Starting today, more than 3,000 scholars, profs, and students will flock to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, an event that often prompts yuksters to claim it’s peculiar that medievalists should convene in a small city in the Midwest, as if the coasts, or bigger cities, are inherently more hospitable to historical musings.
…which, of course, is silly. Having just rolled back into D.C. after a 3,600-mile roadtrip, I’m pleased to share a few postcards from the medievalist Midwest, evidence that the Middle Ages wind also through the prairies and plains—if not as vitally as the Mississippi, then at least with the same circuitous certainty.
“The hammer of the gods will drive our ship to new lands….” You’ll find a Smithsonian-funded scale replica of a Viking knarr in Alexandria, Minnesota, a town with a gigantic Viking statue and a thriving spurious-runestone-based economy.
In downtown Minneapolis, look up to spot these funny, blockheaded grotesques on the spire at Central Lutheran Church, which just completed its neo-Gothic bell tower after nearly 80 years.
At the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, you can see how Iowa’s own Grant Wood (painter of America’s great medievalist icon) combined his usual humor with a designer’s eye for medieval church pews to create this early-1920s “mourner’s bench” for the principal’s office at the local junior high.
At the Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, you can’t miss this gawkworthy replica of La Giralda, a minaret-turned-cathedral-tower in Seville. The Kansas City Giralda (shown here artlessly photographed from a moving car) represents the tower after its adornment with post-medieval doodads. (To the best of my knowledge, the one in Seville never had a Cheesecake Factory on the ground floor.)
On North 18th Street in Kansas City, Kansas, look up to see this grotesque on all four sides of the tower at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, designed by an artistic medievalist rector. According to a friendly parish worker we met, the church plans to sell reproductions of this mascot; he’s known as “the Grinning Gargoyle.”
Whether you’re en route to Kalamazoo or writing and teaching in what some would consider a far-flung place, look up and gaze around. Chances are, a deliberate reworking of something medieval is craving a chance to leer back.