I Have Started for Canaan: The Story of the African American Town of Sugarland

I don’t have romantic notions about what writers do—but every so often, our work has profound implications for neighbors and friends.

In January 2019, I met two great-granddaughters of the founders of Sugarland, a town established by former slaves immediately after emancipation in rural Montgomery County, Maryland. My new friends were tenacious historians who had collected 150 years’ worth of sources—photographs, meeting minutes, construction contracts, land deeds, funeral programs, military records, church ledgers, oral histories, artifacts, you name it—and they were ready to turn their collection into a book for a wide audience. After nearly two years of brainstorming and collaboration, we’re finally putting that book in readers’ hands.

Defying familiar narratives of the African American experience that focus on sharecropping or urban life, I Have Started for Canaan is a remarkable chronicle of rural self-sufficiency. In a corner of the countryside 20 miles from the nation’s capital, the Sugarland families owned 200 acres of farmland immediately after the Civil War. At its height, their town boasted a schoolhouse, a general store, a post office, a practice hall for a brass band, and a church that still stands today. To the best of our knowledge, I Have Started for Canaan is the first book-length history of a Reconstruction-era African American town in Maryland.

To learn more about the work that went into this book and the richness of the primary sources in the Sugarland collection, check out this online presentation I gave in May. If you’d like to buy a copy, our friends at the Montgomery Countryside Alliance are fulfilling mail orders—or you can email me about obtaining a copy and paying via Paypal. (I’ll update this post as other sales venues become available.)

I Have Started for Canaan was a volunteer project for me, so every dime of profit from book sales will go back to the Sugarland Ethno-History Project for the upkeep of their cemetery and historic 1894 church, the preservation of their collection, and—if all goes well—the eventual creation of a small museum. I’m proud to have helped bring this story to the world, and I hope you’ll be as inspired as I was to hear the clear, confident voices of the Sugarland founders resound across 150 years.

“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.

“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.

“And we’re strangers here, on our way to some other place…”

After Becoming Charlemagne came out in late 2006, I spent nearly two years talking about the early Middle Ages wherever anyone asked me to do so—at libraries, bookstores, museums, senior-citizen programs, even a tea salon in a suburb of New Orleans. I had several templates for speeches, all of them customizable for different venues and occasions, including one really fun presentation about the founding and early decades of Baghdad. But when the branch of the University of Maryland where I was teaching asked me to give the plenary address at a conference for writing instructors, I got a little more nervous than usual.

I’ve never been a writing instructor—I don’t have the necessary patience—so I wondered: What did a part-time medievalist have to say to teachers who do some of the English department’s hardest and least glamorous work?

As is so often the case, once I reframed the question to be less about myself, I found there was plenty to say after all.

Here’s a transcript of the speech, edited to remove introductory banter, a couple of brief tangents, and legions of unflattering “ums” and “ahs.” I wish it hadn’t taken so long to post this somewhere, but hey, if something is worth saying, maybe it’s still worth saying eleven years later.

* * *

“The old wine of ancient learning”:
The medieval classroom and its lessons for modern writing instructors

Plenary address, Fourth Annual UMUC July Writing Conference, Adelphi, Maryland
Friday, July 27, 2007, 9:30 a.m.

Thank you for the invitation to come speak to you all this morning. It’s always an honor to be asked to give a talk, but it’s even more of an honor to be asked to speak with colleagues about writing, and putting some of what we do here at UMUC in its historical context. I’m really humbled by, and grateful for, the invitation.

Now, because I teach medieval literature and write about medieval history and culture, I wanted to do a little digging to find something appropriate and relevant to talk about. As Matt pointed out, I recently wrote a book, two little books, about Charlemagne, the king and emperor who was a patron of education and who, like many of our UMUC students, came to scholarship fairly late in life, but with tremendous passion. Charlemagne and the great teachers of the early Middle Ages revived and perpetuated ancient and time-tested educational methods, which helped keep learning alive for the past 1,200 years, so I thought I’d spent a little time this morning discussing the pedagogical traditions we inherited from them—what Charlemagne’s chief advisor, a man named Alcuin, referred to as “the old wine of ancient learning.” It’s a tradition that all of us in this room are working in to some extent or another, even if we’re not necessarily aware that we’re doing so.

So why look to the early Middle Ages? It’s an era commonly dismissed as the “Dark Ages,” and perhaps understandably so. Europe was a collection of competing kingdoms and tribes, very few people were literate, monasteries were the sole repositories of surviving knowledge, and the first universities were more than 300 years away. In fact, the brightest, most perspicacious people in Europe during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries couldn’t have imagined a day when there would be a sufficient number of literate, well educated people to populate such an institution.

But when you look at the manuscripts, the classroom texts, and the teaching methods of the early Middle Ages, you find habits and practices that I think would warm the hearts of pretty much everybody in this room. You find, for example, an obsessive attention to what today we would refer to as “literacy” and “critical thinking skills.” We find a true love of learning—even more admirably, a love of language, the nuts and bolts of language: how language works, how you put words together, how you put sentences together, how you communicate with other educated people. And you find that underlying all of this is an incredible sense of purpose, a real sense of mission. Thanks to the efforts of the monks of this era, within a generation or two, literacy was spreading, old books were being copied and preserved at unprecedented rates, and new books were being written for educational use.

So there are really a few things to discuss here this morning: What was this educational curriculum and where did it come from? And also, what made it so successful in such an uncertain and illiterate era?

The answers to those questions contain real lessons for those of us who teach writing, composition, and literature, and in the end I think they leave us with further interesting questions to ponder as well.

* * *

Now as to that first question: Where did this educational curriculum come from? Medieval people didn’t concoct it out of nothing. Medieval learning was derived from ancient Roman educational methods, so let me talk for a moment about what came before.

At the height of the Roman empire, when Rome was prosperous and powerful and stretched from Scotland to the Middle East, young boys began their education with somebody called a litterator, a tutor or a teacher who taught them the basics—who, as the name implies, “lettered” them, and gave them fundamental reading and writing skills. At the age of 12, they attended classes with the grammaticus, a grammarian, where, since they were ancient Romans, they studied Greek and Latin. They read literature, especially poetry, and emphasized grammar and syntax. On the side, they also studied history, mythology, and basic arithmetic. Around the age of 14 or 15, they moved on to the full study of rhetoric. They read prose writers, they practiced composition, and they attempted elaborate written and spoken exercises. They also studied law, philosophy, and science, but usually philosophy and science got short shrift in favor of law. The children of the wealthy were going to need that legal training if they were going to get a good job with the civil service. Some things really don’t change.

The Romans didn’t have a single name for this curriculum. Cicero had referred to it as the “liberal arts” and “liberal disciplines”—artes liberales and liberales disciplina—but he never really spelled out exactly what he meant by them or exactly how many liberal arts were in this curriculum, at least at first. The Latin adjective liberales here indicated an education worthy of a man who was liber, or “free,” but it also connoted courteousness, generosity, honor—in short, the behavior of a cultivated man, anachronistically someone we might think of as a “proper gentleman.”

This term “liberal arts” continues to pop up even after the heyday of Rome and well into Late Antiquity, even as there were fewer of these “proper Roman gentlemen” roaming the Forum. For a while there’s some disagreement in Late Antiquity about how many liberal arts there even are. Some say nine, but most agreed that there were seven, in two groupings: a primary grouping of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic; and a secondary grouping of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. (A few ancient writers tried to squeeze medicine and architecture in there to form nine, but those never really stuck.)

