“We’ll find the speck of truth in each riddle…”

When you write a blog that focuses mostly on medievalism and poetry, you accept that you dwell in a narrow and unnoticed niche. Then a book subtitled “Eight Medievalist Poets” lands in your lap, and you revel in the rare pleasure of finally being somebody’s ideal reader. Published by Stairwell Books, a tiny but prolific Yorkshire-centric press, New Crops from Old Fields summons medievalists from Britain and America, most of them scholars of literature, and bids them sing. The resulting poems are often bookish, but not academic; they’re as vital as the era behind them once was.

Editor and contributor Oz Hardwick, for example, plays with a motley assortment of medieval tropes: pagan fertility, Christian prayer, Arthurian visions, Germanic adventurers—you name it. I can’t tell if his “Journey from the West” is a translation from an Old Norse poem by Sigvatr Þórðarson or just inspired by it, but this moving paean to homecoming after travel and toil is just serpentine enough to evoke skaldic poetry without being cryptic and cramped:

Wind’s servant, across the shifting hills
I return, richer in words and welcomes,
giving gifts undiminishing, gaining
grace of place, proud amongst peers.

I have fared far, fought clinging coils
of earth’s duplicitous dragon, found
home, the giver of true gifts:
one word resolves all riddles.

Another poem, “The Seafarer’s Return,” blurs the rhyme schemes of two types of sonnets and staggers the meter to capture the relief and grace of a second, harder-earned homecoming:

At your door I stand, tongue tied in weed,
footsore, with blistered palms and a distant stare,
my shoulders stooped with the weight of my journey. I need
more than I can ask. But first, share
these far-gathered gifts of shell and stone
whose value resides in the grace of you alone.

In Hardwick’s poetry, life teems just beneath the surface: the Green Man wakes for sex and then slumbers, obscene wooden beasts cavort in the choir at a Belgian basilica, and we beg to behold the true nature of things:

And I pray: not for the voice, not
for the touch, taste, sight, smell
of sound, but for the sharp annunciation
of fire, the heart’s bright kindling,
the understanding beyond understanding.

Hardwick’s craving for the cosmic highlights the fact that in an era of Ren faires, cosplay, and fantasy LARPing, popular medievalism often omits a crucial aspect of the Middle Ages—but in New Crops from Old Fields, religion is omnipresent. Hannah Stone, an expert on eastern Christianity, contributes poems inspired by desert hermits and the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, where “stiff robes chafe; their doctrines / don’t sit comfortably, either.” She’s capable of a lighter touch, too, as she shows in a funny, Browning-like soliloquy about a cat in a Mercian church, and in a poem that culminates in a call to pray for the soul of Worcester pilgrim reduced to a headless skeleton in boots.

Other pilgrims pace restlessly through this book: Jane Beal finds poetry when she visits landmarks in Rome, but her most striking entry in New Crops from Old Fields consists solely of questions Muslims and Jews asked her in the Holy Land. The poem is a remarkable distillation of the sort of grace and charity a pilgrimage should foster: a diminution of the self, and the generosity of letting others speak. Throughout her poetry, Beal makes the medieval personal—a fox on the roadside reminds her of the Reynard of fable, and she writes in the voices of Caedmon and Dante—and her destination is the answer to an intimate question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?”

Likewise, Joe Martyn Ricke recounts his eagerness to observe the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is how he finds himself in an Indiana church “with what felt like half a million Mexicans, / I mean at least a hundred of us standing and only one of us a very tall gringo.” His pilgrimage culminates in manic, ecstatic verse that wavers between dreamlike and drunk:

And it’s not exactly a miracle that everything smells like roses,
since there are perhaps a New Year’s Day parade’s worth of them
piled together under her feet. And, yes, sometimes the celestial music
is slightly out of tune or the trumpets are just obviously showing off.
But it really doesn’t matter about the roses or the guitars or the outfits
because you find yourself mumbling,
I’ve been bleeding a long time. Such a long time.

Elsewhere, Ricke takes a 15th-century lyric about Adam and “translates” it into a rambling, Beat-like poem that name-checks Harry Belafonte, while his “Four Sinful Hymns for the Love of Saint Mary Magdalene” imagine the biblical figure’s conversion and salvation from her own perspective, gritty and physical. Ricke is more playful than the other overtly religious poets in this book, but he’s never irreverent; his earthy exuberance is worthy of Chaucer.

