“Break all the windows in the cold, cold ground.”

A knight sliced in half like a sesame bagel, a saint tossed down a hillside in a barrel lined with nails—pain is an ageless wellspring of humor, but we were too weirdly willing to laugh. As graduate students, we were honing our sense of which aspects of the Middle Ages were born of certain eras and places and which others were timelessly human. Yet something about the classroom made the medieval world harder for me to imagine. The line of scholars whose work helped us understand the past in the first place also stood in the way of a gut-level sense of real people’s lives. Then the violence was never real, only a source of other people’s pictures or words, like an idealized painting or flippant cartoon.

That changed in our second year when we studied an account of the martyrdom of St. Eulalia of Merida by the fifth-century poet Prudentius. Even though Eulalia’s faith emboldens her to taunt her tormentors and laugh off her own suffering, the descriptions of her mutilation are horrifically clinical. As a class and on our own, we translated each of the poem’s 215 lines, sobered to find that two years of Latin had brought us to such a repellent place. What made Eulalia’s martyrdom different was that we didn’t merely read words on a page. We hoisted huge dictionaries, paged through grammars, flipped through stacks of handouts, trudged across campus to recite the Latin verse and our graceless English, and tensed up when called on to read. It may have been faint, but we felt something real in our muscles and bones, a memory carried for twenty-odd years.

Last month, our town hosted a ceremony to remember one of the worst things that ever happened here, the lynching of a black man. He was accused of attacking a young white girl, but a mob denied him the justice of a trial. Not long ago, elderly locals might have heard enough from their parents to be able to name the killers or point out the dead man’s grave. Now, except for snippets from scanned newspapers, the victim is as distant as a figure in a medieval text, a fictional character rather than someone who lived.

The site is still there, just a few long strides from the main intersection. It’s eerily open, like the grassy remnant of a battlefield declared sacred only after the rest has been paved. Locals say that within living memory, a storm blew down a massive locust tree; it may have been the makeshift gallows. The church across the street hasn’t changed, except for a gravel lot for cars where the congregation used to park horses and wagons. Families arriving for Sunday services the morning after the lynching could not fail to notice the constable cutting down a corpse.

I’ve toured historic homes that looked as if their famous residents had just stepped out for lunch. I’ve stood at sites where thousands died, and others where worn-away ruts in the ground begged the imagination to run reckless over the post-holes of hill-forts and mansions. Those places made me think, and think, and think. At times, though, I wanted to feel something more. No matter how many years I hewed and hacked through ninth-century sources, not once did I hear the eldritch murmurings of kings or monks or sense a spectral hand on my shoulder. History was dead; my job as a writer was to gather and narrate its traces.

I was leery of the plan to take soil from the lynching site. The act sounded too pious and medieval, like sifting for relics to venerate, or too frivolous and modern, like filling a keychain with sand from the beach. Even so, the morning before the ceremony, I drove to the field with a shovel and spade and met others tasked with preparing the site. The ground was pliant from days of rain, so with no special reverence, I peeled up one of four grassy squares and loosened the dirt underneath. When I looked up, kids in pickups still drove to McDonald’s for breakfast, and tractors kept on rolling out of town toward the last shriveling fields of the year.

On the next day, a cold, cloudless Sunday, more than a hundred onlookers formed a crescent around the gazebo next to the church. Some of us don’t have deep roots here, but scattered among us, and settled unknowingly in nearby houses, were descendants and relatives of everyone whose lives converged on that spot in 1880: the men who raised the lynch mob; former slaves who knew the victim; the constable who tried in vain to stop the murder; and the black congregation that claimed the body and laid it to rest. Ashes and dust—our past and our future, summoned to gather in flesh and blood, shifting uneasily at the story retold.

After a benediction, a proclamation, speeches, and poems, we turned from the churchyard and crossed to the field. Squinting in the stark, clarifying sunset, people lined up to scoop soil into jars. Some filled small canisters of their own. The motion and effort made sense; no one was left to chase around their windblown thoughts. The ground gave everyone something to do, exertion their bodies might feel and remember.

An event that began in mourning and solemnity concluded with hugs and handshakes and an unforeseen lightness of heart. No ghosts hovered near us or stood by the roadside and watched. The veil of the past hadn’t risen or torn, but the chasm between old, unacquainted truths was maybe no longer so wide. Justice for the dead isn’t ours to bestow, but empathy for those who suffered, whether a century or a thousand years ago, can make a field full of strangers tremble as one, if they do more than offer up words. If you wait half your life and the earth doesn’t move, don’t just stand there. Move it yourself.

“I can’t get unwound, why do I throw myself into the night…”

Poets pray for remembrance on the pages of an anthology—but whenever I saw Fenton Johnson’s poems in collections of African American verse, the selections were too limited for me to get a real sense of him. Fond of forgotten writers, I tracked down more of Johnson’s work to find out who he was and what he had hoped to become. My search only brought me back to his most anthologized poem, which takes on new meaning amid echoing debates about the medieval-ness of all things American.

The son of a wealthy Chicago family, Johnson earned a degree from the University of Chicago and studied at the Columbia School of Journalism. By 1913 he had self-published his first volume of poetry. Early on, he favored short, formal lyrics packed with medieval and classical references alongside Dunbar-esque dialect poems; later, he experimented (more successfully, I think) with free verse. Known to other modernists, he gathered several character sketches under the title “African Nights” and saw them published in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse.

The best of these later, more mature pieces combine the concision of poetry with a deadpan aversion to meter that keeps whimsy and sentimentality at bay. As a writer bobbing in the wake of medievalism, I particularly like this poem from “African Nights”:

The Banjo Player

There is music in me, the music of a peasant people.
I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing my
songs of the cabin and the field. At the Last Chance Saloon
I am as welcome as the violets in March; there is always
food and drink for me there, and the dimes of those who
love honest music. Behind the railroad tracks the little
children clap their hands and love me as they love Kris
Kringle.
But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a
troubadour.
What is a troubadour?