Fast-forward a few centuries, and this was the basic educational philosophy, this curriculum of seven liberal arts, inherited by early medieval people.

They knew from reading the centuries-old works of Saint Augustine—Charlemagne’s favorite writer—that this curriculum was essential. Saint Augustine had said in his youth that the liberal arts “are learnt partly for the conduct of life, [and] partly for the understanding and contemplation of the Universe.” And by the year 800—the high point of the reign of the king and emperor Charlemagne—this curriculum was thriving.

Of course, the world was a very different place by this point. The Roman Empire was a memory; the social institutions of Europe had devolved and were rather unsophisticated, by the standards of a few centuries earlier; and Christianity, not Roman paganism, was the predominant belief system.

Yet this same basic liberal arts curriculum endured, and even gained new life, in the hands of these early medieval monks. The grouping of four secondary subjects—arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy—had already been known for centuries as the quadrivium. But the grouping of the three primary subjects got its name around this time. Sometime around the year 800, the curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic became known as the trivium. This is literally, in Latin, the place where three roads come together; it’s also where we get our modern word “trivia.” Most people think that “trivium” is an old Roman term, but in the context of education, it’s not—it’s a medieval term.

So that’s where the curriculum came from, and how medieval monks found themselves in possession of it.

But what did these early medieval monks do with the trivium once they devoted themselves to it? And why and how where they so successful?

* * *

Well, they put their own early medieval twist on the old Roman subjects of the trivium.

At the core of it, of course, was grammar, with “grammar” very broadly defined. We think of it as a narrowly defined subject today, but to them it wasn’t. It was the study of literature, both secular and religious, but it was also “grammar” as we define it now: letters, words, parts of speech, even handwriting—orthography—and vocabulary. They began their study of grammar by memorizing the psalms. The psalter, the Book of Psalms, was their primer. They combined a tremendous amount of memorization with an emphasis on the underlying technical aspects of language. They used all these Late Antique writers and early medieval authors—Donatus, Priscian, and St. Isidore—and they had many newly compiled dictionaries and glossaries to help them understand exactly what it was they were reading.

When they were ready, when they had sufficiently studied grammar, they, like their ancient Roman counterparts, moved on to rhetoric and studied, among other books, the works of Cicero, or new books closely based on Cicero’s writings. (We would consider these books heavily plagiarized from Cicero, but they didn’t have those sorts of intellectual-property issues; they were able to get away with imitation in ways we wouldn’t allow today.) They learned practical skills when they studied rhetoric, and I find the list of these things rather interesting. They learned how to write a letter of condolence; how to describe a king (in a flattering way, of course); how to compose—and I love this one, we should all assign this at some point—a debate between winter and spring, the old classical debate genre, which they took up in the Middle Ages as well. They also wrote letters announcing the election of a bishop or the death of a member of their local community. And they learned how to do this with metaphors, rhymed prose, parallelism, and a host of other rhetorical skills drawn from ancient writing and ancient examples.

The rhetoric manuals from this time are really remarkable. I dug into one in preparation for coming to give this talk today. Medieval authors read Cicero and imitated him very closely, and in these early rhetoric manuals, rhetoric has a grammar all its own, with five parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery; and three types of questions: demonstrative, deliberative, and judicial; and four types of disputes and debates—and so on and so forth, with all sorts of classifications and sub-classifications, with clearly defined rhetorical strategies outlined and described and meticulously classified along the way. I can tell you that the precision and thoroughness of medieval thinkers is dazzling when you first encounter it. It doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of medieval people as backwards.

Once a student sufficiently mastered rhetoric, he moved on to dialectic, which as far as medieval people were concerned was essentially logic: how to use language accurately by focusing on precise definitions and logical arguments. Here they did syllogistic exercises, often in question-and-response format. In the classroom and in the textbooks of the time, there are these great medieval dialogues between a thinker and whoever the king or prince happened to be, so conversational yet so precise, clear examples of the Socratic method in action.

Keep in mind that medieval students had the added difficulty of having to do all of this in Latin, which they were studying on top of speaking their own vernacular languages. At every step, they were encouraged to read the best and most difficult Latin texts available; they were encouraged to confront and engage with writings produced by the finest minds, such as Cicero and Virgil and Saint Augustine—and, of course, King David. Ultimately they did so that they could understand and interpret the most important text in their world, which of course was the Bible—but a great deal of rigorous work involving pagan and secular authors was required to get them to that point.

One dialogue in a rhetoric textbook quotes Charlemagne himself as saying this:

I confess…that to me these requirements appear at first glance to be very pleasant and just and moderate. But as I look at them and come to understand them, I see that they postulate constant exercise and daily practice, and that they cannot be perfectly fulfilled except by unremitting thought and close study.

I’d love to give that to every one of our students as they get ready to study writing and literature.

Charlemagne was right: the trivium was not to be breezed through. In fact, developing the ability to read, write, analyze, argue, and understand was a lifetime project. It began, in youth, with memorizing the psalms; it required years of composition practice and a tremendous amount of memorization and imitation; and it ended—if it ever ended—with being able to write original poetry in Latin, which many educated people were never able to do, and which even the best-educated people often got wrong.

But this was “lifelong learning” in the truest sense of the term. No matter what an educated person went on to study, whether he dabbled in music, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, you name it, he never stopped studying grammar; he never stopped being obsessed with language; and he never stopped improving his own rhetorical skills.

The poets of the ninth century were very certain about this. A witty Goth named Theodulf who was bishop of the city of Orleans wrote a poem in which Grammar is an allegorical figure. She stands at the root of a tree that represents all knowledge.

Theodulf writes:

The entire tree seems to proceed from her, because no art can be brought forth without her. Her left hand holds a whip, and her right hand a sword: the first is to drive the lazy, the second is to weed out vices. And since wisdom is in the first place everywhere, a diadem [a crown] adorns her head.

So Grammar was the queen and the root of all knowledge. (Of course, Theodulf can’t get away without a dig at some of his lazier students. He’s a bit of a wiseguy by ninth-century standards.)

The standards he discusses in this little excerpt from his poem about the seven liberal arts are supported in many of the other classroom texts, poems, and other accounts we have from the early Middle Ages.

Amazingly, we have one manuscript, in the library at St. Gall in what’s now Switzerland, that’s the personal notebook of a well-educated abbot from around the year 850, and it demonstrates how medieval people truly made a lifelong commitment to studying language. The abbot’s name was Walahfrid Strabo—Walahfrid the Squinter. If any of you are gardeners, you may have seen references to Walahfrid. He wrote a famous book about gardening, and he tended a famous garden at Reichenau, and if you visit the National Cathedral and go into to the Bishop’s Garden here in D.C., there’s a little “garden room,” as they call it, devoted to the era of Charlemagne, with little signs with snippets from Walahfrid Strabo. (I like seeing these little snippets of the Middle Ages popping up unexpectedly.)

When he wasn’t writing, Walahfrid was the personal tutor of the Emperor Charles the Bald. And he apparently kept this notebook, this little vademecum, that he took with him wherever he went. It’s amazing we even have this.

