Sic transit gloria mundi

I strongly suspect that most people who read this blog also subscribe to the OED’s word of the day as I have done for some years. Many times, the OED’s word of the day is ‘archaic,’  having been sadly ejected from common parlance by the barbarities of linguistic change.  Such ejections are the reason why we weed our gardens when we’d all really rather go out and aberuncate the hell out of that doggone Canada thistle that has somehow managed to resurrect itself for the third summer in a row!

Other times, rather than ‘rare and archaic,‘  the word of the day has the more valedictory categorization of ‘obsolete‘. I define obsolete as ‘given short-shrift and utterly deserving of revitalisation’. Doubtless, I do so partly out of self-defense because these are not infrequently words I still use. (I do not even try to keep up with the cultural memos on such things.)

What he said. St. DenisSome times, the OED selects words that I’ve never seen before and never, ever, ever want to forget. Here, for example, is one of my favorites from some time back:

† morigerous, adj. Obedient, compliant, submissive. Also figurative.
Origin: A borrowing from Latin, combined with an English element. Etymons: Latin mōrigerus, -ous suffix.
Etymology: <  classical Latin mōrigerus compliant, obliging ( <  mōr-, mōs custom (see moral adj.) + -gerus (see -gerous comb. form), after mōrem gerere to humour or comply with the wishes of a person) + -ous suffix. Compare earlier morigerate adj.

If ever a word deserved a linguistic defribillator! Here are a few examples, for the work of resusciation:

“Good heavens, Julia! Why can’t you be morigerous like your sister?”

“Years of eye-rolling and impatient sighs on the part of his spouse led Mr. Henry to stifle a lightening quick wit and tendency to pun. Humiliated into a morigerous state that better suited her tastes and inclinations, Mr. Henry was the lesser for the change, as indeed was the world about him.”

Now, there are of course the days when OED’s word is not so much obsolete as underused. This was the case with one of my all-time favorite words of the day which also happens to come from one of my favorite Dickens’ novels (not my absolute favorite–that would be Little Dorrit, but Our Mutual Friend is way up there). Those in the academic world will instantly recognize this word’s applicability both to a particular species of undergraduate and certain faculty colleagues.

Podsnappery, n. The characteristic behaviour or attitudes of Dickens’s Mr Podsnap; insular complacency and blinkered self-satisfaction. Etymology: < the name of John Podsnap (see Podsnap n.) + -ery suffix.

For examples, one cannot do better than to quote John Podsnap’s creator:

1864   C. Dickens Our Mutual Friend (1865) I. i. xi. 98   “These may be said to have been the articles of a faith and school which the present chapter takes the liberty of calling, after its representative man, Podsnappery.”

To this, I add:

“Marguerite’s fork hung suspended in mid-air. Only a life-time of good manners kept her jaw from dropping. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d encountered such podsnappery. Not on a first date, at any rate. She might have remained in that stupor well beyond the bounds of good manners had not the cauliflower on her fork decided it could endure no more suspense. It jumped.”

Vivat lætitia verborum.

NB Aberuncate has not–to the best of my knowledge–ever been a word of the day for the OED, but I couldn’t resist using it as it is one of those highly satisfying words that–like its synonym extirpate–does most ably “suit the action to the word, the word to the action”.

On the Virtues of: Blind Poets

Homer. John Milton. Jon Awdelay.

Assuredly, the early fifteenth-century blind chaplain Awdelay (or Audelay as his name is more commonly spelled today) is neither the household name that Homer is nor the astounding poet that Milton was, but he is seasonal. Moreover, he was seasonally thorough, writing a sequence of twenty-five carols for the season of the Nativity. God bless him. Even though his works appear in only one manuscript, Bodleian MS. Douce 32, this is one time, there is no question about authorship because Awdelay was not reticent about asserting his authorship whether in thanksgiving that his book was done (complete with his own little ‘Calloo Callay!’) or in his imprecations against anyone who would cut a leaf from his book.

No mon this book he take away,
Ny kutt owte noo leef, Y say forwhy,
For hit ys sacrelege, sirus, Y yow say!
Beth acursed in the dede truly!
Yef ye wil have any copi,
Askus leeve and ye shul have,
To pray for hym specialy
That hyt made your soules to save,
Jon the Blynde Awdelay. 1

As curses go, it’s hopelessly mild. One suspects the dear man’s heart was not truly in it. I prefer my imprecations with a soupçon of brimstone, endangerment of limbs at best, the blasting of any hope of posterity at worst. Still, if Awdelay’s curse here against potential vandals of his book lacks all menace and malice, it is doubtless better so. After all, the man was offering up devotional poetry to guide the contemplative reader heavenward. To condemn a reader (even a leaf-thief) to hell would be entirely counterproductive.

