“Crossing the central reservation of my imagination…”

I was heartened to find them right where I left them: the Notre Dame chimera and his beak-faced buddy leering over the baggage carousels at Denver International Airport. I landed in Colorado just as the news broke that the state’s cutest pests were busily vectoring some good, old-fashioned plague, and my first thought (after “¡ay caramba!“) was to wonder what other medieval grotesquerie I might encounter.

Medieval Europe casts a strange, slanting shadow across the American West, even before you take into account the culture and traditions of Spanish speakers. (It’s not for nothing that the 1984 book The Medieval Heritage of Mexico is 600 pages long.) For generations, we Americans were fond of imagining that we’d made a clean break from Europe—“Shrouded bards of other lands! you may sleep—you have done your work”—but in the deserts and prairies, that belief is still duking it out with evidence that we’re the blatant heirs to medieval traditions.

False starts abound there, too. At Mesa Verde National Park, we were gawking at Far View House, the ruin of an Ancestral Puebloan home built between 1100 and 1300 A.D., when my wonderfully indulgent traveling companion spotted this:

Could it be? The remains of an Ancestral Puebloan gargoyle that once spewed forth some of the mesa’s 18 inches of summer rain—set in place at the same time Europeans were building great Gothic cathedrals? Could a medieval French architect have been shipwrecked on our shores and then whisked away to the desert by a super-tornado? Perhaps with the aid of medieval Welsh UFO abductees?

Alas, no. Those drainage stones only look old; they were placed there by the National Park Service to draw water away from the fragile sandstone ruins. The two rangers who answered my questions seemed awfully embarrassed that somebody noticed.

In Ouray, Colorado, which bills itself as “the Switzerland of America,” I spotted familiar beasties atop the local pharmacy museum:

As common as prairie dogs, these grotesques are variants of a standard garden-store and souvenir-shop species known as the “Florentine gargoyle.” They usually have dog or cat faces, and they often have chains around their necks. If their ancestors actually lurk on a landmark in Florence, I’m still hunting for them.

Fortunately, other, more perspicacious medievalists have moseyed down this road. In his 1965 article “The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West,” historian Lynn White, Jr., argued that pioneers were “particularly beneficiaries of the Middle Ages” whose “essential equipment was largely the culture of the mediaeval lower classes.” Log cabins? A medieval building style brought to North America by Swedes, reintroduced by the Germans and the Swiss, and carried westward by Scotch-Irish settlers. Stirrups? Eighth century. Spurs? Late 13th century. The distillation of spirits, card games, garter belts, the title “sheriff,” and even lynching? All of them, White argues, were “medieval patterns of preference” that shaped the American West.

Of course, White belonged to a school of historians who were obsessed with showing irrefutable continuity from the Middle Ages to the present. “Indeed,” he surmised, “a good case could be made for the thesis that today the United States is closer to the Middle Ages than is Europe.” In his 1965 article, he’s eager to believe it’s so. He’s not wrong when he claims that the revolver, barbed wire, and the windmill couldn’t have existed without medieval innovations in gunpowder, drawing wire, and water pumping—but sometimes he seems to be trying too hard.

That said, one of White’s revelations is particularly neat. To find traces of the Middle Ages in Colorado, you need to look no further than the countless squares, parks, and museums for the carcasses of a conveyance that most people don’t consider “medieval” at all.

The Conestoga wagon! To generations of Americans—and to the throngs of European tourists I saw at the national parks last week—it’s an icon of the Old West. I’d assumed it was the culmination of 19th-century New World ingenuity, but White makes a case for its medieval-ness.

The Romans, he argues, had nothing quite like it. The earliest example of a harness with padded collars and lateral traces or shafts pops up only around the year 800. Nailed horseshoes, which gave horses traction and reduced wear on their hooves, first appear in the 890s. Finally, around 1070, we see the first evidence for the humble but ingenious “whipple tree,” the rod across the front of a cart that connects the sides of tandem animals to the front and center of the cart, equalizing the pull and making the whole contraption safer and more efficient.

Capable of hauling several people and heavy loads, the large frontier wagon, the longa caretta, is now feasible—just add youthful sinewy races full of manly pride and friendship. “In the early twelfth century,” White concludes, “it appears in essentially the same form which came to dominate the American West in the Conestoga wagon.” O pioneers!

