“I remember, only for an hour…”

When you live near a cathedral and wander its grounds on a whim, you see human behavior that’s more grotesque than anything frozen in stone. Sometimes a bus roars in, disgorges children, and barely has time to cool its engine while a guide exhorts his young charges to find Darth Vader on one of the towers. Why? What? Wait—with startling speed, they’re back on the bus, deprived of what they might have discovered if adults had let their minds and bodies roam.

But that’s the tourist experience, and those of us in supposedly sophisticated cities fall back on it too. Some Washingtonians imagine the world in ways that must be comforting in its knowability: stick pins in maps, count up the stamps in your passport, pretend that travel teaches universal lessons rather than fine, unsettling ones. As an adult, I’ve traveled in 38 U.S. states and 17 countries, including some that few Americans ever get to see—and come home without guilt to the same little place.

I’ve lived in my D.C. neighborhood for 21 years, but I’ve rarely written about it, except obliquely. This is the Washington few people love and that many who settle here don’t really see: not political Washington, not black Washington, with its dogged roots, but a charming district lined with trees, dormant on workdays and dreamfully peaceful by night. I’ve never felt totally right for the place. By shrugging off politics, working from home, and accepting crepuscular ways, have I failed to keep up with the people around me and missed what the neighborhood’s really about?

If so, I’ve still witnessed worthwhile things: Every morning, the shopkeepers, the groundskeepers, the panhandlers, and the limping retirees follow their intertwined routes, the veins of a great, blind behemoth. Eyes open, arteries clog: commuters flee, landscapers scatter, clusters of mothers deposit their children at school. Over here, parking is hopeless; over there, you’ll find no line at the post office—unless, for some reason, it rains. The friendly librarian lopes down the block; a uniformed Secret Service agent parks illegally and loiters at the gyro shop; a smiling North African woman shuts down the pharmacy at night and opens the grocery store ten hours later. Look: I can show you where trees fell during hurricanes, where someone got shot when the Star Wars prequels debuted, and where for the cost of a cup of coffee you can kick back in a grape arbor planted by a big-game hunter. I can point out a stone that farted prophetically when we stepped on it after a storm. Like a ghost, I know what all these places used to be; I try to remember a much weirder writer who strolled the same streets as a child.

But my block isn’t haunted, at least not with gloom; all sorts of miracles thrive in our midst. Four houses away, a sneaky raccoon family feasts through the night. You might startle a fox if you go for a walk in the fog before dawn, not far from where the cicadas will be deafening when they someday re-emerge. Tourists grin as their kids tromp through curbside flower-beds; I stop for a moment to mention the rats. Then I hike to the secret spot on the cathedral grounds where it’s pleasant and breezy even on sweltering days.

What use to you is all of this? It’s no more enthralling than a life spent studying a single Italian painter, memorizing Esperanto poems, or breeding heritage chickens—or clicking through a batch of travel photos, for that matter—but it’s the answer I now have for “you still live there?”, which was rarely an actual question. It’s time to move on, but this morning I wondered: what else would I see if I stayed? Yet I’ve already learned what I’m happy to know: if you stake out a strange little place where the world can whirl through and around you, it’s better than going where everyone else stands next to the things that hold still, just to pose.

“…and in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile…”

As the Dennis DeYoung of medievalism-themed blogs, “Quid Plura?” loses its voice from time to time, only to come screaming back amid synthesizer-fueled fanfare. These days, I’m working on two books, one of them a translation of a medieval poem, but blogworthy medievalism is never far from my mind—because I live in what is arguably the most medieval neighborhood in Washington.

I’ll show you what I mean. First, hike uphill through my substitute for a back yard, a nature conservancy named for a 13th-century Welsh market town…

…to emerge beneath the watchful eyes of these elementary school elves…

…before we hurry past the castellated, gargoyle-festooned (and recently shuttered) preachers’ college…

…to explore the grounds of our neighborhood English Gothic cathedral (shown here pre-earthquake)…

…with its thriving garden devoted in part to Walafrid Strabo, tutor to Charlemagne’s grandson…

…and decorated with a medlar tree right out of Chaucer and a worn capital from the monastery of Cluny, all of it just footsteps from a tree grown from the Glastonbury Thorn…

…and across from an apartment house with a Gothic, grotesque-festooned facade.

