“I give you my armour, I give you my glory…”

Back in December, when I picked up a mid-1960s Polaroid Land Camera at an antique shop in Savannah, I was eager to see if I could restore a neglected contraption to life—and of course, in keeping with the long-running theme of this blog, I wondered: Could it be used to find new angles on American medievalism?

A Land Camera is not versatile. There’s a manual focus bar, a two-option “lighting selector,” a wheel that makes pictures lighter and darker, and an electric eye that presumes to do the squinting for you. Development time depends on the air temperature, and each print leaves behind a photographic placenta in strips of chemical-drenched litter.

I don’t aspire to be a photographer; I’m learning how to use only this type of camera, with all its quirks and severe limitations. Quite a few people purport to post “Land Camera” photos online, but the artsiest shots are often produced by old cameras modified with newer professional lenses or attachments that let you use Polaroid instant film with sophisticated SLRs. That’s cheating. I want to coax good photos out of this clunker exactly as it is. Using a Land Camera is like writing a poem within strict formal constraints: Certain flourishes are simply impossible—but if we practice a little, what can we make it do?

With form in mind, but without further ado, here a few of my first decent attempts to capture day-to-day medievalism through the lens of an obsolete Polaroid. (Click on each photo to see a larger version.)

* * *

Every Easter, the All Hallows Guild at Washington National Cathedral plants gorgeous rows of tulips along the northern border of the Bishop’s Garden. This year, I saw Easter Sunday as an opportunity to test the Land Camera’s eye for color.

This picture was taken just to the right of the cathedral’s charming and temperamental medlar tree. That’s a 15th-century granite bas relief in the background; in the foreground, a weather-worn 13th-century limestone capital from Cluny now does humble duty as a birdbath.

When Fuji decides to stop producing this last line of color film for old Polaroids, the camera that took this photo will immediately become less useful after only five decades than this capital remains after 800 years.

* * *

Polaroid didn’t offer an extensive line of accessories for the Land Camera, but their add-ons did include a “close-up kit” consisting of a snap-on lens and viewfinder for subjects 9 to 15 inches away. Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land was an optics genius; the camera’s bulk and its imprecise focus lever make the macro kit hilariously difficult to use, but it’s remarkable that such a lens exists for this camera at all.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Jeff, everyone knows that gnomes aren’t medieval! They spread across 19th-century Europe, especially France and England, after becoming highly popular home and garden decorations in German-speaking lands during the 18th century!”

Yes, that’s true—but see those tiny purple flowers? This is actually a photo of a patch of alehoof, the mint-like weed the Anglo-Saxons used in place of hops to give their ale its bitterness. The gnome? Totally just wandered into the shot.

* * *

This statue in front of the Embassy of Croatia is one of my favorite modern interpretations of a saint. It depicts a naked St. Jerome hunched over a large book and clearly in the midst of some unknowable fugue of frustration, perplexity, and fascination. That’s also the pained posture my grad-school friends and I assumed when we struggled our way through Jerome’s complex, sophisticated Latin.

At the mercy of the position of the sun and an old camera that over-emphasizes shadows, I’ve returned several times to try to re-do this shot. It’s not quite right, but I like the angle, and the suggestion, at first glance, of a larger story.

* * *

 “…but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shall be wel.”

Sometimes you get lucky. In the crypt of the National Cathedral, there’s a stark little chapel lit only by indirect sun. On a frigid January afternoon, on one of my first Polaroid outings, I leaned on a pew and impulsively took a picture of a statue of the Good Shepherd. The resulting image stunned me; I couldn’t do it again if I tried.

Earlier this year, Fuji stopped making this fast black-and-white film, and I’ll deplete my own hoard of the stuff by early next year. Until then, I’ll expand my repertoire of tricks, try to reframe medieval-ish subjects when I see them, and keep learning how to use this camera based on what shadow and sunlight demand.

“Dust you down from tip to toe…”

[Matters of health and wealth—or, to be clearer, a pronounced lack of both—have kept this blog silent for longer than I'd like, so here's a timely but updated post from 2012.]

For seven 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 contumacious 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. “Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,” shrugged a poet who put words in the mouth of a king. Like medievalism, alehoof has taken perennial root; from gift shops to gardens, it’s fated not to fade.

“When streams are ripe and swelled with rain…”

Every April, lines from two poems burst forth like emerald weeds. Rain might prompt someone to cite the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, but by the mid-month tax deadline, some doofy news anchor inevitably hits us with the opening of The Waste Land. “April is the cruelest month”? Again? Are you sure?

