“Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy.”

Christmas approacheth, and the e-mails keep coming: Jeff, what should I get for the medievalist in my life?

Come on, people; shopping for medievalists is easy. Here are some ideas for unusual presents, all of which will be more gratefully received than those Medieval Times gift certificates you got for everybody last year.

Tired of people defending the Beowulf movie by arguing that medieval texts are inherently unfilmable? Then hit them, literally, with this: the Icelandic film adaptation of Gisli’s Saga on VHS. (While you’re ordering across the whale-road, why not snag some soda named after Egil Skallagrimsson?)

Men and women of academia, I ask ye: of what use be tenure if it alloweth ye not to herald your arrival in the classroom?

GPS? iPhone? Mere playthings, by Jove! You calculate your own latitude with a noctural, you predict the sunset with your own lovely astrolabe, and then you blow your bosun’s whistle, just because you can.

Let fly the yams! Check out these fully functioning DIY tabletop replicas of a trebuchet, a catapult, and a ballista.

You just know that everyone gets these for R. Howard Bloch, and they all think they’re so clever, and it stinks to be him, because he of all people can’t possibly re-gift pillows, cushions, and curtains based on the Bayeux Tapestry.

If your child’s reenactments of the Fourth Lateran Council with R2-D2 and Spider-Man on a dune buggy don’t feel sufficiently reverent, then you’re in luck: get thyself a Pope Innocent III action figure.

But before your kids order their teddy bears to recapture the Holy Land, make sure those benighted bee-wolves are wearing hand-forged miniature helmets. Ursus lo volt! (Just be careful what you name them if they go native.)

From the “Nightmares of Jennifer Lynn Jordan” Collection comes this enchanting clash of the titans: the Unicorn vs. Narwhal Playset. (My money’s on the narwhal. Nothing escapes its vengeful horn.)

But perhaps you’re thinking bigger than toys and trinkets. If you can trust a Web site that looks like it was designed on a Commodore 64, then why not buy yourself a castle? You can fill it full of fiber-optic flying unicorns that sing “On the Wings of Love” by Jeffrey Osborne.

(No, you can’t have mine. I need it to protect me from the narwhals.)

FOR L=54272 TO 54296: POKE L,0: NEXT

This post has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, but I hope my regular readers will indulge me as I join CNN in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64. So many readers responded to their story that the network published a follow-up article full of fond remembrances from the era of frizzy hair and stonewashed denim jackets.

I’m amused, but hardly surprised, to see that many of those readers cite the C-64 as their initiation into the life of the techie. Most of my computer-owning friends did go on to prosper as engineers and programmers, but let me raise a minority voice: for some of us, that computer was also our gateway to the humanities.

Oh, it would be easy for me to cite the influence of computerized fantasy games, or the ways that programming made me appreciate the versatile applications of symbolic logic, or the software-pirate friend whose excursions into international trade prompted me to find out exactly where Finland was on a map. No, much more important was the fact that with the addition of a simple $60 cartridge, that ugly brown machine whisked us into an entirely new dimension nearly a decade before the rest of the world discovered it: an online cosmos of discussion and debate.

Today, most of my old techie friends are sharper, livelier writers than many of the humanities types I meet. I don’t wonder why. Logged into single-line bulletin boards, reveling in a crudeness I’m glad the world has forgotten, we learned how to craft an argument for a particular audience; we discovered, through trial and error, the tricks of persuasive writing; and we learned, eventually, the art of conveying tone. All of this experimentation occurred in one of the few non-academic environments that encouraged our flailing attempts at coherent, articulate writing, an entirely online milieu that would later take the rest of the world by surprise—and which most of us never imagined would someday go mainstream.

In the past decade, I’ve kept a roof over my head by cranking out a million words of uncredited copy. Freelance gigs have given me an excuse to romp across England and Wales; subsequent paychecks have funded adventures in the Balkans and South Korea. Five feet from where I’m typing this, a carton of trade paperbacks with my name on each cover amuses me to no end, because I know there’d be no little Charlemagne book had I not owned that dumpy computer.