I stumbled across Awdelay earlier this month when I was looking for Middle English devotional materials related to Childermass (the celebration of the Holy Innocents on December 28th). Selections from his carol sequence are simply too lovely not to share. The following is his third carol, De septem opera misericordie or seven works of mercy, and it is a most appropriate for a time of year which should not be about consumption, but rather the incarnating of mercy, hope, and blessing in one’s daily life. His opening promise, “Wele is him and wele schal be,” reminds me a little of Julian of Norwich’s assurance, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

So, take a minute. Turn off the endless playlists of music and the running internal commentary of all the things you have yet to do. Take a leaf from Jon Awdelay’s book-proverbially speaking, that is.  (For those who are unfamiliar with Middle English, one of the tricks is to read aloud. Your ear will likely catch what your eye does not.)

De septem opera misericordie

Wele is him and wele schal be,
         That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

Fede the hungeré; the thirsté gif drenke;
Clothe the nakid, as Y youe say;
Vesid the pore in presun lyyng;
Beré the ded, now I thee pray —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

Herber the pore that goth be the way;
Teche the unwyse of thi conyng;
Do these dedis nyght and day,
Thi soule to heven hit wil thee bryng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

And ever have peté on the pore,
And part with him that God thee send;
Thou hast no nother tresoure,
Agayns the Day of Jugement —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

The pore schul be mad domusmen
Opon the ryche at Domysday;
Let se houe thai con onsware then,
Fore al here reverens, here ryal aray —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

In hongyr, in thurst, in myschif — wellay! —
After here almus ay waytyng:
“Thay wold noght us vesete nyght ne day.”
Thus wil thai playn ham to Heven Kyng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé. 2

1. ed. Susanna Greer Fein, Poems and Carols (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302). Kalamazoo, MI, Medieval Institute Publications, 2009.

2. ibid. If you need a little help with translation, visit the TEAMS site with the full carols.

Beauty and Blood

IMG_0211The other day as we were strolling through the magnificent passages of the medieval Nasrid palace of the Alhambra, one of my sisters said that if felt like time traveling to walk through the passages. It was like being thrown into the stories we had read as children. I understood what she meant. When strolling through a medina in Meknes several years ago, I stood and watched upon a storyteller weave his magic around the gathered crowd. Between the sounds, smells, responses of the crowd, the whole brought to life the opening of one of my favorite childhood stories, Eleanor Hoffman’s Mischief in Fez. It was a pleasant sort of illusion–equal parts personal nostalgia and fairy tale.

Yet, “time traveling” as my sister called it is not all pretty imagination. Both my sisters walked in and out of the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Alhambra rather quickly. For all its spectacular interlace carving, its bands of complex geometric patterns balanced out by leaf-like carvings winding throughout the inscriptions, the chamber conjured for my sisters an all too palpable sense that this was a place where death had been passed down many a time. I cannot say those were the echoes in my ears. For my part, I stood staring into the carved wooden ceiling feeling the grandeur and wonder the chamber had so clearly been constructed to impose upon entrants. Our different reactions were, of course, two sides of the very same coin.

I walked through the chambers thinking, “What poor cousins our northern fortifications must have seemed to those who made or dwelt in structures like this.” It made me wish that I had brought Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North just to get the perspective of Arab traveler to reverse the gaze. (Yes, Ibn Fadlan lived in the 10th century and the Alhambra was begun in the 13th. Yes, he was from Baghdad, rather than Moorish Spain, but it would still be an salutary destabilization of my 21st-century North American lens.) Then, I paused. One has only to consider that the Alhambra relied upon humans for its defense rather than structure as did other Muslim fortifications in Spain. That fact sheds light on the comparative value placed on human life in such a place. Civilized beyond the dreams of the North? Perhaps, but perhaps not without cost. Another configuration, but hardly perfect. Hardly ideal.

IMG_0161If it’s true that the ceiling in that Hall was made to symbolize the seven heavens, then the placement of the throne in this room makes child’s play of the whole “divine right of kings.” For this reason, I suppose the echoes of death and power were perhaps more true than the echoes of poetry in the gardens. The past of fortresses and fortifications is more truly grounded in blood and bone than anything else. If you want a sobering read of the history of the Alhambra, keep going with the aforementioned history by Irwin. It washes away some of that sepia patina of fairy tale pretty quickly.

“The Alhambra seems a place of enchantment. Tourism as made it a place of pleasure and instruction. It is easy for those who walk around it today to fantasise about the gilded and cultured existence of the Moors who once inhabited this palace complex — perfumes, prayer, and women — a foretaste of paradise….Though this must have been true in some respects, in others, Granada in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was a special kind of hell and some of the darkest chambers of that hell were to be found at the Alhambra. the place is a monument to murder, slavery, poverty and fear.”1

Irwin goes on to talk about how the fact that the slavery that had been eliminated from much of Western Europe was alive and well in Spain and you can even find verses inscribed on the walls of the Alhambra that celebrate the power of slavery: “You imposed chains on the captives and dawn found them at your door building your palaces as your servants.” Real history is always a good antidote to our unmoored (pun definitely not intended) reimaginings of the past. While I am not yet finished with Irwin’s book, so far its sharp reassessment of a place whose very name has mythic resonance is a salutary one.  What we humans create is–as are we–both beautiful and terrible.

