Frick

Aside from the morally questionable game of “If I could steal one thing” that I play in museums, I tend to go through them fantasizing about putting irreverent Post-It notes up hither and thither.  Knowing that museums tend to frown on that, I do not, of course, do it. Still, I think it would be a very interesting social experiment to see how people engaged with non-official, humorous commentary. Would they take them down in disgust? Post their own if they could in response? Methinks it would be an amusing experiment, but we shall, alas, never know.

Being in New York for a few days, I am doing the rounds of small museums built by American industrialists. Yesterday it was the Frick, today the Morgan Pierpont for the one and only U.S. stop for Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth. So, before I head for the day, I thought I’d post the “Post-Its” that I couldn’t put up in the Frick.


 

 

“Giovanni! Did you just knock another sculpture on the ground, young man? Basta! How many times do I have to tell you not to wear that esecrabile sword in the house!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



“Wait! I’m not ready. I just put a lozenge in my…. Oh, never mind.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

This spring, the fashion forward woman will be matching her hair to her feather. Ladies, this is de rigueur.

 

 

 

 

titian

Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap Titian (Italian, ca. 1488–1576) Date: ca. 1510

 

 

“Mama said this cap was a mistake,  but she was sooo wrong. (She also told me, I should shave my stubble and get a real haircut. The woman knows nothing.) My hat is no worse than that guy over there…”

 

 

 

 

 

“Are you talking to me? Are you seriously talking to me, you fop? My hat has points! Yes, fine. They’re soft points because it’s velvet, but it’s still a bloody serious hat. Yours looks like an undercooked pudding. Poltroon.”

 

 

 

 

 

“Points are for mustaches. Not hats. As for the pudding monstrosity, the less said the better. You’re both rather preposterous. Ask Mrs. Leyland over there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Would you all just be quiet and let me contemplate the van Ruisdael? Peace and a fine prospect. That’s all I ask for.”


And now, if I could steal one thing….

 

D is for Depressive

Field Notes, Installment V

The girl’s first thoughts upon spotting the creature were rather uncharitable.

“What abominable posture that creature has!” she thought, and while she was not wrong, such a judgemental attitude hardly befitted a budding natural historian.D is for Depressive 1 edited

Perhaps the girl could not be blamed too much for her reaction. She had, after all, been brought up to be able to set a formal dining table with books on her head. That particular talent bestowed no virtue in and of itself, of course, but it did tend to make her very observant of all kinds of backbones (or the lack thereof).

When the creature turned cautiously towards her, the girl could hardly blame the beast for its disheartened stance. Everything about the creature reminded her of horseshoes if horseshoes were soft and squishy as jelly.  Or life-preservers if all the life had been kicked out of them. Or perhaps travel pillows which are always and forever disappointing. The only thing that didn’t remind her of such things was the creature’s stomach, and that was the worst part. For a moment, the girl just stared. She couldn’t help herself despite being raised to know better than to stare and being able to set the Sunday dinner table with books on her head.

“That explains everything,” thought the girl with a shake of her head, sitting down to quickly sketch, for the creature was so skittish she thought it might waddle away at any moment if she tried to get any closer.

Indeed, it was only because she didn’t approach that the creature remained where it was, skittishly watching her. The girl couldn’t blame it. Any creature with a dotted line running from chin to belly, belly to tail tip would naturallD is for Depressive 2y be wary of oncoming traffic of any sort, however pedestrian. After a bit, when the beast seemed well and truly satisfied that the girl was going to remain on her haunches fiddling with paper and pencil, it decided to investigate her. Since the creature was extremely slow and clumsy and did not so much waddle as list dangerously from one side to another and then back again, the girl actually began to feel motion sick as she watched its progress.

All the girl’s best attempts to engage the creature in conversation went flat as a tire, but then, what can one justly expect of a creature with road markings down its front and spur-like spikes down its back? Thus, the beast’s genus and species would have to remain a mystery until the girl encountered a more loquacious specimen. Indeed, she considered it a triumph to have gotten the creature’s name out of it.

“Penelope,” repeated the girl to herself as she put away her sketch book and watched the creature lurch gracelessly from sight, before her stomach demanded she turn her eyes elsewhere. “How very, very unexpected.”

