On the Virtues: Maps, Maps, and More Maps. Pt. 2

Honestly, I don’t know where early cartographers got the gumption to put quill to parchment. I’m constantly tweaking the map for the country in my books. For example, caves play a large part in the second book, and that raises all sorts of geological and geographical questions:

  • Have I set the caves at too high an altitude for the average temperature needed inside?
  • Is a karst landscape even possible in this part of Europe?
  • Will anybody get as worked up about the possible inaccuracy of saltpetre mines in this region?

I sit down with great determination only to have ink dry repeatedly on my nib whilst I dither. (Don’t even get me started on trebuchets and the concomitant questions related to physics.)

Without a doubt, medieval cartographers were made of sterner stuff than yours truly. I mean, one has to be made of stern stuff to be able to commit oneself to a creating a map of the world that is 5’2” x 4’4”. Those are the measurements of the magnificent, thirteenth-century Hereford Mappa Mundi (Fig. 1). The Hereford MM’s grand scale reflects the grandeur of the scale of the places and events depicted. Whatever the Hereford’s makers were made of, I want to be reconstituted with that.

A first glance at the circular shape of the map might mislead the viewer into thinking that its makers laid out the geography in question geographically, A second glance simultaneously corrects that illusion and confounds the reader.

Hereford Digital Mappa

Fig. 1 Hereford Mappa Mundi, 13th cent. https://www.themappamundi.co.uk/index.php (Fig. 2).

The confusion arises in part because, little as it might seem, mappæ mundi like the Hereford are in many ways variations of the T-O maps from the last post (e.g. Fig 2). While the Hereford MM proceeds through multiple layers of geography, those layers are arranged in the same overall scheme as a simple T-O: various layers of Asia are supported by various layers op Europe  on the left and Africa on the right.

If the simple T-O maps sought to orient the reader to the world at large with respect to important biblical history, mappæ mundi like the Hereford take that objective to the next level. The image of Christ in Majesty at the top of the Hereford MM makes explicit what the eastern orientation of T-O maps imply: that all the world and its unfolding history is moving toward one, great end under Christ. Think of it as teleological cartography. So, when the mapmakers included their little city of Hereford alongside important sites from Constantinople to Compostela this signified to medieval Herefordian that she or he was every bit a part of that same glorious, messy, and holy world history as folks from the Garden of Eden and the Exodus (which also make an appearance on the map).

In keeping with the role of mappæ mundi to evocatively map history as well as geography, the Hereford MM includes figures from mythology (e.g. Jason of the golden fleece) and history (Alexander the Great) alike. Marvelous beasts and monstrous races are scattered across the whole, indicating the wonders to be found throughout the wide world. The view can see a charming elephant, or cross-eyes monoceros (unicorn) or even a rather doggy-looking camel (Figs. 3-5).

Delightful as the various beasts are, I have to confess that I chiefly delight in the Hereford’s monsters. The map contains many of the same wonders treated in “popular” Latin and Old English texts, such as Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle, the Liber Monstrorum De Diversis Generibus (A book of monsters of various kinds), and the Wonders of the East. The Old English translation of Wonders found in the Beowulf manuscript contains a description of the mythical Cynocephali or dog-headed men.

Eac swylce þær beoð cende Healfhundingas ða syndon hatene Conopoenas. Hi habbað horses manan 7 eoferes tucxas 7 hunda heafda 7 heora oruð byð swylce fires lig. Þas land beoð neah ðam burgum þe beoð eallum woruldwelum gefylled, þæt is on þa suð healfe Ægiptna landes.

“Also there are born there half-dogs who are called Conopenæ. They have horses’ manes and boar’s tusks and dogs’ heads and their breath is like a fiery flame. Those lands are near the cities which are filled with all the worldly wealth: that is, in the south of Egypt.” [1]

Wondering what dog-headed men look like? Wondering where to find cities filled with worldly treasure? Wonder no more (Fig. 6). Alright, these “men” aren’t breathing fire, and there are no tusks to be found, but there’s no debating the dogginess of those heads.


Fig. 6.  Cynocephali

Yes, yes, the Hereford has them nearer Norway than Egypt but then, Norway seems to have gotten itself into the wrong place on the map anyway.  It’s all a bit of a muddle, but it’s a charming muddle.