  1. Robert Irwin, The Alhambra. Harvard UP, Wonders of the World Imprint, 2011, p. 69.

Arresting moments in Church History, or the Pop Music/Liturgy Cross-Over Episode

My affection for prefaces, footnotes, and such apparatūs is no secret. I have celebrated the prefatory delights of the scholar Richard Furnivall elsewhere on this site, and while some might object that prefaces run a half-gamut from C to, oh say, E (paralytically dull to moderately dull), or maybe so far as F or G if we include prefaces to volumes like the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (and one takes into account the regrettably nationalistic drive behind such editorial projects as the MGH), I stand by the promise of a good preface just as I stand by my right to indulge in ridiculously long and over-abundant parentheticals.[1] Life, liberty, and the pursuit of parentheticals.

My reasons for loving prefaces are admittedly unscholarly and frivolous. If the MGH’s deeply earnest prefaces have never “sparked joy” in my soul, I take the failing and blame as my own. The truth is, I’d rather have the proverbial curtain drawn back on some backroom editorial battle than read ideologies of any sort. Give me a scholarly scuffle that might well likely come to fisticuffs if people were ever to put down their pipes, pens, or beersteins and actually march down the hall to so-and-so’s bleepity-bleep-bleep office.

In my world, the story of Wittenstein’s poker would be a great pick-up line.

Most recently, my frivolous nature was gratified by an anecdote I came across in G.L. Brook’s edition of The Harley Lyrics: The Middle English Lyrics of MS Harley 2253.  Brook provided what I call a flitillary. Flitillaries are those felicitous breadcrumbs, those literary lures that send my mind lighting about here and there, one thought to another until an afternoon has somehow vanished. Flitillaries are the sort of thing that prevent dissertations from being completed. They send distracted procrastinators chasing from one reference to another. One library to another. Sometimes one continent to another. Flitillaries are the black holes into which whole weeks (months if you have no self-control whatsoever) can be lost.

Brook provided me with my most recent flitillary in his discussion of the literary background for the lyrics found in Harley 2253. His object was to demonstrate that although the early fourteenth-century Harley manuscript is one of the earliest to contain secular lyrics, there is evidence that the tradition and enjoyment of such lyrics was well established by the time of the manuscript’s compilation. As proof of which, Brook recounts the following anecdote:

By the end of the twelfth century singing and dancing in churchyards had become a common practice. In his Gemma Ecclesiastica Girarldus Cambrensis [i.e. Gerald of Wales] tells a story of a parish priest in Worcestershire who had been kept awake all night by such singing and dancing, with the result that the next day, when he began the early morning service, instead of singing the usual ‘Dominus vobiscum’, he startled his congregation by substituting the refrain which had been ringing in his ears, ‘Swete lamman dhin are’, [Sweet lover, thy mercy….] So great was the scandal caused by this incident that Bishop Northall pronounced anathema upon any person who should ever again sing that song within the limits of his diocese.” [2]

Think of the organist on the Simpson’s breaking into Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-gadda-da-vida” only medieval. A perfect flitillary. I had originally hunkered down with this preface to get to know the tradition into which the Harley lyrics fit, that sort of thing. I came out needing to know the lyrics of a song that gave a twelfth-century bishop apoplexy.  Was it just that one of his priests was so desperately absent-minded or sleep-deprived that offended the bishop, or were the lyrics really scandalous? Inquiring minds want to know. Really badly.

Alas. This inquiring mind was doomed to disappointment. The Digital Index of Middle English verse led me only to various retellings of the irascible Gerald of Wales story, and a look through Gemma Ecclesiastica revealed that good old Gerald only quotes briefest bit of the vernacular English in his text. Yes, he does go on to translate a bit more of into Latin:  Dulcis amica, tuam poscit amator opem (Sweet friend, a lover asks for your aid…). Hardly enough to justify anathema. The more’s the pity. If any one can give me a lead on that Swete leman, I’d be deeply grateful.

One flitillary resigned, I’m sure I’ll come across another soon enough. In the meantime, to satisfy anyone’s desire for something a little racy. I direct you to a lyric from Harley 2253 where this whole adventure started in the first place. For the full poem, I refer you to the TEAMS Middle English site and Susanna Greer Fein’s edition and translation of the poem.  It’s worth the read. The fellow is a scoundrel and our young woman, who is ‘glistening as gold,’ will have none of it. It’s a pretty clear-sighted representation of late medieval sexual politics. Enjoy!

In a fryht as y con fare fremede
Y founde a wel feyr fenge to fere,
Heo glystnede ase gold when hit glemede
Nes ner gome so glady on gere.
Y wolde wyte in world who hire kenede
Þis burde bryht, ȝef hire wil were.
Heo me bed go my gates lest hire gremede;
Ne kepte heo non henyng here. [3]


“In a fryht as y con fare fremede…” BL Harley 2263, 66v

[1] If you’re wondering why that isn’t A to D or something more logically alphabetical, it’s because I recently learned that gamut was originally a musical term. This entry is written in the key of C natural.

[2] Brook, G.L., editor. The Harley Lyrics: The Middle English Lyrics of MS. Harley 2253. Manchester UP, 1948, pp. 4-5.