The editor of The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader called this poem “simply ironic mischief.” Yes, an educated poet is enjoying a chuckle at the expense of an unsophisticated musician who is good at what he does but has never wondered for a moment what he is. But there’s quite a bit more to the poem than that.

The banjo player moves so naturally through his own life that he never says whether the people who love his music are white or black, as if he doesn’t imagine that the details might matter. The race of the woman who calls him a troubadour is less consequential than the word itself, which baffles and frustrates him. Is she a white woman who finds him charming and associates him with primitivism and archaism, or is she a black woman, perhaps an aesthete or would-be patron, who hopes to elevate a purveyor of folkways by using European terms? For the banjo player, pondering these complications could lead to troubling realizations about the world.

Johnson’s poem raises a larger question that gnawed at him, one that also occupied the poets and artists of the Harlem Renaissance: What relationship do African Americans have with European-derived civilization, and vice versa? There are also questions here for critics and scholars: Does too much thinking about form and taxonomy take all the fun out of art? Compared to audiences who react to his music with joy, is the woman who responds cerebrally missing the point?

The banjo player’s confusion over the word “troubadour” reminded me of the movement in medieval studies to promote a “global Middle Ages.” While I think it’s smart for medievalists to look beyond Europe, which hardly had impervious or easily defined boundaries back then, I find it odd that people in a field with bowstring sensitivity to the legacy of colonialism would talk about “medieval” Africa and “medieval” Asia, as if terms that mark the European timeline are an easy fit on other continents. (Alas, the promo copy on the back of my Charlemagne book refers to “medieval Baghdad.” Can’t win ’em all.) Likewise, a black American man who plays the banjo, an African-derived instrument, is not a medieval troubadour, even though the two are obvious artistic kindred. Is the woman failing to see the banjo player and his traditions on their own terms? If so, then what is she, despite her attempt at a compliment, not seeing?

In the 1922 edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson noted only that Fenton Johnson “is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.” In a later edition in the early 1930s, he honed his critique, describing how Fenton Johnson had

disregarded the accepted poetic forms, subjects, and language, adopted free verse, and in that formless form wrote poetry in which he voiced the disillusionment and bitterness of feeling the Negro race was then experiencing. In some of this poetry he went further than protests against wrong or the moral challenges that the wronged can always fling against the wrongdoer; he sounded the note of fatalistic despair. It was his poetry written in this key that brought him recognition. The central idea of this poetry was startling. Doubtless its effect was in some degree due to the fact that it was an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced. Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.

Nine decades later, it’s no longer true that Fenton Johnson alone among African American writers gave voice to despair, but James Weldon Johnson makes his poems sound like a dead end. They’re not. Time has offered them new life and fresh possibility, especially if we give them room to be personal reflections rather than only pronouncements about race.

Read “The Banjo Player” again, and note how the wandering musician defines success as pleasing other people. Sure, that can be a metaphor for African American experiences, but it’s also a sigh of frustration from a poet who never achieved major success and eventually stopped writing for publication. “It seemed to me like trying to walk the Atlantic ocean to obtain recognition in the literary world and especially when one was attempting to present the life of the race to which I belong,” Johnson lamented in 1920 after writing three books of poetry, publishing a doomed magazine of his own work under different pen names, and founding a largely imaginary movement for racial reconciliation. He would soon sell five poems to Poetry magazine, but his pessimism was prescient. “I know that my dream of success in literature is fading,” he confessed, “because every story I have ever offered a standard magazine has returned to my desk.”

Who are we if no one pays heed to our work? Fenton Johnson knew: Writers and artists dread the exhaustion of misunderstanding and hate the ache of indifference, no matter where or when they lived, regardless of what you believe you should call them.


Left: Vielle players and a citoler player from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c.1280. Right: detail from Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Banjo Lesson,” 1893.

“Pharoah’s army, they got drowned in the sea one day…”

Sometimes he feels like a motherless child.I hopped the barbed hedge of graduate school more than 20 years ago, but the burrs and brambles of medieval thinking still cling to my life. I never know if they’re brittle twigs, best brushed off and swept away, or green sprigs that can be woven into some new, small, useful thing. Take “Deor,” an Old English poem that puts on thorns at the strangest of times—even when I’m reading about a different culture thousands of miles away and a millennium later.

I can’t post a decent translation of “Deor” without violating somebody’s copyright, so go peruse Maryann Corbett’s recent version, which skillfully gets the sense and some of the sound of the original. Deor, the speaker, alludes to a series of terrible, violent incidents from Germanic history and legend, all stories that would have been known to his listeners at the time. His cryptic refrain, Þaes ofereode, Þisses swa maeg—”that has passed, this shall too”—ends with a personal revelation: Deor is a scop, a poet, a singer of tales who has been ousted from his position by a newcomer who has won the favor of the king. He casts his own reversal of fortune in terms of the tyrants, heroes, and legendary figures whose tales, which now offer consolation, were the raw material for his poems and songs.

“Deor” can teach the newcomer to Old English poetry a good deal about its characteristics: that air of grimness; a worldview that floats somewhere between stoicism and fatalism; an elegiac tone; and above all, a lament for the misery of exile, of being sundered from a leader and a meaningful role in a community. So was it taught to me; so did I teach it to others.

Or so I imagined. A funny thing happened the first time I discussed “Deor” in the classroom. A quiet student in the back raised her hand and dared to asked, in defiance of all my just-out-of-grad-school certainty: “What if this poem was meant to be…funny?”

