Archive for March, 2012


“Dust you down from tip to toe…”

For five years, this blog has argued that medievalism is durably American. From Gothic synagogues in the South to killer queens in New Jersey, from Cajun jousters and the saints of New Orleans to the gargoyles of Perth Amboy, from rivalries on the Potomac to dragons and Vikings at seaside resorts, from late-blooming scholars on postage stamps to courtly love on General Hospital, American medievalism is rooted in an unresolvable clash of classical and medieval aesthetics, the persistence of religious traditions, and complex nostalgia for Europes that never were.

But did it have to take root in my garden?

Meet Glechoma hederacea, the mint-like ground ivy called “creeping Charlie” in the United States and known, at least around my place, as “existence’s bane.” Rampant, sinister, nigh-unstoppable, this weed was brought to North America by early European settlers, who presumably appreciated its value as ground cover and its not-unpleasant scent.

Medieval people found Glechoma hederacea medicinally useful, as shown by a drawing of the stuff in a tenth-century manuscript from Constantinople. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can buy a watch and other jewelry based on its depiction in a 15th-century woodcut, gifts apparently intended for people who’ve never torn intractable fistfuls of the stuff from the temperamental earth.

More interesting is its etymology in England, where it’s known as Gill-on-the-ground or, intriguingly, alehoof. Britten and Holland’s 1886 A Dictionary of English Plant-Names claims the word comes from “‘Ale-hoove,’ meaning that which will cause ale to heave, or work,” because in an era sans hops, the Anglo-Saxons used the plant to give their ale its bitterness. (The 2007 Dictionary of Plant Lore quips, too defensively, that “there have been other attempts at its etymology which may safely be ignored.”) The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary finds the plant simply called “hófe,” with references to mersc-hófe, “marsh-hove,” túnhófe, “yard-hove,” brúnhofe, “brown-hove,” and phrases in medicinal texts such as genim hófan, “take hove.” If *ealu-hófe was an Old English word, no written trace of it survives.

The word may be gone, but the plant endures, creeping just beneath the soil, breeding pernicious new nodes as it roams. You can slow its advance, but smother it in mulch and it summons demonic strength and pushes ever upward. Like a neglected chip of pure evil smoldering in a toaster oven, alehoof is almost impossible to eliminate. “[P]ut every scrap of the plant in a bag and throw it away,” one site advises, “or it will reroot and take over again.” Other sites suggest tracing the runners several feet to their origin and, like Beowulf before you, destroying the monster’s mother, even if doing so leaves craters in your lawn.

Whatever medicinal purposes medieval people found in alehoof, it’s now thought to be toxic in large amounts. And don’t be fooled by those dainty, bumblebee-pleasing flowers; when alehoof goes berserk, as it did in a neighboring plot, it can help bring down an unsturdy fence.

It’s enough to make a despondent gardener fall back on an Old English plea to the forgotten goddess Erce:

Geunne him,
ece drihten,
(and his halige
þe on heofonum synt),
þaet hys yrþ si gefriþod
wið ealra feonda gehwaene,
and heo si geborgen,
wið ealr bealwa gehwylc,
þara lyblaca geond land sawen.

[“Grant to him, eternal ruler (and his holy ones, who in heaven are), that his ploughing be protected against any and all enemies and it be guarded against each and every evil, against those spells sown through the land.” trans. K.A. Laity]

Or maybe, in the proper spirit of the Anglo-Saxons, magic needs to surrender to stoicism: hófe bið ful araed. Like medievalism, alehoof has taken perennial root; from gift shops to gardens, it isn’t fated to fade.

“We’re doing fine, I’ll see you on the Nightline…”

The soil is warming, my garden abounds with daffodils abandoned by the land’s last tenant, and spiffy links blossom wherever you look.

King Alfred calls! Study intensive Latin and Old English online through Bemidji State.

Better Living Through Beowulf teaches Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in retirement.

Michael Drout wonders: So how big was the dragon in Beowulf?

The Cranky Professor spies Abbot Suger at a Coptic funeral.

Spring is here, but Lisa Peet seeks winter tales.

Sam Sacks ponders Frank Kermode, novels, and angels.

As a Linguist utters Irish slang.

Lingwë visualizes The Iliad.

A Momentary Taste of Being concludes that literary criticism is collaborative fiction.

University Diaries imagines what pharmaceuticals do to the poetry of grief.

Interpolations gets why Legends of the Fall is short on dialogue.

Jake Seliger wonders if he’s sufficiently cool for Elmore Leonard.

Steve Donoghue reads the new comic-book take on a Conan tale.

The Arthur C. Clarke Foundation launches a new biography.

Prof Mondo won’t let his students write papers on Poe.

Painting and poetry: Anecdotal Evidence notes verse about Wyeths.

D.G. Myers reviews life at 60.

Hats & Rabbits grows gray gracefully.

First Known When Lost finds hedgehogs in poignant places.

On YouTube, Tom O’Bedlam reads “Fairy Tale Logic” by A.E. Stallings.

Dylan pens a fine ghazal: “Opening Act.”

“No hesitation, no heart of gold…”

Outdated technology has a grotesqueness all its own. It reminds us of old ideas, and what we once hoped to do with them.

CONJURING THE SPRITE

Through moonlight, in my infancy, I traced
No sphere, no stars, but grids of perfect lines
Whose magnitude redoubled as I paced
And poked the air. A fading charm defines
My life: It came, unheralded by signs,
In blue oblique, a blur, a block of smoke
Divine; and being bound by my designs
It swayed, a silent, hexachromal cloak
Of nothing. I rejoiced in what I woke,
Unnumbered form, a notion turned to light,
And bowed, and laughed, and see now that it spoke
In evanescent noiselessness: Rewrite,
Return, recast, you never will excel
The devilry of this, your only spell.

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)