Well, I am still alive, have not broken anything, and did not even fall off, though I certainly thought I was going to at one point. The muscles in my legs feel like marshmallow. I may never be a good rider, but I’m beginning to have hopes of progressing from mediocre to fair, and I am certainly learning a great deal about the very complex communication that goes on, or needs to go on, between horse and rider.
I was given a lovely, compact, caramel coloured horse named Hank. I should add that all the horses here are Welsh cobs, and that they come in four sizes: A, B, C and D. I think Hank is probably a B: tall as a large pony, but built like a horse. He has a pretty flaxen mane and tail, and he’s twelve years old: not a fossil like Aramis, but a good steady age. We caught our horses, groomed them, tacked them, and set out shortly before eleven, riding for a couple of hours along forest paths and past farms, trotting quite a bit and having a few perfectly manageable canters in leafy lanes and then we stopped for lunch. I began to think this was going to be easy. After lunch we headed up high onto the slopes of the hills (the Black Mountains, rather), which are covered in bracken and sheep, and prepared for another canter. And this one was absolutely wild: we flew across a track almost totally obscured by the bracken, turning sharp corners. Before I knew it, Hank and I were going awfully fast and I was convinced of my imminent death. I felt myself slipping, and yelled, much to my own embarrassment, but I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever gone so fast on a horse before. It was my fault, of course, not his. Used to riding Aramis, whose very top speed is never enough to catch up with the horse in front of him, I had simply given Hank his head; long reins are a way of telling the horse to run faster. So he did, and in fact ran so fast that when little dips in the trail came up, he simply jumped them. Not having anticipated either the dips or the jumps, my life flashed before my eyes– although the woman behind me told me that actually I was never in any danger of actually falling off but kept my seat quite well.
I learned a couple of very important things. First of all, most of the time even when you feel as though you’re about to fall, you’re really not. Second, when you are riding a well-trained horse (and all these horses are beautifully trained) it is your responsibility to tell them what to do in some kind of comprehensible fashion. When it came time for the last canter of the afternoon, over similar terrain, I (advised by our guide, who was quite patient with my idiocy) hung back, shortened my reins, and checked him a bit when he seemed to be speeding up. And he cantered beautifully and did not jump a thing. I was terrified the whole time, of course, but by the end of it I had learned that if I told him something the right way, then he would do exactly what I said. (This is not always true when he spots a particularly delectable bit of greenery as we’re ambling along, but we’re working on that). There are times when I need to make the decisions (go slower) and there are other times when I need to let him make the decisions (when we’re going down a very steep and treacherous slope, it would be lunacy to try and override the way he wants to place his nimble feet). My decisions are macro, his are micro, but we’re both engaged together in the making of them and they benefit both of us. After all, no one except the Man from Snowy River or Gandalf the White wants to hurl himself headlong down a rocky scree, and neither does any sane horse.
This makes me reflect upon just how specialized a skill riding actually is. Not only must the horse be trained to understand the commands given by the rider, but the rider must be trained to give the right commands. In this particular exchange, my horse was completely competent and I was not– I was talking gibberish when he expected coherent language. Nowadays, of course, most people don’t ride horses much if at all, so it hardly matters. But think again of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, all mounted. Most of them are riding pretty ordinary horses, of whom very little will ever be asked except to advance a bit quicker or stop. A rider as incompetent as I could manage such a horse without much difficulty. The exceptions, of course, are the knight, with his “goode” horse, and the Squire, who has been “in chyvachie” and “wel koude… sitte on hors and faire ryde.” A warhorse would require a different set of competencies than a lady’s palfrey or a priest’s ambler, or even the Monk’s hunter: greater physical strength, for one thing, since warhorses were generally stallions, prized for their aggressiveness. The stallion here (one of the ones I can see from my window) often breaks down a fence to go cover a mare on the other side of the valley. Different commands, too, would be required, to make a horse charge in the noise and the confusion of battle; these would be backed up by mechanical aids, some of them cruel (spurs, vicious bits), but I doubt that all the brute force in the world would be, in and of itself, sufficient to make a horse really effective on the field. The rider too, would need to be able to keep his seat in extraordinary circumstances. A knight who was a really bad rider would be an embarrassment– like poor old Kay in La Mule Sans Frein who can’t even competently ride a mule.