Thrown off, I asked her to elaborate. She argued that being alone, homeless, and unemployed, while all bad, were not as bad as being murdered, or hamstrung, or having your hands and feet cut off, or having your family murdered and being raped yourself—the fates of the men and women in “Deor.” I argued the scholarly case: that the lament of an exile was serious business in Old English poetry, that the humor in the Old English poetic corpus was wry and understated, and that the original audiences for this poetry would not have been looking for levity.

But then I read “Deor” aloud, going for snide, whiny, and melodramatic—and the class laughed—and I conceded that someone could easily perform the poem in ways that could make the speaker look preposterously self-pitying and wholly bereft of perspective.

I later made a habit of running the student’s theory past every medieval-lit scholar I ran into. All of them said the notion was flat-out wrong. At least one was offended. I still didn’t believe that the student’s interpretation would have been a common and even likely one in gear-dagum, but I was also troubled by the way a poem, a work of art, had been pressed and embedded into one lost time, one dead place, and buried under a century of scholarship that protected it from any new creative whim.

My student’s speculations about “Deor” sprang to mind, unexpectedly, as I read Hearth and Home: Preserving a People’s Culture, George McDaniel’s 1982 study of the houses of African-American tenant farmers in southern Maryland. McDaniel’s book is packed with thoughtful observations about the ways cultural knowledge endures in house design, building techniques, and the little details of craftsmanship, even when subsequent generations don’t know they’re remembering it.

McDaniel opens his book with the history of a tenant house in Mitchellville, Maryland, that was dismantled by the Smithsonian in 1969 and rebuilt 30 miles west at the National Museum of American History, where visitors to the (now also dismantled) “Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past” could go partway inside. “From the beginning, some members of the Smithsonian staff felt that something was missing,” McDaniel writes, explaining why they called him nearly a decade later to research the history of the house and its likely furnishings. Still respected in my area of Maryland for collecting irreplaceable African-American oral histories and documenting the homes of freed slaves in the late 1970s, McDaniel soon discovered that this plain four-room house, for which the Smithsonian had no documentation, did indeed have people to speak for it, men and women from twelve families who had lived there at various times from 1912 to 1967. He invited them to visit the Smithsonian, and their reactions were illuminating:

If one were to choose a side of the tenant house to be the front, the length with the door centrally located, flanked by two windows, is the more symmetrical, stylish, and formal. It “should” be the front…The other length has a door near one corner, a window near the other, and no opening in the center. It is off balance, unwieldy in appearance, and “should” be the back…Indeed, there are examples of houses in Prince George’s County and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region of this very design, with the symmetrical length as the front. That’s the way the house was reassembled in 1968. But when Elizabeth “Mamie” Johnson saw the house ten years later, she politely declared in a rather puzzled tone: “You’ve got it backwards.”

Every living former resident and neighbor and the son of the original landowner agreed: The house was, to use McDaniel’s words, “representative of this house type, but not true to the actual, historical orientation of this particular house.” There were other problems: Smithsonian curators assumed that a very small downstairs room was the kitchen and a bigger space was the sitting room and dining room, when it was really the other way round. Daily life centered around a larger kitchen, not a rarely used parlor.

McDaniel also learned that the wooden walls on display for Smithsonian visitors had been covered with newspapers and whitewashed to be more attractive. Many children had lived in the house, including one who recalled as an adult that he had greatly prized his .22 rifle. The Smithsonian setup showed no signs of gun ownership—or traces of a young boy.

Even though the house stood on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area, represented the experiences of a large and accessible class of people, had been occupied as recently as 1967, and was curated by professionals with the best of intentions, the Smithsonian got it wrong. Imagine how much more we’re doomed to misperceive across more than a thousand years. Those of us who study the literature and history of the distant past like to think we account for our assumptions, but what if our assumptions about our assumptions are off?

None of this hasn’t been pondered for ages by much smarter people, but in the years since my student asked her question blessedly unimpeded by assumptions, few new opinions have formed about “Deor.” The author of a book about humor in Anglo-Saxon poetry appreciates the irony and dark humor of certain turns of phrase, and another scholar has found it useful to look at “Deor” and other Old English laments through the lens of blues lyrics. Yet no one to my knowledge has seconded my student’s notion, that at the very least, someone might have performed the poem—or at least can perform the poem—in a way that uses allusions to legendary violence to make his own rootlessness seem funny and small. I don’t know that my student was right; she wasn’t wrong to wonder.

George McDaniel was adamant about what his own field work revealed: “The black families studied here did not live in ‘shacks.’ They are not stereotypes, mere ciphers.” Likewise, the standard interpretations of “Deor” are correct about the culture and times, but may be wrong about how the anonymous poet hoped he’d make people feel; how a specific someone once recited or performed the poem; how real readers or listeners have received it; or which features of the poem appealed to the individual monk who wrote it down.

If the lives of African-American tenant farmers in southern Maryland can so confound the assumptions of historians from a distance of only 30 miles and a single generation, then any given soul in medieval Wessex regarded the world with a distinctiveness that’s not ours to know. We can only allow that somebody like him existed, because somebody who had a similar notion does now, a suggestion that complements analysis with creativity. In the free, weedy fields outside the garden, we can hope for a laugh ringing over the hedge, unlikely and strange, but at least now imaginable across a thousand years.

“No risk, I’ll whisk them up in no moonlight…”

When Harriet Tubman let an author of sentimental children’s books write her first real biography in 1869, she knew she’d be cast in some curious roles. Abolitionists had already dubbed her “Moses,” and John Brown, who sometimes referred to her with masculine pronouns, had loved to address her as “General.”