This year, consider Dame Edith Sitwell, the largely forgotten shaper of the heaviest light verse in the world. Perhaps you’ve read (or heard) “Waltz,” her ditty about fashion-fickle nymphs and other denizens of pseudo-pastorale:

The Amazons wear balzarine of jonquille
Beside the blond lace of a deep-falling rill;
Through glades like a nun
They run from and shun
The enormous and gold-rayed rustling sun;
And the nymphs of the fountains
Descend from the mountains
Like elegant willows
On their deep barouche pillows
In cashmere Alvandar, barège Isabelle,
Like bells of bright water from clearest wood-well.

You may be looking at those lines and thinking “What?”—but take a minute, read the full poem aloud, and swish it around in your mouth like strange new wine before you decide you don’t like it. Good writers get diction, but Sitwell was the rare poet who focused on sound, rhythm, and onomatopoeia almost entirely at the expense of concreteness and clarity. With a Sitwell poem, how it sounds is largely what it’s about.

That’s why it’s a treat to discover, among Sitwell’s late works, a poem called “The April Rain,” in which she uses her distinctive style and abstruse allusions not simply to please the ear, but also to evoke springtime and the innocence of young love.

“Such is our world, my love,” declares a boy to a girl, “[a] bright swift raindrop falling”:

The sapphire dews sing like a star; bird-breasted dew
Lies like a bird and flies

In the singing wood and is blown by the bright air
Upon your wood-wild April-soft long hair
That seems the rising of spring constellations—
Aldebaran, Procyon, Sirius,
And Cygnus who gave you all his bright swan-plumage…

As raindrops pool into symbolism, Sitwell falls back on wistfulness:

Such are the wisdoms of the world—Heraclitus
Who fell a-weeping, and Democritus
Who fell a-laughing, Pyrrho, who arose
From Nothing and ended in believing Nothing—fools,
And falling soon:
Only the April rain, my dear,
Only the April rain!

That fool-begotten wise despair
Dies like the raindrop on the leaf—
Fading like young joy, old grief,
And soon is gone—

Forgot by the brightness of the air;
But still are your lips the warm heart of all springs,
And all the lost Aprils of the world shine in your hair.

I doubt Sitwell’s closing lines will join the ranks of quotable April verses, but “The April Rain” is a charming reminder that if we’re spending the month digging through poetry, we ought to praise it as much for its sounds as for its far more obvious scents.

“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.”

“In between the lines, there’s a lot of obscurity…”

Some books you set out to write; others simply happen. Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles definitely falls into the latter category—and this blustery week feels like a fine time to plug it again on this blog.

This 138-page paperback includes 53 poems accompanied by black-and-white photos of the gargoyles and grotesques that inspired them. The poems are steeped in medieval weirdness and hew to traditional forms, from sonnets, villanelles, and alliterative riddles to ghazals, rubaiyat, and Japanese tanka. I posted drafts of 51 of the poems on this blog from 2009 to 2012; there’s a clickable list of them here.

You can find Looking Up at your favorite online bookseller (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s) and among the gargoyliana the National Cathedral gift shop, or you can buy a copy directly from me; just send me an email. (Alas, there’s not yet an e-book, because I have scant time for the tedium of formatting poetry for the Kindle.)

Looking Up is tantalizingly close to turning a profit. Cathedral officials graciously agreed to let their publication-shy gargoyles show their faces in print; I’ve offered to donate 75 percent of the proceeds to their fund to repair damage from the 2011 earthquake.

Friends tell me I’m too reticent about promoting my own work, so here goes: If you buy just one book of medievalism-influenced, gargoyle-inspired neoformalist verse, let it be this one!

Thanks, also, to those of you who’ve already bought a copy. Whether you’re a new visitor to this blog or a longtime reader, I’m grateful for your interest and support.

“Safe were the folk words of truth would upset…”

Baltimore is a rewarding place to hunt for traces of the Middle Ages, from the extensive collection at the Walters Art Museum to the ersatz medievalism of the Bromo-Seltzer Tower —but a few weeks ago, in a redeveloped circle where the Inner Harbor meets Fells Point, I was struck by a column of burning knights.

Conquistadors? Crusaders? No—they represent something far more serious than I’d expected to find alongside J. Crew, Starbucks, and Haagen-Dazs.

That’s the National Katyn Memorial, designed by sculptor Andrzej Pitynski and dedicated in 2000. It reminds the world that in 1939 and 1940, the Soviets massacred thousands of Polish military officers, most of them reservists—teachers, doctors, priests, rabbis, lawyers, and civil servants who resisted Stalinist indoctrination in prison camps. For decades, the Soviet secret police tried to cover up the slaughter.