Well, I am still alive, have not broken anything, and did not even fall off, though I certainly thought I was going to at one point. The muscles in my legs feel like marshmallow. I may never be a good rider, but I’m beginning to have hopes of progressing from mediocre to fair, and I am certainly learning a great deal about the very complex communication that goes on, or needs to go on, between horse and rider.
And the rain just keeps on coming. Lucy and I have left France for Wales, for our long-planned week of horseback riding, and in the next few days the weather is unlikely to crack 20C. And it’s raining.
But about this I am not complaining or feeling even mildly cranky. I am tucked up under a down comforter in a tiny white room in a rambling 17th century farmhouse. I have a narrow bed, a chair, a wee table with a lamp, two shelves, and a few oddly framed reproductions of nineteenth-century German paintings to call my own for the next seven days. That, and two windows. One looks out over the creek and into dense greenery. The second looks at a bank that rises steeply towards the sky where, silhouetted, I can see a half a dozen horses grazing.
The house feels like someone’s home, and well it should as it’s inhabited by three generations of Turners, who’ve been here for forty-odd years. The common areas downstairs, the sitting room and dining room, are full of wonderful stuff– not antiques, not objets d’art, just stuff– a weird old sofas covered with the skin of an actual horse, quite probably the Appaloosa whose portrait hangs near it on the wall, bits and pieces from Africa where the pater familias worked for years, maps of everywhere from Botswana to Bavaria, children’s toys (because at least 5 grandchildren are in semi-permanent residence), and lots and lots of books. I’ve been reading Highways and Byways in South Wales by A.G. Bradley with illustrations by Frederick L. Grigs (1903) this evening. I haven’t yet pinpointed us on the map in the back of the book, although I do know that we drove (in Tyrone’s taxi) from the train station in Abergavenny through Crickhowell to get here. I’ll try to be more precise tomorrow, but in the meantime here’s a wonderful example of Mr. Bradley’s prose:
At Abergavenny Castle, so runs the tale, [William de Braose] had invited his Welsh neighbours to a sumptuous and friendly banquet. When the wine cup was flowing freely, and the harpers were all hard at work, he gave the signal for silence and demanded on the authority of Henry I., but more particularly “in the name of the Lord,” which seems to have been a favourite formula with this unreliable person, that every one should give up their arms. This did not merely mean that they should deposit their daggers in a cloak room till the fun was over lest they should perchance hurt each other–which would have been a truly thoughtful and friendly suggestion–but his command had another significance altogether, and the fiery Welshmen, not rendered less so by copious libations of mead and the inspiring songs of the bards, indignantly refused. The hall was then filled in a moment with men equipped for slaughter, and in less than no time de Braose had turned his dinner party into a bloody shambles.
He goes on to tell another story, about someone I’ve decided to adopt as a dubious ancestress: Maude de St. Valerie, “known in Welsh lore as ‘Moll Walbee’.” But I’ll put that one in later. Now it’s growing dark outside, and I can hear the water flowing and I’m hoping I’ll get just the right sort of horse tomorrow: placid but not slow, good-natured but not dull. Four hours in the saddle. It will be quite a test!
How curious to think that last time I wrote I was concerned about drought and excessively warm weather! As soon as we decided to go riding, the rain came in with a vengeance.
We ride with a group called Cavogaro, which stands for Cavaliers de la Voie Gallo Romaine, a name inspired by the fact that an ancient road used to run along the crest of the hills from Alésia, where Caesar defeated Vercingetorix, to Sombernon. Bits of the old road have been identified, as has at least one Roman villa beside it, but for the most part the trails we actually ride criss-cross back and forth across it, weaving up and down the steep slopes. We progress in single file at walk or trot alongside cultivated fields, and when we get into the more restricted woodland paths, we canter enthusiastically, as many as eight of us thundering along, and occasionally shrieking with glee or distress (when a branch gets you in the face for instance).
Lucy rides the most spirited horses Delphine can set her up with; every now and then, when something goes wrong at the back of the line, Lucy is left in command of the front. She’s acknowledged as one of the really seasoned riders, and as someone who knows the trails well. I, on the other hand, just ride Aramis, my fat, beloved, probably-partly-Welsh pony. He’s ancient (over twenty) and greedy as a pig, but I like him and he likes me and we do very well together. And he loves to go for a sprightly canter, and he’s short enough that I get fewer branches in the face than most people.