Among the other unique people making appearances both on the Hereford and in the Wonders of the East are the Blemmyes  (Fig. 7).


Fig. 7. Blemmyes.

If Wonders of the East is to be trusted, these Blemmyes (unnamed in the text) are apparently perfectly square as well as headless:

Đonne is oðer ealand suð fram Brixonte on þam beoð men akende butan heafdum, þa habbaþ on heora breostum eagan 7 muð. Hi syndan eahta fota lange 7 eahta fota brade.

“Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have eyes and mouth in their chest. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.” [2]

Given that description, one rather expects something approximating a medieval SpongeBob SquarePants, but the makers of the Hereford spared us that image. (There are times when departing from the text really is a good thing.)

To a modern mind with preconceptions of either “Dark Age” ignorance or suspicions of religious homogeneity, I suppose, the juxtaposition of the mythical and monstrous beside the known or sacred might seem a bit jarring. It might even seem to confirm ignorance.  For my part, the fact that such juxtapositions were not odd to medievals is one of the reasons I am so fond of the cultural productions from this time. If a little marvel creeps in from the margins, it’s not the end of the world because the world is still being figured out and everything finds its place.


For a far less frivolous treatment of the Hereford, its contents, and sources, go to Cartographic Images, http://cartographic-images.net/Cartographic_Images/226_The_Hereford_Mappamundi.html

[1] The Wonders of the East, in Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, ed. & trans. Andy Orchard. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1995, pp. 188-189.

[2] ibid., 192-193.



On the Virtues of Maps, Maps, and More Maps. Pt. 1

I am not, I know, the only person to have vexed relationship with her GPS. Being sent to major highways for the “fastest route” when a local byway really would be more efficient is a ubiquitous GPS violation. Recently, however, my mobile’s GPS has started pranking me, sending me off unnecessary exits, and even changing the destination. Imagine Hansel and Gretel’s bag o’ crumbs starts laughing at them, “MWAH HAH HAH!” and snaking towards the wicked witch’s house. That’s my GPS.

Last week, on one of the few and excruciating occasions when I had to drive into Boston, a traffic snafu sent me digging around with one hand for the mobile, trying to get in the damn password, and speak in my destination, all the while dutifully swearing at and being sworn at by other drivers.[1] Within a few miles of hitting “GO,” my voice joined the choir of anguished souls screaming into the ether.

“Wait! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! Not Rutherford Circle! Holy Saint Æthelthryth, how did I get here? How do I get out? Stupid GPS! I’m gonna diiiiiieeeeee!”

I leave the expletives to my readers’ rich and fertile imaginations.

Thus, I expect that it has always been, in sæcula sæculorum. Just as we curse the GPS on our mobiles, countless navigators over countless ages have undoubtedly cursed out cartographers or compass-makers.[2] Imagine the poor Viking who’d made holiday plans for Turks and Caicos only to find himself staring at the rocky coast of Newfoundland. [Please, read the following in a voice that is equal parts Yosemite Sam and the Swedish Chef.]

“If I ever get my hands on Cnut Redthumb, I’m gonna rip that laggard limb from limb! I knew I should have bought the map off of Harald Bluetooth.”

Of course, it goes without saying that anyone dumb enough to buy a map from Cnut Redthumb only has himself to blame: everyone who was anyone in medieval seafaring knew better than to trust Redthumb’s maps. [3]

When it comes to medieval maps, it is not so much a matter of all maps not being created equal, so much as maps being created for different purposes, which is not so different from maps today. I, for example, love caves and the maps thereof, like the map of Wind Cave National Park (Fig. 1) which adorns the wall by my desk. However usefully and beautifully it displays the multiple and intersecting layers of the cave system, were one to attempt navigating the surrounding upper world with it, one would roundly deserve to be trampled by any of the massive bison which inhabit that park. I am a firm believer in stupidity being its own reward.

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Many of the maps that populated the cartographic landscape of the middle ages require the adjustment of expectation. Where we have topographic maps and the like to help us better understand our physical geography, medievals had schematic alternatives like T-O maps which laid out their religious geography (see Fig. 2). When readers encountered maps where the waters of the Mediterranean, Nile, and Tanis formed a ‘T’ separating other parts of the known world like Africa, Asia, and Europe, they knew where they stood, so to speak. (It may help to notice in reading this map that East is uppermost.)