Even so, when I read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, I hadn’t expected to see Sarah Hopkins Bradford liken her subject to one of the most complex figures of the Middle Ages, a saint, a warlord, a visionary, and a child—but there she is, on the very first page:

It is proposed in this little book to give a plain and unvarnished account of some scenes and adventures in the life of a woman who, though one of earth’s lowly ones, and of dark-hued skin, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name (we say it advisedly and without exaggeration) deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with the names of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale; for not one of these women has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than has this woman in her heroic and successful endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed and suffering race, and to pilot them from the land of Bondage to the promised land of Liberty. Well has she been called “Moses,” for she has been a leader and deliverer unto hundreds of her people.

By 1869, well-read Americans had tried to make sense of the Maid of Orleans. Mark Twain published Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc that same year; two years before, abolitionist and women’s-suffrage crusader Sarah Grimké translated a French biography of Joan into English. Somebody, somewhere, may have dimly recalled Female Patriotism, or the Death of Joan of Arc, a 1798 play by Irish-born newspaperman John Daly Burk. If these works have anything in common, it’s a sense of Joan of Arc as enviably childlike. Perhaps from there it was an easy leap to the paternalism that even open-minded white Americans felt about their black countrymen.

 But I think there’s more to the Tubman-Joan connection than that. In an engaging 2003 bio, Kate Clifford Larson provides a well-researched life of Tubman that offers glimpses of a Joan-like figure for anyone hoping to find them. Tubman was a nurse, a spy, and a scout during the Civil War, but she was also a warrior who led a daring and brutal raid on Confederate ships in South Carolina―and like Joan, and indeed like many memorable women and men of the Middle Ages, she was also a religious mystic.

When Tubman was in her teens, an overseer threw a two-pound weight at a fugitive slave; he missed him, but hit Tubman square in the head. This freak accident, the source of lifelong pain, helped turn her into a fearless leader who inspired (and sometimes terrified) the people around her:

Tubman broke out, often unexpectedly, into loud and excited religious praising. If this injury caused her great suffering, it also marked the beginning of a lifetime of potent dreams and visions that, she claimed, foretold the future. Some of her dreams eventually took on an important role in Tubman’s life, influenced not only her own course of action but also the way other people viewed her.

Larson offers temporal lobe epilepsy as a scientific explanation for Tubman’s visions, but she stresses the need to understand the influence of African culture and evangelical Protestantism on what, to my mind, are visions that also wouldn’t be out of place in the Middle Ages:

Sounds of music, rushing water, screaming, and loud noises would overcome her without notice. Her dreams, visions, and hallucinations often intruded amid daily work and activities. “We’d be carting manure all day,” Tubman once explained to an interviewer, “and t’other girl and I was gwine home on the sides of the cart, and another boy was driving, when suddenly I heard such music as filled all the air.” Soon she began to experience a profound religious vision, “which she described in language which sounded like the old prophets in its grand flow.” Persistent shaking by her fellow slaves brought her back to reality, though she protested that she hadn’t been asleep at all.

[…]

Such experiences reinforced her notions of an all-powerful being that guided her through her life, protecting her and providing divine instruction. Tubman “used to dream of flying over fields and towns, and rivers and mountains, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.’” She claimed she had inherited this ability from her father, who “could always predict the weather, and that he foretold the Mexican war.”

I dug into the Tubman-Joan comparison and was surprised by how much there was to find―but less surprised that the notion thrived and faded with trends in the culture at large.

Bradford likened Tubman to a white European warrior-saint in 1869. That makes sense: Before the Civil War, Joan of Arc turns up in one of the most important cultural magazines for budding Confederates, the Southern Literary Messenger. She’s the subject of a romantic poem that calls for national defense, and in a bitter, blustery review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she’s the exemplar of everything Harriet Beecher Stowe is not, an “unsexed” knight whose chivalry gives her a rare exemption from having to act like a lady.

By the time Bradford wrote Tubman’s bio, though, chivalry was up for grabs. The Civil War was over. Black Southerners were heading to Congress, and the Freedmen’s Bureau sought to educate former slaves, some of whom helped draft new state constitutions. Abolitionists and African Americans and radical northern Republicans all must have marveled as racial taboos and prejudices looked ready to collapse. Casting Tubman as Joan of Arc didn’t just pay tribute to her complexity; it also acknowledged that she was comparable to white people and fully human, perhaps even superhuman―and it tweaked conquered Confederates as well.

The comparison caught on. An 1896 profile of Tubman in The Woman’s Era, an African-American newspaper, picks it up without apology:

So at the very beginning of this new day let us all meet in the benign presence of this great leader, in days and actions, that caused strong men to quail this almost unknown, almost unsung “Black Joan of Arc” . . . The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.

But that’s the black press; white readers may have felt otherwise.

Suddenly it’s 1897. Reconstruction has failed. Racist white Democrats have prevailed in the South; Civil War veterans are already holding genial North-South reunions; all eyes are on railroads and the West; and a country obsessed with business and finance is starting to haul itself out of a four-year depression. Sarah Hopkins Bradford revises and reissues her Tubman biography as Harriet, the Moses of Her People. Deprived of the dignity of a surname in the new title, Tubman is now quoted in dialect, and her sharp edges have been bravely bent down and taped over. Such is the national spirit of compromise. Tubman is still Joan of Arc, but Bradford, flaunting her own refinement, now calls her “Jeanne D’Arc.” Since the comparison pleases her, she trots it out a second time:

Her color, and the servile condition in which she was born and reared, have doomed her to obscurity, but a more heroic soul did not breathe in the bosom of Judith or of Jeanne D’Arc.