Seeing the countryside from horseback is an entirely different experience from seeing it from a car window (of course!) or even on foot. You sit a bit higher, you move rather faster, you take different short-cuts. And indeed, you realize how many of these ancient tracks were designed for exactly this, not for tractors or four-wheel drive vehicles or any of the other silly things that now occasionally venture onto them. There are steep ascents and descents that would be impossible on anything motorized, and difficult on foot, but that are just right for a surefooted pony. And you get to thinking (or at least I do) about just how many people have ridden these paths before: ladies on palfreys, the occasional knight headed down to the chateau at Thenissey on a destrier. Given the power of the Abbey at Flavigny, to which most of the area owed duty, plenty of priests on mules or donkeys, going to visit outlying farms, and maybe the occasional naughty and self-indulgent monk like Chaucer’s, on a horse far too good for a man who has taken a vow of poverty. Heavy farm horses, like the one in the Friar’s Tale, who gets the cart he pulls stuck in a muddy patch… and there were plenty of muddy patches the other day, when we started out in a fine drizzle that turned into steady rain after the first twenty minutes and persisted for the rest of the two hours that we rode, so that we couldn’t even risk a canter because the ground was so slippery. When we finally dismounted, I had a dry patch on the top of my head (rather like a monk’s tonsure) where my helmet had protected me, and on my butt, and the rest of me was soaking wet and chilled to the bone. I also had a whole new appreciation for men-at-arms riding out on their lord’s service, or farmers coming home from far away markets, or pilgrims heading to Compostela, none of whom had the option of giving up after a couple of hours and climbing into a dry car and turning the heater on full.
The Travelling Medievalist is feeling a bit cranky. Upon arrival in her (non-medieval but still early modern) house in France, she discovered that not only did she have no hot water, but that the water that should have been hot was laced with anti-freeze and therefore toxic. Please don’t ask me to explain French plumbing, but the upshot is that a new hot water heater has been installed to the tune of some 1200 euros, which is way more dollars than you want to think about.
On the plus side, the weather has been stunningly gorgeous. Soon people will start to fuss about the lack of water, but for the moment they are busy harvesting the wheat, a few weeks early. And the red currents, which are not normally picked until after Bastille Day, but which this year have demanded attention much earlier. We picked three bushes worth at my friend Wendy’s last week, and that yielded 3 kilos of berries, which turned into quite a lot of pots of jam.
Jam (and its more delicate sibling, jelly) is not properly speaking a medieval phenomenon. Not in the Western world, at any rate. Jam requires sugar, and cane sugar was discovered in about 700 by the Arabs, who figured out how to use it to make all sorts of lovely things like sherbet and Turkish Delight. The Crusaders brought a sweet tooth home with them, but it was hard to indulge in France until the sixteenth century, when Catherine de Medicis brought an entire company of jam-makers to France. One book I’ve been reading insists that Nostradamus was the first maker of jam in France, but this seems too good to be true. In any case, making jam is one of the most satisfying occupations I know of, especially if you’re working with a fruit like red current, which is naturally full of pectin and therefore almost fool proof. Of course it’s hot work, leaning over the stove in clouds of current scented steam, in July, as you stir and stir and wait for the jam to reach that miraculous consistency when a tiny bit dropped onto a cold saucer holds its shape. But at the end of a sweaty afternoon, you have pots and pots of what looks like liquid rubies, all ready to be stored away for a cold day in winter when you will really need a bit of summer sun.
My village, or the hill it’s built on at any rate, first sneaks into history in 52 BC. That date is known to all French school children; it marks the final showdown between two colossal figures, Julius Caesar and the rebellious Gallic chieftain, Vercingetorix. In the summer of that year, Vercingetorix decided to make a stand at a place called Alésia, a hill fortress belonging to the Mandubii tribe. With hindsight, you can see both why he chose the site, and why it was a bad idea. The hilltop at Alésia is broad and shaped like a spearhead; it’s easily defensible, with sheer rocky sides in most places, and Vercingetorix had just handed Caesar a regular thumping at another hill-fortress, south in Gergovia. Besides, Vercingetorix ‘ troops outnumbered Caesar’s, and he was expecting help from 250,000 more coming up from the South. He was setting a trap with himself as bait, and he fully expected Caesar to fall into it and to be crushed.
