Archive for October, 2013


“…and in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile…”

As the Dennis DeYoung of medievalism-themed blogs, “Quid Plura?” loses its voice from time to time, only to come screaming back amid synthesizer-fueled fanfare. These days, I’m working on two books, one of them a translation of a medieval poem, but blogworthy medievalism is never far from my mind—because I live in what is arguably the most medieval neighborhood in Washington.

I’ll show you what I mean. First, hike uphill through my substitute for a back yard, a nature conservancy named for a 13th-century Welsh market town…

…to emerge beneath the watchful eyes of these elementary school elves…

…before we hurry past the castellated, gargoyle-festooned (and recently shuttered) preachers’ college…

…to explore the grounds of our neighborhood English Gothic cathedral (shown here pre-earthquake)…

…with its thriving garden devoted in part to Walafrid Strabo, tutor to Charlemagne’s grandson…

…and decorated with a medlar tree right out of Chaucer and a worn capital from the monastery of Cluny, all of it just footsteps from a tree grown from the Glastonbury Thorn…

…and across from an apartment house with a Gothic, grotesque-festooned facade.

Touring romanticized reminders of medieval culture can be tiring, so trudge downhill and relax with a pot of mussels and Belgian beer at a joint named for a mash-up of the Merovingian Saint Arnulf of Metz and an 11th-century saint from Soissons.

Last week, I stopped to gawk at a troupe of Morris dancers outside a nearby pub, and sometimes there’s a bust of Dante in a shop window down the block—but why chase them down? I won’t soon run out of material, and this unlikely pageant of saints, gargoyles, and European ghosts only makes it easier to work on medieval-themed books. Even in a neighborhood where few others hear them, the echoes of the Middle Ages never end.

“The forming of a new connection, to study or to play…”

As rainy gloom descends on D.C., we call the kobolds to come in from the fields. Enjoy what they bring: books, medievalism, and a bit of poetry.

Medievally Speaking reviews Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur. (Kathy Cawsey recently read it, too.)

Box Elder explores an old church in the French town of Morlaix, both inside and out.

Nancy Marie Brown, author of the recent Song of the Vikings, fondly remembers a teacher, mentor, and friend.

Congrats to Michael Livingston, who’s published a casebook on Owen Glendower.

Steve Muhlberger spots a modern-day stylite living on a (large) pillar in Georgia.

Bibliographing likes and doesn’t like George R.R. Martin.

The Gargoyle Girl unveils a new alchemist-and-gargoyle mystery series.

Open Letters Monthly highlights The Black Spider, a Swiss horror novel from 1842.

Michael Drout announces his audiobook about the liberal arts.

Cynthia Haven hardly minds when American novelists don’t win the Nobel Prize.

With Halloween in mind, I’ve Been Reading Lately seeks out ghost stories in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Laudator Temporis Acti finds books in art.

Chris at Hats & Rabbits defies “the gods of creativity.”

First Known When Lost offers poems of arrival and departure.

“We walked around in circles, singing…”

Ars longa, vita brevis! Although I’m holding down two jobs and working on two new books, I do have several posts in the queue about matters medieval—but until they get done, please indulge me in something atypical for this blog: blatant promotion. If any of these medieval-minded books should strike your fancy, I’d be delighted—and grateful.

When Becoming Charlemagne came out in 2006, I saw it as (among other things) a story about how swiftly time overtakes us. Little did I know that its elegiac mood would soon apply to the many defunct bookstores where it made its debut.

The book tells the story of Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in the year 800—one of the most important events in European history—by showing the early medieval world from the perspectives of people great and small: Frankish peasants, Jewish farmers, the monks of Tours, the caliph of Baghdad, a sneering empress in Constantinople, and world-weary locals in Rome. It’s a five-year slice of history that reads, I hope, like a brisk little novel.

Becoming Charlemagne is available as a paperback or an e-book. (You can also settle in with some popcorn and watch me gab about the book on C-Span in 2007.)

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In the 15th century, an anonymous poet composed “The Tale of Ralph the Collier,” a 972-line Middle Scots romance about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier. Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

This translation, which reproduces the rhyme and alliteration of the poem’s difficult 13-line stanzas, is available in a $9 paperback and a version specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages, or check out the original Middle Scots to see what I was up against.)

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From 2009 to 2012, I posted the first drafts of 51 poems on this blog, each one inspired by a gargoyle or grotesque at Washington National Cathedral. What started as a lark turned serious when the cathedral granted me permission to show their typically camera-shy gargoyles in a compilation of the poems. In return, I’m donating 75 percent of the net profits to them to help repair damage from the 2011 earthquake.

Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles collects the final versions of these poems, plus two that are exclusive to the book. (You can browse a clickable list of the first drafts here.) The book is on sale at the cathedral gift shop and at the usual venues like Amazon, but you’d really be helping this project reach profitability much faster if you bought directly from me, whether using Google Checkout on this page or popping me a payment via Paypal. (Or heck, just send me a check. Questions? jeffsypeck -at- gmail – dot – com.)