It’s 394 pages long. It includes mathematical tables, medical texts, excerpts from chronicles and calendars, even a very clever little drawing of a labyrinth. Walahfrid was clearly, from his notebook, a man with a keen mind and a very broad range of interests.

But 169 of these 394 pages, around 40 percent of the book, are devoted to grammatical texts: examples of usage, excerpts from great writers, and guides to poetic meter, all things he could use later while refining his own writing. Many of them are excerpts from writers from Late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages, writers on grammar and rhetoric.

Can you imagine if 40 percent our students’ personal reference libraries years after they graduated still consisted of grammar and composition manuals and notes from your classes that they still used to improve and refine and perfect their writing? That may sound horrifying at first—you may thing, “gee, I didn’t send them out into the world sufficiently prepared”—but this wasn’t a sign of the weakness of their system; it was a sign of its strength. Prestige and reputation were bound up in your writing abilities. You didn’t want to look silly or ignorant when writing for other educated people.

So if you were a medieval person, no matter what you studied, you were always returning to the roots of your education in grammar. You were always, essentially, to use a phrase that’s been bandied about in the past few years, “writing across the curriculum.” You saw yourself as never really having completed English 101—and that was a good thing.

* * *

Fortunately—for them and for us—this emphasis on the Liberal Arts in general, and the trivium in particular, was a remarkable success. After the year 800, books were produced and copied at an unprecedented rate. Around 1,800 manuscripts or fragments survive from Western Europe before the year 800—but from the ninth century alone, we have more than 7,000 manuscripts or fragments. Quite a few of them were ancient books that we wouldn’t have today if medieval monks hadn’t copied them. For example, we wouldn’t have Cicero’s Philippics, in which the great orator rants about Mark Antony, if monks hadn’t seen fit to copy it in the early Middle Ages. No ancient copy of the book survives—the oldest is a ninth or tenth-century copy.

These were people who cared so deeply about the treasures of the past that in their zeal to preserve books and make them more legible, they developed a new form of handwriting. Today, scholars call it “Carolingian minuscule,” but you know it as the so-called “Roman” font on your word processors. It’s not “Roman” at all—that’s a mistake by typesetters of early modern books. It’s a medieval Northern European handwriting—and 1,200 years later, those lowercase letters are still used in nearly all printed books today.

So, not only did they keep the liberal arts curriculum alive, they kept alive a culture of literacy, a culture of the book—a culture that bore additional fruit 300 years later, during the twelfth century, when those traditional seven liberal arts were enhanced by Aristotelian logic and combined with law, medicine, and theology, as monastery and cathedral schools evolved into the first universities. The university was the medieval institution that set European history, and Western intellectual history, on its way. All of us here today are a part of this centuries-old tradition, and in fact we’re continuing it, 800 years after some teachers came together to form guilds in places like Paris and Bologna.

* * *

At the same time, you may be interested to know that there’s a modern movement to bring back the trivium in secondary schools. I recently discovered this after assuming that I’d be speaking this morning only about the hypothetical lessons and uses of the trivium. As it turns out, the Trivium Based Educational Movement is extremely popular among Christian educators and especially Christian homeschoolers.

But even though Christian monks and teachers used this curriculum successfully for centuries, there’s nothing necessarily or inherently Christian about the trivium, with its emphasis on grammar, rhetoric, and logic. In fact, if you search around the Web, you can find dozens of charter schools around the country—public schools with no religious agenda—that are basing their curriculum around the methodology of the trivium.

This is even true locally. If you go to the Web site of the Washington Latin Academy, a new public charter school down the road here in D.C., you’ll see them say this:

Every subject has its grammar, and its developmentally appropriate pedagogy begins with it. In the Lower School…direct instruction, drill, memorization of facts and recitation are essential strategies for teaching and learning. In the Upper School…students are led beyond the grammar to the logic and rhetoric of each subject.

Then the website adds that in these later stages, they employ the Socratic method—just like the teachers and the classroom texts of the early Middle Ages, just like many of you, in your classrooms, in 2007.

* * *

So what can we as writing and literature teachers, or even instructors in other disciplines, learn from the medieval monks who mastered the trivium? What can we learn from their incredible long-term success?

First of all, I think we can derive satisfaction from their very existence. We can take heart in their ability to keep grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic at the core of the curriculum. But their example also reminds us that just by being teachers of writing and composition and literature you—all of you—are working in a venerable and vital field, one that really does prepare students for everything else they will ever do.

And I think we ought to remember that what we teach, and how we teach, and what we discuss here at this conference in the next two days, could very possibly have an impact for centuries.

But I think we can also learn from acknowledging why they did what they did, and attempt to motivate ourselves accordingly.

If you would have asked one of Charlemagne’s monks to justify literacy education and to explain its purpose and importance—or even if you asked Charlemagne himself—he would have been bemused by the question. For these early medieval monks, there was only one answer to the question, and it was extremely obvious to them: the ultimate purpose of an education was to unlock and understand the layers of meaning in the Bible, and thus to save souls. Kings, abbots, and teachers believed that they would have to answer to God Himself if they didn’t educate their subjects and their students to the best of their ability.

This was why the most forward-looking medieval kings and emperors like Charlemagne supported more widespread literacy; why he issued edicts calling for more schools and better education; why he scolded his monks when they sent him incompetent letters; why he tried (unsuccessfully) to learn how to write himself; and why he summoned Europe’s most brilliant teachers to his court.

You see their motives spelled out most memorably, in my opinion, in a charming letter written by Alcuin, who was, as I’ve mentioned, Charlemagne’s chief advisor and one of the best educated men in Europe at the time.

Around 796, Alcuin sends a new graduate of his school back to England, and he sends with him a very tender and revealing letter of reference. It reads in part:

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 around 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.

We can all relate to this very human nervousness about sending a student out into the wider world, but in Alcuin’s case the motive behind it was quite different, and quite un-modern. For early medieval people, the final goal of literacy was a religious one.

* * *

By contrast, if all of us in this room were to explain why we think literacy is important, we’d hear quite a few different answers.

We’d hear that a literate citizenry is vital to a functioning republic; that literacy offers better job prospects; that literacy leads to personal enlightenment, which is its own reward; and perhaps other reasons as well.

Now, I happen to think that all of these very un-medieval answers would be good answers—but if we were to start this discussion, we’d be here for hours, because the responses would be highly personal; all of us would list these motives in different proportions. Some of us would have other motivations still; and hopefully no more than a few of you would have to dig deep to remember why you still do this at all. (We all have those days.)

And even if we all miraculously agreed on the “why” of things, I’m sure we would never agree on the “how”—our methods, our theories, and our classroom techniques.

So even if we don’t have the same reasons for teaching as our predecessors, even if our reasons are far more diverse, I believe we can still admire, maybe even emulate, their consistency and their confidence.

They knew exactly why they did what they did.

And they all worked together toward the advancement of this great continent-wide, communal educational project.

And they weren’t shy about holding their students and themselves to high standards.

And they didn’t let their students wander aimlessly—they made sure they were well versed in the traditions they were joining. They encouraged them to read brilliant and challenging books, and they encouraged a culture that instilled pride in being educated rather than in being ignorant—a culture that made kings and emperors want to be literate, too, and made them want to be great patrons of education.