TO St Gall

Figure 2. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 236, p. 89 – Isidorus, Etymologiarum liber XI- XX. 92nd century

So, readers of Isidore’s Etymologiæ who came upon this map of the lands of Noah’s sons after the flood would never have dreamt of navigating physically with such a map. That wasn’t its point. Like all good T-O’s it provided readers with a rough schema of how the world they knew of related to the world of scripture and the history therein.

Where T-O maps are pretty sparse, other medieval maps present the world, or sections of it, in far more detail. Fig. 3 is by one of my favorite medieval English artists, the thirteenth-century Benedictine monk, Matthew Paris. I will sing Paris’ praises in another post. They deserve to be sung. For now, consider his map.

Matthew Paris Map

Figure 3. Matthew Paris’ Map of the British Isles. Cotton MS Claudius D. vi. f. 12 v. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi!1_f012r

With its strongly delineated rivers and abundant cities, Paris’ map shows England as a beehive of development. Sure, you couldn’t find your way from A to B with it, but this map tells you that the journey would be worth it because there’s a lot to see at both points. Looking at this map, the rivers seem to pulse like veins through the heart of England, which, I suppose, is both truth and fancy. And I defy anyone not to be smitten by the way that Cornwall (or Cornubia in Latin) is trying to make a break for it across the Celtic Sea.

A contrasting English map (though not a map of England) shows just how different maps can. The Cotton Map (Fig. 4), was drawn in the eleventh century, some two hundred years before Paris drew up his. Like its more schematic T-O cousins, the Cotton map is oriented with the East on the top. The maker of the Cotton map provides more detail about what is important in the different parts of the world. If it’s not as generally accurate as Paris’ map, we can say that everything stays respectably within the borders. (If you’re looking for the British Isles, they’re in the bottom left.)

Throughout the Middle Ages, there are a variety of world maps such as the Cotton Map. On them, we find the traces of the delight medievals took in parts far-flung, in wild stories, and in the mythic histories of the wider world.

I’ll come back to those wild and wider stories in the next post with the mother of all mappæ mundi (maps of the world): the Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi. Where Cotton map’s is home to one solitary lion in the East, the Hereford is chock full of beasts natural and un-.

[1] In Boston, swearing is cosmologically as well as existentially necessary. If a Bostonian drives without swearing, it actually messes with the space-time continuum.

[2] We’ll completely leave out word-of-mouth directions like “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.” I mean, what the dickens kind of directions are those? Forget the fact that “right” is relative based upon which way one faces. Forget, moreover, the fact that the stars dance around, so that second star to the right is going to be different in December than it is in July. Morning?! Are we talking break of day? Full dawn or perhaps full-on morning? This is the kind of directional negligence lawsuits are made of.

[3] This is a gross lie. I leave it to my readers whether the gross lie is a) the slander of Cnut; b) the existence of Cnut; c) the idea that any self-respecting Viking would content himself with talk of laggards and limb ripping; or d) all of the above.

A wider-ranging and decidedly less idiosyncratic take on medieval maps can be found on the British Library’s Maps and Views blog.

Of Tropes and Truth

I do not know how to tell my story without my mother being central to it despite the fact that I have lived over half my life without her. She died two days after I turned fifteen. In many ways, absence and loss have been the defining forces in my life, and while that sounds grim and negative, it has not been. At least not entirely so.

Fairy tales and the like sometimes incur criticism for the pervasive tropes of motherless children and wicked stepmothers because these so often pit woman against woman. When I write, however, I cannot escape narratives that reflect the shaping of identity against a motherless landscape, a landscape of mourning and absence. I have found absence a strange gift. Everything about it is Janus-faced. Absence creates space, room to grow without imposition, but also without guidance. One can wander out to explore a new horizon, but where does one look for the home light to find one’s way in the darkness? It is a wide horizon.