Is he right? I don’t know. Historians bicker mightily about the timing of the first nailed horseshoes, and when I look at the marginal doodad on the Bayeux Tapestry that White believed was the first evidence for the whipple-tree, I just don’t see it. But his explanation is plausible (and great fun), as is his underlying belief in the medieval-ness of the United States:

We Americans greatly puzzle Europeans, including Britons, because whereas every European state assumes absolute sovereignty, even over religion, we are still happily mediaeval in political concepts and deliberately splinter sovereignty quite minutely. The central issue in American domestic politics at present is whether, or the extent to which, our mediaeval legacy of pluralism is still viable.

“The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West” is nearly half a century old, but White could have written those words yesterday—or a decade from now. The road goes ever on and on, leading us back to medieval Europe, even when we’re positive we’re headed west.

“…with my eyes turned to a different time or hour…”

After translating a poem, I’m always left with a troubling handful of brackets and screws. The bookshelf sure looks like it stands on its own, but anyone peering at it closely, comparing the finished product with the instruction sheet, might spot the small, vital pieces I had to leave out. That’s the frustrating trade-off of this sort of writing, but I like to believe I’m getting better at it—and I’m pleased that one of my poems made it into the summer translation issue of Able Muse.

It’s a fine issue, too, with translations from Catullus, Martial, Victor Hugo, Christine de Pizan, Cavafy, Rilke, Rimbaud, Lope de Vega, and many more. My contribution is modest—ten lines of Latin, an epitaph for Charlemagne’s baby daughter Hildegard translated into alliterative, metrical English—but I’m among poets whose work I admire, including medievalist Maryann Corbett, classicist A.E. Stallings, and X.J. “Nude Descending a Staircase” Kennedy.

Last year, I let my subscription to Poetry lapse after realizing that I rarely found one memorable poem per issue. I put that money toward the biannual Able Muse instead, and it’s proven to be a far more satisfying read. Mirabile lectu, its editors are supportive of poems composed in recognizable forms, but they’re also open to good free verse, prose poems, essays about literature, and even the occasional visual-art portfolio. The 2010 Able Muse Anthology, which collects the best of their first decade, is a worthy introduction to their style and approach. Rather than serve as a one-way repository for CV enhancement, Able Muse feels like a journal its craft-conscious contributors actually read.

I’m busily working on a pile of new translations—and on this sun-baked afternoon, I’m happy to dredge up old “Quid Plura?” posts about this very subject:

“Not under the thumb of the cynical few…”

“In fact, the great champions of liberty against oppression, if their own words are to be trusted, have fought for the maintenance of liberties inherited from the Middle Ages. In our own day such traditional conceptions of liberty appear less seldom perhaps, for many liberals, and certainly most extreme radicals, are now frequently struggling for rights for which the Middle Ages can furnish few precedents. But this should not blind us to the all-important fact that for a long period in this historic struggle, indeed for the whole of the early part of it, it was for their medieval inheritance that all opponents of oppression engaged.”

—C.J. McIlwain, “Medieval Institutions in the Modern World,” Sixteenth Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, April 26, 1941, Princeton, N.J.

“He brewed a song of love and hatred…”

One hundred years ago today, Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, making World War I inevitable—but few of today’s retrospectives are likely to tell you why. Of course, the 19-year-old assassin wanted a united home for Slavs in what would later officially become Yugoslavia, and he wanted it free of Austrian influence. But why did he and his co-conspirators choose June 28?

The timing of the archduke’s visit must have struck them as auspicious. The day was the 525th anniversary of a symbolically crucial battle that almost nobody outside the Balkans remembers, although more of us should; Princip’s medievalism sent millions of men to their deaths.

The Battle of Kosovo is murky indeed, but shadowy memories of this turning point in Serbian history did survive the centuries, first in oral tradition and then, in the 19th century, in the written records of a patriotic Serbian philologist. (You can order a hard copy from Ohio University Press or read all the poems online.) Commanded by a noble named Lazarus, the Serbs clashed in June 1389 with the invading Turkish forces of Sultan Murad at Kosovo polje, the Field of Blackbirds. The epic tradition is wonderfully vivid: Lazarus doesn’t want war, but he refuses to pay tribute to the sultan. Elijah appears to Lazarus as a falcon and forces him to choose the destiny of Serbia: glory on earth, or glory in Heaven? Lazarus thinks—then he makes his choice fast:

O Dearest God, what shall I do, and how?
Shall I choose the earth? Shall I choose
The skies? And if I choose the kingdom,
If I choose an earthy kingdom now,
Earthly kingdoms are such passing things—
A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.