And they weren’t afraid to acknowledge that their work as educators could not be compartmentalized—that reading and writing and rhetoric were not temporary diversions that were quickly or easily learned, but that they took a lifetime, and that this knowledge, these skills were vital to the survival and progress of their culture.

* * *

That’s why I think a conference like this one can be extremely productive. During the next two days, all of us can move a little bit closer to having, once again, that same shared consistency of purpose and confidence as a profession, while enjoying more of the same shared techniques and methods as well.

We’re sure to disagree about many things, but I hope this conference renews and invigorates us as we get ready to spend days and weeks and months and years convincing students to make rigorous, thoughtful, critical reading and writing as central to their lives as the trivium was to educated people twelve centuries ago.

We can do that by keeping in mind what those medieval monks did with “the old wine of ancient learning”—these distant monks, who, in the words of medieval historian Rosamond McKitterick, “imparted to future generations…the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.”

“Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft, und fühlten sich gleich angemacht…”

The fall is a dubious season for gratitude. The farm stands are closing, our garden is nothing but brittle black wires, and the bald forest can no longer conceal its lack of secrets. Wants and needs grow more insistent, and we get too little daylight with which to appease them. Bills accumulate. Grades are due. The skeptic is tempted to wonder if anything follows an age of acrimony and spite, or if this is it this time.

And yet I’m not gloomy, but glad. As much as I take heart in the stark beauty of the woods around our home and the curious creatures that land on our feeders or slink round the porch rails at night, the adventure of moving here has another dimension entirely, one I’ve not written about before: the other people who live here, and how they live together well.

We’ve made our home in a large agricultural reserve less than an hour’s drive from the D.C. border. Most of the reserve was set aside by the county’s liberal government around 1980, but it’s kept viable and thriving by hunters and farmers who tend to lean conservative. This sparsely populated corner of one of the most affluent, liberal, and educated counties in the United States was once a hotbed of Confederate sympathy. Today’s locals rebel against other domestic enemies: the sprawl, traffic, pollution, and pace of the rest of the Washington area. The cause is laudable, and far from lost, and I’m heartened by what transpires on this cultural borderland, where life is neither wholly urban nor fully country. I can take you to a century-old orchard where the apples and pears are so delicious that you’ll swear off grocery-store fruit forever. The proprietors, a family with hard, gnarled roots, will greet you in camouflage pants and NRA hats, happily taking payment from city hipsters and immigrants from nearby burbs. Mutual benefit, you see, is miraculous; it makes everyone nicer.

It also makes the past less potent. When the county was sweating over a 1913 monument to the common Confederate soldier, the local family that still runs a ferry across the Potomac claimed the statue and put it on private land. Most motorists who rely on the ferry (the General Jubal Early) probably aren’t glad that Johnny Reb welcomes them to Maryland, but the next river crossing is 16 miles away, so everyone gets on with their travels, including thoughtful commuters who hand hot coffee to windburned ferry workers on frigid mornings. Nowhere is the untruth of political absolutism more apparent. A community can indeed have a Confederate statue and charging stations for electric cars and a Buddhist temple and “’Drive Your Tractor to School’ Day” when diverse neighbors value common goods: an appreciation for the beauty of parks, forests, and farms; a conception of quality of life that loathes hideous overdevelopment; and mutual pride in one of the state’s best public high schools, an institution that helps the whole hodgepodge hang together.

There’s real need here, but the community tries not to wait for outsiders, least of all politicians, to notice and care. One small but formidable charity (for which I volunteer) runs a food pantry, provides transportation for the ill and the elderly, and helps neighbors pay bills when fate has otherwise frowned on them. Hunters annually donate thousands of pounds of meat; last week, scout troops rounded up more than six thousand pounds of dry goods. One church serves lunch every day to a hundred high-school kids and feeds any hungry souls who wander in. A new charity recognizes the talents of skilled workers among us by providing free home repairs for the elderly. Sometimes the good is wholly spontaneous: Last year, after word spread that a pharmacy clerk, a single African-American mom, had fallen on hard times, this community that still leans rural and white raised $2,000 for her on social media within 48 hours.

I can’t claim this place has no flaws. Liberal regulation can be ruinously stifling; conservative resentment can be petty and crude. Some mornings, the comments on the local Facebook group are cause for despair, and I hear and see plenty to remind me that the Chaucerian pageant of human iniquity tromps through even the pleasantest towns―but almost daily, I witness the alchemy of community. It defies reason, it couldn’t be reconstituted elsewhere, and often I doubt that it’s real. I know its active ingredients: There’s liberal do-gooderism and comfort with proceduralism and bureaucracy that comes from working in nearby Washington, plus a healthy dollop of wealth. There’s a proud, practical conservativism focused on building things, fixing things, and making things grow, plus a skepticism of silly and overwrought rules. There are strong churches, nimble private charities, and a sense of civic responsibility so ingrained that a town commissioner rightly tells newcomers that it’s only a matter of time before the community taps their talents. Left unsaid is the bounty they gain in return; we figure out that for ourselves.

In years to come, we’ll all need to learn to get along with people who aren’t like us, and who aren’t inclined to like us. I’m thankful to live in a place that proves it’s possible. This isn’t the season to contemplate anything less.

“Let me set the battlements on fire…”

Mark Twain wasn’t joking when he griped that Southerners’ obsession with the chivalric novels of Sir Walter Scott helped cause the Civil War. In Life on the Mississippi, he laments that Scott had “run the people mad, a couple generations ago, with his medieval romances,” inspiring “maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world had seen”:

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.

I kept Twain in mind last week when I visited Antietam National Battlefield, the site of the single bloodiest day in American history: September 17, 1862, when Union and Confederate armies clashed, taking 23,000 casualties between them. The rangers at Antietam give thorough and informative talks, and I visited some of the famous sites with all due solemnity—but then I stumbled onto medievalism in the cemetery just to the south.

According to architectural historian Catherine Zipf, the job of designing and beautifying Civil War cemeteries fell to Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during and after the war. Every cemetery was to have a superintendent’s lodge, and Meigs standardized the design: each lodge was located near the gate or the edge of the cemetery, shaped like an L with a porch and reception hall, and built in a scaled-down French Second Empire style. Here’s a good example from Glendale National Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia:


(Glendale National Cemetery, Richmond; photo from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website)

After 1865, the Second Empire style was popular for federal architecture, most notably in the then-new State, War, and Navy Building next to the White House. Zipf argues that the style screamed modernity and federal control, especially when the government dropped these lodges into Southern cemeteries, where they contrasted starkly with the Greek-revival porticoes of big plantation houses. The Confederate dead were usually excluded from these cemeteries, and the huge “U.S.” on the second stories of the lodges was not subtle. Meigs let no questions linger about which side had won, and what that meant for the conquered.

So then why does the lodge at Antietam look like this?

What an odd, dreamlike blending of castle and house. According to a memo on this lodge by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, the federal government ran 80 national cemeteries by 1880, but Antietam was one of only two originally established and run by a state. Maryland got the jump on things by convening its own cemetery commission, sending the Confederate dead to be buried elsewhere, and hiring versatile D.C.-based architect Paul Pelz to design and build this lodge in 1867. The Park Service helpfully points out its distinctive features: “stone walls, turret tower with battlements, pointed arch windows, and a gable porch with crossbracing vergeboards.” (The latter term was new to me.) The tower gave veterans and visiting mourners a view of the battlefield, but this little castle didn’t earn fealty from locals. According to the Park Service, ne’er-do-wells loitered in the cemetery, incurring the wrath of superintendents who demanded that they stop using the grounds (in the words of an 1881 War Department inspector) “as a lounging place for the floating part of the citizens, canal men, loafers, young fellows and their sweethearts.”