[3] Translation by Susanna Greer Fein (Editor) from the The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, Volume 2  2014 (Robbins Digital Library)

In a wood as I, a stranger, did walk,
I found as companion a very fair prize;
She glistened as gold when it gleams;
Never was a creature so splendid in clothes.
I wished to know who in the world created her,
This bright maiden, if she were willing.
She told me to go away lest she grow angry;
She didn’t wish to hear any lewd proposal.


On My Shelves: How to Read Castles

I cannot speak for others, but I find the single-most difficult element of packing–whether for a holiday, work, or (in this case) house sitting–is always the selecting of books to be lugged hither and thither. I imagine everyone has their general parameters for the process. Mine are:

  1. Some poetry
  2. Some Old English (or Middle English)
  3. Some history
  4. A novel or two
  5. Whatever is required for projects on the go

I know what you’re thinking. “Get a damned Kindle, Kobo, or some such, you troglodytic whinger. Take the whole library with you and shut up about it already.”

I prefer ‘antediluvian’.  I believe I am at least that evolved. Moreover, I am contemplating, not whinging. Furthermore, for the record, I did attempt to join the 21st century by purchasing one of those aforementioned gadgets a few years ago. I made certain it was one of the good ones, supposedly easy on the eyes (in the sense of eye-fatigue and not in the Richard Armitage sense) and all that.  There was only one word for the thing: anathema.

No smell of ink. No texture under the fingertips. No sliding whisper of turning leaves. The thing had no heft (which I know is one of its supposed virtues) and it felt utterly artificial. Most importantly, there was no way to make notes in the margins, so that later one might flip rapidly through and find the bits marked for particularly beautiful passages, bits where one suspected the author had lost her/his mind, bits that onenever wanted to forget but knew one’s memory would mangle within 30 pages or so, bits that one would give somebody else’s kidney to have written, and so on. Before that Kindle/Kobo disaster,  I knew I was a habitual marginalia-ist, but I had no idea how crucial even the possibility of scribbling was to the very act of reading. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Reader, I returned it.

Consequently, I  will happily dedicate a portion of my luggage to books or carry a spine-collapsing backpack, so long as I can have real books with me.  And that returns us to the quagmire of the selection process because those categories cited above are terribly, terribly broad.  I mean, poetry alone takes quite a while. Milton or Tranströmer? Rilke or Stevens? Carson or Moore? Armitage (Simon, that is) or Jennings? What if you’re sacked out on the road somewhere contemplating some singular prospect and decide you need Hopkins and you’ve brought Hill? That’s the stuff of deep, deep dissatisfaction, that is.

Dithering aside, the one advantage of this occasional, excruciating scrutinizing of the bookshelves is the rediscovery of a book that has slipped from conscious memory. This go round, I found Malcolm Hislop’s How to Read Castles: a crash course in understanding fortifications (Bloomsbury). I’d picked up Hislop in Limerick, Ireland more as a reminder of the visit than anything else. I most certainly did not need another book on the types, elements, or history of castles. I believe I spent a happy hour with it in a tea shop, fell asleep over it on the plane, only to completely forget about it after shelving it once I got home. It got lost among counterparts like H. W. Kaufman’s The Medieval fortress: castles, forts and walled cities of the Middle Ages (Da Capo Press), Otto Stimson’s ubiquitous Gothic Cathedrals (Princeton UP), R. A. Stalley’s very useful Early Medieval Architecture (Oxford UP), and then one of my favorites, S. Gardener’s out-of-print  A Guide to English Architecture (Cambridge UP) which I rescued from the bin into which it had been scandalously deaccessioned by a local library. (Such is my affection for this book–particularly Arnold Mitchell’s illustrations–that I am slowly copying it–word and image–by hand.)

Needing an architectural reference for castles for this last trip, I decided to bring Hislop’s  How to read Castles. Its snack-sized entries seemed like perfect porch reading – not exhaustive, but fine details so far as they went. It was an solid pick unlike the New York Times bestseller which I took with me and which I heartlessly abandoned at a local Starbucks. (25 pages of that damage was enough for me. It’s not often I bail, but I bailed. Hype or no hype.)

Once settled with the guide and a G&T on the porch, I remembered why I’d bought Hislop’s guide in the first place. It’s a sweet little encyclopedic thing that begins with the “Grammar” of the Castle, the relationship between function and form, and the general history of these sort of fortifications. No, there’s nothing earth-shattering or new here, but it is tidily brought together. I appreciate that Hislop touches lightly on non-Western European castle building to provide a different angle on roles castles could play in expansion and in warfare, providing a useful (albeit fleeting) reminder that Western Europe didn’t have any corner on the fortification market either in terms of innovation or rigorous application of the technology’s possibilities.

Hislop 120 Batter or Talus

Hislop, p. 120

From there, the book provides a fine visual guide into the details of castles. Ever wonder what the name is for the sloping base of a fortified wall? Wonder no more. If the walls have an angle that A) exposes to hot oil from above any nincompoop with the temerity to scale it, or B) defies the use of battering rams, digging works, and whatnot, then it’s a batter or talus. If it’s just straight up and down and sends out engraved invitations with “Scale me” on them, it’s a curtain wall. Yes, yes. That’s an gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.