Touring romanticized reminders of medieval culture can be tiring, so trudge downhill and relax with a pot of mussels and Belgian beer at a joint named for a mash-up of the Merovingian Saint Arnulf of Metz and an 11th-century saint from Soissons.

Last week, I stopped to gawk at a troupe of Morris dancers outside a nearby pub, and sometimes there’s a bust of Dante in a shop window down the block—but why chase them down? I won’t soon run out of material, and this unlikely pageant of saints, gargoyles, and European ghosts only makes it easier to work on medieval-themed books. Even in a neighborhood where few others hear them, the echoes of the Middle Ages never end.

“…and a cross of gold as a talisman.”

“A light starts—lixte se leoma ofer landa fela—and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease.” Although that line could describe the experience of seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a movie theater, it is, in fact, one of several lovely passages in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” the 1936 essay that helped scry a certain Anglo-Saxon poem on the prow of every English lit syllabus.

I returned to Tolkien’s essay yesterday after being shown a sign—this one.

That’s Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, across the street from American University here in D.C. This church last appeared on this blog when I spotted the curious “faux-tesques” on its spire, but I hadn’t known it was a locus of Tolkien fandom. (It’s certainly one of the most unexpected examples of public Tolkieniana since the hobbit dumpster and parking signs of Ocean City, Maryland.)

As it turns out, the church’s (presumably unlicensed) banners aren’t just an advertisement of affinity, but an invitation to a series of sermons:

“An Unexpected Journey”
Explore the Gospel Through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Writings
Sermon Series beginning Sunday, January 6
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is deeply rooted in the truths of his Christian faith. This powerful story has captivated readers for decades, as well as a new generation of moviegoers. With the new film The Hobbit arriving this winter, it is a good time to explore the Gospel through this wonderful narrative. Our sermon series, “An Unexpected Journey,” will take place on Sundays in January 2013 as we follow the path of Tolkien’s travelers. Echoing Gandalf’s words to Bilbo, worried about his chances of returning home from his journey, “If you do, you will not be the same.”

I’ll let Tolkien experts imagine how the Catholic author might have reacted to The Hobbit being used as a gateway to Methodist Bible study, but as a medievalist he would have understood the impulse. The Germanic literature he loved is tinged with Christian interpolations, revisions, and appropriations, and he knew it was de rigeur in the Middle Ages to outfit the creations of others as couriers of religious ideas.

He also knew that the best stories fight back a little. Here he is again, talking about Beowulf:

The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected. It is possible, I think, to be moved by the power of myth and yet to misunderstand the sensation, to ascribe it wholly to something else that is also present…

Whether he brings in new churchgoers or not, what the minister at MMUMC is doing has medieval roots. Whether it’s Tolkienesque I can’t say, but in its way, a Tolkien-themed sermon series makes more sense than the adoration of The Lord of the Rings by the 1960s counterculture. Whether one great story leads so easily to another remains to be seen, but what Tolkien said about Beowulf grows true of his own works as well: “it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

More interesting is Frederick Douglass’s medievalist name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The modern Douglass did not prevail:

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

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

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

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

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

“Wonder if he’ll ever know he’s in the best-selling show…”

“In Washington, summer is a horror beyond the telling of it,” wrote Philip K. Dick in his 1968 “Self Portrait,” echoing the more effable sentiments of sweat-soaked D.C. residents this week. Dick is so associated with California—he spent nearly his entire life there—that few science-fiction readers, and almost no Washingtonians, remember that in the late 1930s, the budding author and his mother lived in the Cleveland Park neighborhood, or that Dick’s three years here echo in his work.

