 1944, he might look an awful lot like Louis Jordan’s “Deacon Jones.”

The world is a better place when it contains a one-woman, polyphonic, ukulele cover of “God Only Knows.”

Finally, for the hundreds of you who’ve written to me asking, “Where would a starving hobbit in suburban Maryland seek quasi-magical refreshment?”, here’s your long-awaited answer:

“Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives…”

Being a medievalist isn’t as glamorous as you might suppose. Often I can’t find a peon within thrashing distance to pit the olives for my Old Yellers, and during those baleful episodes, I pry myself from the vampiric talons of my forthcoming magnum opus (working title: “Sommes-nous encore , Papa Schtroumpf?”: Henri Pirenne, l’Union européenne, et le médiévalisme prospective de Pierre ‘Peyo’ Cuilliford), disable the laser array around the DeLorean, and pursue intellectual regeneration in the shopping malls that serve as economic underwire to the sweat-dappled bosom of suburbia.

So did base commerce provide the hoped-for mental holiday? Alas, no. Having stumbled across an intriguing line of shirts at a charming cosmopolitan boutique, I found myself as startled as a stag in a Laibach video by the color designations on the tags. “Moonless Night” meant “black,” “Black Forest” meant “green”…and then a shirt hove into view, blue as the veil of Thetis:

Apparently, “medieval blue” is a real Pantone color, RGB #2F3654 (presumably inspired by medieval pigments), and all sorts of things are available in it, including wool, windbreakers, tank tops, snow boots, tennis shoes, and chiropractic pillows.

But isn’t “medieval blue” more of an idea—a simile, even? Trailed always by a trembling amanuensis, I made dramatic writerly gestures, paced the menswear aisle, and recorded these golden thoughts for later rumination:

  • “as blue as a miller’s Netflix queue”
  • “as blue as the metaphorical heavens in the pick-up lines of the Duc de Berry”
  • “as blue as the blood of Charlemagne’s nephews nibbling Roquefort while rowing in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race
  • “as blue as absinthe in Utgard”
  • “blue as the grass where Auðumbla moo’d indigo”
  • “as blue as a summer princess sprawled across a winter grave”

Readers are invited to pass the weekend conjuring tortured similes of their own. Meanwhile, some of us, draped anew in cerulean shades that Carolingian clothiers could never envision, shall return to crafting prose that is plainly, unflinchingly purple.

“Drawn into the stream of undefined illusion…”

“These changing years, they add to your confusion,” grumbled Charlemagne to Alcuin when the old abbot defied his king in a legal dispute involving an escaped convict. “You need to hear,” the king warned cryptically, “the time that told the truth.”

I have no idea what Charlemagne meant, but I do know that “Quid Plura?” turns three years old today. I truly appreciate everyone who stops by, subscribes to the feed, leaves comments, and sends emails—especially those of you who stick around even when updates are erratic, sporadic, enigmatic, or odd.

Without further ado, here—for the benefit of new readers, random Googlers, and anyone looking to run down a slow afternoon at the office—are highlights from the past three years.

Naturally, early “QP?” posts often focused on Charlemagne, so let’s revisit the best thing Charlemagne never said (as well as the second-best thing), check out the only Charlemagne-themed country song, and ponder the connection between Charlemagne and SpaghettiOs.

Can you believe my open letter to the Sci Fi Channel went unanswered?

Acquaint yourself with some curious characters: Discover Chaucerian filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, get to know Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, visit the grave of Henry Adams, and meet Anna Julia Cooper, the most inspiring medievalist you’ve never heard of.

Don’t miss occasional medieval-themed excursions to the Balkans or the Caucasus.

Here in D.C., you’ll search in vain for a famous science fiction author forgotten by her alma mater.

At the National Cathedral, take a stroll into a corner of the ninth century or enjoy an ongoing project: the griping of garrulous gargoyles.

Medievalism abounds in Louisiana: in small towns, in Cajun country, in shrines in the Lower Ninth Ward.