Loss forces one to work with the terrain of memory. Like a garden to which one returns after years away, crouching down in the dirt, one may find blossoms that had been loved, and yet long forgotten. All around those suddenly remembered loves bloom plants and flowers that one does not recognize, and the memory struggles to make sense of the juxtaposition. One touches the strange flower and wonders if it had been carefully planted by long-gone hands and forgotten, or merely blown in on a wind. One can weave a narrative to make sense of what one comes across, but doubt tickles the memory, and in this way, absence proves both fruitful and treacherous.



One Sunday afternoon a few years ago, I went to tinker at the piano. Weary of the stuff that litters my Mason & Hamlin upright, I went to the shelves which hold my mother’s music. Much of it has never been opened as my mother’s taste diverged from mine. Where she loved playing Liszt and Chopin, I have always gravitated towards Scriabin and 20th-century Russian composers. Different loves notwithstanding, I have kept her music, carrying it with me through many a move, all of it every piece of it with her elegant signature on the front cover. Almost at random, I picked Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte (Songs without Words).



Aside from the loss of my mother who was a very fine musician, piano is intimately related to loss for me, on many levels. As a child, I allowed myself one dream: to be good enough to play chamber music with my sisters, one a violist, the other a cellist. By the time I was fourteen and getting good enough to mangle the Andante Cantabile movement of Schumann’s piano quartet in E flat major, any dream of chamber music with my sisters was dead. Indeed, my sisters’ dreams of music had been finished off by their own arms and hands steadily falling apart. One sister barely made it through her master’s recital, the other had to take off a semester off from conservatory.  In some ways, I was fortunate that my arm problems began at sixteen. I had no illusions. Indeed, it would be many, many years before I let myself indulge in a dream again.

Fast forward back to that Sunday afternoon, decades after all of this. I sat down with  Mendelssohn and began sight-reading. (Let the record show that I am a rubbish sight-reader. Noted? Good. We continue.) Now, some pieces of my mother’s music, I remember my mother playing. These are not among them, and from the style of her signature on the front cover, I think that she played this particular music when she was a younger woman, perhaps before I was born. Even so, as I played it was as if I heard my mother playing. In those pieces, I heard my mother’s “voice” more clearly than I had since her death, and so, I played for as long as my hands held out, unwilling to let go of that strange and beautiful conversation. It was not until the next day that I realized that the Sunday had been Mother’s Day.

I continue to work through the Lieder Ohne Worte for the conversations that I find there. Odd as it may sound, the practicing and interpretation of these pieces in poetry has allowed me to contemplate my mother as a woman and not just as my mother. Like a chord that does not resolve or a piece in an aching minor key, absence and loss offer up a strange gift that keeps one’s ear cocked for what may be as well as what might have been.

The following came from working on what is probably my favorite of all Mendelssohn’s Lieder.

Opus 67, No. 2

Search as I might the corners of my mind,
I find no trace of your voice,
for all the years I tuned my heart to its key.
Placidity, weariness, pain.
Straining across the silent years
I wonder what you heard in mine,
what you listened for.

We learn to speak as to walk, a rush
of testing syllables, a flurry of wobbling
words. Tongues do not catch fire.
Ours is no sudden gift, but a slow falling
into place whereby faltering tongue and whirling
thought lock and turn like gears
of muscle and joint, nerve and bone.

Syllable tumbles after syllable
propelled by sheer momentum.
We have monologues in tandem,
mistaking speech for conversation.
Only slowly do we learn to listen around
the words for the rise and rush of breath,
the varied shapes in a silence,
the color of some hesitation.

And so this last, strange modulation:
no longer the child storming to be heard
but a woman longing to listen,
I am left in silence wishing only that
woman to woman we might truly hear.
one another–whatever might be said.

O is for Oatmeal

Field Notes, Installment II.

Somewhere around the second or third day of her travels, someone directed the girl to seek out the Snættlyng.

“‘E’s an odd creature,” warned the man after a moment.

“Odd how?” asked the girl. “Odd-dangerous as in ears that face both ways and poisonous spurs on its heels, or odd-strange as in eats cheese scones loaded with elderberry jam?”

“What’s odd about that? Though I prefer grape meself,” returned the man. Looking more closely at the girl, he sniffed and added, “Well, you may not find ‘im odd. Bookish little type ‘e is. Never without a pile of ’em. Never seen the point of ’em myself. ‘Cept as doorstops.”