Putin’s Olympics are a fitting time to remember the Katyn massacre. You can learn more about it at the National Katyn Memorial website, the National Archives, and the PBS website—but what makes this memorial a suitable subject for this blog is its medievalism.

According to the plaque beneath the sculpture, the 44-foot flame symbolically “envelops the Katyn martyrs . . . and raises them spiritually into the pantheon of national heroes of Poland.” Three Polish officers (including the only known female victim) burn at the base, while other bound victims writhe higher up.

Throughout the flames stand the souls of medieval knights.

On the right is Boleslaw the Brave, the first crowned king of Poland, born in the year 967. Alongside him is Zawisza the Black, the 15th-century knight who died trying to keep the Ottoman Turks out of the Balkans. Elsewhere, you’ll find King Wladyslaw III, who also died fighting the Turks in 1444, plus a few more recent heroes: Jan Sobieski, Kasimir Pulaski, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

The Katyn Memorial is sobering, but at 44 feet high, it also conveys heroic permanence. We now expect atrocities to be memorialized through grim slabs of black marble with no features other than the names of strangers, but here, recognizable human figures united by defiant nationhood illustrate an ongoing story of human evil purified by the fires of patriotism.

When medievalism flares in central and eastern Europe, it’s rarely charming: Ossetian separatism, Kyrgyzstani terrorism, Serbian nationalism, royal Ukrainian saints who buried their enemies alive—the list goes on, and it’s not confined to the largely benign medievalism that thrives in the United States.

It’s an old story in Europe: Leaders rally their restless tribes by exploiting their medieval roots. What’s happening in Baltimore is more typical of the way America tempers medievalism: The worst burns away, leaving the laudable goal of simple remembrance.

“But I say it’s only mountains and the sea…”

Nestled in the Caucasus like a goblet of leopard blood in Vladimir Putin’s mailed fist, Sochi is basking in worldwide attention. The Black Sea site of the Winter Olympics is just up the coast from the Georgian border, and the media is starting to ponder this umbrous and ungenteel land: Sky News offers a primer on the violent history of the Caucasus, al-Jazeera reports that a “forgotten insurgency” called the Caucasus Emirate is simmering, and the National Geographic website reminds readers that the Caucasus are a “cauldron and pretty unstable” and that “the games themselves are reigniting deep enmity.”

Dutiful and dull, these news reports fail to capture the sheer sheep-face stew of regional history. For that, you need to seek out one of the great, gonzo books about the Caucasus: W.E.D. Allen’s A History of the Georgian People.

Published in 1932, Allen’s tome was once the standard history of Georgia in English, but the author of a recent survey calls it “antiquated.” Perhaps he’s thinking of passages like this one:

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

I’m kidding—but only a little. Here’s W.E.D. Allen’s take on the Caucasus in the 7th century B.C.:

And when the Swarming Time was over, and men began to rule in cities, and others to write again, these shifting peoples emerge into the light of history; with changed names, moulding languages and old traditions, borrowed from the word-of-mouth anthologies of conquerors and conquered, woven to the doubtful fabric of a common history.

Here’s Allen’s snappy summary of how a medieval quasi-state emerged in the Caucasus:

For two generations or more there were difficult manoeuvres, obscure dynastic skirmishes, ferocious little wars between the pushful princes of young mediaeval Georgia.

Here’s Allen’s description of the Georgian national character, which I think he considers flattering:

The Georgians retain in a remarkable degree, both individually and as a people, the clear and gentle outlook, the free and inquiring intelligence and the high amoral and untrammelled mind of primitive man. The generosity, the loving simplicity and the humanity, the animal love of life which characterizes the Homeric poems and the ancient literature of the Celts and Scandinavians lights the pages of the mediaeval Georgian epics and declares indeed the mind of the Georgian these days.

At the same time the climate is a mellow joyous climate and the wine is good, so that neither the air nor the diet are conducive to the worrying over principles and the gnawing over grievances.

And here—and oh, how I love this one—is Allen’s ode to the ancient city of Kutais:

In the last foothills of the Caucasus fineing to the Colchian plain, in the sparkling sunshine, the river gleaming past down from the mountains to the sea, the lovely city stretches lazy brave and laughing, like as it were to some free woman who has known so many grasping dirty masters, and remains fresh in all her shame.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to find an affectionate city-as-whore simile in an overview of Georgian history. By that point, I was lost in a twisting maze of tribes, dynasties, and place-names—but I was also determined to find out what Allen, with his own strange sense of decorum, intended to swoon over next.