 

On My Shelves: The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship

One of my favorite games to play in museums is: “If I could steal one thing….” It goes without saying that my friends who actually work in museums do not approve of this game (although I do manage on occasion to cajole them into joining in). It goes further without saying that I have never and would never do such a thing. It’s a game for focusing the senses.

The blame for this morally dubious pastime rests at the base of the pedestal of a fascinating astrolabe in the one of the Vatican Museums. Mmm hmm. Yup. That’s where it all started: an old astrolabe. If you’re thinking that’s an odd choice to make out of the entirety of the Vatican Museum, then all I have to say is, your imagination is free to purloin whatsoever it chooses.

Back in 2011 when visiting the Musée de Cluny-Musée national du Moyen Âge,  my “one thing” policy was seriously tested by their exhibition on the mythology and use of the sword. Finally, I narrowed it down to one manuscript illustrating combat techniques. Did I let myself get distracted by unique pommels? I did not. I’ll just take the manuscript, thank you. Did I fall for decorative incising down various handsome blades? Nope. Just the manuscript, please. In such cases, exhibition catalogues are generally how I reconcile myself to leaving things where they belong. So. the absolute non-existence of such a catalogue compounded my pain and agony a hundredfold. I had to make do with postcards and magnets of the manuscript. MAGNETS. There were not enough Sidecars in the whole of Paris to get me over that heartbreak.

Still nursing my disappointment (and perhaps a slight headache from those Sidecars), I made a pilgrimage to the Higgins Armory Museum in Worchester, MA upon my return, hoping to find solace in wandering the halls of armor, swords, pikestaffs, arquebuses, hauberks, and the like. While the displays included no manuscripts on sword fighting, in the gift shop I found The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: a Facsimile and Translation of Europe’s Oldest Personal Combat Treatise, Royal Armouries MS.I.33.  I suspect that my calloohs, callays, and chortles of joy were matched by those of the clerk in the gift shop who rang up my purchases that day. My many, many book purchases.

Within the pages of this particular gem are color facsimiles of a late 13th – early 14th-century manuscript on sword fighting wherein a priest in clerical robes (hood down) instructs a male student (hood up) and occasionally a woman, demonstrate a variety of offensive and defensive moves. While transcriber and translator Jeffrey Forgeng’s work is a serious work, worthy of the serious institution at which he and I did our doctorates (although at different times), I am entirely frivolous and will to leave it to readers to pick up the book (well worth it) and read the manuscript details (very interesting indeed) and textual details (cautionary).

Below I share only a few of my favorite “teaching moments”.

msi.332cp17cheeryfighers

Readers, Meet your guide to sword fighting instructor (the priest at left) and his exemplary pupil (right). No matter what move they demonstrate, those happy smiles never waver. (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 17)

ms12c332cp24asphyxia

This is the “Asphyxia” move where you get in close enough to discover if your opponent remembered his deodorant that morning. Since this is the Middle Ages, be warned: he didn’t. (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 24)

ms12c33iamnotleft-handed23

If you look carefully, the student (right) is doing an alternative, less showy version of the “I am not left-handed!” move made famous by Wesley in the Princess Bride. No really. (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 23)

ms12c332cp33pool

Here, the master is demonstrating how to take advantage of distractions like low-flying planes and skewer your opponent while he’s yelling, “De plane! De plane!” (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 33)

msi2c332cp35noseparry

The deeply infantile “I’ve got your nose!” move that no one, NO ONE, finds amusing. (Royal Armouries, MS 1.33, p. 35)

MS I, 33 p 37 moves

The student is about to learn that Matrix moves do not work when dodging swords. Be warned. (Royal Armouries, I.33, p. 37)

msi2c33p57wondertwins

My absolute favorite move, and one which will go over the heads of younger readers: “Wonder Twin powers, ACTIVATE!” (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 57)

 

P.S. The Higgins Armory is no more, at least not as a private institution. The collection was acquired by the Worchester Museum where it is well worth visiting.

Works Cited:  Jeffrey Forgeng, transcriber and translator, The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: : a Facsimile and Translation of Europe’s Oldest Personal Combat Treatise, Royal Armouries MS.I.33. The Chivalry Bookshelf, CA, 2003.