“I like books,” said the girl.

“There you have it,” said the man, his deepest suspicions confirmed. “Jus’ yer cup o’ tea.”

She parted from the man, jotting down the directions he gave her with a little question mark beside the information received, for she could not bring herself to trust people who ate grape jelly. (And who can blame her?)

Suspicions of grape jelly notwithstanding, the man’s directions proved accurate enough, and the girl found the Snættlyng. O is for Oatmeal signedIt had made a little fire for itself to heat a kettle of water, and while the girl saw scones laid out, there was no grape jelly to be seen, so that her hopes of sensible conversation rose at once.

The Snættlyng was a peculiar little creature with neat, polished tusks and a pert, violet nose. Its linen coat was pressed and it had a wine-colored cravat and dark green shoes. When it spoke, the Snættlyng did so with a slight slurping sound, as if not entirely in control of its tongue. The two shared a very pleasant cup of tea despite the fact the tea was black as mud and the creature could not stop apologizing for the fact that there was no milk and there were no biscuits.

“Ginger bithcuits,” mourned the Snættlyng, “are my favorite. I’m very thorry I cannot offer you any. I thought I’d packed thome in my thatchel, but I picked up a penthil bockth by mithtake. Alath.”

Try as she might, none of the girl’s assurances that the tea was sufficient comforted the creature, and their conversation continued to be peppered with intermittent lamentations over the lack of biscuits.

As they talked, the Snættlyng (whose name, the girl learned, was Livy) squinted at its companion in a manner that made the girl fear she had something on her nose or in her teeth.* Still, if both were a little self-conscious, it did not prevent them from having a long and pleasant conversation, and it was from the Snættlyng that the girl first heard of the Master of the Menagerie.

“Oh my,” said the Snættlyng, “if it’th odd creatureth you’re after, then you want the Mathter of the Menagerie. Hith collecthion ith famouth! Oh no, my dear. I’ve never met him mythelf. I don’t go that far afield. It’th true that one hearthe odd thingth about him, but then, people are tho critical. I wouldn’t pay any attenthion to rumorth if I were you. Theek him out, then come back and tell me all about it. Thith hath been delightful!”

Regrettably, the Snættlyng had no information to provide his guest on how to find this Master of the Menagerie, but it assured her that the Master’s collection of the unique and peculiar was so famous that if she continued on, she would be sure to find someone who could direct her.  So, the girl said her goodbyes to the Snættlyng, stopping after she was out of sight to write down a description of the little creature. Just as she was about to close her notebook, the girl remembered something else and scribbled ,

“Bring ginger bithcuits biscuits and milk next time.”

*Editor’s Notes:

  1. The Snættlyng thought the girl rather odd for the way she kept raising her handkerchief before her nose and mouth. It suspected that she had false teeth which were giving her trouble and felt very, very badly for her.
  2. After longer acquaintance, the girl learned that the Snættlyng suffered from near terminal nearsightedness; and although the creature would rather have eaten oatmeal (which it loathed) for the rest of its life than admit to it, the Snættlyng was entirely dependent upon the thick spectacles which it had swiftly stowed in its satchel at any visitor’s approach. The Snættlyng never wanted its visitors to feel as if they were “under the microscope” of its lenses.

Sort of the Middle Ages, or ‘When Characters Go Their Own Road’

If Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary was to blame for my starting an alternate history for the Anglo Saxons after the entrance of William the Bastard, then Shakespeare is utterly to blame for screwing up my timeline. Blasted Bard. I am, however, getting ahead of myself.

My plan for the storyline for my books was neat and tidy. Alright, that’s rather misleading. It was sprawling but wholly medieval, and that–so far as I’m concerned–is better than neat and tidy any day. After all, who doesn’t love sprawling? Okay, some people, but not me. And medieval? I’ve got that covered like jam on bread. While I am far, far, far from knowing everything I’d like to, much less need to, about the Middle Ages (talk about sprawling), I do know how to research and find the needful. As I started the first book, drawing up maps and family trees as I went along, I came head to head with a product of my own imagination, and that’s when the problems started as I have, since childhood, lost every battle against my imagination.