What’s medieval about Ocean City, Maryland? Vikings, and dragon temples, and stupid fat hobbitses.

Commercial break! If you want to enjoy a rarely-read medieval romance (and help support this site), take a chance on The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier.

Remember when we celebrated Medieval Shark Week? It was around the time I mutilated a duck.

No one else wanted to defend the movie Sword of the Valiant, so I gave it a go.

On the other hand, readers liked this appreciation of the Pogues.

Why is “Quid Plura?” free of politics? It runs in the family.

Finally, a shout-out to my homeland: Nothing says “New Jersey” like Oscar Wao.

“And the little wheel runs on faith…”

Tourists never notice it, but then neither do most locals. Behold: Alto Towers, catty-corner to the National Cathedral at 3206 Wisconsin Ave NW.

Alto Towers went up in 1932, in the heyday of D.C. suburbanization. This eight-storey apartment house is the work of Arthur B. Heaton, a half-forgotten architect who’s partly responsible for the look and feel of northwest Washington—and who was, briefly, an unabashed medievalist.

Heaton was ridiculously versatile. In 1901, he built Tudor Revival apartments and later designed the Altamont, a local apartment house with an Italian Renaissance twist. In 1914 and 1931, he put Classic Revival additions on the National Geographic Society building. In 1926, he gave his (now-demolished) Capital Garage a funny, car-themed facade, and his interest in the automobile led him to design our local “Park and Shop,” the prototypical strip mall, in a Colonial Revival style. Heaton oversaw the construction of new facilities on the GWU campus while also designing banks, churches, and countless other D.C. buildings and homes, apparently without ever developing an identifiable “Heaton style.”

…and that’s what makes Alto Towers a treat for the medievalist. Take a gander at the entryway.

When Heaton wasn’t serving as president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, co-founding the Washington Building Congress, or spearheading the “Renovize” movement during the Depression, he was also, from 1908 through 1920, the supervising architect for the National Cathedral, where he helped chief architect Henry Vaughan oversee construction during the cathedral’s first 12 years.

In 1932, more than a decade after Heaton’s time there, the cathedral was little more than an overgrown apse festooned with a few angelic grotesques. Given a chance to design an apartment house across the street, Heaton—who could have built damn near anything—set loose his inner medievalist.

Those snarling, gargoylish grotesques are the most blatantly cool thing about Alto Towers, but the whole arcaded entryway is a neo-medieval romp.

The quatrefoils (four-leaf clovers) in the spandrels (the warped triangles above each arch) are pretty standard, but those thick, gabled supports are an architect’s fancy. Each one resembles a cathedral buttress while also containing blind tracery of a Gothic arch.

At Alto Towers, periods and cultures trip over one another and have a good laugh. The pine cone finials hark back to ancient buildings and the medieval fascination thereof, while those funny little nubs at the tops of the smaller arches—including the little ones in the triforium, the upper row—strike me as very American. Meanwhile, on both sides of the interior of each large arch are squared, Art Deco-ish shadows of Corinthian columns. Behind them, the brick-lined inner doors whisper “Cordoba” in an American accent.

Most of Alto Towers is plain brick, but Heaton decorated just enough of its topmost level to show that the neo-medievalish entryway wasn’t an afterthought.

Note the two types of ornamented shield. They may be purely decorative, but I’ll gladly send a free book to any heraldry buff who can show that they’re meaningful.

While Heaton’s 1926 Capital Garage (PDF with photo) featured large, leonine gargoyles, Alto Towers is his full medievalist statement, the rhapsody of a restless architect who knew he wouldn’t live to see the cathedral completed.

When Heaton died in December 1951 at 76, the new apartment buildings rising around the cathedral were blocky and bland. Today, tourists tromp right past them, fixated on the promise of sighting quirky gargoyles on the Gothic spires beyond.

Of course, the cathedral’s first proper gargoyles weren’t put in place until around 1960, so if the beasties at Alto Towers forever bare their fangs, I can’t really blame them. No one remembers that they were here first.