Want to distinguish your machiolated turret from your corbelled turret? Of course you do.


When playing Scrabble have you ever put down the word ‘bartizan‘ with the ‘Z’ on the triple letter, only to falter when challenged so that you gave the definition of a ‘barbican‘ by accident? Did the execrable blighter against whom you were playing refuse to give you the points because the word you put down was not the word you defined, despite the fact ‘bartizan’ is STILL A WORD?  Well, don’t make that mistake again. Study the figures below and win that damn game of Scrabble.


Hislop 136-7 Bartizan

Barbican.Hislop Barbican 176-7All straight? Good. This is more important knowledge than you can imagine.

The battlefield of Scrabble aside, Hislop’s book offers practical guidance for those starting their love affair with fortifications, an architectural kama sutra, of sorts. Even if you’re just having a passing holiday fling, you’ll find it useful for getting a sense of practical details that will enable you to “read” the structure at which you’re looking.

Hislop 212 windows mid MA

Take windows, for example. Beyond the mere the change of shape from the semi-circular Romanesque to the lancet shapes of the Gothic and the various foilstresfoil and cinquefoil–Hislop provides hints to how the shape and tracery details of windows may reflect the purpose of the rooms which they illuminated. So, groups of arches were often the “hallmarks” of important chambers like the great hall and chapel. Similarly, while lancet windows were the province of churches in the thirteenth century their use proliferated to castles in the fourteenth. Who doesn’t want to know this while toddling about ruins and such?

Then, for geeks such as myself (because everything written hitherto is without doubt of general interest to everyone) Hislop provides details about stonemasonry and variations on a theme in loopholes. Oh, frabjous day!

The splayed foot. The cross slit. The oillet.


You are, I know, a happier person for that knowledge.

You’re welcome.


Malcolm Hislop, How to Read Castles: A crash course in understanding fortifications. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. London, 2016.






Knights on Walkabout (or marginalia in extremis)

For E.G.

Sweetest and gentlest of godsons, I have to admit that your obsession with Warhammer utterly perplexes me. I’m sparing you the threatened creation of a little rainbow-flatulating sprite that we discussed. While my abiding love of irony means that I do like the notion of a twitty, little sprite wreaking havoc with all your mighty necromancers and vampires, but my heart is not in it. Instead, I give you Hubert, as I have dubbed this sweet little guy from the margins of the Fieschi Psalter.

Forgive me.

I remain,

Your devoted Godmother


When last we saw our embryonic (in no way Byronic) hero, Hubert, the little knight believed that he had at last discovered a manuscript more suited to his chivalrous ambitions than the Fieschi Psalter in which he first been drawn and where his creator had heartlessly consigned him to fighting a snail.

As Hubert was in the Fieschi Psalter. (Baltimore, Walters Gallery, W 45, fol 23r)

Delighted with a French romans brimming over with the chivalrous derring-do of Arthurian knights, Hubert sets about scouring the margins for a place to squeeze himself in. for he knew better than to try and insert himself into any actual tale. (There are rules if one is drawn into the margins. )

Marginalia may mimic the action of the text,

32r romans detail 32r

BNF, Francais 94, f. 32r.

or it may herald action to come.

52v their deeds heralded by umm heralds 52v

BNF, Francais 95, f. 52v.

Trumpets are always good for heralding although it is best not to get carried away.

261r romans no chris botti you do NOT need more sound production

BNF Francais 95, 261r. Here a drôlerie takes its cue from Chris Botti with his excessive sound production.

Sometimes the action in the margins spoofs the main text.

226r not the distaff 226r romans

BNF, Francais 95 v. 226v Oh no! Not a distaff!

Then, of course, there are the times when there seems little or no connection between the text and marginalia. Sometimes it’s just best not to ask (as in any time when pickles make an appearance).

134r romans arthurien 134r cukes in the margins

BNF, Francais 95, f. 134r.

Thus it was our little Hubert found himself wandering from leaf to leaf, looking for a place to call home. Unprotected by proper mail and armed only with a spear and that ludicrous shield with which he’d been drawn, Hubert felt out of place among the knights of the romans‘ margins. Some of them appeared to have traveled to the Far East where they learned Kung Fu.

291r romans when your marginalia has watched too many kung fu movies

BNF, Francais 95, f. 291r

Others illustrated life lessons like why juggling with knives is a pointedly bad idea. (Yes, this is a grotesque and not a proper knight, but the moral of still applies: do not try this at home.)

Yet others demonstrated the lesser known perils of warfare such as crossbowmen getting their feet stuck while loading.

203v romans two lessons not to get your foot stuck and wear gloves handling mss

BNF Francais 95, fl. 203v.  ” Zut a-friggin’-lors!”

138v romans arthurien diabolical expression for someone whose just stolen sheet music

BNF, Francais 95, fl. 138v. Perhaps the page contains the music of the spheres and that has roused this creature’s crazed expression.

Hubert decided to start among less martial figures, only to discover that he felt no more comfortable among the grotesques than he did among the knights.