Dick’s novel Puttering About in a Small Land, written in 1957 but published posthumously in 1985, views several D.C. landmarks through the gauzy lens of personal mythology. Despite his prolificity and unabashed weirdness, Dick craved mainstream success, and he grounds an early sequence in Puttering About, a realistic tale of infidelity and doomed postwar dreams, in actual Washington places: Rock Creek Park, Massachusetts Avenue, and the Tidal Basin, which a character imbues with her own anxieties:

To her the Tidal Basin and the trees had a mysterious quality; they kept the countryside here in the center of the city, as if it could not be completely suppressed. Actually she was afraid of the Tidal Basin; it was part of the lines and pools of water that had cut into the ground by the coast, the canals and rivers and streams; Rock Creek itself, and of course the Potomac. When she came near the Potomac she believed she had been removed completely away from the present; she did not accept the fact that the Potomac existed in the modern world.

In keeping with Dick’s real life, the action in Puttering About soon switches to California, but Washington remains a place of origin and a repository for obsessive memory. In the 1966 novel Now Wait for Last Year, Dick returns to Cleveland Park—naturally, by way of Mars.

Like most Dick novels, Now Wait defies easy summary, but suffice it to say that it features pharmaceutically induced time travel, a dictator who battles aliens across alternate dimensions, and ancient gazillionaire Virgil Ackerman, president of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which turns alien amoebas into spaceship control spheres. With the help of antiquarians and preposterous wealth, Ackerman pioneers the creation of Martian “babylands,” hyperpersonal theme parks that recreate fondly remembered places in a patron’s life.

Amusingly, Virgil Ackerman rebuilds Philip K. Dick’s childhood in Washington, D.C., circa 1935:

Wash-35 consisted of a painstakingly elaborate reconstruction of the specific limited universe of childhood which Virgil had known, constantly refined and improved in matters of authenticity by his antique procurer—Kathy Sweetscent—without really ever being in a genuine sense changed: it had coagulated, cleaved to the dead past…at least as far as the rest of the clan were concerned. But to Virgil it of course sprouted life. There, he blossomed. He restored his flagging biochemical energy and then returned to the present, to the shared, current world which he eminently understood and manipulated but of which he did not psychologically feel himself a native.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that I live in a latter-day version of Wash-35:

The omphalos of Wash-35, a five-story brick apartment building where Virgil had lived as a boy, contained a truly modern apartment of their year 2055 with every detail of convenience which Virgil could obtain during these war years.

Dick misremembered how many floors his childhood omphalos had, but it’s still there, around the corner from me, the only apartment building on a leafy, house-lined street.

Several blocks away lay Connecticut Avenue, and, along it, stores which Virgil remembered. Here was Gammage’s, a shop at which Virgil had bought Tip Top comics and penny candy. Next to it Eric made out the familiar shape of People’s Drugstore; the old man during his childhood had bought a cigarette lighter here once and chemicals for his Gilbert Number Five glass-blowing and chemistry set.

Dick recalls doing most of those same things in his “Self-Portrait.” The drug store has gotten a facade-lift and a new name, but it’s right where Dick left it, and kids still pop in there after school to buy junk food. Dick would like the place; the scanners talk to you.

(I’ve yet to find an elderly neighbor who remembers “Gammage’s.”)

“What’s the Uptown Theater showing this week?” Harv Ackerman murmured as their ship coasted along Connecticut Avenue so that Virgil could review these treasured sights. He peered.

It was Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels, which all of them had seen at least twice. Harv groaned.

The Uptown has shown the various Blade Runner re-releases and director’s cuts. Prometheus is playing there now.

The ship taxied from Connecticut Avenue onto McComb Street and soon was parking before 3039 with its black wrought-iron fence and tiny lawn. When the hatch slid back, however, Eric smelled—not the city air of a long-gone Terran capital—but the bitterly thin and cold atmosphere of Mars…

On a late June afternoon, the atmosphere at 3039 Macomb Street NW is anything but cold and thin, but the year could be 1935, or 2012, or 2055.

Uphill, west on Macomb, looms another Philip K. Dick landmark. After a miserable stint at an experimental school in Maryland, young Phil spent second through fourth grades here in Cleveland Park at John Eaton Elementary.