There’s heroism and praise in Bradford’s revision, but she no longer makes the page-one Harriet-Joan connection “advisedly and without exaggeration.” A woman who once “deserves to be handed down to posterity” is now “doomed…to obscurity.” Within a few years, comparisons to a medieval European saint will start to bother white writers, even when Tubman impresses them―as in a 1907 article in the New York Herald that got picked up by newspapers nationwide:

There is not a trace in her countenance of intelligence or courage, but seldom has there been placed in any woman’s hide a soul moved by a higher impulse, a purer benevolence, a more dauntless resolution, a more passionate love of freedom. This poor, ignorant, common looking black woman was fully capable of acting the part of Joan d’Arc.

Look at what’s happened: In four decades, comparing Harriet Tubman to Joan of Arc has gone from natural and straightforward to unlikely and ironic. At best, Joan is a “part” she was able to act.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans formed their own secular cult of Joan. French nationalists rallied round the saint in 1870 after the humiliating loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Americans, looking to Europe for trends, were beguiled by her purity, her simple faith, her romantic communion with nature. In 1915, a statue of Joan got its own park in Manhattan. Determined to out-spectacle D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille released his movie Joan the Woman the following year. Joan was drafted during World War I, serving as a model soldier and the subject of poems and articles in Stars and Stripes. A illustrated biography for children hit the shelves in 1918, and her equestrian statue first looked across D.C. from Meridian Hill Park in 1922.

At last, Joan of Arc was whatever America wanted her to be―except black, except a battle-ready warrior, except an aged ex-conductor on the Underground Railroad. According to Kate Clifford Larson, by the time a well-intentioned radical started researching a new biography of Harriet Tubman in 1938, publishers shooed him away. Random House in particular “balked at her being compared to Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc was quite a few things Harriet Tubman was not, and vice-versa. Tubman wasn’t a child hero, a martyr, or a national symbol. In fact, Larson’s bio shows that she wasn’t like anyone else; she deserves to be remembered in all her complex and baffling humanity. Still, it’s remarkable that for a few promising years, comparing Tubman to a visionary child warrior saint felt right and just. That we’re now surprised by a colorblind metaphor doesn’t speak well of the century since.

“I had riches too great to count, could boast of a high ancestral name…”

On a sunny September day in 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland to become a free man (and one of the most fascinating and indefatigable Americans of his time), so yesterday seemed like as good a day as any to visit Cedar Hill, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site—and to seek medievalism in this most unlikely place.

High atop a terraced hill in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast D.C., the house was Douglass’s home from 1877 until his death in 1895. The front—parlor, office, dining room—is furnished almost exactly as it was when Douglass was alive, and Cedar Hill is still an impressive home with a panoramic view of downtown Washington.

Many of the decorations in Cedar Hill are neoclassical doodads, but there’s a medievalist gleam or two in Douglass’s life, as long as you know where to look.

That’s the bedroom of Helen Pitts, Douglass’s longtime secretary and second wife. Their interracial marriage shocked her white abolitionist family and Douglass’s black children, but since I’m me and it’s 2012, I was more surprised by what I saw on the back wall: an engraving of Cologne Cathedral.

Although Douglass traveled in Europe, he doesn’t appear to have visited Germany, so the engraving was likely a gift from German writer and abolitionist Ottilie Assing. She taught Douglass German, spent 22 summers in his home, and apparently had a long affair with him. The presence of this print in the bedroom of the woman who won out over Assing for Douglass’s final affections is either a curatorial snafu or a memento of profound awkwardness.

More interesting is Frederick Douglass’s medievalist name.

Born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, around 1818, young Fred was saddled with a moniker that suggested a grand, impossible destiny. “The name given me by my beloved mother,” he wrote, “was no less pretentious than “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.'” In 1838, after being moved back and forth between the Eastern Shore of Maryland and downtown Baltimore, he made one heck of an escape: He disguised himself as a sailor, boarded a train, and journeyed from Wilmington, to Philadelphia, to New York City, and finally to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

In New Bedford, “initiated into the new life of freedom,” Frederick Bailey needed a safer surname. He found himself in the home of Nathan and Mary Johnson, a prosperous black couple who harbored escaped slaves. As he explained in 1855, taking their name was out of the question:

“Johnson” had been assumed by nearly every slave who had arrived in New Bedford from Maryland, and this, much to the annoyance of the original “Johnsons” (of whom there were many) in that place.

Down with the pop-culture trends of the day, Nathan Johnson suggested the name “Douglass”:

Mine host, unwilling to have another of his own name added to the community in this unauthorized way, after I spent a night and a day at his house, gave me my present name. He had been reading the “Lady of the Lake,” and was pleased to regard me as a suitable person to wear this, one of Scotland’s many famous names. Considering the noble hospitality and manly character of Nathan Johnson, I have felt that he, better than I, illustrated the virtues of the great Scottish chief. Sure I am, that had any slave-catcher entered his domicile, with a view to molest any one of his household, he would have shown himself like him of the “stalwart hand.”

Once absurdly popular and always unbearably long (and, despite its title, not Arthurian), The Lady of the Lake is an 1810 poem by Sir Walter Scott that tells the story of a rift between King James V of Scotland and James Douglas, his former mentor and protector, as tension mounts between the king and the Highland clans, roused to rebellion by Roderick Dhu.

I’ve never been able to get through the whole miserable poem, but the fact that Frederick Douglass is named after a fictionalized late-medieval earl is truly wonderful. It’s a testament to 19th-century America’s obsession with Scott’s chivalric adventures—and it’s a bit ironic.

Southern slaveowners hung on Sir Walter Scott’s every word, and they saw themselves as his chivalric heirs. Here’s Vernon Parrington in Main Currents in American Thought, Volume II:

The Lay of the Last Minstrel and The Lady of the Lake stirred Southern men to think of themselves as proud knights ready to do or die for some romantic ideal; and the long list of novels . . . seemed to reflect anew the old ideals of fine lords and fair ladies whom Southerners now set themselves to imitate.

