“And this world’s a fickle measure…”

They told me, “You have to watch this interview where Mike Tyson talks about medieval history,” and so I did, and there he was at the New York Public Library in 2013 being interviewed by curator Paul Holdengräber, whose German accent strikes the American ear as both effortlessly intellectual and lightly amusing, and who would seem to have nothing in common with the face-tattooed boxer.

The two men do, in fact, find much to talk about. Their discussion is mesmerizing, because to most of us Mike Tyson is nothing but a face and fists, not a man who reflects aloud and at length about his inner life. Holdengräber prompts a reticent Tyson to narrate clips of his greatest moments in the ring, and newcomers to boxing will easily see why Tyson was such a sensation, but Iron Mike grows more animated when other matters arise.

Half an hour into the interview, Holdengräber says that their mutual friend, eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog, urged him to ask Tyson why he’s so fascinated by Clovis, the founder of the Merovingian Frankish dynasty, and Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian king of the Franks. Tyson’s answer, however halting, makes him come alive:

I don’t know—it all comes from my insecurity from being poor, and not having enough—to be insecure, and being—yeah, that’s what it is: obscure. I never wanted to be obscure. I was born in obscurity and I never wanted to deal with that again, never wanted to be that. And they came from obscurity.

Tyson then narrates a capsule history of the Frankish kings. He rambles, he doesn’t get all the details right, and his mispronunciation of names marks him as an autodidact, but it’s a shame to hear the audience laugh when Holdengräber asks, “Mike, how do you know all this shit?” Whether Tyson is mapping his own experiences onto medieval history or hearing echoes of the Franks in his troubled life, the credentialed, status-conscious audience is uncomfortable with his sincere interest in a past they find trivial.

Yet Tyson is the real deal, a book lover not because his peer group yaks about whichever author the New York Times has dubbed fame’s latest love child, but because he’s hungry for ideas, for meaning, for connections across time. He speaks with undisguised emotion about Cus D’Amato, the trainer and manager who turned him into a lethal boxer. Obsessed with Nietzsche and Clausewitz, D’Amato taught Tyson to see boxing as war and war as the key to decoding the world. “That is just what I do,” Tyson explains, an attentive pupil and dutiful son. “I love war. I love the act of war. I love the players in war, the philosophy of war.”

Tyson is searching for more than war on the pages of the past. Having grown up amid crime and chaos and founded his life on violence, he now relies on books to make moral and ethical sense of the world:

Yeah—they’re our most priceless possessions, because if you think about it, you know, a room without a book is like a body without a soul. It’s the only way that we can connect the future with the past. Without that, there’s no way that we can know about the future, and know about particularly the past, or the present, you know, that when you think about history, the value of history is not necessarily scientific but moral. By liberating our minds and deepening our sympathies and fortifying our will, we can control—pretty much history allows us to control not society but ourselves, which is a much more important thing to do, you know what I mean? And it would allow us to pretty much meet the future more so than foretell it, and for that reason alone, in order to predict the future we always have to look through the past, because very rarely does time not repeat itself, and it always will repeat itself.

I’ve heard a quote before in a book that we would be fools to think historically that the past is us in funny clothes, but the past is us in funny clothes, and that’s truly what it is. That’s from somebody who really said a really profound statement but he misquoted what he was saying, he must have been saying it backwards, because that’s really what the past was, it’s just us in funny clothes, in different times, that’s really what it is.

Of course, to hear Tyson cite a quip inaccurately attributed to Cicero, “a room without books is like a body without a soul,” is to wonder if he’s putting us on. Late in the interview, he jokes that if you quote books, you fool people into thinking you’re smart—but Tyson, for all his malapropisms and mispronunciations and odd mannerisms, is intelligent. He’s going round after round with big questions that many of the ostensibly educated attendees at his book-talk don’t bother to ask.

When Holdengräber suggests that Tyson’s knowledge of history didn’t improve his behavior, Tyson calmly disagrees. He compares himself to the fictional Ben-Hur, a fellow athlete and celebrity who achieved glory but was doomed to be unfree until he set his priorities in order: “He may not have been famous again,” Tyson points out, “but he got his family, and that was his success.”

