I arrived in Rome this morning, after a longer trip to Europe than usual, because a) I had to fly out of Newark, and b) I had to take an airporter to get to Newark. And that airporter took a hour tooling around various parts of North Philadelphia, to pick up first a beaming Pakistani woman and then a taciturn Venezuelan who was difficult to find because the driver was unsure as to whether he lived above a pizza shop or behind a mosque. The driver, by the way, introduced me personally to his two GPS devices, one named Harriet and the other called Bertha. Harriet is apparently the more reliable of the two, and certainly she eventually got us down to the office where we transferred to another van full of hot and sleepy people, and set off at last for Newark and JFK.
Languages spoken into cell phones on that trip: Arabic, Hindi, Spanish, and one more I couldn’t identify.
What has this longwinded tale of my departure got to do with the fact that I find myself in Rome today, watching the World Cup match between Slovenia and the USA in a tunnel- shaped bar, echoing with vuvuzela, that burrows into the foundations of what was once Pompey’s theatre? What’s it got to do with being a medievalist? Bear with me. When the knight who is the protagonist of a medieval romance sets out, he finds himself almost immediately in a strange place and among strangers (some of whom, like my driver, possess magical powers or magical devices named Harriet and Bertha), long before he gets to the ultimate strangeness of his destination. Lancelot, for instance, in Le Chevalier à la Charette, encounters all kinds of peculiar situations before he enters the fully other world of Gorre, where Guenevere is being held captive. Indeed, by that point he’s been travelling so long that it’s difficult to know exactly when he crosses the boundary into Gorre. And in fact, it wasn’t until I was in another bus half a world away, lurching from Fiumicino into the city that I suddenly thought to myself “Rome! Holy crap, I’m in Rome!” The journey threatens always to become a distraction from the destination.
And then too, the babel of languages that surrounded me as I set out made me think about romance as both language and genre (NB: the only way I’m NOT using the word is in the 21st century erotic sense—I’ll leave that to Tecmessa). When someone like Benoit de Sainte-Maure describes his practice, he calls what he does “metre en romans”, taking something from Latin and putting it into French (though it could also have been Italian, or Spanish, or Provençal). And after travelling as much as I have recently in Turkey, I have to admit that it’s a relief to put myself into romance. It’s not that I actually speak Italian, but I understand it pretty well, and I can make myself understood, albeit gracelessly.
What’s Rome, the etymological origin of romance, for medievals anyway? An idea, mostly, or a couple of ideas. Not for the people who lived here, of course, though I admit I know little about the actual city of Rome in the Middle Ages except that it seems to have been continuously in a state of chaos. My medievals are people who lived far away from the imperial city, in the damper climates of France and the British Isles, and for them Rome is the seat of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, whom they find that they all, from Henry II Plantagenet to Stephen Dedalus, must serve, one way or the other. But it’s also the city of Aeneas, of Romulus and Remus, of the legendary Trojan fathers from whom they trace their descent, since everyone in Europe in the Middle Ages required to be descended from a Trojan hero. Rome in the middle ages then is both the idea of the Papacy (even when it’s in Avignon) and the dream of the classical past. In the next few days, I’ll wander through both of those.
The score, by the way, was 2-2, though I think we was robbed.