“While the rest of America read Scott with enthusiasm,” writes Rollin Osterweis in Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South, “the South assimilated his works into its very being.” Osterweis points out that plantation bookshelves were packed with Scott’s works; Southerners loved his terms “Southron” and “aristocratical” and ran with them; plantations took their names from his Waverley novels; and steamboats, barges, and stagecoaches in the back country of Louisiana, Tennessee, and beyond often bore names from his books.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain even blames Scott for the American Civil War:

The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it.

It’s amusing to imagine the few Southerners who may have read Douglass’s autobiography sputtering over such blasphemous misuse of their dear Walter Scott.

Delightfully, the black American named for a medieval earl really did rally the Scots. In 1845, Douglass fled to Great Britain to avoid recapture and stayed until 1847. His speeches in Scotland echoed the concerns of British abolitionists that the Free Church of Scotland was funded by slave-holders and slave-traders. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass casts himself as the voice of the man on the Edinburgh street:

“SEND BACK THE MONEY!” stared at us from every street corner; “SEND BACK THE MONEY!” in large capitals, adorned the broad flags of the pavement; “SEND BACK THE MONEY!” was the chorus of the popular street songs; “SEND BACK THE MONEY!” was the heading of leading editorials in the daily newspapers.

The modern Douglass did not prevail:

The deed was done, however; the pillars of the church—the proud, Free Church of Scotland—were committed and the humility of repentance was absent. The Free Church held on to the blood-stained money, and continued to justify itself in its position—and of course to apologize for slavery—and does so till this day. She lost a glorious opportunity for giving her voice, her vote, and her example to the cause of humanity; and to-day she is staggering under the curse of the enslaved, whose blood is in her skirts. The people of Scotland are, to this day, deeply grieved at the course pursued by the Free Church, and would hail, as a relief from a deep and blighting shame, the “sending back the money” to the slaveholders from whom it was gathered.

In his 1899 bio of Douglass, Charles Chesnutt notes that “[i]n Scotland they called him the ‘black Douglass,’ after his prototype in The Lady of the Lake, because of his fìre and vigor.” Chesnutt knew when to strum that mythic chord:

[H]e fell in with the suggestion of his host, who had been reading Scott’s Lady of the Lake, and traced an analogy between the runaway slave and the fugitive chieftain, that the new freeman should call himself Douglass, after the noble Scot of that name. The choice proved not inappropriate, for this modern Douglass fought as valiantly in his own cause and with his own weapons as ever any Douglass fought with flashing steel in border foray.

Although Frederick Douglass was a passionate man, I was sure he was immune to the charms of the phony, romanticized Middle Ages that gave him his name. Nope! According to the National Park Service (PDF here), Douglass owned 18 volumes of Sir Walter Scott.

In his writings and speeches, Douglass had more to say about Dred Scott than Walter Scott, so I’m hesitant to dub him a medievalist, but it says something about America’s weird medievalist undercurrents that they were too strong to escape his notice. They didn’t ebb: In an 1895 eulogy, one poet was quick to cast Douglass in medieval terms. “A hush is over all the teeming lists,” sang Paul Laurence Dunbar, making him the knight the man who named him hoped he’d be: “He died in action with his armor on.”

“I can hear people singing, it must be Christmastime…”

Medievalism is intertwined with the history of the American South. In cities like Richmond and New Orleans, where magazines helped popularize Sir Walter Scott novels and promote chivalric virtues, Gothic revival architecture felt right—but Savannah, where I’m spending Christmas, went its own wonderful way. Here, in a city with countless monuments but surprisingly few statues, you’re more likely to find Georgian, Italian, Federal, and Colonial styles, intermingled but insistently American beneath layers of picturesque moss.

So when you’re the new guy in Savannah, exploring the city’s public squares on foot on Christmas Eve, the search for medievalism seems downright futile…

…but after all these years, I know when to heed the signs. They’re rarely as obvious as this one on Liberty Street.

And so we trudge from moss-bedecked square to moss-bedecked square, wondering as we wander…


Is a lamppost resembling a bishop’s crozier the most medievalism the streets of Savannah can offer?

“No,” says a monstrous sconce on Bay Street. “Look lower, fool!”

Any Jesuit will tell you this totally counts as a gargoyle…

…as does this Seussian goof on the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, though his architect spared him the spitting.

But what’s that in nearby Troup Square?

A neoclassical armillary sphere!? Isn’t there anyone in Savannah who knows what medievalism is all about?

“Sure, Charlie Brown,” says one of six bronze turtles in tiny Santa caps, “I can tell you what medievalism is all about.”

Yep, along this square is the Unitarian church where J.P. Morgan’s uncle served as minister when he published “Jingle Bells.” (Until today, it had never occurred to me that anyone had actually written “Jingle Bells,” or that controversy would attend upon its provenance.)

Amusingly, in the 1850s, Pierpont’s church wasn’t in this square, but a few blocks away. During a low point for Savannah Unitarians, the building was bought by African-American Episcopalians, who industriously rolled it away and set it down here.

So yes, it’s a cosmic treat to stumble around Savannah on Christmas Eve and find a neoclassical Christmas turtle that points you to the relocated church whose minister composed “Jingle Bells”—but what’s medieval-ish about an overplayed ode to the secular sleighing culture of 19th-century New England?

Aha! The composer’s church itself—castellated, Americanized neo-Gothic! Its discovery is hardly a miracle, but the sight of it is fitting end to a charming quest—and a fine way to wish “Quid Plura?” readers a merry (and hopeful, and gargoyle-rich) Christmas.