So why is the lodge at Antietam so unlike its counterparts in other federal cemeteries? American medievalism surged in the 1870s. Tourism to Europe had never been higher; at Harvard, Henry Adams became the country’s first professor of medieval history; other campuses would soon start hiring medievalists and building in neo-medieval styles; and New Yorkers were drawing up plans for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I suppose it’s possible that the Maryland cemetery commission chose a versatile architect simply because they wanted a trendy building.

Yet I think something bigger is going on here. Maybe this little castle reflects Maryland’s ambivalence as a slave state that stayed in the Union, neither northern nor southern in its economic mainstays or social sympathies. That’s one way to explain why a cemetery that excludes the Confederate dead would evoke the chivalry that drove wealthy Southerners to war. Maybe some Marylanders hoped to pry medievalism out of Southern hands by claiming the symbolism as a spoil of war, quashing its power by making it fully American. Maybe the house-and-tower design says that domestic tranquility is buttressed by military defense. All those things may be so—but the most likely explanation is that the lodge at Antietam is a reaction to horror, a fearful attempt to push the bloodiest day in American history—in 1867, still a fresh wound—back into a romanticized past, making it romantic, heroic, less awful to face.

If that’s the case, then the builders deceived themselves. The first federal superintendent, Civil War veteran George A. Haverfield, assumed his post here in 1879, but a War Department letter unearthed by the Park Service suggests that an unorthodox but presumably generous gesture brought down swift violence upon the house:

Haverfield, having no family with him, had his laborer and the laborer’s wife live in the lodge, and boarded with him. The husband got jealous of the Superintendent, and rather, reversing the usual order in such cases, the husband was shot dead by the accused wife. It was through this sad occurrence that I learned that Haverfield was not living with his family. Had he been, the tragedy would probably not have happened.

(letter from Captain A.F. Rockwell to Quartermaster General, 20 August 1879, cited in the Historic American Buildings Survey report on the lodge)

A graveyard castle, a love triangle, jealousy, murder—the story has all the makings of a lurid Gothic novel, and the longtime closure of the tower gives the lodge a further tinge of mystery. Twain, of course, would have shaken his head. If the architects of the Antietam lodge thought they could romanticize the battlefield, softening the carnage through the heroic haze of knightly combat, then they misunderstood the limits of medievalism. You can’t plaster over the horrors of war; the blood finds a way to seep out in the end.

“Or will these changing times, motorways, power lines…”

On a cold, sunny day last November, I tromped along the Potomac and decided, on a whim, to hike the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. Over several hikes, sometimes with loved ones but often alone, I covered all of its 40-odd miles, rambling north from the canal towpath by the river along the wooded ridge of South Mountain, and finally—yesterday!—trudging into Pen Mar, Pennsylvania, my own ersatz Compostella. Although I foresaw the hours of chilly silence, the protesting soles, the glimpses of deer tails fleeing like ghosts through the brush, I hadn’t expected to stumble onto a medievalist monument by a forgotten poet or a Gothic chapel emerging from medieval shadows—and I certainly didn’t imagine that the Appalachian Trail itself was built upon a mixed medieval metaphor.

“As Roman civilization received ultimately its cleansing invasion from the hinterland, so American civilization may yet receive its modern counterpart.” So wrote Benton MacKaye in “Outdoor Culture—the Philosophy of Through Trails,” his 1927 address to the New England Trail Conference in Boston (republished in the 1950 collection From Geography to Geotechnics). A Harvard-trained forester with excessive faith in central planning, the eccentric MacKaye dreamed up the Appalachian Trail but left it largely to others to build. He wasn’t always thrilled with the result—he wanted a wilderness retreat, where others were happy to settle for an unbroken path—but over time, he imagined that the A.T. held increasingly profound philosophical significance. What began as a place for public recreation became, in MacKaye’s mind, a long, winding pathway toward social reform.

First, though, MacKaye had to reveal his idea, like an oracle, through metaphors and riddles. Early in his 1927 speech, he deploys the first of two medievalist images:

I once saw Douglas Fairbanks in the photoplay Robin Hood. The hero climbs the proverbial tower; with one arm he catches the beautiful lady as she jumps to elude the bad man’s attentions; with the other he continues climbing, then deftly annihilating Mr. Bad Man, he receives embraces nobly won. It was a glorious show. Intensely I imbibed it from start to finish, transferring my personality totally and thoroughly into Douglas’s rugged body. For fifty cents I had been a hero for twice as many minutes. I left the theatre victorious, vicarious, and with my money’s worth. Into this vivid little Utopia I had made my “get-away” from the humdrum of ordinary prosy life.

Here, then, are the two brands: the Utopia of creative thought, and the Utopia of effortless escape; the pipe dream of a Magellan, and that of a movie-fan; the real and the vicarious; the active and the imbibing. Which in the long run is the most fun?

[. . .]

Which would you rather be—a makebelieve Robin Hood, or a real (though diminutive) Magellan? We can be the first for fifty cents; what are the chances for becoming the second?

Like many before and since, MacKaye recognizes that the Middle Ages offer easy escapism, but he responds to the common claim of his era that men had become “over-civilized” by offering an alternative: personal exploration on a trail through true wilderness.

A second medieval metaphor sends “The Philosophy of Through Trails” spinning off in an ambitious and rather startling direction. MacKaye spent his whole life trying to save wild places from the encroachment of cities, and I love his justification for the Appalachian Trail—one of the oddest uses of medievalism (or, perhaps, Late Antiquity-ism) I’ve ever seen:

And now I come straight to the point of the philosophy of through trails. It is to organize a Barbarian invasion. It is a counter movement to the Metropolitan invasion. Who are these modern Barbarians? Why, we are—the members of the New England Trail Conference. As the Civilizees are working outward from the urban centers we Barbarians must be working downward from the mountain tops. The backbone of our strategy (in the populous eastern United States) lies on the crestline of the Appalachian Range, the hinterland of the modern “Romes” along the Atlantic coast. This crestline should be captured—and no time lost about it.

The Appalachian Range should be placed in public hands and become the site for a Barbarian Utopia.

The metaphor continues: For MacKaye, cabins and trails are “but a line of forts” that require a fighting force of hikers: “we must mobilize our real (if diminutive) Magellans—our pioneers of a new exploration.” I suppose he sees no contradiction in federal bureaucracies claiming and preserving land in defiance of civilization, but such was MacKaye’s mind: a whirlwind of quirky notions all swirling around one transcendent goal: restoring a balance between the natural and the artificial in American life. “It is a quest for harmony,” he wrote,

for what is pleasing and not ‘vile’ in that outward world which is our common mind. This philosophy—or culture—is, to my mind, the raison d’etre of the through trail and its ramifications. It is “the why” of the Appalachian Trail, which—let us hope—may some day form the base for the strategy of a “Barbarian invasion,” and for the development of a Barbarian Utopia.