Before the battle, Lazarus celebrates his slava, the feast-day for his patron saint, with a last supper and grim prophecies of betrayal. The Serb leaders know that the Turks vastly outnumber them; Ivan Kosančić declares that “[i]f all the Serbs were changed to grains of salt, / We could not even salt their wretched dinners!” Nonetheless, they agree to tell Lazarus that the Turkish army consists of children, old men, and cripples, but Lazarus seems to know otherwise.

The Turks easily slaughter the Serbs, but much of the epic tradition dwells on the poignant stories of individuals, such as the Maiden of Kosovo, who wanders the carnage looking for the man she was supposed to marry; the nine Jugović brothers and their father, whose deaths cause their mother to die of heartbreak; the redemptive bravery of a falsely accused hero; and the treachery of his accuser. Much of the Kosovo epic is unverifiable, even ahistorical, but the fragment we have is a powerful read. Its legacy, though, is both tragic and sad.

When you understand the Serb defeat at Kosovo polje, you see why Gavrilo Princip must have reveled in the symbolism of assassinating the archduke on that day, imagining heavenly victory but actually inviting earthly calamity. World War I failed to bury this centuries-old nationalism: On June 28, 1989, charmless nationalist Slobodan Milošević scored a propaganda victory by speaking at the battlefield on the 600th anniversary of the defeat (shortly before his own helicopter-assisted apotheosis), and many Serbs still regard Kosovo not only as their ethnic and religious homeland but also as the site of their national martyrdom. At this point, history fades into vapors; as John Matthias writes, “while the final and conclusive battle was not fought until 1459…it is Kosovo which has lived in the popular imagination and in epic poetry as the moment of annihilation and enslavement.”

Today, we prefer our medievalism sweet: Renaissance festivals, fantasy novels, CGI movies, and Playmobil toys, with occasional forays into “Game of Thrones” grimness. Every European culture craves its own brand of medievalism: During the 19th century, the English gave us Tennyson and the Gothic revival; the Scots had their Ivanhoe and the Eglinton Tournament; the Finns found themselves in the charming Kalevala; the Germans gave the world Wagner (not only his music but also, alas, the man) as well as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica; and the French, bless their hearts, gave us Migne.

The Balkans bequeathed us their own Middle Ages. The century that resulted, with its awful world wars, springs from the same source as Tolkien. Today, the 625th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, is the ideal day to ponder what scholar Tom Shippey has long pointed out: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Bless with a hard heart those who surround me…”

After A Brief History of Time, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf must be one of the least-read bestsellers of the past 50 years. When Heaney’s translation came out in 2000, co-workers and acquaintances who heard about it on NPR asked me if they should read it, and the “should” struck me as odd; “do as thou wilt” really ought to be the whole of the law when it comes to recreational reading. (NPR’s capacity for instilling status anxiety is remarkable. They run a piece about Serbian gusle rhapsodies, and the next day every upper-middle-class white person in America has always been into Serbian gusle rhapsodies, or wants to seem to have been…)

With last month’s debut of Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf, the New Yorker published a smart but lengthy non-review by Joan Acocella, who doesn’t so much evaluate the book as provide a backgrounder for the same anxious culture mavens who need to bluff their way through the chitchat of the moment. Slate went there, too, with a piece headed “Is Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Better Than Heaney’s?” The contrast isn’t very interesting: Heaney was commissioned by W.W. Norton to create a readable new poem from a language he only barely understood; Tolkien translated the poem from a language he knew well into English prose for his own edification.

What’s more, Tolkien composed his prose Beowulf when he was 34, before spending decades teaching the poem and reflecting on its larger meaning. This new 425-page volume includes that translation, plus more than 200 pages of commentary edited from Tolkien’s later lecture notes and 80 pages of previously unseen Beowulf-themed stories. It’s a curious melange, and the author’s son Christopher seems eager to lower readers’ expectations. “The present work should best be regarded as a ‘memorial volume,’ a ‘portrait’ (as it were) of the scholar in his time, in words of his own,” he writes in the introduction, calling his father’s translation a “vivid personal evocation of a long-vanished world.”

