Archive for March, 2014


“Funny how my memory slips while looking over manuscripts…”

March, enfeebled, limps to its grave—for some of us, not a snowflake too soon. I’ve been digging through medieval sources in search of poetry that expresses frustration with overdue spring, but the poets of the early Middle Ages apparently didn’t see much promise in that complaint. They hailed the coming of spring, but they knew that the seasons advanced and retreated with little regard for our whims.

That said, I did take a fresh look at “The Debate Between Spring and Winter,” a derivative bit of Vergilian pastoralism attributed to Alcuin, the eighth-century abbot of Tours and one of Charlemagne’s most influential advisers. At a gathering of shepherds on a sunny spring day, the personifications of cheerful Spring and misanthropic Winter snipe at each other—until two shepherds, young Daphnis and old Palaemon, decide they’ve had enough:

Desine plura, Hiems; rerum tu prodigus atrox.
Et veniet cuculus, pastorum dulcis amicus!
Collibus in nostris erumpant germina laeta,
Pascua sit pecori, requies et dulcis in arvis,
Et virides rami praestent umbracula fessis,
Uberibus plenis veniuntque ad mulctra capellae
Et volucres varia Phoebum sub voce salutent!
Quapropter citius cuculus nunc ecce venito!
Tu iam dulcis amor, cunctis gratissimus hospes:
Omnia te expectant — pelagus tellusque polusque —
Salve, dulce decus, cuculus, per saecula salve!
(MGH Poetae I, 272, 45–55)

Here it is, rendered into alliterative, Anglo-Saxon-style half-lines that Alcuin might have recognized, though he’d disavow the diction:

Zip it, Winter, you wasteful shit,
And hey, cuckoo! Come be the shepherd’s
Number-one pal. Let’s popcorn the hillsides
With giddy seeds and grazing sheep!
Let’s find us fields fit for siestas!
Let the bone-weary dream under drooping green leaves
While queued at the pail, the pap-swollen goats
Just beg us to milk them. Let all beaks warble
Their mashed-up salvēs to sunny Phoebus!
Faster, cuckoo, flap thy ass hither!
Luv, you’re the greatest guest of ’em all
And everyone’s waiting, Earth, Sea, and Sky,
So welcome, sweet cuckoo-grace! Welcome forever!

That’s hardly a translation for the ages, but its restlessness is sincere, and it’s the poetic equivalent of something else I did today: scrape the snow from an exhausted garden, hoping to find that something green was budding underneath.

“Oh, we won’t give in, let’s go living in the past…”

Because I’m always on the lookout for medievalism, I was naturally drawn to Tod Wodicka’s 2008 novel All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, with its gloriously unmarketable title based on a famous line from 14th-century English mystic Julian of Norwich. I expected an enjoyable story that didn’t show much awareness of medievalism or the Middle Ages, but instead I found just the opposite: characters and a plot that didn’t thrill me, but which were wrapped up in fresh, perceptive ideas about why some Americans throw themselves headlong into the medieval past.

The narrator of All Shall Be Well, homely and awkward 63-year-old Burt Hecker, owns an inn in upstate New York, but the true focus of his life is the Confraternity of Lost Times Regained, the medieval living-history society he founded in 1965. Burt makes his own clothing, brews his own mead, treats ailments with pinches of herbs, and spurns potatoes because they’re OOP, “out of period.” He’s the father of medieval reenactment in America but a lousy family man in every other respect. His son is a brilliant but deeply introverted musician, his daughter is a resentful sci-fi geek, his mother-in-law is obsessed with the persecution of her Carpathian countrymen—and all of them hate his guts.

The American wretch pining for the Middle Ages has become a recognizable literary type—think Miniver Cheevy or Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces—and there are obvious hints of Ignatius in Burt. He dislikes the modernity of California, reacts prissily to a Prague strip club, and regrets when necessity pulls him “toward the crashing promiscuity of the century waiting outside.” Unfortunately, his persnickety moralism is too inconsistent to be plausible, and any comparison with Confederacy would be misleading. All Shall Be Well isn’t anti-heroic farce; it’s a novel about alcoholism, family estrangement, and the burdens of the past. Much of the laughter here is rueful.