As a regional planner who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, MacKaye generated reports that must have read like prose poems to his more practical colleagues. He once argued that hikers, as a small subset of the population, were entitled to mountains of their own in the name of protecting minority rights. During World War II, in a telling example of an expert unable to see beyond his specialty, he advocated that the United States organize its national defense strategy around watersheds. But despite his knack for cryptic pronouncements, MacKaye was always clear about his radical vision.

“[W]e must widen the access to the sources of life,” he wrote in 1946 after co-founding the Wilderness Society, insisting that his democratic goal was “not to grab off earldoms for some but to open up kingdoms for all.” There’s that medieval dream again: Utopian, in that it’s found literally nowhere, but always attainable, as long as you see it’s not someplace to be, but is something you are.

“…but nevertheless you know you’re locked toward the future.”

Nobody associates the Appalachian Trail with the Middle Ages. I wrote that in haste after discovering a faux-medieval monument in a Maryland park. Now I know better—because if you hike north from Gathland for seven miles, the forest opens onto an old highway and the parking lot of an eighteenth-century inn, and across the road you see this:

That’s St. Joseph’s Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, built in the 1880s to serve as a local Catholic mission church and family mausoleum. The Appalachian Trail now runs next to it through the weeds, but this patch of mountain used to be part of the vast summer retreat of Mrs. Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren.

The daughter of a Congressional Whig, Dahlgren was a Washington socialite and much-consulted etiquette expert. She was widowed twice after marrying prominent men: first an Assistant Secretary of the Interior and then later Admiral John Dahlgren, an innovator in naval ordnance. In 1876, the Widow Dahlgren bought an old inn here on South Mountain, fifty miles outside D.C., and made it her summer home. Although the house looked nothing like a castle, she romantically wrote that it seemed to her “like an old manor-seat surrounded by tenantry.” She commissioned this chapel just as the Gothic Revival style was becoming fashionable for churches, prep schools, and universities.

Dahlgren Chapel (as it’s now known) is a solid and serious piece of work, with no gargoyles or grotesques to override dignity with whimsy and few overt nods to modernity. I’m intrigued by the bell tower, which looks like God reached down and gave it a 90-degree turn: Does it imitate any particular medieval church? Is it unusual to find a cross on both the bell tower and the main roof?

I can’t find the name of the architect—hopefully the group working to preserve the chapel will know—but I did learn something interesting from looking into Dahlgren: she was a highly refined writer with more than a passing interest in the Middle Ages.

You wouldn’t detect a yen for the medieval from your first glance at her ouvre: an etiquette guide, novels about Washington society, a bio of her husband and a collection of reminiscences about living in South America during his naval service, a volume of ghost stories—Dahlgren was as prolific as she is forgotten. She deserves better, at least from Maryland readers, because her 1882 book South-Mountain Magic would be smart and engaging even if it weren’t steeped in medieval metaphors and imagery.

Of mostly local interest, South-Mountain Magic collects Dahlgren’s research into the folkways of her rural neighbors, most of them poor German foresters and mountaineers who weren’t shy about sharing their old-country superstitions. There are stories here about Civil War ghosts on the nearby battlefield, a Native American spirit with its head on fire, jack-o’-lanterns and will-o’-the-wisps, Satanic masses, and even a local wizard whose German spell-book is packed with hexes and cures—which, Dahlgren notes, are always perversions of Christian prayers and rites.

“The prevalence of such a confused mass of superstition as we chronicle, and that too within fifty miles of the very capitol of this vast nation . . . does not prove much as regards a theory of progressive civilization, and the wonderful and special enlightenment of the nineteenth century,” Dahlgren writes with dainty wit. However, her book isn’t a denunciation of occultism and superstition; rather, it’s a careful Catholic argument for studying the supernatural.

Although wary of imitating centuries of “innumerable philosophers and sages, ever seeking for that cabalistic lore, which may overstep the boundary line between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen,” Dahlgren waxes theological: What of the “ecstacies, visions, and mystic revelations” of saints who have been allowed glimpses of Heaven? Might not lesser souls with “lower perceptive powers also seize some flashes of light, sent forth from that Divine emanation that permeates creation?” Don’t poets, artists, and musicians have a gift for apprehending the divine? Dahlgren then proposes a scientific justification: By studying magic, we can better understand the relationship between the material and the immaterial, between actions and causes, just as the study of magnetism and electricity has been productive and informative. For all we know, Dahlgren argues, scientific explanations for ghosts and spells may yet be forthcoming.

Today’s Catholic philosophers will still find Dahlgren an articulate, thoughtful ally, but I’m most interested in her respect for the Middle Ages, which suffuses her view of the world. Even as she catalogs local superstitions, she makes a trenchant point about the present: we’re not as “modern” as we think, and an honest comparison with the past should leave us humble but enlightened, like a desert saint:

There is no study, probably, more useful to give the mind something like a just balance, than the comparison of the various forms of civilization, ancient and modern. And yet when such comparisons are made, as they often are, from a sophistical standpoint, they do more harm than good. The class of minds that stultify this present era, without looking carefully through the long vista of the past ages, very much resemble those people who, staying closely at home, make their own contracted notions the standard of excellence.

The present age passes by St. Simon of Stylites poised on his pillar, and jibes at him as an undoubted madman, quite unconscious all the while that he has gained a wider range of vision from his serene height of contemplation, than the dust-stained pilgrims who revile him as they plod onward in the highway below.

To Dahlgren, modern superstitions are the misguided impulses of a soul seeking true religion but settling on “the lovely legends clinging on to the ardent faith of the so-called ‘dark ages,’ although not received as of faith”:

These accepted legends and traditions, orally handed down from generation to generation, frame in the life of the lowly peasant who believes in them, with the absolute beauty of the brilliantly illuminated border of the quaint manuscripts of that age. These borders enclosed, perhaps, a black lettering, but they expressed the true.

As we write, a vision of another and a better world comes before us. We behold the majestic, solemn repose of the monastery, and standing in a niche, as it were, set apart, a venerable figure, with bared head bowed down over the sacred desk in profound contemplation. For here is the Holy Bible, fondly clasped, with its protecting chain . . .

Such faith was of the past. Now what is of the present?

Medievalism was an important part of nineteenth-century Catholicism, and Dahlgren draws on it to offer one of her era’s most charming Catholic arguments against the pride of modern secularism. Her imagery is particularly appropriate now, given how many hikers tromp past her chapel each spring:

It is a long pilgrimage, to be sure, from the mediaeval ages to the present day, and our sandals are turned into shoes, and our shoes have lost their soles in the toilsome journey. So we are at last here, in the broad light of progress, and we enter a fashionable shop to get others more suited to the advanced ideas around us. We are duly pinched and excruciated, somewhat as we once saw the martyrs tortured, only now there is no motive in our suffering to ennoble it; and finally we are told we have “a fit.” How we sigh for the graceful old sandals, that we wore loosely strapped, without having “a fit,” and not high-stepping, tight-compressing, all-torturing, with thin understanding, iron heels and steel springs, as these. But we are assured that our purchase is of the most improved patent and latest style, and our package is handed us.