But is Tolkien’s Beowulf a good read—and if so, for whom? Well, here’s an excerpt, the aftermath of Grendel’s first attack on the Danes:

The glorious king, their price proven of old, joyless sat: his stout and valiant heart suffered and endured sorrow for his knights, when men had scanned the footprints of that foe, the demon cursed; too bitter was that strife, too dire and weary to endure! Nor was it longer space than but one night ere he wrought again cruel murders more, and grieved not for them, his deeds of enmity and wrong—too deep was he therein.  Thereafter not far to seek was the man who elsewhere more remote sought him his couch and a bed among the lesser chambers, since now was manifested and declared thus truly to him with token plain the hatred of that hall-keeper; thereafter he who escaped the foe kept him more distant and more safe.

There it is: Tolkien’s Beowulf. Beyond “good” or “bad,” it’s murky, twisting, archaic, steeped in learning, as precise as a poem, artful in a manner that’s all Tolkien’s own, and like no English ever before uttered or heard.

Sometimes there’s a wonderful rhythm to it, inspired by the rising and falling of Old English meter, with the stress falling on long vowels, or on short vowels followed by multiple consonants: “Many a mighty one sat oft communing, counsel they took what it were best to do against these dire terrors.” Sometimes the meter is decidedly post-1066, as in “[t]he spearmen slept whose duty was to guard the gabled hall,” a nice bit of iambic heptameter, and when Tolkien has a chance to work alliteration into his prose, he goes for the gusto, as in his glimpse of Grendel’s “great gobbets gorging down,” a line that’s pleased the book’s early reviewers.

To find those standout moments, you need to wade through 200 pages of this:

“Art thou that Beowulf who strove with Breca in swimming upon the wide sea, that time when ye two in pride made trial of the waters and for a rash vaunt hazarded your lives upon the deep? No man, friend nor foe, could dissuade you two from that venture fraught with woe, when with limbs ye rowed the sea. There ye embraced with your arms the streaming tide, measuring out the streets of the sea with swift play of hands, gliding over the ocean. The abyss was in tumult with the waves and the surges of the winter. Seven nights ye two laboured in the waters’ realm. He overmatched thee in swimming, he had greater strength! Then on the morrow-tide the billows bore him away…”

That’s Beowulf in Tolkienese: not the saga-like prosody of The Lord of the Rings, not at all redolent of sparse, economical Old English, but a cross between literally translated modern German and a makeshift, clattering pseudo-Middle English with modernized spelling and anachronistic “esquires” and “knights.” Yes, Tolkien knew that the root of “knight” was “cniht,” Old English for a youth, boy, servant, retainer, or warrior, and the agony of the philologist writhes in every choice of word—but that doesn’t mean most readers will find this lucid or pleasant. Translation isn’t about making the shades of Joseph Bosworth and Northcote Toller beam in Elysium, and sometimes even minor syntactic choices send the whole thing awry. When Tolkien translates “þaet waes god cyning” as “a good king was he,” how can we not hear nursery-rhyme echoes that cheapen the lofty tone?

The truth is, I’ve never loved Tolkien as a translator. His Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in paperback in 1975, leaves me cold, even though it’s another poem Tolkien knew intimately—perhaps, like Beowulf, too intimately to translate it beautifully into something wholly new, lest some beloved philological pebble be lost.

Tolkien excels, though, when he dreams up hypothetical Beowulfs in other places and times, as he does in two other original works in this book. The first, “The Lay of Beowulf,” retells the fight with Grendel in seven ballad-like stanzas, as if minstrels had inherited the story later in the Middle Ages. It’s a charming poem, all the more so because Christopher Tolkien recalls his father singing it to him when he was a child. The second, the terrific “Sellic Spell,” gets its name from a phrase in Beowulf, syllíc spell, meaning “a strange/wonderful story.” In 70 brisk pages, Tolkien imagines one of several folk tales that might lie behind the Beowulf story, telling it so convincingly that if Christopher Tolkien had claimed to have translated it from the collection of a 19th-century Danish ethnographer, I wouldn’t have doubted him. It’s great fun, and not just for veterans of grad-school Beowulf seminars; I can imagine “Sellic Spell” being used to get high-school students thinking about lost sources, folk memory, and hypothetical tales. Are more of Tolkien’s similar flights of fancy unpublished? I’d gladly read a volume of the stuff.