 

Madness and other infelicities

Days like today make me feel like I bought my brains at a used car lot without digging  through the CARFAX listing carefully enough. Not nearly carefully enough.

I am currently prepping to teach a class on Middle English literature. Consequently, I’ve been happily submerging myself in scholarship that I haven’t touched for ages; lining my proverbial ducks in their tidy, proverbial little rows; and then steadily, albeit proverbially, shooting them dead. I was happily knocking off books when it happened. Let me emend that. It happened again, for the third time in as many days.

It started out perfectly normally. It is, after all, perfectly normal to come across a reference to medieval text or poem and think to oneself, “Self, that sounds interesting. Is that on our shelves?”[1]

“I think so,” answer I, toddling over to my burdened and benighted bookshelves.

img_2842(1)

one of the aforementioned burdened and benighted bookshelves.

In this particular and imperfectly normal instance, the work in question was Chaucer’s House of Fame which was heralded in the essay I was reading as including: “an abusive eagle,” a profusion of poetic wealth from centuries past that “overwhelms even the minimal level of human organization” (just like my bookshelves), and a “forest of rook’s nests” which are both “the nests of scavengers” and the “incubators of new life out of past in decay and putrefaction.”[2]

I was sold. Irony, the macabre, literary irreverence, and an abusive eagle. Who doesn’t want to read that? Of course, I should have read it before now (what kind of medievalist am I?!), but I assured myself that you can’t read everything. Better late than never and all that.

So, I levered the House of Fame off my shelves and opened it–just to bookmark it, mind you. I sure as heck don’t have time to read it now, but when the semester is over…. And that’s when it happened. AGAIN.  There on the page before me were the tiny markings of my own marginalia. It was unmistakably my writing and my writing is unmistakable.

img_2844At least, so I assume from the fact that people always feel an uncontrollable urge to comment upon it. Countless are the times that I have been told that my writing is illegible. It’s not illegible. It’s small. Alright, fine. It’s tiny, but tiny ≠ illegible. This purported illegibility has been hammered home both gently (and un-) by everyone from examiners in grad school to my own sweet kith and kin. Adding insult to injury (hammering hurts, fyi), my writing been compared to everything from Sanskrit to the tracks of panicked field mice. For my part, I do not consider it unreasonable to expect people to have magnifying glasses on hand. Preparation is half the battle in life.

Besides, illegibility is not the point. The point is that I’d very clearly read the damned House of Fame before, thoroughly too by the looks of it, and yet I had no memory of it whatsoever.

Once? “These things happen.”

Twice? “Really, Smith? That’s a bit worrisome.”

Thrice? Thrice in three days? “Clearly, I am going mad. Self, are we going mad?” Self: “You’re on your own, kid.”

Mad or senile. As I’m too young for either, both are equally discombobulating. Time shall, I suppose, tell. In the meantime, I’m going to start shopping around for new brains, and I’m reading the fine print this time before putting my money down. I may be forgetful, but I’m good with fine print.


[1] Of course, I don’t speak to myself in the third person. First person is entirely sufficient. Just humor us. Me. I mean, me.

[2] Larry Scanlon, “Geoffrey Chaucer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Middle English Literature 1100-1500, ed. Larry Scanlon, Cambridge UP 2009, p. 165.

 

 

 

H is for Hero (or G is for Gormless)

Field Notes, Installment IV

Usually when the girl recorded an unusual creature in her field notes, it is was a creature. Four legs. Claws. Snout. That manner of thing. After meeting Robert Schapper, however, the girl decided that restricting her field notes to beasts had been rather narrow-minded of her. As a specimen, Robert was so utterly unremarkable as to be moderately fascinating.

“All field notes should include at least one study in contradictions,” said the girl as she sketched quietly.  So far as she was concerned, the fact that her thoughts had juxtaposed ‘utterly’ and ‘moderately’ together, and then ‘unremarkable’ and ‘fascinating’ meant the Robert qualified nicely as an exemplum contradictionis.

h is for hero 1

Robert Schnapper. “May he prove them all wrong.”

“After all,” observed the girl to a starling which had landed on a nearby branch to observe her progress, “it’s not every day you meet a young man whose ears have migrated to the lowest possible point of his head.”