As we stretch forth our hands to receive it, what blur or film fills our eyes, once so bright with visions of the glorious past? Can we longer see, or do we dream?—for the shoes handed us are wrapped in the rudely torn leaves of a Bible! “May God forgive the impiety!” we explain. “The Bible,” answers the flippant salesman, “is of no special value; it is spread broadcast in this nineteenth century, not chained to the desk as in the Dark Ages. It is cheaper to us than other waste paper, for it is given away by thousands.”

Today, Dahlgren’s home is an inn again, and the land she called her “sky-farm” has been put to other uses, but her chapel stands as a monument to her medievalism—an open respect for the supernatural as a weirder aspect of God’s creation. “The moods that beset us here,” she concluded, “are not to be measured by conventional standards.”

Medievalism as an alternative to or refuge from modernity has a history as long as modernity itself. In Dahlgren’s lifetime, it would find fresh expression not only among Catholic aesthetes but also through the Arts and Crafts movement, in early chivalry-themed scouting clubs and youth groups, among collectors of folklore, and on the pages of popular novels. What brings hikers here isn’t so different. “Truly, this world is replete in mysteries,” Dahlgren wrote. “The golden thread which connects the ages cannot be destroyed.”

“Spin me down the long ages, let them sing the song…”

Nobody associates the Appalachian Trail with the Middle Ages—but when hikers in Maryland descend from the woods through a gap in the mountains, a chivalrous vision awaits them: a castle-like pile of looming stone that seems like the dream of some long-buried age—which, in a weird way, it is.

That’s the War Correspondents’ Memorial Arch, built in 1896 by George Alfred Townsend on the grounds of what used to be his mountain estate, now a quiet and haunting state park.

Townsend was once a familiar name in newspaper-reading homes. Although he spent most of the Civil War in New York, Philadelphia, and Europe, he rose from modest beginnings to find renown as a journalist and commentator, first by landing a scoop of an interview with General Philip Sheridan and later by covering Lincoln’s assassination. He published widely under the pen name “Gath,” got rich, and built Gapland, his home here on a Civil War battlefield, where he spent decades cranking out novels and poems in a futile bid for literary immortality.

And then in 1896, with sponsors like Thomas Edison, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Joseph Pulitzer, who perhaps didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, he built his remarkable arch.

Looming 50 feet tall, with plaques and inscriptions along its sides, the memorial is a busy confection of sculptures, symbols, and nebulous notions. One local Civil War interpreter argues that many of the writers and artists memorialized on it are undeserving or impossible to identify, a charge the park’s historian denies but doesn’t fully refute, even as she calls the monument “inexplicable to most.” The asymmetry, the allegorical faces of “Speed” and “Heed,” the horse heads, historical quotes ranging from Thucydides to to Froissart to Sir Henry Stanley, a sampling of Townsend’s own verse—there’s much to mull over, but for me the big question is: Why did Townsend build a medieval monument in the first place? Sure, medievalism was thick in the nineteenth-century air, but what the heck inspired him to romanticize journalists with such a showy ode to the Middle Ages?

Fortunately, Townsend left behind a 48-line poem about the memorial—collected in his overstuffed tome Poems of Men and Eventslest posterity be baffled. Here’s a taste of “War Correspondents’ Memorial (at Gapland, Md., 1896)”:

Born so rigid, stony and frigid,
Moor and Roman it must be,
Long erected, a gate dissected
From some castle’s feudality;
Or set in the passes, where saying masses,
Pilgrims, crusaders, kneeling them,
Gazed and trembled, with undissembled
Joy, in the sight of Jerusalem.
Vale of Catoctin, like jewels locked in
An azure casket, flash thy lights!
Like the Escorial, our Memorial
Guards them all from the mountain heights.

Yawning fortalice, thine the portal is
Freedom opened with her pen….

You get the picture. That’s the medieval section of the poem, where Townsend asks us to believe that the monument is easily mistaken for a Romanesque ruin in medieval Jerusalem or a fragment of the Spanish royal palace—although his private letters apparently reveal that he based the overall shape of the memorial on an arch at at a train station and the facade of the fire house in nearby Hagerstown.

Even so, Townsend’s attraction to medieval forms isn’t arbitrary or aimless. If you spend a few frigid winter days, as I did, paging through Poems of Men and Events and his short-story collection Tales of the Chesapeake, you encounter more than a journalist with lofty aspirations, a hack struggling to be Longfellow, Twain, and Washington Irving all at once. What you find, among so much else, are the dreams of a part-time medievalist, a man eager to matter in the romantic, enchanted sweep of the world.

To read too much Townsend in one sitting is to contend with some dreadful poetry and prose: odes to politicians, the treacly story of a lame Congressional page, the tale of a Jewish loner on the island of Chincoteague that’s so vaguely written I can’t tell if it’s intentionally antisemitic. And then there are the rhymes: “Sugarloaf” and “antistrophe”; “standards plant ’em” and “azure bantam” (in a poem about the Delaware Blue Hens!); and thirteen impressively strenuous attempts to rhyme the name Magruder, among them “brooder,” “alluder,” “interluder,” “concluder,” and “obtruder.” And if, perchance, you need a 40-line poem that uses the Senate rules of cloture as a metaphor for a flirtatious rendezvous, then Townsend is the bard of your wonkiest dreams.

But Townsend clearly longs for magic, too. I enjoy seeing places I’ve lived and known well—D.C., Maryland, and Delaware—judged worthy of legend and verse: A boy in Newark, Delaware, accidentally swallows a timepiece as Mason and Dixon survey the area, and he grows up to be an expert watch-fixer. Some hicks in the mountains have an eerie encounter with John Brown. And in one of Townsend’s silliest and most genuinely charming stories, an old man with a blow-hole shambles into a publishing office and claims to have wandered the seas as the King of the Fish. The world of Townsend’s imagination is supernatural and spiritually alive: The poem “Harpers Ferry Sunset” turns the historic town into a setting for Christian martyrdom and timeless enchantment:

Nothing here has since abided
But the spell of Nature’s spasm,
He the scenery divided
And his spectre fills the chasm.
Armorers and all their din,
Feudal times, he gathered in;
Him suspended, where he went,
He suspended government!
As a whirlpool leaves a tragic
Rift aghast where it sucked down,
In the camera of magic
Swims thy maelstrom face, John Brown!

Townsend wants to find myth and magic in nineteenth-century headlines, and sometimes he succeeds. Even with its giggle-inducing reference to “spent balls of scandal,” his prophetic sonnet about President James Garfield is competent enough, and his ode to Rutherford B. Hayes has a metaphysical allure that demanded I re-read it to see if it was better than it seemed. Posterity is ever on Townsend’s mind: a nice 1871 poem imagines the half-built Washington Monument forever incomplete, disdained by a future race as evidence that we were “some brood ingrate with thrift, / And souls unfinished.” The poem made me wish Townsend had paused to hone his best ideas rather than scribble as if being paid by the whim.

Medieval spirits bumble through Townsend’s poetry: Civil War armies are Charlemagne’s troops, the Smithsonian building is a medieval abbey, Jefferson is a second Averroes. Townsend obviously shared his contemporaries’ wistful, romanticized sense of the Middle Ages, so I’m tempted to say that his faux, fragmentary castle stands for martial bravery and chivalrous virtue. But then Townsend does something not so nineteenth-century. In his 1896 speech dedicating the memorial, he explains its purpose: “Its lesson to the neighbors around it is the profitableness of knowledge and of letters and imagination to any people, however they may undervalue these things.” Townsend takes a symbol of war and makes it instead about the peaceful business of writing, reporting, and art.