Only having lived with my own, I don’t know how other people’s imaginations work. I’m sure I’m not unique in having an imagination that forces me to do things its way. This time, however, I decided would be different.

Everyone, I expect, remembers that silly scene in Sleeping Beauty where the fairies fight over the color of Aurora’s dress. Well, when I was small, that scene filled me with envy. Oh, not for the dress. I had no interest whatsoever in the dress. I wanted the wand, or rather a wand in the form of a less literal imagination. I wanted an imagination that would do what I wanted because mine was so desperately concrete. If I, for example, imagined myself in some fanciful costume (something à la Edmund Dulac whose illustrations I adored), I could never just re-imagine my dress into something else. Instead, I had to imagine myself actually taking off the dress and putting something else on. So, if I tried to mentally change the color of a dress—Red to gold. Red to gold—I could concentrate as hard as I liked. My imagination fought back.

“The dress is red, my girl, and red it shall stay. If you want a gold dress, then go to the closet and get yourself a gold one. This one’s not changing.”

My imagination could conjure a new closet. It probably would have conjured a vat of dye for me to dye the dress in the manner of Cassandra in I Capture the Castle, but allow me to simply transform it? No, and no again. Once created, the thing was its own, and my powers over it became extremely limited. To this day, I envy those doggone fairies, for I’m still the one who has to bend when coming up against my creations.

In fact, one of my relatively well-behaved characters forced me to change the chronology of my books entirely. I had planned on setting the first one, Liber Collisionum (A Book of Collisions), squarely in the Middle Ages, 15th century at the absolute latest. Then, Sebastian, who is not even the central character of that book, started quoting Shakespeare.

Talk to the hand Annunciation Louvres 12th cent

The original “Talk to the Hand” sign, from a 12th century Annunciation Scene (Louvres, Paris)

Did my character have the good manners to restrain himself?

To speak when spoken to?

To not quote anachronistic authors?

Did he not care that I’m a Medievalist, not an Early Modernist?

Do I need another rhetorical question to make the point?

He may not have been the central character of that book, but he was central to the relationships and plot, so I could not eliminate him. Well, I’m the writer and he’s my character, and I wasn’t about to realign my whole timeline to the Early Modern area just because one character had a penchant for Shakespeare. Early Modern is not my area. So, out came that Shakespeare. Only when I tried cutting out the Shakespeare, Sebastian fought back with the I’m-just-going-to-lie-here-on-the-page-and-see-how-you-like-it tactic. The boy might as well have said, “Vocavisti. Veni. Nunc erigis avem.” (“You called. I came. Now, I’m flipping you the bird.”) I could do nothing with him.

I did the only thing I could: I fiddled with space and time in order that Sebastian might return to his normal, insouciant self. Of course, by the end of that first book, his insouciance takes a real beating, but that regrettable circumstance is as unavoidable as the boy’s Shakespeare habit. We’ll see how he makes it through book two (of which he is the central character). Things are looking grim at the moment for him, poor lamb.

Rebellious characters, a fighting imagination, and fiddling about with space and time. Somebody’s got to do it.

On My Shelves: the fugitive and ubiquitous

I expect that for many people, libraries serve as a favorite ‘second home.’ For some, that home may be the tried and true library of one’s academic institution. For others, it will be the library that houses the particular book or item that is the current object of desire. [Scribal rant: For crying out loud Northshore Interlibrary Loan, you told me I was third in the queue for series one of The Good Place in January. January! It’s June!] And yes, dear reader, that momentary rant means that I do not “do” Netflix, Hulu, or any such. I’ll pay for books, but I will not pay for TV, and that brings us back to the subject at hand. Books, books, books, and the purchase thereof.

Being generally curious as well as thoroughly acquisitive where books are concerned, I have a fairly eclectic personal library. From books on the medieval and renaissance spice trade to guides on the flora and fauna of the Alps, from Ottoman poetry to the geology of caves, from books on the history of the peony to histories of typefaces, my natural profligacy is contained by two things alone: budget and space. I’m currently working on insulating my bedroom with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I’ll let everyone know how it works out next winter.