Had any of the Schnapper family seen the girl’s sketch or overheard her meditations on their fifth son, they would have avoided each other’s eyes and talked loudly of the merits of strong beer and axe throwing, for the perilous hanging of Robert’s ears was an embarrassment to one and all. Any lower and they would have resided on his neck, and that position would have once and finally disqualified him from the occupation of hero.

Since it is an established fact that the ears of heroes are well behaved and handsomely situated to either side of the head–and not only-just-barely above the neck–Robert’s family had long ago dismissed the likelihood of his doing anything more heroic than managing not to tread upon his own feet. Had anyone of the Schnappers (particularly Robert’s younger brother Vipper) known that the young man still harbored high hopes of heroism (and wasn’t half bad at alliteration either), they would have laughed themselves silly.h-is-for-hero-2-1.jpg

The Schnappers were the sort of people who believed manliness and facial hair were one in the same,† on account of which remarkable logic, the entire Schnapper clan–from grandparents to third cousins twice removed—had given up on Robert amounting to anything.

It was manifestly unfair, for while the young Robert could have done something to ameliorate the expression of perpetual surprise upon his face, and while he could have taken better care not to step on his own feet,  there was nothing he could do about his beard. Mother Nature had heartlessly condemned him to a life of scruff, and that was that.

After sketching the young man in her field notes, the girl stared at the page. Beneath her sketch of the underestimated Robert, she wrote only, “May he prove them all wrong.”

v is for vipper 2

Vipper Schnapper. “Let that be a lesson to you, girl.”

Before slamming her notebook closed in disgust, the girl added one last, hasty sketch of the mocking Vipper Schnapper with a quick note.

The girl was perhaps a little hard on herself. It wasn’t as if she was the first young woman to be misled by a dramatic head of hair. Moreover (and to her credit), it had only taken a few minutes’ conversation for her to realize that the well-groomed Vipper would never live up to the intensity of his eyebrows. Such disappointments happen all too often.

Still, if she was brutally honest with herself, the chin beard really should have told her e v e r y t h i n g. It really, really should.


† That created some difficulty where Great Aunt Stomp was concerned, but that’s another story.

An Old English Advent Excerpt

 

Eala wifa wynn geond wuldres þrym,
fæmne freolicast ofer ealne foldan sceat
þæs þe æfre sundbuend secgan hyrdon,
arece us þæt geryne þæt þe of roderum cwom,
hu þu eacnunge æfre onfenge
bearnes þurh gebyrde, ond þone gebedscipe
æfter monwisan mod ne cuðes.
Ne we soðlice swylc ne gefrugnan
in ærdagum æfre gelimpan,
þæt ðu in sundurgiefe swylce befenge,
ne we þære wyrde wenan þurfon
toweard in tide. Huru treow in þe
weorðlicu wunade, nu þu wuldres þrym
bosme gebære, ond no gebrosnad wearð
85mægðhad se micla. Swa eal manna bearn
sorgum sawað, swa eft ripað,
cennað to cwealme. Cwæð sio eadge mæg
symle sigores full, sancta Maria:
“Hwæt is þeos wundrung þe ge wafiað,
90ond geomrende gehþum mænað,
sunu Solimę somod his dohtor?
Fricgað þurh fyrwet hu ic fæmnan had,
mund minne geheold, ond eac modor gewearð
mære meotudes suna. Forþan þæt monnum nis
cuð geryne, ac Crist onwrah
in Dauides dyrre mægan
þæt is Euan scyld eal forpynded,
wærgða aworpen, ond gewuldrad is
se heanra had. Hyht is onfangen
þæt nu bletsung mot bæm gemæne,
werum ond wifum, a to worulde forð
in þam uplican engla dreame
mid soðfæder symle wunian.” *

 

Normally, I would provide my own translation, but Christmas is today and all that, so I’m falling upon the grace of Professor Aaron Hofstetter’s translation below (to which I have made a few tweaks).

Hail, joy of women through the majesty of glory,
noblest of virgins across every corner of the earth
of which sea-dwelling men have ever heard spoken —
tell us the mysteries which came to you from the heavens;
how you ever took on your increasing, through the birth of a child,
never knowing any kind of union that the minds of men
would understand. Truly, we have never learned
of such a thing like this happening in the days gone by,
that you should take hold of this in your special grace,
nor need we look that event occurring any time ahead.