After listening to Mike Tyson—childhood criminal, devastating fighter, struggling alcoholic and recovering drug addict, convicted rapist, pop-culture eidolon—speak for an hour and a half, I still don’t quite know who he is. He may be the closest thing 21st-century America has to a Robert E. Howard character, a born barbarian who’s ignorant of social niceties but possesses earned wisdom that the civilization around him disdains. I don’t know whether he’s all in on his bookish pursuits or one slight away from again gnawing off someone’s ear. Whether he’s a good man or a bad man feels foolish to ask about a professional punch-thrower who reads Nietzsche, but Tyson looks like a better man, one who has perhaps searched harder for his humanity than the onlookers snickering from the safety of their library seats. What has their pride gained them? Tyson’s, by contrast, has brought him perspective, and with it the humility to admit that his story is still being written—and has been before.

“Perfume came naturally from Paris…”

Open Letters, which bills itself as “a monthly arts and literature review,” is a good read, but it’s turning out to be of particular interest to the medieval-minded. Not only are they serializing Adam Golaski’s quirky translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and running a blog review of Runemarks, a novel for teens about what happens after Ragnarok, but the latest issue also includes an appreciation of Gregory, the 6th-century bishop of Tours, and his monumental History of the Franks.

Advising against modern smugness when evaluating the beliefs and behavior of medieval people, Steve Donoghue laments Gregory’s present obscurity:

In the past two hundred years, he’s had some half-dozen competent translators and many talented annotators. But he isn’t read anymore by the general public that was in his own day very much his target audience, and this is a shame. The darkness is still there, howling just out of reach, and faith is still a prickly, dangerous undertaking, and lavatories are still perilous places. We proceed now without one of our readier guides, at a time when every saint is needed.

Donoghue makes an enthusiastic argument for Gregory’s modern relevance, drawing an iffy contrast between Christian piety and medieval storytelling but rightly pointing out that one of the enduring appeals of the History is its author’s penchant for the memorable anecdote:

We should be grateful Gregory isn’t so pious that he can resist a good story — his History teems with them, most presented with a slightly wry bemusement that fits as naturally in our cynical age as it did in his more naïve one, that is, in fact, evergreen.

When we studied Gregory of Tours in grad school, my classmates and I had a great time comparing our favorite lurid incidents from Merovingian history. Donoghue’s article prompted me to mosey over to my bookshelf, grab my own shabby copy of Gregory, and find this episode on one of several earmarked pages:

Rigunth, Chilperic’s daughter, was always attacking her mother (Fredegund), and saying that she herself was the real mistress, whereas her mother ought to revert to her original rank of serving-woman. She would often insult her mother to her face, and they frequently exchanged slaps and punches.

“Why do you hate me so, daughter?” Fredegund asked her one day. “You can take all your father’s things which are still in my possession, and do what you like with them.”

She led the way into a strong-room and opened a chest which was full of jewels and precious ornaments.

For a long time she kept taking out one thing after another, and handing them to her daughter, who stood beside her. Then she suddenly said: “I’m tired of doing this. Put your own hand in and take whatever you find.”

Rigunth was stretching her arm into the chest to take out some more things, when her mother suddenly seized the lid and slammed it down on her neck. She leant on it with all her might and the edge of the chest pressed so hard against the girl’s throat that her eyes were soon standing out of her head. One of the servant-girls who was in the room screamed at the top of her voice: “Quick! Quick! Mistress is being choked to death by her mother!” The attendants who had been waiting outside for them to emerge burst into the strong-room, rescued the princess from almost certain death and dragged her out of doors.

The quarrels between the two were even more frequent after this. There were never-ending outbursts of temper and even fisticuffs. The main cause was Rigunth’s habit of sleeping with all and sundry.

That’s good stuff; outside of the sagas, medieval prose rarely offers a lovelier combination of trenchant observation, casual internecine violence, and deadpan Germanic delivery.

I don’t know if I agree with Donoghue’s claim that modern people are that much more lost for being unfamiliar with Gregory of Tours, but I do know that Gregory is a master of the sensational anecdote, the sort of episode that gets modern students thinking about the difference between behaviors that are typically medieval and traits that are universally human. For that, I’d count Gregory useful even if the old bishop hadn’t already taught me the most valuable life lesson of all: when a Merovingian matriarch offers you jewelry, don’t think twice; run.