As Burt plods through a series of misadventures—in Europe in the 1990s and in flashbacks in upstate New York—we learn about his past, particularly the incidents that made his family flee. Can several strong, strange personalities forgive each other when the one woman who held them together is dead and gone? Wodicka doesn’t seem to know, and I confess that between Burt’s awkward passivity and the dislikability of his family, I was tempted not to care. Fortunately, All Shall Be Well takes on, however indirectly, a bigger and more interesting question.

Throughout literature and pop culture, medieval reenactors and Ren Fest aficionados tend to get one of two treatments: They’re either enlightened oddballs whose willful weirdness makes them morally superior to the rest of us Muggles, or they’re portrayed as dysfunctional losers who couldn’t possibly hold jobs, have sex, or survive in the world. Wodicka toys with both of these notions, but he sees that there’s more to American medievalism than mere escapism. He’s sensitive to the disorientation and frustration of “historically displaced people”—but he’s blunt about them too.

When Burt falls in women whose medieval music-therapy workshop focuses on Hildegard of Bingen, he finds them silly, but also he appreciates their need to decorate their inner lives with medieval spolia:

And though Hildegard affirmed the lowliness of womankind and the subjugation of female sexuality, Tivonia and the girls saw her as a proto-feminist New Age icon, not the Catholic scold she undoubtedly was. No matter. History is ever ours for the reliving . . . To the girls, the medieval woman was a person capable of great self-assertion, so they studied what they believed to be instances of this, ferreting out kernels of sassiness from the most minor of references, building a fairy-tale history and peopling it with sisters-in-arms. The medieval woman was them, only more real. Them, with a less cluttered connection to the eternal.

When Burt and the tunic-clad singers arrive in Germany as emissaries from the “vulgar, unself-conscious land of American make-believe,” he discerns that the medieval world exists far more vividly in his own imagination than in the European landscape outside the car window:

I plunge my thoughts back into the roadside tumult of greens and browns. How to reconcile these lands, this scroll of Bundesrepublik Deutschland with my Middle Ages? It happened here once. But where? Despite the castles and churches, and all those townships still adhering to thousand-year-old plans, modern Germany seems a most non-historical kingdom. Safe, well-ordered, tame, all mystery long since burned away in the conflagrations of this last century.

Wodicka has noticed, rather astutely, that Americans can write themselves into an ersatz Middle Ages unburdened by actual history. For us, medievalism is personal; for Europeans, it’s unavoidably political.

Burt’s mother-in-law drives this point home. Snarling and confrontational, Anna lives for the thankless task of donning her folk costume to tell the world about the persecution of her own Lemko people in the Carpathian Mountains. Her cause is righteous, but Wodicka, in an effective bit of dark humor, portrays the Lemko as backwards and cruel, making Anna a one-woman living memorial to people no one else cares to remember. Her nationalism and ethnic pride are, as these things tend to be in Eastern Europe, a dead end—but Burt wonders, in a moment of clarity, if his own frivolous approach to history mocks her cause.

Does whimsical reenactment of the past belittle real people who suffered and died? I’ve never seen this question asked in fiction, and I’ve rarely seen reenactors or their critics address it. “I believe that some of us were ourselves only during the act of re-enacting,” Burt says, arguing out that daily life is already a series of masks, costumes, and roles, even as he concedes that he may have taken it way too far. As he tries to reconcile with his family, he describes them as “twenty yards and six hundred years away,” finding in history an unfortunate metaphor for the awful consequences of his actions.

Although I wanted a more decisive plot, I found plenty to like in All Shall Be Well, including some good writing in two harrowing deathbed scenes and a beautiful prose poem from the perspective of Hildegard of Bingen that frames the entire book. Wodicka has thought deeply about how Americans mash-up European history to give their lives meaning, and his conclusions are stark: We don’t reenact the past, but reinvent it for our own purposes; eccentrics can cause their loved ones terrible pain; and there’s only so much hope for the unfortunate souls trapped in “the rotting present of of a life lived perpetually out of period.”