That flat, defensible hilltop is also dry, however; in this damp countryside, it’s one of the few places where there’s not a spring to be found. It was mid-August when Vercingetorix and his army arrived, though army is a misleading word; the Celts were individualists, each one in search of single combat that would make him glorious, and often accompanied by slaves or wives and even children. Caesar says there were 80,000 of them but it’s hard to imagine so many fitting on that hilltop, and in any case classical authors always inflate their figures. Imagine, though, even a tenth of that number on a rocky hillside with no water.
In August, it gets very, very hot.
It’s more difficult, at first glance, to understand why Caesar chose the site he did, the high plateau beyond where our village now stands. Seen from the modern road, the hillside west and north of the surviving town looks gentle, even friendly. There are meadows with ponies low down, then a band of trees, then golden wheatfields on top. What the trees hide, however, is the fact that this hilltop too is abrupt, really a band of small cliffs running all around the top of the hill. There is a path between the outcrops of limestone, but you have to know where it is, and leaving the path is simply foolish. You think to yourself, “I’ll just cut cross-country and come down on the top of the Brigand’s pasture. That way I can be home for supper.” You start to head due west, but once off the path, you realise your mistake; the whole hillside is fissured with crevices, and where there aren’t crevices there are boulders, all of this invisible under a thick cover of dark yew trees and bloodthirsty blackberry brambles. Such experiments always result in hours of delay and missing supper entirely.
While the forest was virgin in Caesar’s day, and the undergrowth therefore perhaps less completely vicious, the boulders and fissures would have posed severe obstacles to both cavalry and infantry. Caesar’s choice was a wise one in other ways: the hillside has plenty of small springs, one of which supplies the town’s water to this day. As for the dense woods, they were just what Caesar needed. The Gauls were undeniably brave, and they were bigger than the Romans (almost all the ancient sources mention their intimidating height) but the Romans were engineers. Once their headquarters was chosen, they began to build. First they excavated a huge ditch down on the plain where the trains would later run, to hold back the relieving army (which was late in any case). Then they began to cut down trees and to build: 7 satellite camps, 23 redoubts, miles and miles of walls hemming Vercingetorix in on one side, and keeping the other Gauls out on the other, dozens of booby traps from pits filled with stakes and covered with bracken to ditches flooded with water cleverly diverted from the streams that run on either side of Alésia, the Ozerain and the Oze.
Up on their rocky plateau, the Gauls could see and no doubt hear what was happening; sounds echo back and forth between these hills, you can hear a donkey bray a mile away or someone take a shot at a pheasant in October. They sat up on the rock, in a din of crickets, scanning the horizon for the army that would arrive to rescue them and instead they must have seen great holes open up in the forest as trees fell, as space was cleared for the construction of towers and palisades. Everything was made to precise specifications: the ditches were five feet deep, Caesar tells us, and the tips of the fire hardened spikes in the specially dug pits were only to protrude four inches from the ground. This was the same ruthlessly efficient Roman army that once built a bridge across the Rhine big enough to march a legion over, in ten days. To the Gauls it must have seemed like black magic.
And all this time the army didn’t come and didn’t come because the chieftains of the Gauls were engaged in one of their interminable arguments about whether to side with Vercingetorix or Rome, and August wore on into September, the most beautiful month of the year, with brilliant blue skies and a touch of autumn in the air. September is the month when the grapes and the blackberries fatten up and get sweet, and it’s the best month for taking long walks because it hardly ever rains. Up on top of the plateau at Alésia, the limestone runs an inch or so beneath the soil. In this bedrock near the place where the Gauls had their camp, there are some shallow rectangular scrapes, possibly intended to catch and hold water. But they are small and desperate. In September the Gauls drove all civilians out of their camp; down before the Roman fortifications women and children, starving already, wept and begged for food. But Caesar—and he reports his own ruthlessness ruthlessly—forbade the guards to let them in, and so they died.