Despite a homely concrete wedge that joins Eaton’s two older buildings, kids from the 1930s would recognize the place immediately. In Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, Lawrence Sutin summarizes Dick’s time here:

Phil attended the John Eaton School from 1936 to 1938, for grades two through four. He was absent often, a pattern condoned by Dorothy [his mother]. His report cards reflect good academic work on the whole, with one of his lowest marks, a C, coming in written composition. But a comment by his fourth-grade teacher was admirably prophetic: “Shows interest and ability in story telling.”

Perhaps Dick’s Eaton years were more formative yet. The playground, more spacious now than it was 75 years ago, may have been the site of Philip K. Dick’s first epiphany, as recounted in a 1981 interview:

I really think—I’ve thought about this—and it goes back to an incident when I was in the third grade, where I was tormenting a beetle. It was taking refuge in an empty snail shell. He’d come out of the snail shell and I’d mash at him with a rock, and he’d run back into the snail shell. I’d just wait ’til he’d come out.

And he came out, and all of a sudden I realized—it was total satori, just infinite, that this beetle was like I was. There was an understanding. He wanted to live just like I was, and I was hurting him. For a moment—it was like Siddhartha does, like was that dead jackal in the ditch—I was that beetle. Immediately I was different. I was never the same again. I was totally aware of what I was doing. I was just transformed—my essence was changed.

I find it unnerving to live for years in a neighborhood of attorneys, technocrats, students, and barhoppers, only to detect, suddenly and at every turn, the slight, childish footsteps of the most bizarre science-fiction writer of the 20th century.

Weirder, though, was this.

I noticed those bibliophilic elves over the doors of Eaton Elementary yesterday, when I went to take a snapshot of the school. For 17 years, I’ve walked past Eaton, visited the school with friends’ kids, and voted in local elections there, but somehow I’ve never spotted these elves, the sort of whimsical adornment everyone knows I actively look for.

Friends assure me that the elves have always been there. Have they? Wouldn’t I have seen them?

When you find your neighborhood in a Philip K. Dick character’s Martian recreation of Philip K. Dick’s childhood, you start to think that someone may be messing with you, that maybe you’re the baffled beetle in someone’s dawning epiphany. “My god, that is eerie. Really freaks me,” Dick wrote in 1970, after his friend Bhob Stewart found himself, purely by chance, at 3039 Macomb. “The ghost of a little boy who is now a middle-aged SF author must still be playing there.” If so, I haven’t seen him, but a whispering elf tells me this: there’s no guarantee that I won’t.

“Look up, look down, there’s a crazy world outside…”

You can walk past buildings for years and never see the faces glaring down at you—until one day, you stop and look up.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (here in D.C., near the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Ellicott Street NW) was begun in 1930 and finished in 1958.

By then, its spire was unfashionably neo-medieval….

…ringed as it is with winged lions right out of illuminated manuscripts.

Two miles away, the folks at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church (across the street from American University) began building their new church in 1932.

A prominent spire promises similar beasties…

…but two waterspouts near the front of the church are barely zoomorphic…

…while the spire itself sports not gargoyles, not grotesques…

….but faux-tesques!

“Throw the world off your shoulders tonight, Mr. Smith…”

Silly and serious, profane and sacred, the gargoyles at the National Cathedral have become tourist attractions all their own. You can buy a book about them, the cathedral offers special tours, and I hear some strange neighbor is even writing gargoyle-themed poems.

They’re not, however, the only gargoyles and grotesques in town, or even on the cathedral grounds. Turn northeast and stroll a few steps and you’ll bump into Cathedral College (formerly the College of Preachers), dedicated in 1928 just as American neo-Gothic church building was waning and collegiate Gothic was on the rise.

Mostly Anglophilic neo-Gothic with Tudor-ish outbuildings and annexes, Cathedral College closed for budgetary reasons in 2009, but gray winter is a fine time to peep through leafless vines and trees…

…to see the grotesques on the large corner tower.

First up: a pelican feeding her young with the blood of her breast, a medieval Christian symbol of self-sacrifice that’s hardly unknown in the American South.

Harder to see: a rooster, medieval symbol of (among other things) vigilance.

This owl’s shut eyes may suggest modesty, or sinners refusing to see and do the good, or, not inconceivably, Jews rejecting Christianity.

