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

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

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

Here’s the original, for you Latinists:

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

And here’s a quick translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All around the world, statues crumble for me…”

Contrary to CNN’s breathless claims an hour ago, today’s earthquake did not cause gargoyles to fall off the National Cathedral. However, the spires on the main tower sustained some damage. In the photo below, note the blunted spire on the left and the cockeyed one on the right; the building lost at least three pinnacles.

I spotted what may have been a section of broken stained glass, some rubble on the stairs where part of a spire reportedly fell, at least one other missing piece of ornamental stonework, and cathedral administrators anxiously surveying the foundation for signs of more serious damage.

The yellow-tape perimeter grew larger between 2 and 4 p.m., but the gargoyles all seem to be intact, which isn’t surprising; there’s at least as much unseen stone anchoring each one to the building as there is sticking out of the side.

Those of us for whom the cathedral is indispensable hope that the damage doesn’t extend beyond what we can see.

UPDATE, 10:55 p.m.: The Atlantic Wire has photos of damage at the higher levels and inside the cathedral.

UPDATE #2, AUGUST 24, 2011: The cathedral has a website devoted to earthquake damage; they’re soliciting funds to help with repairs.

“You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m goin’ back to my plough…”

It’s a sluggish season for blogging, but here at “Quid Plura?,” we’ve been called away from things online by the ageless yawp of agriculture.

Two weeks ago, I inherited a local garden plot. Although abandoned by humanity, this desperate parody of circumcrescence was dearly beloved of weeds, roots, seashells, rotten bamboo, and countless plastic shards. The very sight, especially so late in the summer, was dispiriting; even Gerard Manley Hopkins might have let fly a guilty dream or two about the glorious symmetry of the lawnmower.

So I turned for inspiration to Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and scholar memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and remembered there by at least one gargoyle). In De Cultura Hortorum, his famous gardening poem, Walahfrid recounts the nettled disaster he faces each spring, then calmly resolves to tame it:

So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattock
And dug up the sluggish ground. From their embraces
I tore those nettles though they grew and grew again,
I destroyed the tunnels of the moles that haunt dark places,
And back to the realms of light I summoned the worms.
(trans. Raef Payne)

And so, ten days ago, buoyed by the spirit of Walahfrid, I set about turning this…

…into this.

In his little garden, Walahfrid raised bountiful herbs alongside vegetables, flowers, and fruit. While cautioning that hard work trumps book-learning in these sorts of labors, he offers, across twelve centuries, a mote of hope:

If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
Then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.

We’ll soon see if this modern hortulus can bring forth plants that a sensible human will want to smell, admire, or eat. If so, I’ll be thankful for Walahfrid, and grateful, too, for the promise of applied medievalism.

“When August and September just become memories of songs…”

Sometimes October surprises us, coming over the Potomac like a shower of warmth. We stop in the colonnade and go on in sunlight, into the Bishop’s Garden, and drink Gatorade, and talk for an hour.

Sunday was one of those days. Push away from the desk, leave your thoughts unwritten, and remember the timeless words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Holy crap, it’s nice outside!”

Park your trike by the door into (Indian) summer.

Among the flowers, find a bronze sundial on a 13th-century capital from a monastery near Rheims. Look: it’s medievalism o’clock.

Someone left a flower for our old friend, the satyr…

…and a bouquet of herbs, berries, and chilies at the fish pond.

And then, homeward bound—but not before pausing to note a lone Scotsman mournfully piping at sunset.

“Champagne corks are firing at the sun, again….”

Chaucer’s second and third Canterbury Tales are so full of sex that it’s easy to forget they’re specifically tales of college towns. The Miller spins a fabliau about an old Oxford carpenter and the guys who chase his hot young wife. The Reeve, a carpenter, snaps back with the story of a crooked miller from just outside Cambridge. Their bawdy back-and-forth is, I think, one of the earliest literary traces of the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry, a medieval squabble that landed yesterday, with it own Chaucerian flourish, on the banks of the Potomac.

When I shambled into D.C. many years ago, I crashed on the couch of a great friend who’s now the president of the Cambridge Society of Washington, D.C. Inspired by the annual Boat Race on the Thames, he and the Society convinced local Oxford alumni to adapt an Oxbridge tradition and revive a Washington one. According to local lore, the first Cambridge-Oxford boat race on the Potomac arose in 1985 as a challenge between Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman, Jr. (who holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge) and Senator Larry Pressler (who attended St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar). In the 1990s, the race grew into a multi-university regatta with 35,000 spectators, corporate sponsorship, and charitable causes. By 2000, the event was kaput.

Ah, but the past was merely General Prologue—because yesterday, latter-day proxies of the Miller and the Reeve schlepped to the Georgetown waterfront, the hooly blisful boatrace for to seke. Putting boats in the water, they battled not merely for glory but also for the Cambridge-Oxford Potomac Boat Race Trophy, a blindingly sumptuous goblet that will be forever hailed in story and song as “the Cup of Destiny.”

Behold, spectators and supporters began to gather within sight of the Watergate and the KenCen…

…as the “Quid Plura?” kobolds, half-stunned by the blazing sun, scrambled to take photos.

The women raced first, with Cambridge squeaking out a win over Oxford. Then the men raced, with Oxford…

…roundly out-rowing Cambridge, a defeat witnessed by bemused recreational boaters.

Alumni of both universities and their family and friends then adjourned to the Ritz-Carlton to convert each minute of boat racing into an hour of alcohol consumption.

“Quid Plura?” thanks the Cambridge Society for the invitation to hang out with a fun crowd and stretch a weak premise for a blog entry about medievalism into an excuse to drink on a hot afternoon, even if no one was overheard speaking Middle English.

“Couples loiter in the cloisters, social leeches…”

On an August afternoon when D.C. is balmy and the news is all nonsense, it’s a nice surprise to wander through the cathedral garden and find queen butterflies swyving.

“Sire Monk, namoore of this, so God yow blesse!
Youre tayle anoyeth al this compaignye.
Swich talkyng is nat worth a boterflye…”
Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

“Boterflyes beþ smale fleynge bestes þat comeþ by night / in candeles and fondeþ to quenche þe light.”
— John Trevisa (c.1342-1402), trans., Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things)

“And we’re glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife. Come on! Hold on tight!”
— Meat Loaf, c.1977

When queen butterflies mate, the male flies around with the female hanging beneath him. It’s quite a sight.

Even squirrels are impressed by that.