Indeed, he stumbled across a lion-ed body fellow sporting such a diabolical expression that Hubert was trembled at the thought of what that music might be.

On that very same leaf, the little knight spotted a rabbit whose terrified expression was less than reassuring.

138v romans arthurien 138v S is for scared as in scared rabbit

And no wonder, the beasts in this manuscript got a raw deal.

But then, it appeared that times were perilous for everyone. Particularly everyone’s posterior.

The scenes were such that Hubert began to wonder if fighting snails was truly so disreputable. Tilting with snails seemed no worse than hanging out with indecorous creatures with faces on their bellies; creatures with so little sense as to have two heads and no body at all; couples that…. Well, let’s class that image with the pickles and say no more.

In the end, it was the spectacle of a knight fending off a sword-munching lion whilst an arse-biting dragon attacked from behind that decided the question for Hubert.

292v romans arthuriens some days you just can't win for losing

BNF, Francais 95 f. 292v

“When a fellow can’t win for losing, snails don’t look so bad,” thought Hubert whose enthusiasm for chivalrous brouhaha was rapidly diminishing.

It wasn’t that Hubert minded taking on a lion. He didn’t. It wasn’t that Hubert minded taking on a dragon. He didn’t. But if the illuminator of this manuscript had willfully subjected one knight to both at the same time, there was no trusting the man.*

1 Walters, W 45, fol 23r detail. jpg

Baltimore, Walters Gallery, W 45, fol 23r detail.

With a touch of nostaligia, Hubert remembered the dragons of his old psalter. They might chew on a decorative capital, but not on bottoms.

And yes, admitted Hubert, some the creatures in that old psalter might not had no more sense than to have two bodies sharing one head. In such cases, however, they knew better than to tamper with the action and played their decorative role with suitable decorum.

Baltimore, Walters Gallery Fieschi Psalter W. 45 fol. 196 r detail

Baltimore, Walters Gallery Fieschi Psalter, W.45 fol. 143 r babewyn

Baltimore, Walters Gallery Fieschi Psalter, W.45 fol. 143 r

As for the babewyns, grotesques, or drôleries (what you will), Hubert could not recall one instance of them gripping on like a lamprey eel to anyone’s backside. In fact, his memory of them was as fairly shy and retiring, not unlike an opossum.baltimore-walters-gallery-fieschi-psalter-w.-45-fol.-196-r.jpg

Alright. Birds might not be totally safe. Fair enough. But birds aren’t bottoms, and as he stared about the folio of the romans where he found himself, Hubert decided to put his backside first.

Before he left the romans, however, Hubert found a knight who’d been knocked unconscious, stripped him clean of his armor, and stole a shield free of decorative smiling faces.

Whatever the psalter threw at him this time, he was prepared.

Walters, Fieschi Psalter, W. 45 fol 82v

Walters, Fieschi Psalter, W. 45 fol 82v

*Given the provenance of the manuscript, the illuminator was most likely a man.)

Adventures in the Margins

Just as children wonder what their stuffed animals do after the lights go out, I frequently wonder what those figures in the margins do after the codex is closed. I would like to think something much like the following perambulations of a nameless knight in the margins whom I’m dubbing Hubert.

It was a horrible position for a self-respecting knight to find himself in. It wrapped  humiliation and ludicrousness all up in one neat-if rather slimy-package.

Admittedly, Hubert’s creator had drawn him into the margins of Psalter where humility is all well and good. Despite this, Hubert felt absolute certainty that carrying a shield with a smiley face on it and facing off against a snail was not the thing. If the plan is to nab oneself some escargot, then a little toothpick of a spear will serve the purpose. Otherwise, a knight wants a sword.

And some proper mail. Hubert really did feel his martial accoutrements were inadequate. For heaven’s sake, he’d seen a woman on another leaf carrying a proper sword as she challenged a dragon with a seven-headed tail.2-baltimore-walters-gallery-fieschi-psalter-w.-45-fol.-256-v-maiden-vs-dragon.jpg

Baltimore, Walters Gallery, Fieschi Psalter W. 45, 256v


Alright. She wasn’t a proper woman, not with those green lion’s legs, but the less said of that sort of thing, the better. It was a rule of the margins not to hold one’s fellows responsible for some mad illuminator’s whimsy.3-baltimore-walters-gallery-fieschi-psalter-w.45-fol.-166v-tres-curieux-indeed.jpg

Baltimore, Walters Gallery Fieschi Psalter, W.45,166v

Fight with one’s fellows? Certainly.

Make rude gestures? Absolutely.

Look away? Frequently and quickly.

Judge them? No. (Très curieux, indeed.)

A good clobbering generally sufficed.

Thus is was that Hubert resolved to find himself more chivalric prospects, by making his way into another manuscript. After some searching, and so he made his way into romans arthuriens. [1]  Here, Hubert thought–among works like Le livre de Lancelot du Lac, La queste del Graal, and La mort au roy Artu–his martial possibilities would improve. He would find a good page, a better, snail-free page, and make a home for himself.