Twenty-five years later, my programming skills, which were never formidable, are finally rusted and gone. Other people troubleshoot my technical problems, and I consider it a triumph when I fiddle with blog templates and manage not to break anything. By contrast, most of my fellow Commodore owners pursued careers that capitalized on those early encounters with personal computers. They stayed current; I spun off in a wildly different direction. Regardless, I’m pleased to claim at least honorary membership in the online generation falsely accused of “changing the positions of satellites up in the blue heavens”—even if all I did on my home computer was simply learn how to write.

“It was dark as I drove the point home…”

When he paced the scriptorium and scowled at the monks, inspecting their handiwork, eyeing their script, he couldn’t have foreseen where their books would end up. Twelve centuries later, one of their most enlightening creations is stored away at the British Library: a Bible created under the watchful eye of Theodulf, abbot of Fleury and bishop of Orleans at the turn of the ninth century.

If his poetry is any indication, Theodulf was not a very sentimental man. A veritable connoisseur of verse warfare, the Visigothic refugee from Islamic Spain depicted himself as a masterful wit. He baited Frankish nobles with Latin insults they couldn’t understand. He blasted the poetry of an Irish competitor by criticizing his pronunciation, declaring him “an abomination” and announcing that “c” was the “letter of salvation” because it rescued Scottus, “Irishman,” from becoming sottus, “idiot.” Schooled in theology, trained in the law, Theodulf was brilliant. He made sure posterity knew it.

Theodulf couldn’t abide the impulses of pilgrims. He frowned on the veneration of icons. He would have rolled his eyes at the sight of museum-goers gawking at sacred objects simply because of their age. Multa scis et nulla sapis, he would have scolded them: “You know so much, and you understand nothing.”

But at the British Library, on the one decorated page of the “Theodulf Bible,” is evidence, maybe, of the bishop’s softer side. Facing a page of shockingly tiny script, the canon table doesn’t have a Northern European look to it. At the top, unmissable, are the horseshoe arches associated with Islamic Spain. They’re held aloft by five colorful columns, which aren’t decorated with the usual Romanesque doodads or acanthus-leaf designs. Steps, squiggles, and scroll-like details wind their way up each tall and slender column. They wouldn’t look out of place in an Andalusian mosque. Naturally, there’s not a single human figure in sight.

The scribe, of course, could have come from anywhere in Europe. We can’t dust the folios for the fingerprints of a scholar some twelve centuries dead. Theodulf himself—a bishop, an abbot, a counselor to kings—may never have touched that particular leaf.

But it is charming to imagine Theodulf, the great Carolingian sophisticate, recalling a scene from his own distant youth—impressions, clear ones, of places he would never see again, a streetscape of long-lost neighbors whose souls he continued to pray for—and then leaning over the shoulder of a nervous scribe, eager to tell him: “Here. These are the arches. It’s how I remember them. I want you to paint them exactly this way.”

What would Theodulf make of this speculation, this effort to spy on his medieval mind? If the bishop were as blustery as he portrayed himself, he’d have reacted like his rivals in poetic combat, attonitus, tremulus, furibundus, anhelus—”frantic, trembling, raging, panting.” But as an intellectual, a scholar who did his best to build a better Bible, Theodulf surely would have chuckled. In his heyday, he compared his colleagues to scurrying ants. He slandered them as drunkards, he made fun of their weight, and he dubbed all his rivals intemperate fools. The bishop ended his satiric poems with Christian pleas for forgiveness—but he knew full well that few of his hapless targets could truly reply in kind.

Theodulf loved a good joke—or so we imagine, based on some fragments in very old books. If we want to strip the man of his historical dignity, wrongly portray him as a sentimental sap, rebaptize the sharp-tongued Goth in mawkish, imaginary tears, we can. He can’t stop us.

Theodulf’s poems were a plea for someone to spar with, but now the joke is on him. For once, the great wit doesn’t get the final word. Let’s hope the bishop is laughing; at last, he found a worthy foe in time.

“One more drop of poison and you’ll dream of foreign lands.”