Some of my favorites books are catalogues from museum exhibitions.  The best catalogues distill a remarkable amount of scholarship about the objects’ or artists’ period and importance, and they do it with pictures! Or more correctly, for the pedants among you, plates. There are a few museums that I cannot seem to visit without leaving loaded down by new treasures (all legally acquired from the bookstore). The Musée de Cluny in Paris, for example, has dented my wallet repeatedly.  Another is the Cloisters in New York City.

Timothy B Husband’s catalogue The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540 from a 2-15-15 exhibition at the Cloisters is one such treasure from the Cloisters. Did I need a book examining the evolution of playing cards as the late middle ages slipped toward the early modern? Mmmm-yeeeees. When I purchased this catalogue, I was thinking it would give me the lay of the land regarding the style and production of cards of this time and maybe some of the games.

Style? Check.

Production methods? Check.

Games? Alack and alas, no.

Still, the catalogue more than made up for that infelicity. Perhaps this is common knowledge for others, but I did not know that playing cards (like so much else) were a legacy of cultural intersection from this age of exploration. They were introduced to the West, Husband writes, “about the middle of the fourteenth century, probably from the Near East via Venice or from the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt, through southern Italy, Sicily or even Spain” (p. 13). Since one of the foci of the novels upon which I’m working is the intersection of Christian West and Muslim East, I felt that little tidbit more than made up for the fact that, apparently, the games of the day are a mystery.

That mystery becomes apparent when one scans the richness and diversity of the few extant decks from the period. Admittedly, the variety of suits is not so important as their number, and there are consistently four.  Early variety gives way to certain norms. Where the French would eventually settle upon cups, batons, swords, and coins for their suits, the Germans had Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells, but that was the mid-fifteenth century.  Before that, you’ll get falcons, deer, hounds, and herons like the elegant bird below.

Scan 8.jpeg

1 of Herons, the Courtly Hunt Cards (fig. 37, p.39)

Of course, you and I will “get” nothing of the sort as such elegant, hand-painted cards as these have mostly gone the way of all things fragile and well used. As Husband writes, “Inevitably, cards are lost, torn, worn out, and the entire deck thrown out. Cards are fundamentally fugitive. But they are also ubiquitous” (ibid). The remains from that fugitive lot that Husband analyzes are certainly tantalizing. But where the suits can be made sense of, the multiplicity and variation of the face cards utterly confounds me. Where we today have limited face cards in our decks, the decks that Husband analyzes don’t stop at kings and queens, jacks and so on.  Take, for example, this potter who might be the inspiration for Demi Moore’s character in Ghost.

Scan 6

2 of Bohemia, the Courtly Household Cards (fig. 67a, p. 60)

The suits of what is referred to as the Courtly Household cards are the countries of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, and France. This sample from the colored woodblock prints is rather remarkable in its details. (The tile floor!) The above female potter is an example of one of the many functionaries who populate the deck in addition to the king and queen. Additionally, one finds ladies-in-waiting, marshals, chamberlains, chancellors, messengers, heralds, knights, crossbowmen (below), hunters, trumpeters, masters of the households, barbers, fishmongers, and fools. Maybe people who play complex card games can see their way through this and imagine possibilities, but as Canasta is the most complex thing I ever mastered (and promptly forgot), I’m stumped.

Scan 7

5 of Hungary, Crossbowman, the Courtly Household (fig. 76, p. 66)

Where the charming Courtly Household cards above, illustrate the various functionaries found within the world of the elites, a century later, we see another artist reflecting quite differently, even critically upon the world before him. The kings of the deck in particular reflect the reality of an expanding world, as with the King of Bells card below.

Scan 9

King of Bells, The playing cards of Peter Flötner (fig. 136, p. 106)

The kings of this deck by Peter Flötner are not solitary, posed men, but men of action. As with the non-European King of Bells who towers over the tiny (exotic) elephant and the instrument of exploration ship at his feet, the other kings tower over their landscapes. Another, dressed a bit like an Ottoman, raises his scepter over prone infants (looking, as Husband points out, uncomfortably like Herod surveying the slaughter of the innocents); yet another, this time very European king stands before a pikeman, clearly directing the actions of a great empire.