Or does he? The monument’s main inscription shows a hodgepodge of intentions: “To the Army Correspondents and Artists 1861–1865 Whose Toils Cheered the Camps, Thrilled the Fireside, Educated Provinces of Rustics into a Bright Nation of Readers, and Gave Incentive to Narrate Distant Wars and Explore Dark Lands.” According to one of Townsend’s friends, the Pan-like statue is actually Mercury (or is it Pheidippides?), the faces of the gods represent Electricity and Poetry, and the arches symbolize Description, Depiction, and Photography—but contemporary press reports cited in a 2014 about Townsend don’t offer consistent interpretations of the memorial. Like much of Townsend’s writing, this arch is packed with literary and historical references coherent to no one but “Gath.” Even that pen name, an adaptation of his initials, is an Old Testament reference that speaks to nothing beyond the knowledge of the Bible he inherited from his preacher father. I don’t know what the Middle Ages meant to Townsend; I do know he got lost in history trying to find his place in it.

“Imagine how happy he’d be to know that someone was reading his work,” my girlfriend suggested when she saw me flipping through Townsend’s books. That’s all most writers want: for their stories and poems to exist in the minds of readers who help them outlast their creator. Today, Townsend is remembered only for this architectural folly he built late in life, when he was penniless, reclusive, and desperate for a legacy. “Three score years of pushing quill as the exponent of my hand have become second nature,” he wrote in an unfinished 1913 memoir, “and I hardly understand why I am not still wanted.” Surrounded by stonework ruins, an empty mausoleum, and the indifferent mountains and woods, his arch is now as evocative as a medieval elegy: Fortune is fickle, life is uncertain, and death is assured. That isn’t the romance that Townsend envisioned, but it stands as the story he actually wrote. Hikers at Gathland ponder it briefly, then look to the trees and move on.

“You can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home…”

[This is the thirteenth and final part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appeared here as I wrote it, in monthly installments. In the near future, I’ll make it available as a paperback book; for now, this blog will again focus on medievalism, poetry, and books by other people. To read the entire first draft of this poem online, start with the prologue and then continue through September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, and July.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

AUGUST

She says: Come look. There are lights in the pasture
And more in the trees. The moons are returning.
The first three run like rolling beads
In the innermost ripples and ridges of night.
The fourth winks only at fortunate changes:
A shiver in sunlight, a secret gift,
A whispered assurance in welcoming mist.
The fifth is still clouded, but clear in its vision
And destined to glimmer the day we depart.
In the lowest grove, in the gilded trough
Where the twelfth month rests, red and breathless,
The Pig with Sticks stands proud in the muck
Of the southern horizon. With restless pleasure,
He dwells on his riches. The dregs fly past
As he noses his hoard into new combinations
Of clusters and piles, then picks them up
With a careful chomp and carries the best
To a shaded nook, where shapes rise plain
Into provident lines. He loves his sticks.

…and two weeks later, my love and I
Are down by the river at dusk, on a path
That branches through weeds toward the bank, where fiends
Or fishing pilgrims left fires to smolder
And sailed on their way. The whitest ashes
Assert their curses in sunset embers
That fly with the nudge of a knobby branch.
Our job is clear: we are called to the mud
On the rim of the world for the work of conclusions,
To smother a flame. We flood the coals,
And I hate the way the hissing earth
Defies the silence. If some white wisp
Could ride the steam as it writhes through the treetops
And over the woods through the wakeful dusk
It would glimpse, in the east, aching titans
On the wide horizon of the world grown old,
Whirling in stupor on wheels of flame.
We frustrate their brethren from forming out here;
The scale of the landscape discourages pride.
We creep under trees to the towpath that rolls
Into infinite folly in either direction
And cut straight across, till we come to our door,
Where we light a small home-fire and listen for owls.

But after the coals are encrusted with ash,
And after the ashes are irked by a chill
From the flapping of bats, I fall over something
While thinking of nothing: a thick, dry stick
And a slim, light twig that slip from the kindling
And land in tandem, like a lumbering groom
And his gangly young bride, then blur into strands.
The sluggish canal and the sleek gray river
Roll without touching, twins in their courses,
But one must end; the other reaches,
In the sum of time, someplace immense
And immeasurably good. We should go, when we can.

In the overgrown weeds at the edge of the road,
Across from the fences where cows, in their wisdom,
Meander through pastures and pray to the grass,
I look for a monk, to amaze him with proof
Of a sensible world. I wait until twilight.
When nobody comes, I cast my glance
On the long trace westward: my love is approaching.
She’s pulled by the sunrise; our paths always meet.
The clearing behind her, our home for the year,
Is the long-ago dream of a difficult spirit
Who whirled through the forest, defiant and brash,
As  the earth did his bidding, to open and sunder
Its five blinding moons from the fathomless rock.
The whispering stones say he waits to bequeath them;
The stars say a daughter is destined to save them,
To cast out enchantments and claim her fate
As it lopes like a bear from a borderland cave.
We tend it for now. We talk to the hummingbirds,
Watch for invaders, and water the bones.

We wait without fear, but our fingers entwine
As familiar cravings crawl from their vaults
And a hideous miracle heralds an ending.
The sky starts wheeling, a skittering halo
Of fickle visions that flicker like candles
In utter, awful, empty space,
Then twelve slim notions tumble and shatter
And twirl into pinpoints, and time sets loose
What the pieces contained, as a pillar of vermin
And vultures smeared with smoldering entrails
And shrieking moths in shrouds of fire
Slams to the earth. With an ailing sob
Like the boundless wail of a broken tyrant
Whose empire drowned in an acorn cup,
A lashing of pin-light levels the cornfields
And scatters the crows, and the sky is an outrage
Of muscle and blood. They’ve been here before,
These thoughts with no faces, formless and starving,
That bellow the country will bring us no peace.

And together we watch while the winds go still
And the whirlwind parts, and the white sky summons
A fond constellation to fall through the stars
Reborn, and laden with lighter burdens,
Who rouses the Dawn, and the days grow shorter
But deeper, and sweet, and the dying glint
Of the year in its grave leaves us younger at heart.
Less clear if the wait made us worthy or not,
We shake off the fallout and shuffle as one
Through the matted cadavers the maelstrom cast down,
A holy flood of hook-backed crickets
And mold-white toads and mummified bats.
They crunch underfoot, as fragile new idols
And secret familiars emerge from the brush
With whatever fine meaning the morning desires:
A lamb draped in lavender, love-flustered barn owls,
A bear borne by horses and beasts on the wing―
Like a beaming ghost as it glides among hallways,
Creation turns with us, and welcomes us both
With hope past words to our house in the grove.

I pushed my sticks into pitiful bundles.
I’ve laid them out. I’ve lined up some
And skewed a few others, then scattered the rest
At the end of the drive, by the edge of the road,
And still something formed there, defying all promise
Of chaos with order. Now only the calendar
Ends, while the world, wound in infinite riddles,
Whirls golden and new. I give you this year
To turn and unravel, to unreel as you wish,
To find and fix a fraying end
To its knotted beginning, and I gratefully pray
That the heavens grant you a grove of your own
To puzzle through poems in places of quiet
And murmur new verses in moments of peace.