By the time the relief army finally arrived, almost two months after Vercingetorix had sent for it, it was too late. Caesar’s forces were too strongly entrenched and in the few pitched battles that were fought, his German cavalry, even taller and more terrifying than the Gauls, and with the benefit of Roman training, chopped the Gaulish horsemen into messes and drove the rest back. There was one final effort—Vercingetorix tried a sortie against Caesar’s camp on the hill, while his cousin Vercassivellaunus, commanding the relief army, tried to break through the Roman line further north. But the Romans rained missiles on them from their towers, Caesar sent out a youthful Brutus to engage the Gauls on the plain and then showed himself in his purple commander’s cloak to give heart to his men, the terrible Germans galloped out again, and then it was all over.
In the nineteenth century, everyone was looking for an aboriginal ancestor. The British, ruled by Victoria, found theirs appropriately enough, in Boudicca, leader of another Celtic revolt against the Romans some hundred years later. The Germans have Arminius, irresistibly known as Herman the German, whose struggles against Augustus are the subject of the first books of Tacitus’ Histories. There are wildly Romantic statues of both of these, the first in Piccadilly (?) and the second in the Teutobergerwald. Herman, in fact, is hollow like the Statue of Liberty, and you can climb up inside of him. Vercingetorix is more aloof. No driving around him, no getting inside him. He stands at the point of that spear-shaped plateau, leaning on a huge sword, looking down over the plain where his destiny played out. His hair and moustache are very like those depicted on one of the coins he minted for himself two thousand years ago, though he looks more than a little like Napoléon III too. You can sit in his shadow to eat your picnic, up on the top of the hill where there are no trees and its very quiet except for the song of the occasional lark.
There are two ways of telling how we got here, some forty years ago. One is my mother’s, one is my father’s. Each of them denies the other’s story pretty categorically, but that’s all right. I’ve come to feel that this place, for all its undeniable solidity, the weight of its stones, the noise of its thunderstorms, the heat of its dog days, is more than a little fictional.
My mother’s version of the story is both succinct and mystical. She and my father were touring through Burgundy with no particular plan. Their Green Guide mentioned a town with a Carolingian crypt and they were vaguely making towards it, down a road winding between hedges. It had been raining all day, and the road ahead of them was almost invisible. They came around a bend, and as they did so, a single beam of sunlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the hillside above them with its pointed spire, broken roofline, and fortified walls. The village seemed to be floating on a sea of fog, golden above the silvery damp. Stunned, they slowed to a halt—and in the back seat, I gurgled in glee. “That’s it!” my mother exclaims in her version of the story. “That’s where I want to live!” And so they did.
My father’s version of the story is longer and more circumstantial; I don’t know whether this makes it truer. He’s a book illustrator by trade, so attention to detail is part of what he does. He spent quite a few years in the 1950’s working for a marvellously eccentric printer in Paris by the name of Maurice Darrantière. Darrantière had typeset the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, and many things besides. When asked what Joyce was like, he had only one answer: “Oh, my poor dear,” he would say, “he was the devil. The devil!” I am not quite sure what this means; nor, I think, was my father, but he learned a great deal from Darrantière, mostly about what would or would not pass muster in a sort of Bohemian French society that was directly descended from Théophile Gauthier and the Goncourts. When my parents, having (finally) acquired reasonably stable academic employment in the United States, along with a family (in the shape of myself), decided that they wanted to buy a house in France, nothing was more reasonable, according to my father, than that they should ask Darrantière for advice. Darrantière was originally from Dijon and so to him, if you wanted to live “in the provinces” there was only one place to go: Burgundy. Anywhere else would be uncivilized; the south was too close to Spain, Normandy was too English, Alsace-Lorraine unthinkable; Burgundy on the other hand was the site of ancient and civilized culture.