“Turn the clock to zero, honey…”

[This post originally ran two years ago, but repeating it feels like a fine way to welcome 2011.]

From time to time, I dig through the poetry of Theodulf, ninth-century bishop of Orleans, looking for nuggets to translate. Theodulf was a wit, so I’ve had fun making modern English versions of his Latin verses about pilgrimages, libations, wildlife, stolen horses, and children’s dreams. But what, I wondered, could Theodulf do for me on New Year’s Day?

I shouldn’t have worried; the old Goth didn’t let me down. In the middle of a dull poem about faith, hope, and charity (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 466-467), I found four lovely lines of Latin, and I plucked ’em:

Nam pia dona spei tereti signatur in ovo,
Tegmine obumbratum quod vehit intus habens:
Ut pullum ova tegunt, sic spem praesentia celant,
Hic patet exutus, illa futura parat.

With the reckless optimism of a Leyendecker baby, I give you this translation:

To see the blessed gift of hope, behold
The egg that keeps a secret in its shell:
The present, hiding hope, conceals it well;
The future cracks it: tiny wings unfold.

Those of you who read Latin are shaking your heads at this rather free rendering. So be it! It’s a new year! Old habits limp to their graves, ashamed! Besides, I did some research and found that these four lines have been translated repeatedly throughout the centuries, often by poets who took far greater liberties than I did.

For example, here’s a little-known translation by Langston Hughes:

THEODULF AT THE 125th ST. DINER

The sunny side
An egg supplied
Upon t’morrow gambled.
It hides in a shell
That poached it well
And never got it scrambled.
The present keeps our dreams deferred.
The future hatches: out pops a bird.

And here—dear reader, I was as astonished to discover it as you surely are—is a translation of Theodulf by none other than T.S. Eliot:

PERTELOTE SENESCENS

The sea-birds race inland from the storm
Above the subtile chicken seeking quiet in the barn
Where she dares not hope
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“—
But for the egg:
The shell conceals our tatterdemalion past—
The shell incubates our necessitous future
—and hope becomes a farmer
With shards of egg in his desquamative palm
Forgetting the recrudescent monotony of the plow, straining
To hear the eager peeping in the straw.

My translation isn’t looking quite so loose now, is it?

On behalf of Theodulf, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and a room full of imaginary chickens, I wish you a happy and recklessly hopeful new year.

“Ran down, and the lady said it…”

When the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp tomorrow to honor Anna Julia Cooper, she’ll be remembered, rightly, as a remarkable woman. Born into slavery around 1858 in North Carolina, Cooper earned a degree in mathematics but also taught Latin and Greek. As principal of the nation’s best public high school for black children, she fought for high educational standards and prepared her students for top universities. In essays and lectures, she addressed racism, the concerns of black women, and other issues of the day. When women’s rights groups turned out to be white women’s rights groups, she started her own.

But Anna Julia Cooper was also a Charlemagne buff—and an inspiration to exhausted grad students everywhere.

From 1911 to 1913, Cooper spent summers studying French literature and history in Paris. In 1914—at the tender age of 56—she enrolled in the Department of Romance Languages at Columbia University with plans to earn her doctorate. Scholars of medieval French literature were clamoring for an accessible version of the epic Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne to replace a hard-to-find German edition, and Cooper gave them one, but Columbia didn’t grant her a degree. As a widow raising her dead brother’s five children while holding down a full-time job as a teacher and principal in Washington, D.C., she couldn’t fulfill the one-year residency requirement.

In response, Cooper sought out a university with no such requirement. The Sorbonne accepted her credits but her work on the Pèlerinage didn’t meet their dissertation requirements, so Cooper wrote a second dissertation. In 1925, she earned a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and found a Parisian publisher for her edition and facing-page translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. She was 66 years old.

Cooper’s Pèlerinage was never published in America. When she offered the book and all its proceeds to her alma mater, Oberlin, the school hemmed and hawed—and then nervously declined. Even so, the book was the standard edition and translation for decades, American libraries and language departments sought it out, and several pages were included in an anthology of medieval French literature reprinted as recently as the 1960s.

Beyond its manageable size, it’s not clear what drew Cooper to the Charlemagne project she cheekily called her “homework,” but few American teachers have so aptly encouraged students, then or now, through indefatigable example. Cooper, who lived to be 105, understood the pedigree of that tradition:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Alcuin wrote that. It’s a Carolingian sentiment, but one that Cooper, a proper medievalist, could easily endorse.

“Turn the clock to zero, honey…”

From time to time, I dig through the poetry of Theodulf, ninth-century bishop of Orleans, looking for nuggets to translate. Theodulf was a wit, so I’ve had fun making modern English versions of his Latin verses about pilgrimages, libations, wildlife, stolen horses, and children’s dreams. But what, I wondered, could Theodulf do for me on New Year’s Day?

I shouldn’t have worried; the old Goth didn’t let me down. In the middle of a dull poem about faith, hope, and charity (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 466-467), I found four lovely lines of Latin, and I plucked ’em:

Nam pia dona spei tereti signatur in ovo,
Tegmine obumbratum quod vehit intus habens:
Ut pullum ova tegunt, sic spem praesentia celant,
Hic patet exutus, illa futura parat.

With the reckless optimism of a Leyendecker baby, I give you this translation:

To see the blessed gift of hope, behold
The egg that keeps a secret in its shell:
The present, hiding hope, conceals it well;
The future cracks it: tiny wings unfold.

Those of you who read Latin are shaking your heads at this rather free rendering of the original. So be it! It’s a new year! Old habits limp to their graves, ashamed! Besides, I did some research and found that these four Latin lines have been translated repeatedly throughout the centuries, often by poets who took far greater liberties than I did.