Wandering through the romans, Hubert encountered the usual random assortment of babewyns and drôleries that monkey about in the margins and hang off the decorative caps like so many stockings off the chandelier after a blow-out. After his more reverential setting among the Psalms, Hubert found himself taken aback by inordinate amount of violence involving backsides.

Still, into the heart of the pages, Hubert saw the sort of thing that made his heart pound with hope.

This was the way knights are supposed to behave.  They fight. They fight more, and then, for something different, they fight more.

Over a hundred folia later, they’re still fighting.

166r the word you're looking for is OW 166r romans

166r the word you’re looking for is OW

186v a hundred folia later still fighting 186v romans

186v Yup. Still fighting.

Hubert was in heaven. Of course, Hubert knew that that chivalric code consisted of more than just fighting. After all, a good knight only has a good night if he fights for the right thing. And the best knights are protected by the BVM and dream of martial deeds.

33v all good knights r protected by the BVM and dream martial dreams detail 33v romans arthurien


And if they dream of falling, they are caught by seraphim.



Of course, there were the occasional indulgences (the fleshly sort, not the faux penitential-bring on the Reformation! sort). There is always the risk of Bad Dancing or bullying. Sometimes its hard to tell the different unless you actually read the text, and Hubert wasn’t much interested in the story at this point.33v bad dancing in the romans arthurien 33v


Then, there is always the ceremonial coming to fisticuffs while putting up the pavilion.

226r u tell me to to put my left foot in and do the hokey pokey 1 more time rather than helping me with this tent 226r romans

226r. “If you tell me to put my left foot in and do the hokey pokey one more time instead of helping me with this pavilion, I’m going….



The occasional misjudgement about drinking and riding….

138v romans arthurien 138v is he supposed to look that way


And then, there are the women. Sometimes they even marry them albeit reluctantly.152r i said shake hands and make up romans arthuriens 152r

152r. “Wait. What? Did you just say man and wife?”

All in all, it was more promising than not. No smiley face shields and, most importantly, no snails.

[1] You can’t possibly be seriously wanting a rational explanation for how a knight in the marginalia of the Fieschi Psalter W. 45 (Walters Art Museum of Baltimore, Maryland) found himself in BNF, Francais 95 (Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris).   Imagine a Terry Pratchettian explanation of the content of every book, codex, stone, or papyri anywhere existing on a its own space-time continuum.  Right? Right. Back to Hubert.

NEXT WEEK: Hubert heads to the margins of his new romans to find himself a place to call home.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain

From the first page of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae,  BNF  Latin 8501A fol. 63v. “Britain, best of islands…”

I have avoided reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain for years, many years. Never understanding the allure of all the Arthurian nonsense, I did not see the point in dedicating time to a work dedicated to putting Arthur’s reign and derring-do at the center of early British history. I’d read William of Newburgh’s damning assessment of his near contemporary chronicler.  He savages Kings of Britain as historical flummery at best, romantical codswallop at worst. Thus, Geoffrey’s book sat neglected on my shelf amongst other chroniclers who seemed a worthier investment of time Henry of Huntingdon, Usama Ibn Mundiqh, Jean de Joinville and Geoffroy de Villehardouin, and their ilk. I only picked up Geoffrey’s History recently because I was on a very specific hunt.

Illstr copy Geoffrey of Monmouth Kings of Britain

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae,  BNF  Latin 8501A fol. 108v 12th cent 2nd 1/2)

I kept reading because of the recommendation of Geoffrey’s translator[1] Lewis Thorpe that those those skeptical of Geoffrey’s utility approach the work as they do the Aeneid and Odyssey, not at history, but epic.[2] History does, as Thorpe writes, occasionally “peep” through the fiction, but the sweep of the story certainly feels more fictional—both epic and romantic–to me than it does historic.[3] For some reason, that adjustment of expectations made a world of difference.

Geoffrey’s is a winding but not wandering account of the history of Britain’s kings from its fictional founder Brutus (son of Silvius, the son of Ascanius, the son of Aeneas) down to Cadwallader. If Troy was destroyed around 1240 BC and Cadwallader died in 689 AD, then our lad Geoffrey bites off quite a mouthful. Still, he maintains a compelling tone and rhythm. His history is intermittently interrupted by proverbial asides that lend both color and moral portent to the gazillionth battle between the Romans and the Britons:

“However it is easier for a kite to be made to act like a sparrow-hawk than for a wise man to be fashioned at short notice from a peasant. He who offers any depth of wisdom to such a person is acting as though he were throwing a pearl among swine.”[4]

Geoffrey’s slandering of peasants here is it turns out, a whole lot better than what the course of events threw at them:

“In opposition to them [them being everybody and their brother from the North of the Isle and Scandinavia who decided to attack the Britons after Rome took off], slow-witted peasants were posted on the top of the walls, men useless in battle, who were unable even to run away for the very palpitation of their bellies, and who shook with fear through the days and nights on top of their stupid perches. Meanwhile the enemy continued to ply their hooked weapons, dragging the miserable plebs down from the walls with them, so that they were dashed to the ground. The very suddenness of the death they endured was a stroke of luck to those who were killed in this way, for by their immediate execution they avoided the miserable torments which awaited their brothers and their children.”[5]

Right riveting stuff. When Geoffrey touches on the pusillanimity of the Britons in this section, it’s impossible not to think of Gildas’ De excidio Britanniae. Geoffrey never gets mouth-frothingly apoplectic as does Gildas, but then Geoffrey wrote in the twelfth century and not the sixth as did Gildas, and so Geoffrey had more time to reconcile himself to the waning of British glory before the onslaught of treacherous Saxons and domineering Angles. Indeed, by Geoffrey’s time, the Normans had settled in like the pox to make their mark upon the island. Ah, the Normans: proof positive that things can always get worse. Always.