So my parents got into the tiny car, with me in a car seat, and they drove down the A6, past Fontainebleau with its chateau, Sens and Auxerre with their cathedrals, until they ended up in a place near Vezeley called Quarré-les-Tombes. I don’t know which of them was responsible for this particular choice, although I suspect that my father, who has always had a taste for the macabre, couldn’t resist the name of the place, which is, as it turns out, entirely descriptive. The village of Quarré-les-Tombes is laid out in a square (carré) around its church, at a respectful distance. Huddled right up against the walls of the church are the tombs (tombes), hundreds of them. They are great big stone sarcophagi from the early middle ages. Most of them gape, one way or another; their tops have fallen off, or they’ve been tipped onto their massive sides. Mercifully, there’s nothing osseous inside peeking out. Archaeologists aren’t sure whether the place was a coffin factory and this its show room, or whether what you see now is a real necropolis, lying for some reason on top of the ground and not under it. What it really looks like is as if some giant hand with a grim but playful sense of humour had dropped the massive things from a height, like pick-up sticks or knucklebones, all around the church. This cheerful spot, in any case, is where my father left me with my mother when he set off to look for houses.
It was late afternoon when my father drove into the village, having explored quite a few towns along the way. It was raining gently, as it often is in Burgundy in the early part of the summer. He walked around entranced by the ruinous state of the place. Roofs were falling in and towers collapsing; swallows were building nests in the windows of unoccupied houses, and great late medieval mansions had been converted into barns where cows stood and chewed and swayed thoughtfully in the dimness. There were chickens in the streets but not many people; sometimes a farmer in his bleus de travail would stalk by, bent over beneath the pitchfork on his shoulder, sometimes a door would open and a woman in a house dress would furiously flap a dust cloth before retreating inside again. He found the general air of decay irresistible (this is the man who once wrote, in another context, “gloom, as a matter of fact, is my mind’s natural illumination”). The rain came down harder and he turned back to the café. It had a sign out front proclaiming it to be Le Bon Coin, and it was indeed perched on a corner where a street dove steeply downhill. The windows were shuttered but there was light from inside and a murmur of voices. My father pushed open the door and stepped into the bar. The atmosphere inside was as foggy as that outside. Four or five men were there, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking wine, and having a conversation incomprehensible both because it was in patois and because it consisted entirely of monosyllables. In village conversations, you really don’t have to say much because you’ve said it all before and will say it all again: it’s about the awful weather, the prospects for a dreadful harvest, the appalling thing that happened to someone’s tractor, the dire impossibility of living this kind of life at all. The men wore the uniform of La France Profonde: bleus de travail, big grey rubber gum boots. But, I should add, not berets. Only two people in our town ever wore berets, and perhaps I’ll tell you about them later..
The conversation, such as it was, stopped when my father stepped in, and heads swung around to inspect him. To be fair, he probably looked a bit odd. He is a burly man who has always liked trench coats, and on top of that he had a beard. This was in 1964 and nobody except Fidel Castro wore a beard, least of all anyone in rural Burgundy. On top of this, he speaks French well but no one could ever mistake him for a Frenchman, and in this town at that time even people from Lyon or Paris were considered foreigners.
“Good afternoon,” he said, and he ordered a coffee. When it arrived, he asked politely “I wonder, could you tell me if there are any houses for sale in the village?” There was a long silence and then one of the men began to laugh. Then another guffawed, and another, and soon the whole place was uproarious. They slapped the tables and each other’s shoulders. Finally, one of them wiped away his tears and drew breath.
“But monsieur!” he exclaimed. “Why would you want to buy a house in a shithole like this?”
The shithole part was almost literally true. When my father stepped back outside into the damp afternoon, after partaking of a petit rouge or two, the sun had broken through the clouds and was coaxing fragrant threads of golden steam from the manure piles that seemed to fill every courtyard. But he had the name of a real estate agent in his pocket and within a matter of weeks my parents had purchased—for a song, as they say—the only available house in town possessed of both electrical power and running water.
Many years ago, I made a fateful decision. I didn’t realize it as such at the time, and indeed, I’ve only just recognized it. But it was one of those “paths not taken” moments and it has everything to do with the way I see the world now. As a third year student at the University of Toronto, I came this close to becoming a Roman historian, because of a single wonderful seminar taught by Prof. Elaine Fantham, not because it was her field, but because the person who was supposed to teach it had suddenly expired, and Prof. Fantham could do anything. Because of her, and the presence of my best friend Michael, and that of a mysterious South American student with narcolepsy (very amusing if you’re not the one who has it), the class was great fun, and I fell in love with Tacitus, even writing a long paper on the movements of the Batavian cavalry (don’t ask) in the Histories. “Roman history!” I thought. “Perhaps I’ll just do this from now on!”