For example, here’s a little-known translation by Langston Hughes:

THEODULF AT THE 125th ST. DINER

The sunny side
An egg supplied
Upon t’morrow gambled.
It hides in a shell
That poached it well
And never got it scrambled.
The present keeps our dreams deferred.
The future hatches: out pops a bird.

And here—dear reader, I was as astonished to discover it as you surely are—is a translation of Theodulf by none other than T.S. Eliot:

PERTELOTE SENESCENS

The sea-birds race inland from the storm
Above the subtile chicken seeking quiet in the barn
Where she dares not hope
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“—
But for the egg:
The shell conceals our tatterdemalion past—
The shell incubates our necessitous future
—and hope becomes a farmer
With shards of egg in his desquamative palm
Forgetting the recrudescent monotony of the plow, straining
To hear the eager peeping in the straw.

My translation isn’t looking quite so loose now, is it?

On behalf of Theodulf, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and a room full of imaginary chickens, I wish you a happy and recklessly hopeful new year.

“In the house of the gods, where no mongrels preach…”

Are conditions in Thai shrimp factories “medieval”? Matt Gabriele considers the use of the m-word in a report quoted by CNN:

Maybe it’s just an adjective that means “other,” an uncritical, enlightenment perception of a darker past that we, generally, have moved beyond. And generally, I might like to agree. The problem, then, is that this kind of thinking asserts that such behavior—torture, kidnapping, etc.—are aberrant in our society, when in fact they’re really not. Certainly, all that stuff was there in the Middle Ages too. The thing is though, it never left.

Matt’s conclusion—that misery and human cruelty aren’t consigned to the past—is sensible, and worth reiterating; people do have a tough time getting beyond the pejorative implications of “medieval.” My Chaucer students, for example, know that Chaucer himself was well connected, and they understand that the Powers That Be had neither the resources nor the inclination—nor, for that matter, any real reason—to persecute him for his poetry. And yet my students wonder: Feisty women, farting, harshing on friars—how did Chaucer get away with so much?

The misperception that Chaucer “got away with” something isn’t surprising; his humanity, sensibility, and wit run counter to stereotypes about those oppressive Middle Ages. It takes gentle persuasion to convince students to see Chaucer as a poet who can illuminate his era for modern readers, allowing them to put aside preconceptions and behold his world anew—and then, if they’re lucky, rediscover their own.

But sometime it’s fruitful to try the reverse: to ponder a modern subject that puts the medieval world in context. That’s why I couldn’t help but consider Chaucer recently while reading a new biography of a decidedly un-medieval figure: pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

Born in 1884 to former slaves, Micheaux worked as a Pullman porter before becoming a homesteader in South Dakota. He self-published and promoted three autobiographical novels; then, between 1919 and 1948, he wrote, directed, and produced more than 40 movies for black audiences. Motivated by his near-worship of Booker T. Washington and inspired by stories of self-made men, Micheaux was an entrepreneur, an auteur, a fascinating American figure.

He was also a wonderfully Chaucerian guy. Attentive to the quirks of human nature, Micheaux made films that featured, but didn’t glamorize, the black underworld, where a motley pageant of lowlifes and gamblers spouted racial epithets; he even offered the occasional hint of nudity. Micheaux dabbled in multiple genres, sometimes recombining beloved story elements in bizarre and amusing ways: a musical comedy about a haunted house, for example, or a morality play about racial segregation that also featured Alaskan frontiersmen, wild dream visions, and an assortment of scoundrels and saints. Micheaux was something of a scoundrel himself, a raconteur who traveled the country and who would happily lie, cheat, and even plagiarize to promote the few prints of his films he was able to afford. Cheerful, beguiling, optimistic, and perceptive, Oscar Micheaux was was a grand character: Chaucer’s plowman, pardoner, squire, and alchemist all rolled into one.

So yes, Micheaux was interesting—but why strain to see a connection between him and Chaucer? Because Micheaux, a modern artist, suffered “medieval” repercussions that Chaucer never experienced. Beyond having to deal with blatant racism, Micheaux faced the wrath of both church and state when his films were literally snipped to shreds. Sometimes, censors banned his films outright, denying black audiences the opportunity to see his take on black people who “passed” as white, or depictions of lynching, or—Heaven forbid—black and white people dancing together. State and local censors were often clergy who objected, naturally, to one of Micheaux’s recurring character types: the corrupt, hypocritical preacher.

Treated as a fourth-class citizen, denied the ability by clergy and government officials to show his films as he envisioned them, Micheaux was often broke, even bankrupt, and was completely ignored by the mainstream white press. Although film historians recently rediscovered him and restored a few of his movies, his persecutors can’t be said to have failed. They succeeded at suppressing him; his obscurity was their victory. Today, we have a greater percentage of Chaucer’s 14th-century corpus than we have surviving films by Oscar Micheaux, who faced the sort of institutional censorship my students expect from the medieval world, even though Micheaux died only in 1951.

“Maybe,” Matt Gabriele writes in his post about “medieval” shrimp factories, “we all should acknowledge that good stuff and bad stuff happens to all people, at all times, in all places.” That’s one of many lessons to take from the life of Micheaux. Unlike Chaucer, who had little to fear, Micheaux “got away with” much, but he suffered much as well.

If the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer reminds us not to judge all medieval people by the worst aspects of the Middle Ages, then the career of Oscar Micheaux warns us not to judge our own era only by its best. The life story of an ambitious black filmmaker reminds us that the modern world is hardly bereft of “medieval” indignities. We live in more comfortable, prosperous times, but we ought to think twice before assuming we’ve nothing in common, really, with medieval people.