I was reassured to read that Tolkien himself didn’t like his own Beowulf. “I have all of Beowulf translated, but in much hardly to my liking,” he wrote to a friend in 1926. Nearly a century later, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout concurs. “The translation itself is not a great piece of art,” he suggests, even as he praises the 222 pages of commentary culled from Tolkien’s lecture notes as “straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism.”

So who’s really the audience? I’m tempted to say that only Anglo-Saxonists and die-hard Tolkien fans will love this book—but arcane tomes sometimes find unexpected readers.

Eldritch prose! Six pages of painstaking descriptions of manuscripts! Hundreds of notes on Old English diction! I like to think that somewhere out there, a kid has been given this book but doesn’t have the foggiest idea what to make of it. In a moment of idle browsing, he glimpses a story that’s fated to haunt him, and he’s perplexed and bewitched by impenetrable notes and alien words that hint at the depths of one very old tale. Years later, he rises to grapple with Beowulf on its own formidable terms.

Tolkien’s Beowulf doesn’t have broad appeal, but I like that it exists. We won’t see many more cases of fantasy and fandom intertwining to push medieval literature toward the mass market, so I welcome this book, even if I may never read it again, because it’s weird and wonderful to see Tolkien, 40 years dead, beckoning readers to stranger and brainier worlds.

“Like flames reaching out from the sun…”

“Your life will be written / your written life lost”: That’s the prophecy a noblewoman dreams about her unborn daughter in the eerie prelude to Need-Fire, a slim but remarkable book that I can scarcely believe someone wrote. That girl will grow up to become one of the most influential women in Anglo-Saxon England, but most of her story will be forgotten, giving poet Becky Gould Gibson a chance to rescue her from obscurity—and to demonstrate that using poetry to tell longer, more complicated stories is an art we haven’t yet lost.

In 25 interconnected poems, Need-Fire dramatizes the lives of Hild and Aelfflaed, the two women who ran the double monastery that housed both men and women at Whitby in North Yorkshire during the seventh century. Hild educated five bishops, presided over the synod that pushed the English church closer to Rome, and served as abbess when the cowherd Caedmon, the first named English poet, reluctantly sang his first verse. Unfortunately, only a few pages in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History hint at Hild’s profound influence, and the other 29 women known to have run double monasteries in Anglo-Saxon England are hardly more than names. Gibson’s goal is to commemorate them, intertwining her own imagination with copious research to sing them back into life.

And so Gibson invents her own form: short, sparsely punctuated lines that resemble Anglo-Saxon verse, printed with a caesura in the middle of each. These lines don’t follow the rules of Old English meter and alliteration, which makes them feel like fragments straining to be heard across 1,400 years. The result is a stream-of-consciousness narrative that derives subtle power from the poet’s decision to rely on words derived only from Old English. Here’s Hild’s mother’s lament as she bathes her infant daughter:

Glass crosses the water     from Gaul
for church windows     in your name
yet nothing you say     will be found
only the little     said of you
Why then stay up late     daughter
evening by evening     candle by candle
shaping thoughts     never to be kept
in your smooth     steady hand?

Of course, you don’t need to know Anglo-Saxon scansion to enjoy Gibson’s poetry, nor do you need to scrutinize the historical notes and scholarly addenda that follow each poem. I enjoyed them—Need-Fire is one of those rare books for which I feel like the ideal reader—but you don’t have to be a medievalist to step into Gibson’s weird and haunting world. You just need to be willing to read an historical novel in telegraphic verse.

In Gibson’s hands, Hild is a “child with a will     never settled.” We meet her as a teenager eavesdropping on her uncle, King Edwin, as he and his advisers kick around the pros and cons of Christianity. Overhearing the parable about a sparrow that flies through a mead-hall in winter, enjoying a moment of safety and comfort before it returns to the harsh unknown, Hild doesn’t assume, as the king’s men do, that any religion shedding a bit more light on past and future mysteries is worth considering. Instead, she imagines that the sparrow is as lost as she feels:

She’s seen that sparrow     beat wild
about the walls     looking for a way out
how she feels     most of the time
when grownups talk     Where will she go
after she dies?     Where’s Father now?
She shivers     damp to the bone