Several poets in this collection show a strong commitment to form. M. Wendy Hennequin retells the story of Andromache as an Anglo-Saxon poet might have done, in lines that resemble Old English alliterative verse. In the rhyme-royal septets of “The Bard’s Tale,” an Irish maiden appears at Camelot at Christmastime and tells a story that astounds King Arthur. Her tale ends on an emotionally ambiguous note, as if it really were composed in another, less knowable time. “My scholar attempts to understand the past; my poet tries to sing with them,” Hennequin explains, and her knack for the latter is clear in a light and lovely ballade for a scribe who joyfully works through the night:

How glorious the colors, green and gold,
The black and scarlet, purple and the blue!
Though deep the night and bitter bites the cold,
And candles smoke, and colors shine untrue,
My dancing hands a woman’s face imbue
With living truth of spirit and of sight.
My hands in darkness work; my heart, in light.

Working furtively is a recurring theme in this book. I recalled Jane Chance from assigned readings in a graduate seminar on Beowulf, but I hadn’t known she was a poet; appropriately, her medieval-inspired poetry laments the strain of conflicting roles. In “The Night the Books Fell,” a shelf collapses when a retired scholar is a continent away. The ponderousness of her scholarly responsibilities by “the tough edge of discipline / slackened,” she is

relieved of the obligation
of learnedness
and granted the divine gift of
pleasure in being

In another poem, Chance gives voice to the unicorn in a tapestry at the Met. Chained to a tree, he too feels the weight of his work and is “tired of being symbolic”:

He’d like to sleep a little, or play with others,
leave town and get a little dirty,
have a cool drink, find a girl,
let down his horn.

Burdened scholars, restrained beasties, weary French women, moat-encircled ladies, costumes and masks—Chance’s take on academic life is poignant and personal but not self-pitying. “Given scholars’ training to maintain objectivity and the life of the mind, medievalism helps create an imaginary shield against personal revelation,” she warns in her introduction, but that doesn’t diminish the optimism of “Aventure,” in which a young knight sets out amid “the sun bursting on the horizon / like a promise / in the long summer of his youth.” Another poem, concise and original, likens the migration of animals on the Serengeti to the stained-glass sunlight and sense of belonging inside a cathedral. It also prompts a question: Is the Serengeti the subject, or the Gothic nave? The answer doesn’t matter: balancing them is the point, and Chance writes with a freedom and lightness for not having to choose between “you and the wildebeests / in endless repetition, season in and season out, / natural music in time, in time.”

Other poets in this collection wear their medievalism less showily, using the past to buttress poems about the here and now. Imitating Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines, Pam Clements casts snowy owls as feathered Vikings to dramatize the birds’ migration in vast numbers from the Arctic to the northeastern United States. In “Anhaga,” she draws upon words and concepts from Old English poetry for the lament of a Yankee in the antebellum South who sounded to me like a battlefield ghost:

Palmettos clap thin plats
where wind should keen and wail
that anyone so loved should have the gall to die.

Here, the go bare-legged in November
in fleshy-bosomed air
Anhaga, eardstapa —
it might be any season.

In “Wodewose,” Clements uses the Green Man, “Lord of Kudzu / and Dandelion,” to evoke the fecundity and lushness of a springtime trail, but the poem could easily be read with no understanding of the title—but then I think an adventurous reader could easily enjoy New Crops from Old Fields without any background in the Middle Ages at all. If published elsewhere, the eerie personal verses of A.J. Odasso probably wouldn’t strike most readers as the work of a medievalist, but they’re precise, haunting dream-visions with diction and alliteration inspired by late medieval poets. Odasso’s inclusion makes a worthwhile point: the medieval often lingers well below the surface, where it nourishes something peculiar and new.

