“The eyes all rollin’ round and round into a distant gaze…”

From English churches to Gothic synagogues, I’ve found plenty of medievalism in Georgia—but when I trekked deeper into the state two weeks ago to visit Flannery O’Connor’s farmstead, I expected to encounter the Middle Ages only as an abstraction. At Andalusia, O’Connor read medieval saints’ lives and studied St. Thomas Aquinas, but it seems she wasn’t the only medievalist in the history of Milledgeville, Georgia. Before spending a quiet afternoon on O’Connor’s farm, I drove into town for lunch and was startled to spot a huge and wholly tangible monument to the South’s obsession with the medieval: castle, cathedral, and parliament all piled up into one.

This handsome but peculiar building housed the Georgia legislature from its construction in 1807 until 1868, when the state capital moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta. Destroyed by fire in 1941 and later restored, it’s now the heart of the Georgia Military College campus and the home of Georgia’s Old Capital Museum.

Tourism websites claim it was the first Gothic Revival public building in the United States, and they may well be right. This castle-capital was indeed ahead of its time, both in the South and nationwide: John Adams is on record as reading Sir Walter Scott only later, in 1820; theaters in New Orleans adapted Scott’s work for the stage in the decade that followed; and the medieval-ish tales of Washington Irving thrived in the 1820s and ’30s and beyond. I’d love to know what specifically moved Major General Jett Thomas, who would go on to fight in the War of 1812, to make the Georgia statehouse a castle, but chivalry was surely on his mind, and this building shows just how early a militaristic medievalism took root in the South.

The shorter north and south sides of the building, with porticoes added in 1835, show its layered insistence on medieval roots: Gothic windows, tracery, niches, and castellated battlements with pinnacles that scream “the Middle Ages” even if they don’t quite belong there.

The rest of the campus flaunts the medieval with an unwavering sense of mission: even a dumpy little mail building has a castellated roof. Most striking, though, are the campus gates. Blind arches, skinny niches for absent statues, give them an almost religious air…

…which makes sense. “So redolent indeed with historic associations is the atmosphere of this ancient seat of hospitality that the very streets of this old town are like fragrant aisles in some old cathedral,” declared a 1913 guidebook to Georgia landmarks. Antebellum Southerners of high social standing treated the medieval with just that sort of reverence, and Louisiana even built its own castellated capitol building in Baton Rouge four decades later, much to the chagrin of Mark Twain.

“Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building,” Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi in 1883, “for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances.” I can’t find any thoughts by Twain on the Milledgeville capitol, but I don’t doubt he would have deplored it as another example of Southerners’ obsession with chivalric tournaments, romantic tales, and a mythologized past they never doubted was their heritage.

Today, Milledgeville is sleepy on a Sunday afternoon, but the students who scurry past the old capitol building on weekdays are a living legacy of 19th-century medievalism. Georgia Military College includes a middle school, a high school, and a junior college where students can earn a commission in the Army, so when you pass through those gates you’re entering a shrine to old chivalric virtues. New knights will pair patriotic faith with military might; empty niches wait in solemnity to honor them as saints.

4 thoughts on ““The eyes all rollin’ round and round into a distant gaze…”

  1. Did you peek around Georgia College as well? I’m thinking it’s more Greek Revival, pediments and Corinthian columns rather than niches and crenellations… But I haven’t been to Milledgeville in years. Back then, O’Connor’s mother was still alive, and the porch on the house was flopping off, half held up with posts.

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  2. Hi, Marly! The front porch at Andalusia is now in wonderful shape; I sat in a rocking chair fiddling with one of my antique Polaroids. The paint inside the house is severely cracked and chipped, but I know the foundation is working with a small annual budget, and it seems they’re restoring things when they can. I was struck by how many aspects of the farm clearly inspired places in O’Connor’s stories, a revelation that was well worth the trip.

    We made a same-day trip from Savannah, so we didn’t have time to explore Georgia College, but it looked like a nice campus. Groups of students appeared to be en route to all sorts of formal functions…

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  3. Twain thought that excessive reading of Sir Walter Scott put the South into the frame of mind that made secession seem like a good idea, and a healthy dose of Cervantes might have kept them sane.

    During the march to the sea, some of the junior officers of Sherman’s army found their way into the legislative chambers of this building, constituted themselves the Georgia legislature, and repealed the ordinance of secession. Somehow the rest of the state didn’t consider the action valid.

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  4. Yep, I wrote about Twain in the post (linked in this one) about the old Louisiana capitol. Twain got lots of mileage out of the notion, but I don’t think he was right; reading Scott was a symptom, not a cause.

    I didn’t know that about Sherman’s army! Thanks for that. Also of note: Across the street, a large sign marks the site of the most memorable political horsewhippings of the day…

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