In memoriam

Excepting the occasional son like Dylan Thomas, I suspect that all families–however uniformly happy or uniquely unhappy–have a common hope for their frail and failing parents: a good and peaceful end. My father died in his sleep last night and I am deeply grateful. The years were hard on my father. When I saw him for his ninetieth birthday last month, he squeezed my hand, his mouth a grim and determined line as he whispered, “Age is cruel, daughter. Cruel.”

Mercy does not obliterate grief, however much it may soften its hard blow. I am thankful that the cruel hand of age no longer clutches at him, but to finish that sentence without qualification proves impossible.

Perhaps the greatest mercy in this moment is that what I find flooding over me are the not recriminations or the disappointments that burdened me for years, but the memories of a sweet, sweet man, for my father was a man of personality and charm before he dwindled into shadow. Shadows stripped away, I find myself reckoning with how deeply I am my father’s daughter. Suddenly, rather than associating him with the things I hate most about myself– cowardice in the face of confrontation, quickness to be moved to tears, the temptation to practice peace at all costs even when the cost is one’s own well-being–I am realizing that he planted the seeds of my most formative and abiding loves within me. I am more deeply indebted to him than I ever recognized, much less told him.

My father used to say that my sisters got our brains from our mother and our looks from him. That was one of his frequent quips, alongside his impish exhortation to “Give me a kiss and I’ll forgive you” when he made a mistake of some sort or the other. Yet, however much he saw our mother in us, however much she was a force of nature, it is to my father that I owe my adoration of language and story. Yes, my mother would send me to the dictionary and I’d get lost there, but it was William Henry Smith who inspired me with that insatiable hunger for the just the right word. That, at least, was the lesson that I took away from the dinner table at the age of five when he shook a bottle of slightly cemented ketchup until it could be cajoled from the bottle and then explained the dance from coagulated goopiness to liquid and then back to goopiness as thixotropy.  Ketchup was thixotropic.

Thixotropic. Callooh! Callay! She chortled in her joy.

William Henry 1953Both my parents read to my sisters and I as children, but my father spun us his own stories as well. Every daughter had her own stories. Mine were the adventures of Baby Ruth and her father. They went hiking and encountered rattlesnakes. They saw wolves. They shared the outdoors my father loved, but had so little time to spend in.

As my memory leapfrogs to showing him pictures last summer of the caves in Mammoth National Park where my sisters and I puttered happily and deliriously around for a few days, I realize that love too is part of his daughters’ shared inheritance: his wondering, curious love for nature and her mysteries. Even as I write this I foresee that grieving my father will be rather like writing a thank-you note with a thousand post-scripts.

“Oh! I nearly forgot, Dad. Thank you for….”

That I never told him how I owe my greatest loves to him is to me a greater regret than the fact that I have not sent him anything I’ve written for years, or that I have not shared my life with him in any meaningful way for years. To share nothing of any meaning was easier than trying to speak of hard truths, especially when my father’s loss of hearing required speaking  loudly. Some truths have a best-by date. Spoken thereafter, they are merely hurtful and serve no good purpose. To  yell them is impossible.

Still, I could have, and I wish that I had, thanked him for the good loves even if I’d had to shout it. Love is always worth remembering. Always worth speaking.

V&A

This semester–and yes, my life at mmbty-some years of age is still measured in semesters–has been the longest and the slowest that I can remember in some time. I am fairly certain that the trip that I was supposed to have made to London in early February was either:

  1. made in a different lifetime
  2. made in an alternate universe
  3. made by someone else who stole my identity for that trip and I now need to track the bugger down and get my life back.

In short, that jaunt to London was a flash of a visit, the delight and point of which has been pulled to the depths of my memory by the riptide of this semester’s duties. (That moment of verbal melodrama provided courtesy of an utterly shattered brain.)

Despite the complete void in my memory, my camera has photos on it that suggest that I did somehow make it to the good old Victoria & Albert during that blip, and pictures don’t lie. Well, my pictures don’t lie because I haven’t got the foggiest how to doctor them. I could probably sit them down on the sofa and mess with their minds, but properly doctor ’em? Nope.

Anyway, my camera tells me that (true to form) I spent a fair bit o’ time in the medieval rooms, and it appears that I was thinking about home furnishings and accessorizing. I suppose, there’s nothing like a tin-can of a hotel room to make you think about a spacious home. The tin-can I remember. Oh, and I believe there was a very happy interlude with a scone in the V&A cafe…. It all comes back eventually.


Ivory book covers. This year’s must have for that special person in your life who has everything… except a conscience.

 

Always make sure that when guests enter your house, they know where they stand: on your turf. Tile that foyer with your coat of arms as did John of Gaunt.

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The arms of John of Gaunt and his wife Constance, 1372-89. Clear, coloured and flashed glass with paint. (from the collection of Horace Walpole, 1717-77)

Looking for a new backsplash?  Tile is so passé. Consider using Limoges plaques.  Nothing says “money to burn” like gilded copper with champlevé enamel. Anxious about looking excessive? Go for a spiritual theme like the resurrection to subtly suggest your mind is on higher things. Besides, don’t we all feel like this when the dishes are done?

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Plaque with the Resurrection of the Dead, circa 1250. Limoges, France.

Have a hankering to decorate with a touch of the outré? Did you watch that scene with the clutching hand in Harry Potter and think to yourself, “Well, maybe if it weren’t so poorly manicured that would work on the Green Room’s mantle….” Then, for that soupçon of je ne sais quoi (ou pourquoi), try a reliquary. Let the neighbors show off their aquamanile collection. Nothing says, “I’ll see your lousy bronze lion water pot and raise you an even more priceless objet d’art!” like a reliquary. (Nearly all body parts represented in current market. Some disassembly may be required.)

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Now empty reliquary from 1250-1300, Southern Netherlands.

Personally, I have to confess that I would collect aquamaniles in a heartbeat. So far as my shallow little heart is concerned, they beat reliquaries hands down. But then, I’ve never been into the outré and as for soupçons, I’m more a soupspoon girl. Speaking of which….

DSC01550 who wants a silver spoon when you can have

This baby from c. 1430 was clearly intended for display and not use. Netherlands, silver enamel, gilding and niello (black composition).

Have bare walls? Well, why not set off this year’s trendy, dark green walls with a set of ivory love scenes produced in Paris between 1300-1325? Aim the proper lighting toward them and they’ll not only frame themselves, but they’ll also set the tone.  We recommend scenes like these which are straight out of romance literature. Did we mention tone?

 

Lastly, a little personal accessorizing is always necessary. Why should one’s house be better appointed than oneself? (It shouldn’t.) I like my accessories with a touch (a soupçon even) of humor. Case in point: this molded leather number which is equal parts Dean Martin and the Prioress from The Canterbury Tales. Who could ask for anything amore?

DSC01553 equal parts Dean Martin and Wife of Bath

Moulded Italian leather bag, 15th century.

Well, I could. Of course, I could. The aquamanile collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for starters….

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.

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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.