Everyone knows that in the Middle Ages, anthropomorphized frogs gesturing sincerely symbolized…um…

Exposed only in winter, this embrambled goat-devil is suitably eerie.

The College of Preachers was built by Frohman, Robb, and Little, one of several firms that made America look a little more medieval: Philip Frohman designed more than 50 American churches, and FR&L gave Trinity College Chapel in Hartford its neo-Gothic air. Frohman himself is best known for stepping in to re-design the National Cathedral in 1919. To a large extent, the building is “his”; he reportedly still climbed the scaffolding to oversee construction until his retirement in 1971. (Like many Episcopalian medievalists of his generation, Frohman was drawn to Catholicism; unlike most, he eventually converted.)

If Frohman, his partners, and their stonemasons intended the grotesques on Cathedral College to tell an obvious story, then I’m missing their meaning—beyond, perhaps, “please decorate the tower drainage system.”

“Ne can Ich eu namore telle. / Her nis namore of þis spelle”—but I’m open to generous and creative interpretations, even wild ones, of this medieval-ish menagerie that countless Washingtonians stomp past every day without ever stopping to see.

“She shouldn’t oughta try to be that way…”

“She would rise before us then, a vision to win us, not repel: a lithe young slender figure, instinct with ‘the unbought grace of youth,’ dear and bonny and lovable, the face beautiful, and transfigured with the light of that lustrous intellect and the fires of that unquenchable spirit.”

So wrote Mark Twain about Joan of Arc, the sole figure who could make him mute his famous disdain for medievalism. “[S]he is easily and by far,” he swooned, “the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” (Twain considered Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc his favorite of his own books; his heroine’s penchant for mottos—”Work! Stick to it!”—prompted Shaw to brand her “an American school teacher in armor.”)

It’s hard to overstate what a big deal Joan of Arc was in America at the dawn of the 20th century—but like most spirited forms of medievalism, Joanolatry first rose overseas. In 1870, when the French lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians, humiliated nationalists—when Europeans rouse medieval heroes from their graves, nationalism is usually the reason—made a symbol of the Maid of Orleans. American writers as early as John Daly Burk in 1798 cast Joan as an emblem of patriotism and pre-modern innocence, but by the late 19th century, European-influenced children’s books and chivalric romances about female heroes fired up men and women alike, as T.J. Jackson Lears points out:

The life of the chivalric warrior, male or female, ranged far outside the realm of reading circles and parlor chitchat. “Oh, to be a wild Kossack!” Emily Greene Balch wrote in her commonplace book after reading Taras Bulba. “Fight hard and drink hard and ride hard . . . Our clothes grow strait. Oh, for a horse between the knees, my blood boils, I want to fight, strain, wrestle, strike . . . To be brave and have it all known, to surpass and be proud, oh the splendor of it.”

Lears further argues that the American Cult of Joan was about more than escapism. For late 19th-century Americans, saints also “embodied instinctive communion with nature, simple faith unhampered by learning, and sexual purity. Personifying shibboleths of romantic liberal Protestantism, they entered the pantheon of the genteel tradition.”

World War I only gouged Joan further into American culture: She was immortalized on the Hudson in 1915, beloved by readers of Lucy Foster Madison’s 1918 novel (with its gorgeous Frank Schoonover illustrations), and brought to the screen by Cecil B. DeMille. Decades later, Joan was still sufficiently famous that OMD could write not one but two songs about her, while the Smiths could mention her and know that the image would stick.

According to the Book Haven, yesterday was the 600th birthday of Joan of Arc. Fortuitously, I learned this morning via D.C. neighbor and blogger George that the Joan of Arc statue in Meridian Hill Park, dedicated by President Harding on the saint’s birthday in 1922

…but (as this 2007 photo shows) disarmed for decades…

got her sword back just last month! (And got a full body scrub too.)

Congrats to locals, who reportedly lobbied the Park Service for two years to make this happen, and happy 600th to Miss of Arc, who was, as one of history’s greatest thinkers put it, “a most bodacious soldier and general.