A keen observer of a land where “[f]olks still/worship sticks,” Hild is beset by secret doubts. The real Hild was all packed up and ready to live with her sister near Paris, but she turned back at the last minute and established a hardscrabble monastery along the North Sea. Gibson might have chalked up this decision to an irrefutable religious vision, but her Hild believes it’s her duty to found institutions that promote peace and education in her war-torn kingdom. And so Gibson takes up the tricky task of dramatizing the apprehension that accompanies faith:

          Truly I wonder
when bone     becomes spindle
cliffs whittle     to teeth
how many     or rather how few
will have traded     their wooden war gods
for this sad-eyed     Hebrew man

As Hild lives a harsh life of religious service that demands great leaps of faith, her doubts mature into greater complexity. She worries less about the “the idle or giddy” in her flock and more about the monks and nuns who are unquestioning and meek, a sensibility that at times feels too 21st century. It flatters us to believe, for example, that a seventh-century woman couldn’t possibly have cared how monks cut their hair or what the date of Easter ought to be. Fortunately, Gibson understands the medieval mind, and she knows that a woman like Hild would eventually conclude that regularity rather than fervor offers solace and bolsters faith:

Belief’s a skill     like any other
we’re schooled in     must work at daily
What I’ve learned     keep learning
rule gives us     rooms of time
to breathe in     Without rule we are lost

Though Gibson’s form never varies, Need-Fire offers a fine and convincing array of other voices and perspectives: a monk terrified by an eclipse, a young nun dying of the plague, and another nun forced to write a thank-you letter to the author of a virginity handbook for women. (“At least we won’t die    in childbirth,” she quips, “though we may die    of boredom.”) Mothers and nuns have prescient dreams, abbesses’ bones cry out from their graves, and even God Himself weighs in, gently chiding his seventh-century children in verses they’re bound not to hear.

Gibson’s imagery is fresh, too. When Etheldreda, abbess of Ely, writes to her husband to warn him of a sneak attack, she muses on the extent to which her life revolves around eels. She spears them, salts and skewers them for Lent, observes their mating habits, and finds in them a homely metaphor:

What is man     in the clutches
of sin     but an eel
on an eel-fork     shivering?
Eels     by the thousands
eels     almost bodiless

[…]

God will keep you     He keeps
us all     How does an eel go
with no fins     to speak of?
Yet she takes     to the sea
knowing she’ll     get there
lay eggs     and die
knowledge older     than man
deep in her brain

The eel poem helps Need-Fire build to a thematic climax. Through layers of fine detail, Gibson builds her seventh-century world with careful references to native animals and plants and the things humans make from them, from salted herring to wormwood mulled in ale. Above all, this book pays tribute to forgotten women who did important work, but it also challenges readers to marvel at the infinite variety of nature, which Gibson sees, like many medieval people before her, as reflecting the nature of God. Simply walking outside is an inexhaustible antidote to boredom and, as a nun named Begu finds when she holds a mussel shell, a potential bestower of greater rewards:

        When I stare
into its pool     of blackness
it tells me     I’m here
Small wonder!     God always
shines back     if we’re looking

Blending scholarship, biography, and historical fiction, Need-Fire needs to be read at a careful pace that duly honors its subjects’ lives. Writers who rescue obscure figures from history’s margins aren’t always capable of dropping them into good stories, but by retelling the lives of Hild and Aelfflaed in stark, anecdotal poetry rather than a novel, Gibson crafts scenes that defy the monotony of the form she’s chosen to labor within, just as her characters do. Need-Fire isn’t a dutiful exercise in social history, but an eloquent argument that these abbesses and the men and women around them were real and alive, not stock characters in medieval-ish fiction.

Europeans and Americans have never been able to decide whether medieval people were our predecessors and brethren or the makers of a world that was grotesque, alien, unfathomably strange. There’s no reason both can’t be true, and Gibson shows us that an age we’d find physically and culturally inhospitable is also emotionally and intellectually welcoming. Fourteen centuries on, she hears familiar notes of doubt, desperation, and hope:

what is any of us     but one
of God’s beings     scrambling
for a foot-hold     on crumbling cliffs?

“And as the nail sunk in the cloud…”

From the hilltop, I beheld the valley deep,
Where brave King Lothar crushed his foes
As they took flight across the little stream.

On Charles’ side, on Louis’ side as well,
The ground grows white with shrouds to cloak the dead,
As when autumn fields grow white with birds.

– Angelbert, survivor of the battle of Fontenoy, A.D. 841

“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.