Theodulf was an oenophile, as the below translation makes clear. Had I a router and any discernible woodworking skill, I’d make this poem into a little plaque and market it as home decor. (Take that, “Footprints” prayer!)

I was tempted to translate the second word in the title as “drinkatorium.” Theodulf might have liked that.


Qui latices quondam vini convertit in usum,
Et fontis speciem fecit habere meri,
Ipse piis manibus benedicat pocula nostra,
Et laetum faciat nosmet habere diem.


May He who water changed to needful wine
And vintage drink from vessels bade to pour
With hands so holy bless our cups once more,
And grant our day be joyful and divine.

“Jumpin’ fences, dodgin’ trees, and tryin’ to get away…”

Since it’s turning into “Theodulf Week” here on Quid Plura?, I thought I’d make another hasty translation from the poetic corpus of the bishop of Orleans.

Back in June, I wrote about the fox I keep seeing here in my neighborhood. I enjoy spotting this critter, but Theodulf’s poem about an incident at the monastery of Charroux reminds me that what I consider an example of amusing urban fauna is a creature that often infuriated medieval people.

As with my other exercises in Theodulfiana, this is a loose translation, and I’ve only rendered the core anecdote. I’ve left out both the beginning—a brief ode to the monastery—and the little benediction at the end. I’m sure I haven’t done justice to Theodulf’s tone. He’d no doubt scold me for that, were he not twelve centuries dead.


A fox there was; that thief was wont to steal
The food the brothers needed for their meal.
The thousand-colored beast with outstretched wing
She gobbled in her jaws, that wicked thing.
The monks abiding there had scarcely guessed
The nature of this chaos-bringing pest—
Until that hen she stole, perchance to eat,
Thus making clear the way of her deceit.
Her burden made her sluggish, they could see:
She lingered deep within their alder-tree—
She lingered there, forlorn in her deceit,
For every pathway led to her defeat.
The chicken’s head she’d swallowed—but, in fact,
Its every other limb remained intact,
And you, the trickster’s foot, were on a bough
No higher than a hedge; it did allow
Her rightmost paw to touch a trace of wall
Whose stones were stacked so steeply and so tall.
Thus hung the wretched thief, that wicked pest;
She flailed her neck and thrashed her head, distressed.
The faithful monks erupted in delight:
They saw God’s wondrous portents in this sight.

“Put it all down to chemistry…”

Yesterday, I posted one of the more humorous poems of Theodulf of Orleans. Here’s another one, loosely translated from quantitative meter into rhyming couplets. Those of you with kids may get a kick out of it.


Grande habet initium cum res vilissima dictu,
Tunc gignis murem, magne elephante, brevem.
Sic patri quidam retulit sua somnia natus,
Depromens animo frivola dicta suo:
“O pater, in somnis dicam quae mira videbam,
Moverunt animum talia visa meum.
Bos dabat humanas nostras hac nocte loquelas,
Ille loquebatur, nos stupebamus,” ait.
Tum pater attonitus rem sic inquirit ab illo:
“Dic, quod dicebat,” intulit ille: “Nihil.”


When momentous beginnings mere trifles espouse,
Then you, mighty elephant, bring forth a mouse.
A son told his father his dreams; thus he heard
What fell from his thoughts, every frivolous word:
“Father, I’ll say what I see in my mind.
The most troubling visions in sleep do I find:
An ox who could speak I encountered tonight.
He talked! We were rather amazed at the sight.”
Inquired the father, “What news did he bring?”
Answering him, he replied, “Not a thing.”

“There were plants and birds and rocks and things…”

While I was writing Becoming Charlemagne, I spent a fair amount of time skimming the works of Theodulf of Orleans, the witty bishop who left behind a significant corpus of poetry. Most of his longer works about religious doctrine are a bit boring for the modern reader and way beyond my ability to parse, but a few of his shorter poems are gems—and a pleasure to translate.

Here’s one such poem, first in the original Latin, and then in my own translation (in rhymed couplets, an arbitrarily chosen form).