Indeed, that truth dwelt worthily within you,
now that you have borne that majesty of glory
within your breast, and your mighty virginity
was not corrupted. And as all children of men
have sown in their sorrows, so after shall they reap—
begetting as destruction.

So spoke the blessed maid, holy Mary
filled always with her victory:

“What is this miracle at which you all
stand amazed, and mourning grieve your cares,
O son of Salem and his daughter too?
Yearning, inquire how I kept my virgin state
and my trust and also became the mother
of the sublime Creator’s Son. For this is not
a mystery knowable by men, but Christ revealed
how in David’s dear kinswoman
the guilt of Eve is removed,
her curse cast down, and the lowly glorified.
Hope is received so that a blessing may abide
in both men and women together, now
and always for all time to come in the highest
delight of angels with the True Father.”**

 

Merry Christmas!

*Old English text from http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/aspr/a3.1.html (Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records).

**A. Hofstetter’s translation of the entire cycle known as the Advent Lyrics (Christ A, B, C) can be found at https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu.

 

On My Shelves: La danse éliminatoire

Nestled on my shelves between a collection of Norse poetry and another collection of Ottoman Lyric sits a tiny–and I do mean tiny–little book. It’s so thin that sometimes amid the shoving and re-shelving it gets lost somewhere at the back, which is rather ironic given its subject.

Michael Ondaatje’s Elimination Dance, or for those with the Bilingual Traveller’s Edition, La danse éliminatoire, is a delightful oddity.  In 1991, well before the nightmares of Dancing with the Desperate or whatever is reality atrocity is current at the moment, Ondaatje published his collection of “eliminations.” The form of the collection (which is not really poetry) was inspired by the nature of eliminations dances (which I’d never heard of before) where seemingly random “eliminations” are called out and dancers retire accordingly. Ondaatje’s eliminations are clearly inspired by the generous folly of humanity. They are too oddly specific not to be based upon regrettable reality.

“Gentlemen who have placed a microphone beside a naked woman’s stomach after lunch and later, after slowing down the sound considerably, have sold these noises on the open market as whale songs.” (12)

It the bizarre specificity weren’t enough to convince one of the basis in real life, Ondaatje himself includes the following prefatory disclaimer “All original incidences which inspired the eliminations are the responsibility of the original persons.”

So, as much as anything, Elimination Dance is a catalogue of the stupidity that we humans can get up to, from “unintentially [locking] oneself in a sleeping bag in a camping goods store” (24) to  the dinner guest who has “consumed the host’s missing contact lens along with the dessert” (16). Think of it as the pre-qualifiers for the Darwin Awards.

I offer up a selection of my favorites.

q-tip

Those who, while visiting a foreign country, have lost the end of the Q-tip in their ear and have been unable to explain their problem (12-13)

I would have loved to have heard the original story that inspired this. I mean, how long is your ear canal that you lost your Q-tip in there? Does no one read the box? It clearly says, do not insert into ear.

breaking down at the liquor board

Any person who has burst into tear at the Liquor Control Board. (41-42)

Now, admittedly those LCB taxes are high, but tears? Even I haven’t done that.

accordian pinch

Women who gave up the accordion because of pinched breasts. (28-29)

Some might say the unparalleled delights of the accordion are well worth a little pain. I’m not one of them.

And so they go. Ondaatje includes study questions at the end which beautifully spoof the questions included at the end of both book-club books and student textbooks alike. I cannot quote the best of them here in a “family-friendly” environment, but they are rich.

Several blank pages are left at the end of the book for readers to fill in their additions. The friend who gave it to me included two eliminations of his own:

“The excessively cheerful, particularly those who inflict themselves on others at breakfast.”

“All who drink decaffeinated coffee before noon.”

I have also added a few of my own over the years:

“Former majority whips of the House who go on TV dance shows.”

“Those who cannot live without the TV being on constantly.”

“Any one who upon receiving a scholarship has marched into the office of the granting body and announced that s/he should have been given more money.”

So, consider the dance floor full.  Eliminations may now be posted.

 

Michael Ondaatje, Elimination Dance/La danse éliminatoire, trans. Lola Lemire Tostevin, Brick Books, 1997