If I were forced at sword-point to gripe about New Crops from Old Fields, I might mention the introductions provided by each poet: most of them are too jargony and too reluctant to let the poetry stand on its own. But so what? The range and heft of these poems surprised me—and as someone with a bias toward formalism, I was cheered to find free verse that was free for good poetic reasons. As scholars who work line by line through texts in eldritch languages, these poets brood over words—what they mean, what they insinuate, how they sound on the tongue. What they do with that lore is delightful. The Middle Ages are a golden trove strewn with trinkets and bones; this book proves it’s a blessing instead of a curse.

“We’re just fol-low-ing ancient his-to-ry…”

Every so often, I stumble onto some relic of American medievalism that seems charming but inconsequential—until a bit of digging brings out something more.

Behold: “I dreamed I was a medieval maiden in my Maidenform bra,” an ad that ran in magazines in 1959 and 1960. (Click here to see it larger.) The ad is based on the late-15th-century “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries designed in Paris, woven in Flanders, and now on display at the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Cluny. Five of the tapestries are devoted to the senses; a sixth tapestry has been variously interpreted.

Maidenform’s “I Dreamed…” campaign, which began in 1949 and ran for 20 years, was apparently so successful that it’s still studied in business schools. The other ads weren’t medievally themed, but they all showed a shirtless woman in some professional or historical setting. The “medieval maiden” ad stands out, though, for its fidelity to its source.

Place the ad and the tapestry side by side and you can see how little got removed (other than the maiden’s blouse).

The heraldic symbols on the banner (and on the unicorn’s little Thundershirt-shield) are intact, even though they’re meaningless now. The grimacing lion is gone; modern people might have have been distracted by him or found him comical. The woman no longer holds the unicorn’s horn but caresses it near its mouth. She’s also been decked out in a hat on loan, I would guess, from the neighborhood gnome.

Maidenform was determined to portray not just some fantasy scene, but a real and very specific medieval work. Why?

For one thing, the decade leading up to this ad was florid with chivalry, at least at the movies: Rogues of Sherwood Forest, Ivanhoe, Richard and the Crusaders, Knights of the Round Table, Prince Valiant, Lady Godiva, The Court Jester, Saint Joan, The Vikings, and at least two TV versions of A Connecticut Yankee. (With The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman cast a pall over these Technicolor revels, but he was an anomaly.) It’s no wonder that a couple years later, the press was quick to cast John F. Kennedy’s candidacy and presidency in terms of fair ladies and storybook heroes—even if there’d be no “Camelot” talk until after his assassination.

But maybe the Maidenform maiden is more of a high-culture dream. At the end of the 1950s, tapestries were big news: A decade earlier, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had hosted a show about French tapestries from 1375 to the present, and in 1958 and 1959 the Cloisters made two major tapestry acquisitions. In 1959, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired several tapestries about the exploits of Constantine, while the Brooklyn Museum showed off Norwegian tapestries from the 16th through 18th centuries.

(…and curiously, the New York Times reported in May 1958 that sculptor Elbert Weinberg had installed a terra-cotta lady-and-unicorn in the lobby of 405 Park Avenue.)

In 1959, American medievalism was enjoying a sort of historicist autumn. Renaissance fairs were a few years off and Tolkienesque fantasy had yet to go mainstream, so when people thought of the Middle Ages, they imagined the tidy past they enjoyed in movies—and, apparently, in magazine ads.  It took me only a few minutes to find several advertisements from 1958 to 1960 that make the Middle Ages look as pleasant as it did in the movies of the time.

Plymouth Gin evoked jousting to invite Americans to join an international band of drinkers, pharma giant Parke-Davis paid tribute to hospitals in 12th-century France, Chivas Regal reveled in Scottish heritage, and the Grant Pulley and Hardware Corporation, makers of sliding doors, assumed you would know what a “portcullis” was. The medieval people in these ads—knights, nurses, architects—set precedents, and served as examples.

When Austrian historian Herwig Wolfram considered American medievalism in the 1970s, he saw more than folly. “What might sometimes appear to a European as slightly comical is nevertheless an expression of astonishing vitality,” he wrote. “And what many a dry pedant might dismiss as low-brow is in reality a kind of learning experience on a level different from that to which most Europeans are accustomed.” Interweaving high and not-so-high culture, the Maidenform ad shows the mass appeal of America’s medieval dream, even if nobody’s heeding the small print: “The past was never quite this perfect!”