Saepe dat ingenium quod vis conferre negabat.
Compos et arte est, qui viribus impos erat.
Ereptum furto castrensi in turbine quidam.
Accipe, qua miles arte recepit equum.
Orbus equo fit, preco ciet hae compita voce:
“Quisquis habet nostrum, reddere certet equum.
Sin alias, tanta faciam ratione coactus,
Quod noster Roma fecit in urbe pater.”
Res movet haec omnes, et equum fur sivit abire.
Dum sua vel populi damna pavenda timet.
Hunc herus ut reperit, gaudet potiturque reperto,
Gratanturque illi, quis metus ante fuit.
Inde rogant, quid equo fuerat facturus adempto,
Vel quid in urbe suus egerit ante pater.
“Sellae,” ait, “adiunctis collo revehendo lupatis
Sarcinulisque aliis ibat onustus inops.
Nil quod pungat habens, calcaria calce reportans,
Olim eques, inde redit ad sua tecta pedes.
Hunc imitatus ego fecissem talia tristis,
Ni foret iste mihi, crede, repertus equus.”


Brains can defend you where brawn can’t assist;
Often a weakling on wits can subsist.
So hear how a soldier, employing no force,
In his encampment retrieved his lost horse.
He stood at the crossroads and made this decree:
“If you stole my horse, then return it to me!
For if you should fail, I’ll be forced to proceed
Like my father before me in Rome—so take heed!”
The men all grew nervous; the thief felt remorse:
Fearing for all, he returned the man’s horse.
The owner rejoiced; celebration was made
By all of the men who had been so afraid.
At last they inquired of him, every one,
Just what it was that his father had done.
“His bridle, his saddle, his old traveling-sack
He flung ’round his neck, the poor man, and walked back.
So useless his spurs; on his heels they stayed put.
Once a great horseman, he came home on foot.
Believe me, I almost pursued his sad course:
I’d have done the same thing had I not found my horse.”

“A winter’s light and a distant choir…”

In our era of sneeze-it-onto-the-page poetry, one doesn’t often spot a true commitment to formalism. Rarer still is the modern poet who attempts to craft a poem that’s as traditional in its form as it is in its theme.

So here’s to Frank Wilson at the Philly Inquirer, who has written, it so happens, a villanelle about Advent. You can read up on the formal requirements of a villanelle here to appreciate what Wilson has done—although I can’t help but imagine that newspapers might be more pleasant to read if people outside the book-review section attempted an exercise like this one every once in a while.

The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier.

[UPDATE: As of December 2012, information on purchasing The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier as either a paperback or an e-book can be found here.]

Do students better appreciate the artistry of great medieval poets if they also read some of the less studied works of the Middle Ages? After teaching a survey course for several years, I wondered about that—but I also knew that time constraints prevented me from assigning lengthy Middle English poems that would take students weeks to read. Instead, I decided to make my own classroom translations of several medieval romances, lively narrative poems that put more frequently studied works in context but which themselves rarely appear on an undergraduate syllabus.

“The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier” is my third modern English translation of a Middle English work. It’s an entertaining 972-line romance packed with folktale motifs, elements of French chansons, burlesque humor, post-Crusades Christianity, and an examination of the rules of courtesy that may be more thoughtful than it first appears. (If you’d like to read “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear” in its original language, you can check it out at the TEAMS Web site.)

You don’t need a background in medieval literature to enjoy this translation. If you’re new to the storytelling of this period, you’ll notice a typically medieval mixture of the familiar and the strange. The lengthy alliterative stanzas and many of the plot twists may frustrate modern sensibilities, but I hope readers can benefit from greater access to a story that once delighted late medieval people.

This translation—a no-frills, low-resolution, 19-page PDF—is free to download. However, if you find it useful, edifying, or entertaining, please support my efforts by purchasing a copy of my book Becoming Charlemagne in hardcover, paperback, or Kindle edition.

If you’d like to refer someone to this translation, please don’t link directly to the PDF or distribute it through other Web sites. Instead, please link to this page.

I hope you enjoy this other Christmas story about an unlikely hero named Ralph.