Archive for November, 2013


“Silken mist outside the window, frogs and newts slip in the dark…”

Traffic! Leftovers! Organized sports! Whether you’re traveling, relaxing, or getting a jump on Christmastime fretting, enjoy this cornucopia of savory links, all of them worth your time on a chilly autumn weekend.

Steve Muhlberger reads Worlds of Arthur, and likes its author’s skepticism and clarity.

Scouting New York spots the thousand gargoyles and grotesques of City College.

Gargoyle Girl discovers a French gargoyle pop-up book.

My friend Nancy Marie Brown tours saga sites on her 18th visit to Iceland.

A 9th-grade teacher is using hip-hop to teach Latin hexameter.

After a hiatus, Light: A Journal of Light Verse is back online.

First Known When Lost finds poems in praise of idleness.

Levi urges you: read that Mark Twain autobiography!

Bill Peschel wonders whether bad writers can make books that are good for you.

The Book Haven highlights Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel lecture.

Heather Domin is almost pleased that readers are pirating her books.

Pete ponders what Lou Reed meant to his writing.

Chris at Hats & Rabbits is finishing his father’s song.

“You can look at the menu, but you just can’t eat…”

As we Americans prepare to dispatch legions of unsuspecting victims to Turkey Valhalla, I’m thankful that people still read this blog—even though work and other writing projects keep me from updating it as often as I’d like.

Since the beginning, I’ve tagged posts with an “applied paleobromatology” label, because I’m wont to wonder: What did the Middle Ages taste like? Although I lack time for another dubious kitchen catastrophe, I’m delighted to share, for your browsing pleasure, this picture-menu of links to food-related “Quid Plura?” leftovers. Just heat ‘n’ serve!

People say you can’t replace a goose with a duck, but that’s just a canard. In days of yore, I botched a “goose-to-duck hoggepotte” recipe from medieval England.

In 2011, I picked and bletted medlars, the “Happy Fun Ball” of obsolete produce.


Long ago, I used the Alison Moyet of rhizomes to invent a new soft drink: galangal ale. Wouldn’t you buy soda with this subdued, dignified label?

The rulers of medieval Baghdad loved sweet food—so in 2010, I made jawārish, the carrot jam of the Abbasid caliphate…

…and tabaahaja, the wince-inducing candied lamb of the Abbasid viziers.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by! Enjoy the holiday, and light a candle for Meleagris of Tryptophan, the patron saint of poultry, digestion, and much-needed rest.

“Sitting in the valley, as I watch the sun go down…”

As Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious was the ninth century’s Julian Lennon. He may have done interesting work, but who remembers? Historians do, of course, but the emperor who supposedly never cracked a smile doesn’t rule the layman’s imagination the way his father always has.

Even so, the reign of Louis was a great one for poetry. Walafrid Strabo—the abbot, scholar, and gardener who often pops up on this blog—wrote a short poem that strikes me as appropriate for the end of a week that began with Election Day hubbub:


DE OSSE DAMMULAE,

PER QUOD ARBUSCULA CREVIT AD
IMPERATOREM HLUDOWICUM

Arboris et altrix quondam vagina medullae,
Tibia germen habet—nempe bonum omen erit.
Quod cortex humore caret, quod durior ipso est
Robore miramur: talis in osse vigor.
Nil, Caesar, tibi, magne, vacat: venabere dammas,
Ossibus ex quarum silva orietur, ave.

Latin poets, whether ancient or medieval, used long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables, so their work is tricky to translate into English—but I like to acknowledge the nature of the original by rendering it into some sort of recognizable form. Walahfrid was a Germanic kid from Alemannia who jokingly called himself a “barbarian,” so let’s assume that Anglo-Saxon metrical, alliterative half-lines, like the verses of Beowulf but with more liberal use of anacrusis, resemble something the poet himself might have heard:
 

ON THE BONES OF A LITTLE DEER,
THROUGH WHICH GREW A SMALL TREE
FOR THE EMPEROR LOUIS

Now a marrow-sheath nurses a tree:
From shin-bone to sapling—surely well omened.
That its bark is dry and bound tougher
Than hard wood, we marvel: such might in the bone.
Great emperor, nothing is ever beyond you:
You merely have to go hunting for deer
And from their relics, forests grow. Hail!

Does my translation capture the sense of the original? One major scholar of Carolingian poetry isn’t even certain what Walafrid’s tone was:

Does the black humour of the hyperbole applied to this faintly ludicrous subject reflect back on Walahfrid himself, in an elegant mockery of the excesses of his own panegyrical style? Or does genuine virtuosity combine here with ambiguous flattery in a measure intended to create a residual doubt as to the sincerity of the compliment? Walahfrid, deliberately, never reveals whether the humour of his epigram is merely self-reflexive or really risqué. Irony, in the hands of an imperial panegyrist, is a two-edged weapon.

Charlemagne’s poets praised him to a ludicrous extent, and I’ve often wondered how seriously he and his heirs took the verses that served as politically useful flattery. It’s all too likely that they loved what they heard.

The subjects of Frankish kings weren’t free to write what they felt, but by studying them, we can ensure the promise of the liber in the liberal arts they bequeathed us. Behold the benefits of the thousand-year perspective: being unsurprised when leaders, by nature, believe their own hype, and being less inclined, sometimes, to fall for it yourself.

“And it’s true, if all this around us is paradise…”

I don’t actively look for these things. No, sometimes I just happen to be visiting family in New Jersey when I pull off the highway to skirt some traffic, drive through an unfamiliar downtown, and HOLY CROW—

This glorious seventeen-minute Thompson Twins dance remix of a house was built in 1892 by the local mortician as a wedding gift for his bride. All of the other mansions on Stockton Street in Hightstown gaze on it in wonderment and envy, because even though the asymmetrical Elmer Rogers House isn’t really Gothic in design (it’s more of a Queen-Anne’s-flashy-American-cousin), check out what it does have.

Monsters on the roof!

Leering beasties on the highest peaks!

A wingèd sentinel eyeing intruders with eerie patience.

Every shingle, every tile, every baluster and brace sports a carefully chosen color, and other photos show that the flags and awnings change with the seasons. (The house is also festooned with little fleurs-de-lys.)

The front yard is a choreographed riot of medievalism: an angel, a saint…

…a gryphon…

…and dragons.

So why has the Rogers House spawned a quasi-medieval fantasy world? Maybe that round turret screams “castle” to the current owners, or perhaps the meticulous, old-fashioned care necessary to restore and curate such a monumental home feels “medieval” to Americans who are inclined to collapse the past into a blur of “olden times,” when skilled craftsmen begat gargoyles, dragons, angels, and saints.

Or maybe their motive is more timeless. People variously perceive the medieval world as teetering between austerity and chaos, ignorance and enlightenment, but the owners of the Rogers House endorse a different predilection, one that’s never as common as it ought to be but which does have its place in the Middle Ages, as long as you know where to look: a pure, prismatic delight.