Who was W.E.D. Allen? Born in 1901 to Ulster Protestant stock, Allen was the Eton-educated scion of a printing-and-advertising family. In addition to A History of the Georgian People, which he wrote when he was 29, his scholarly work included the much-touted Caucasian Battlefields and the journal Georgica. Allen served as a war correspondent, worked for the Foreign Office in Beirut, Mosul, and Ankara, and endowed the National Gallery in Dublin with Orthodox icons and other treasures, many of which he had found being sold as “debris” in Istanbul bazaars. At the time of his death in 1972, his private library on Russia and the Caucasus was hailed as “probably one of the best on the subject outside the Soviet Union.” Allen also represented West Belfast in Parliament as an independent Unionist, and—although his scholarly biographer passes over the fact in silence—he was a behind-the-scenes Fascist who wrote for the periodical The Blackshirt under a pen name.

What Allen’s biography doesn’t tell you is that A History of the Georgian People is not a logical endeavor. No, it’s a glorious mess—a rhapsodic brain-dump by a scholar so sunk in his subject that he can no longer outline it for newcomers. Calling his own treatment of Georgia “horizontal rather than chronological,” Allen assumes his readers possess encyclopedic knowledge of Caucasian, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern history. His narrative, too detailed to convey the wider drama and too burdened by minutiae to be novelistic, often gets ahead of itself: Why herald the death of King Bagrat III—a would-be Charlemagne of the Caucasus—when you haven’t yet told us who he was?

I’ve found it impossible to get more than 100 pages into Allen’s history, but I confess that with the regret of a traveler who longs to return to some far-flung place. I’m beguiled by the promise of more florid musings like this:

Here are no serried ranks of causes and effect, no steady march of progress, no smug train of evolution. All the nations of the world have drifted through the Caucasus; all their leavings are to find—but little has been built. Here are the ways of God and men, most horrible and lovely, uncertain and not comprehensible. Such things we may contemplate, learn somewhat, understand a little, and wonder at the colour and the clouding and the sun upon it all.

A History of the Georgian People may be obsolete, but only as scholarship. As a love letter to the Caucasus, it’s remarkable—and, like a love letter, it’s worth digging out every now and again for the lingering whiff of a past that refuses to die.

“I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…”

Twelve hundred years ago tomorrow—January 28, 814—the Franks lamented the death of a tall, paunchy, mustachioed king whom they already knew was one of the most important people in European history: Karl or Charles the Great, Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne. His biographers cataloged the omens that presaged his death, and poets insisted that all the world wept for him. But they mourned too late; the old man they interred in the cathedral had long been lost to legend and myth.

The Charlemagne most of us know is a literary creation: a chivalric ancestor, an Arthur-like figure encircled by heroes, an enigma whose name legitimizes fundamentalist prophecies, spurious movie quotes, heavy-metal concept albums, and (mirabile dictu) overpriced shower gel. Across centuries, Karl’s propagandists can rightly claim victory—but as someone suspicious of power, I’m interested in a different judgment of the man, one that shows how some people felt about him when he wasn’t yet cold in his tomb.

In 824, on the island of Reichenau, a book-obsessed monk named Wettin fell ill. He crawled into bed and suffered terrifying visions: First, he saw an evil, robed spirit looming over his bed with torture devices; then he went on a vivid tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven led by his own guardian angel.

From his deathbed, Wettin recounted his revelations to a monk named Haito. Two years later, one of Wettin’s former students, Walafrid Strabo, rewrote the account as a long poem, “The Vision of Wettin.” Walafrid later tutored Charlemagne’s grandson and served as abbot of Reichenau. His flair for poetry and his love of gardening have earned him a tag on this blog and a poem in the gargoyle book, but when you’re assessing Charlemagne, one scene from his “Vision of Wettin” really stands out.

Here it is, hastily translated (by me) from Latin into metrical, alliterative lines:

 Casting his eyes over the landscape,
 He beheld the late king of the high-born Romans
 And all of Italy unable to move,
 Rent by a beast that ravaged his genitals;
 Left free of ruin was the rest of his body.
“Explain this!” cried Wettin, witless with horror.
“Many things fell to this man in his life:
 Attempting to nourish a new age of laws,
 Goading the teachings of God to prosper,
 Nobly protecting his pious subjects,
 Eventually reaching that rare summit
Where upholding virtue invites sweet praise,
But here he is held under horrid conditions,
Enduring great pain and punishment. Why?”

