“So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones…”

“[P]ioneering, erratic, and irascible”—that’s how scholar Andrew Wawn introduces a medievalist I’d never heard of, apparently because his spectre haunts only a few narrow stacks in Scandinavian libraries. Although George Stephens published more than 500 books, articles, pamphlets, translations, and plays, his Wikipedia entry is a sorry 120 words long, and it isn’t likely to be lengthened or annotated by legions of Tolkienesque fans. Even so, Wawn’s engaging 1995 article about him—“George Stephens, Cheapinghaven, and Old Northern Antiquity”—makes an amusing but sympathetic case for looking back at scholars of yore-days and seeing not pitiable caricatures, but weird, vivid, quizzical lives.

Wawn calls George Stephens “a fascinatingly marginal figure, an exile by choice, a rebel by temperament, cocooned in his book-lined Copenhagen study glowering across the North Sea at the (in his view) wretched condition of England.” Born in England in 1813, Stephens moved to Sweden in 1834 to teach English before taking a lectureship, and then a professorship, at the University of Copenhagen. (Hearken, jobless scholars! Three years earlier, the enterprising Stephens circulated an English-language pamphlet with the efficacious title Hurrah for Denmark.)

Stephens is one of many unsung souls who hammered out the cogs of the medieval-studies machine. He was an influential collector and classifier of folk tales, his work on runic inscriptions founded a sub-field, and he published the first translation of an Icelandic saga into English—albeit from Swedish. “He translated Icelandic sagas,” Wawn writes, “while contributing to their reoralization by writing saga-based parlor songs; he taught Shakespeare whilst himself writing plays on Viking subjects in Elizabethan style; and he contributed vigorously and unashamedly to popular polemics, finding it no mark of virtue to proclaim the virtues of a democratized literary-critical process in an impenetrable and robotic meta-language.”

He’s also easy to mock. Wawn devotes most of his article to Stephens’ virtually unread 1857 play, Revenge, or Woman’s Love, in which King Edgar of Mercia is waylaid by Vikings while on pilgrimage to Sweden, where he’s forced to summon his wife to be sacrificed to Odin. Wawn is patient with Stephens’ “pyrotechnic display of newly minted compounds, anaphoric elaboration, and (alas) syntactic congestion,” and I enjoyed picturing the climax featuring “the return of the cave-dwelling witch, accompanied by much smoke and many explosions,” but why snicker? “Notwithstanding its breathless and somewhat confusing denouement,” Wawn says, “there is much spirited and good-humored writing in the play, and it would be ponderously sobersided to miss the element of jeu d’esprit which helps to drive the whole work.”

What Wawn does here is humane. Seeing an eccentric medievalist rendered all the more comical by time, Wawn doesn’t “deconstruct,” “interrogate,” “negotiate,” or (good Lord) “problematize” him. Instead, Wawn peers into a bundle of contradictions—”the English Anglophile exiled in Scandinavia, the modern Christian fundamentalist fascinated by ancient paganism, the British Tory radical who translated a treatise in favor of an hereditary Danish monarchy”—and in 40 pages, reckons his humanity.

To my surprise, Wawn contrasts Stephens with another philologist whose life and work were shaped by Mercia. “George Stephens, it need hardly be said, was no Tolkien,” he admits, “and Revenge, it need hardly be added, is no Lord of the Rings. The play could number its nineteenth-century readers in tens, and its twentieth-century ones on the healthy fingers of a severely maimed hand.” I laughed at that line, because it’s tempting to see Stephens as a prevenient Ignatius Reilly bumbling around Copenhagen, crusading for influence, obsessed with tomorrow’s obscurities, repelling his colleagues with political rants. It’s harder, but kinder, to place this minor scholar alongside a famous one, in an article that’s more subtly and sensitively written than anything its subject could have mustered, and not lose him in the shadow.

“That one should succeed commandingly whilst another fails eccentrically needs (and finds) no explanation in the self-preoccupied world of modern literary theory,” Wawn concludes. “We might rather look to the chaos theory of real human lives.” In his choice of subject and through his own example, Wawn affirms something that isn’t always clear: there are people behind the scholarship we read.

“Look, a golden-winged ship is passing my way…”

Few cathedrals never know an earthquake. Most, like Lincoln, survive, with spires left unreplaced; others, like the cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, wearily face demolition after one earthquake too many. Tuesday’s quake gave Washington National Cathedral its first real rattle, knocking spires off the central tower, cracking buttresses, raining rubble onto the south transept steps, damaging a gargoyle, and probably causing damage yet unknown.

The rueful consolation of architectural history, both medieval and modern, is that it certainly could have been worse. In A.D. 1248, a busy year for crusading, church-state sparring, and all the usual duecento brouhaha, an earthquake hit England. Tallying up the year’s events in his Chronica Majora, the prolific monk Matthew Parris recorded the damage done to Wells Cathedral, around 20 miles southwest of Bath.

Here’s the original, for you Latinists:

Eodemque anno in Adventu Domini, scilicet quarto die ante Natale Domini, factus [est] terraemotus in Angia, ita ut, prout haec scribenti enarravit episcopus Bathoniensis, quia in ejus diocesi evenit, dissipatae sunt maceriae aedificorum, et lapides de locus suis avulsi in muris hiatus fecerunt patulos et rimas cum ruinis. Tholus quoque lapideus magnae quantitatis et ponderis, qui per diligentiam caementariorum in summitate ecclesiae de Velles ponebatur, raptus de loco suo, non sine dampno super ecclesiam cecedit; et cum ab alto rueret, tumultum reddens horribilem, audientibus timorem incussit non minimum. In quo etiam terrae motu hoc accidit mirabile; caminorum, propugnaculorum, et columpnarum capitella et summitates motae sunt, bases vero et fundamenta nequaquam, cum contrarium naturaliter debuit evenire. Et ille terraemotus tertius fuit, qui in triennio citra Alpes evenit; unus in partibus Sabaudiae, et duo in Anglia, quod ab initio mundi est inauditum, et ideo terribilius.