From the kings, the deck runs down the social scale. Yet, interestinly repulsive as an Under Knave with a conspicuously dripping nose may be, it’s the thematic representations on the pip cards that are the real innovation here. The acorn suit is bedecked with greedy boars; the leaf by peasants occupied variously; hearts by lovers in scenes from the tender to the profane; and bells by scenes of folly in all its various forms. In a move that joins together entertainment and commentary, the artist portrays what he saw and knew from a world stage where great men toyed with the lives of others to humbler scenes of courtship, from greedy consumption to the unmasking of deceit.

Now all I need is for someone to reproduce one of these decks and invent the games to go with it. Surely, that’s not asking too much.

Why the Middle Ages?

I am, of course, joking when I tell students that I lose all interest in English history after 1066. Of course, I am. Just as I am joking when I tell them that the last true king of England was slain at the Battle of Hastings and the rest have been bastards, imposters, and upstarts. There’s nothing like a refreshing dash of hyperbole to wake up one’s students, and hyperbole and I are friends of old. What I mean to tell students is that I lose interest with the Renaissance. Humanism. Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity. Scientific Advances. Perspective. Yadayadayada. While I don’t really mean that either (entirely), I do enjoy poking the bubbles of Renaissance devotees by discussing the various “renaissances” of the Middle Ages (seventh and twelfth centuries).

You throw down the Erasmus card, and I’ll play an Anselm or maybe a Maimonides.  You toss out a Piccolomini, and here’s Avicenna in your eye.

Dark Ages, my sweet Aunt Fanny.

detail Ivory casket paris c 1300 musee de cluny

Detail, ivory casket, Paris c. 1300, Musée de Cluny

To spend the greater portion of one’s life reading medieval history and literature, much less in constructing several hundred years of history (complete with genealogies and maps) for a group of Anglo-Saxons who loathed the conquest of William the Bastard so much that they fled to the continent to re-establish a kingdom for themselves where no mercenary Normans could horn in obviously requires a deeper motivation than mere cantankerousness. Well, to steal a phrase from James Cambell’s reflection upon his early forays into Anglo-Saxon history, after my introduction to Old English in graduate school, “I have never looked forward since” (The Anglo-Saxon State, 269).

It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the literature of later ages. I do. Indeed, I return to Milton’s Paradise Lost again and again. I return to it in a way that I do not return to Beowulf. Eliot’s Middlemarch was a revelation to me when I reread it in my late twenties. Little Dorritt reduced me to gibbering envy for the way in which Dickens paints the opening pages. Using a vivid chiaroscuro, he sets the tone for the moral and political juxtapositions to follow in the next hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of pages. While there are occasions when the prosodic evils of serialization raise their head in Dickens’ many works, they do not do so–to my mind–in Little Dorrit. That is not to say there are not moments to make a feminist grind her teeth. (Gott in Himmel, why did the man so idealize self-sacrificing women?) Such infelicities notwithstanding, the first few pages of Little Dorrit wherein sun and shadow vie first over the harbor and then jostle, both literally and figuratively, behind the bars of a prison cell are masterful. I must read that book again.

And yes, before anyone points out the dates of those aforementioned works, I do make it up to the present day. If Kate Atkinson writes it, I will read it.

However strange this sounds, I think it is the sense of frontier that draws me to the Middle Ages. Like a wide horizon with the promise of something new, the Middle Ages offer the prospect of discovery. L. P. Hartley’s declaration that “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” may be oft-quoted, but that makes it no less true. I find it a very valuable exercise to have to adjust my twenty-first century perspectives and expectations. Perhaps it is a human characteristic. Perhaps it is yet another piece of our collective inheritance from the Renaissance, but we tend to think of aesthetic, philosophical, and theological matters much like we do technical ones, as matters of progress wherein we are ever superior to those who preceded us.

Given that, there is something about the good, hard work of taking medieval events, developments, and people on their own terms that I find salutary. It is not about idealization of the past. (Give me a world with indoor plumbing and antiperspirants any day.) It is about the unmooring of my very time-bound expectations. As with any cross-cultural venture, the study of the Middle Ages never fails to give me new eyes for a present to which I am alternately insensible or despairing. It helps me to recognize my cultural convictions for what they are, to hold them a little less dogmatically, and to take myself a little less seriously.

It doesn’t stop me from being cantankerous. Don’t be ridiculous. That would take an act of God.