“This torment engulfs him,” his guide replied,
“Because he disfigured with filthy pleasures
His noble deeds, and doubted not
That his sins would be subsumed by his goodness,
Ending his life in the usual sordidness.
Even so, he will toil to attain splendor
And delight in the honor his Lord has prepared.”
               (MGH Poetae II 318–319, ll. 446–465)

Make what you will of the prospects for Charlemagne’s soul; after his death, people grew comfortable recording in writing what they’d likely been saying for years. Heirs and hangers-on had reasons for praising or damning the actual man—but before long, medieval people were more interested in letting the real Karl rot while recasting “Charlemagne” to suit their own needs. In the year ahead, we’ll rediscover how true that still is.

Tomorrow’s anniversary kicks off the “Karlsjahr,” a flurry of Karolocentric commemorations, exhibitions, symposia, and other events coinciding with the septennial Catholic pilgrimage to Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aachen. The city will host three major exhibitions of artifacts and art; an artist will install 500 Charlemagne statues in a public square; and a new Aachen Bank card will show off the famous reliquary bust. The town of Ingelheim will host an exhibition, and the abbey church in the Swiss village of Müstair will serve up a display about Carolingian architecture, a “collage-opera” about Charlemagne’s imperial coronation, and a comedy performance, “Karl and the White Elephant”—and these are only the events I’ve discovered so far.

For 1,200 years, Europeans have crafted a Karl for all seasons. Later medieval kings grafted him to their family trees, Crusaders invoked him, the French made him an icon of education, and Napoleon and Hitler believed they were continuing his work. His latest incarnation is also explicitly political: When the 1957 Treaty of Rome created the European Community, the six signatory nations covered almost the exact same territory as his empire. The EU’s headquarters in Brussels, the dull Charlemagne Building, enshrines him as the patron saint of European unity—and someday, perhaps, of murky bureaucracy. Statues rise, stained glass dazzles, and the source of the legend is lost.

In Becoming Charlemagne, I likened Karl’s tiny capital to the king himself: “almost civilized and unexpectedly alive: ambitious, forceful, clearly Christian, slightly cruel.” He once slaughtered helpless Saxon captives, an atrocity that shocked his contemporaries, and it wasn’t always propitious to be his relative. His failings, both personal and political, were as great as his ambitions.

But take a second look: There’s a remarkable, complex person beneath centuries of rhetoric and legend. It’s the rare leader indeed who can smile at endless flattery, enjoying obsequious poems praising him as a second David, yet still demonstrate, through his actions, that he knows he isn’t the apotheosis of his civilization—that the future needs books, buildings, and institutions that endure.

At this, Karl failed—but 1,200 years later, individuals, nations, and vast institutions still clamor for a piece of him. This summer, through music, theater, religion, and art, his heirs will convene in the shadows he cast. The Christian emperor, the lustful king, the cold-hearted brother, the egomaniac, the mourning father, the blood-spattered warlord, the pragmatic diplomat, the debatable saint, the barely literate patron of learning—there are myriad Charlemagnes to remember, and nearly as many we choose to forget. The story goes on, and the “Karlsjahr” in Europe is about more than the past, so look closely: Amid all the tourists, new Charlemagnes rise.

“Golden toddy on the mantle, broken gun beneath the bed…”

In an 8th-century poem by Alcuin, an aged shepherd decries winter as rerum prodigus atrox, a “terrible squanderer of wealth,” but spiky-haired, personified Winter defends himself by listing his seasonal pleasures: feasting, resting, and a warm fire at home. To that list, I’d only add: terrific links about books, medievalism, history, and poems.

Cynthia Haven (mostly) likes the BBC’s “Hollow Crown” retelling of Shakespeare.

Tolkien scholar Jason Fisher enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug.

Arrant Pedantry enjoyed the pronunciation of /smaug/.

Nancy Marie Brown is writing a book about the Lewis Chessmen.

Burnable Books debunks words not invented by Shakespeare.

Marly Youmans unveils seven new, myth-infused poems.

Dylan pens a ghazal about coffee.

In light of a Joyce Carol Oates story, Harvard magazine reconsiders Robert Frost.

Stanford hosts a “code poetry slam.”

Diana Seneschal rescues Wordsworth from a Common Core lesson gone wrong.

When it comes to English departments, George notes that today’s liberation may stultify tomorrow.

In Rome, the Cranky Professor finds a lot of scaffolding.

Bill Peschel remembers Peter O’Toole as a writer.

Steve Muhlberger is “ensorcelled” by the study in intimacy (or lack thereof) that is the BBC’s “Sherlock.”

Kevin is ambivalent about Apple’s new Walt Whitman adverts.

Six Words for a Hat reads Dickens with Ruskin in mind.

The Box Elder offers a meditation on the death of trees.

Cancer, baggage, marriage proposals! Asking Anna, a novel by my friend Jake Seliger, is out.