And here’s a quick translation:

That same year, during the Advent of the Lord, specifically on the fourth day before the Nativity of the Lord, there was an earthquake in England in which—as the bishop of Bath, in whose diocese it occurred, told this writer—the walls of buildings burst, and stones torn from their places left holes and cracks in ruined walls. The vaulted roof of the cathedral of Wells, set in place atop the summit through the diligence of masons and made of stones of great number and weight, was torn from its place, not without damage. It fell on the church, collapsing from on high and making a terrible crash that struck not a little fear in those who heard it.

During this earthquake, a wonder occurred: The peaks and summits of chimneys, ramparts, and pillars were dislodged, but the bases and foundations were not, although naturally, the contrary should have occurred.

This earthquake was also the third in three years to occur on the near side of the Alps, one in Savoy and two in England, a thing unheard of since the beginning of the world and thus that much more terrible.

Wells Cathedral survived, but its architectural future wasn’t placid. In the early 14th century, just a few decades after the earthquake, a new central tower cracked and seemed ready to collapse until a mason named William Joy invented a solution: scissor arches.

For nearly five years, I’ve written blog posts about the National Cathedral, finding Charlemagne’s heirs in the Bishop’s Garden (and butterfly amour there too) while taking autumn snapshots, looking into bloomin’ Arthuriana, admiring the spires draped in whimsical light, and tracing the building’s architectural kinship with a facade across the street. Then, of course, there are those nearly 40 poems about the gargoyles.

If you’ve enjoyed any of this stuff, please consider making a donation to help fix my favorite medievalist neighbor. The repairs are expected to cost millions, and structural engineers are “daunted by the idea of finding a way to repair such massive pieces so high up.” I suspect that like William Joy before them, these modern architects and masons will find ingenious solutions, but their work won’t be covered by insurance, so please drop a coin or two in the collection plate; you’ll be helping to restore a monument to the enduring influence of the Middle Ages. And if you’re feeling cheeky, you might insist that a gargoyle sent you.

“There’s a picture-view postcard to say that I called…”

[This post originally appeared in January 2005 on the now-defunct blog that preceded “Quid Plura?” It seemed fitting for this week.]

Journeying to Canterbury is no longer quaint. Medieval pilgrims ended the trip tired and footsore and damp, but fields and villages now fly past train windows at speeds that test the imagination of the wide-eyed medievalist. Go ahead: Count the spires. Pretend you’re a motley-clad traveler rambling past hedgerows while a whistling minstrel spurs you on with his idiot’s rendition of “Greensleeves.” The vision fades. In moments, a smokestack or minaret shakes you from your Pre-Raphaelite reverie, as well it should.

In Canterbury, you’ll seek in vain for the pregnant hope that called to medieval pilgrims, but you will encounter the humanity, the “God’s plenty” Dryden saw in Chaucer: throngs of foul-mouthed schoolgirls, market-stall merchants hawking grape leaves and portraits of Elvis in frames. In the holy gloom of the cathedral, docents outnumber clergy; tourists outnumber docents. Beyond the quire, Becket’s shrine once stood exposed to devotional groping; in its place sits a lone candle, roped off for its own protection. In a more fervent and tactile age, parsons and plowmen might have found it disappointing—or maybe they’d distinguish, as we often do not, between things that are transient and things that are lasting and real.

At Canterbury Cathedral, that flame lights the murk where distinctions blur. Stand where Becket was murdered, by arches carved with jagged Romanesque fangs, and the pained reaction Eliot ascribed to the masses is sudden and true: “But this,” he wrote, “this is out of life, this is out of time, / An instant eternity of evil and wrong.” But then you look away from Thomas’s name gouged in red across the floor and those magnificent walls and windows draw your eye up, and up, and up. You’re happy; you’re lost in heavenly complexity.

Thirteen years ago, I found Canterbury with my best friend, almost by accident. Last week, while he hunched over law books in a Cambridge suburb, I went there with his wife, a dear friend in her own right but in 1992 someone I didn’t know existed. Part of my return was a vain attempt to confirm small, cherished myths—Did they move the bus station? Where’s that place we ate breakfast?—but after several cold, quiet hours with fellows like Anselm and Becket I cared less for 1992, 1399, or 1170 than I did for the future. Who will join me next time? Will it be their eight-month-old son, destined to inherit his dad’s sword-and-sorcery gene and his mom’s eye for architecture? Will I pause in those chapels with someone I’ll meet tomorrow, or ten years hence? Will it be someone who’s yet to be born?

I don’t know; it’s good not to know. Now that I’m home I imagine two things: One day I’ll wander back through Canterbury, and when I do, I won’t be alone. I may have no need for saintly intercession and miraculous cures, nor boundless faith in either, but to anticipate that next visit is to plan out a new sort of pilgrimage. If that turns out to be one more thing I was wrong about, so be it—but waiting to see who walks beside you is, even for the most aimless of pilgrims, a fine premonition of hope.