“What more can I say?” asks Geoffrey after the Romans leave the Britons to fend for themselves.

The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.

For the edification of anyone is thinking that, aside from that whole ‘Trojans take Britain’ thing, the narrative here looks respectably historical, I hold up as exhibit B: The Prophecies of Merlin. Despite my lack of interest in Merlin and Arthur (the two of whom never meet in Geoffrey’s text), I will admit to being quite taken with the prophecies of Merlin. Figures like “the Boar of Commerce,” “the Dragon of Worchester,” and “the Ass of Wickedness” give the prophecies a what-kind-of-mushroom-did-you-eat-and-are-you-sure-it’s-not-going-to-kill-you quality. A sampling will suffice.

“An Ass shall call to itself a long-bearded Goat and then will change shapes with it. As a result the Mountain Bull will lose its temper: it will summon the Wolf and then transfix the Ass and the Goat with its horn. Once it has indulged its savage rage upon them, it will eat up their flesh and their bones, but the Ox itself will be burned up on the summit of Urianus. The ashes of its funeral pyre shall be transmuted into Swans, which will sim away upon dry land as though in water. These Swans will eat up fish inside fish and they will swallow men inside men. When they become old they will take the shape of Sea-wolves and continue their treacherous behavior beneath the sea. They will sink ships and so gather together quite a treasure-house of silver.”[6]

Who needs apoplectic diatribe when you have phantasmagoric soothsaying?

After all the startling figures who populate the prophecies—from the “Foster-daughter of the Scourger” and the “Horned Dragon” to the “Farmer from Albany” to the drunken Lion, the prophecies take a decidedly cosmic and apocalyptic turn. I rather wish Geoffrey’s book ended here rather than continuing on as it does to the rise of Arthur and his inevitable betrayal followed by the fall and scattering of the Britons. The prophecies conclude thusly:

“Roots and branches shall change their places and the oddness of this will pass for a miracle.

Before the amber glow of Mercury the bright light of the Sun shall grow dim and this will strike horror into those who witness it. The planet Mercury, born in Arcady, shall change its shield; and the Helmet of Mars shall call to Venus. The Helmet of Mars shall cast a shadow and in its rage Mercury shall over-run its orbit. Iron Orion shall bare its sword. The watery Sun shall torment the clouds. Jupiter shall abandon its pre-ordained paths and Venus desert its appointed circuits. The malice of the planet Saturn will pour down like rain, killing mortal men as though with a curved sickle. The twelve mansions of the stars will weep to see their inmates transgress so. The Gemini will cease their wonted embraces and will dispatch Aquarius to the fountains. The scales of Libra will hang awry, until Aries props them up with its curving horns. The tail of Scorpio shall generate lightning and Cancer will fight with the Sun. Virgo shall climb on the back of Sagittarius and so let droop its maiden blossoms. The moon’s chariot shall run amok in the Zodiac and the Pleiades will burst into tears. None of these will return to the duty expected of it. Ariadne will shut its door and be hidden within its enclosing cloudbanks.

In the twinkling of an eye the seas shall rise up and the arena of the winds shall be opened once again. The winds shall do battle together with a blast of ill-omen, making their din reverberate from one constellation to another.”[7]

Creation itself seems almost to move in reverse as if the voice of God over the waters were now withdrawing. The prophecies conclude with the majesty and mournfulness of the heavens collapsing as the constellations trip and fall out of their established courses. (Anyone who has ever read C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle will wonder with me if Lewis didn’t get the ideas for Narnia’s end from these lines.) No inscrutable bulls or mystifying farmers can diminish the gravitas of these final prophecies.  We may not weep with the Pleiades, but it’s impossible not to feel the tug of grief here for a world that will indeed be coming down around the Britons’ ears by the end of the book.

In short, do not pick up The History of the Kings of Britain for history, but for a window  into how Geoffrey (and his source-author) saw their nation and age as a part of larger human landscape. There is a deep dignity to Geoffrey’s dream of Britain. After all, how we tell the story of our past reflects the landscape of our heart. It reflects the world as we wish it might be, even if that reflection is per speculum in enigmate.

[1] Yes. I was being lazy.  All quotes hereafter from: Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History o the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe. Penguin, Clays Ltd. 1966.

[2] p 28.

[3] p 19.

[4]  p 146.

[5] p 147.

[6] p 180.

[7] pp 184-185.

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.


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.


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?


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.)


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….