I came to my senses the following year, due to long immersion in the poetry of Catullus, and to my first serious encounter with Chaucer. Finally, I’m glad I did not become a Roman historian, because I’m married to a Greek historian and that would have been… well, weird. But even more importantly, I realized that I really care very little about what actually happened and when; I’m far more interested in what might have happened, whether it did or it didn’t. Legend is my avocation, not history. I prefer imaginary saints, for instance, to real ones. Gregory of Tours is all very well, and I suspect he would have been an amusing dinner guest (because he tells a lot of surprisingly funny stories in his books, about heretics falling into privies and the like), but isn’t Saint Christopher, the giant with the head of a dog, really more interesting? He never existed, but he was somehow so essential that he had to be invented anyway.
All this is really by way of warning you that whatever I tell you about the village I live in may participate more in legendary truth than in historical truth. None of it may be provable. This doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
In the summer time, the room Keats died in is quite a pleasant one. It’s small—there’s not room for much more than a single bed and a desk—but it’s in the corner of the building and there are two windows, one looking down on the Spanish Steps and one over the piazza. The windows let in lots of light and a good deal of sky. Keats died in February, though, when there would have been little light and a leaden sky. There’s a fireplace in the room, quite near the bed, but I suspect that when you’re in the last stages of tuberculosis, the fever is so bad that you shake with chills no matter what. Over the bed hangs Severn’s beautiful last sketch of Keats. Severn says he had to draw to keep awake through the long nights; he was afraid to fall asleep and somehow fail his friend. The room has a coffered ceiling, with trompe l’oeil medallions painted on it to imitate the large plaster ones you see gilded in the ceilings of so many Roman churches. It may be a good thing to have a pretty ceiling to look at when you’re dying.
The Keats-Shelley house is in all ways a curious place. It consists of four rooms, lined with books in handsome bookcases and odd memorabilia, and it is always full of silent people, mostly Brits and Americans, wandering around with tears in their eyes. There’s a little sign on the bed politely requesting that no one lie down upon it as both bed and covering are antique and fragile. This implies, of course, that some visitors tried to lie down on the bed, hoping to get as close as possible to the dead poet. Part of me finds this creepy, but another part of me understands it completely. Was there every anyone so easy to fall in love with as Keats? I’ve seen it happen to strong men. I remember John Frisbee, years ago, appearing in my office all disheveled after reading Keats’ letters and announcing that he was in love not just with the poetry but with the poet.
The Keats house is all about the poet rather than the poetry; by the time he got to Rome, Keats wasn’t writing much at all. The great year that produced the Odes was over and all his energies were devoted simply to breathing. He couldn’t even bring himself to read letters from Fanny Brawne. They were buried, unopened, in his coffin. This is the kind of detail that the Keats-Shelley house revels in. There’s a framed collection of locks of hair (Keats’, Shelley’s) that used to belong to Leigh Hunt (somehow I find it no surprise that Hunt was an obsessive collector of other people’s hair), who notes, in small pointy handwriting, the particular quality of each poet’s lock, Keats’ hair “very good”, Shelley’s “exceedingly curly.” Every year I try to teach my students not to be taken in by biographical fallacy, not to imagine that the life explains the work, and yet here I am on a spectacularly beautiful summer day in Rome, gazing at a lock of Keats’ hair and feeling obscurely pleased that it’s really just the same colour as mine. The life does not explain the work, nor the work the life, but both are real and both fascinate, the poet’s sketch of the Sosibios vase in the Louvre (Grecian Urn?) and Severn’s heartbreaking drawing of the poet himself, close to death.
The bedroom and sitting room occupied by Keats and Severn (Severn slept in the sitting room) contain most of the Keats memorabilia. Then there’s a large booklined room with bits and pieces associated with various Romantics, and with various early Keats worshipers, and a smaller room dedicated to Byron and Shelley. Here you can read rather sinister things, like Shelley’s description of the boat he has just purchased, the boat that will kill him, or his request for a little prussic acid, just in case he ever felt like committing suicide. There are also quite a few portraits of Byron’s various Italian mistresses. Neither Byron nor Shelley ever set foot in this building, however; I think this room was actually where the landlady lived.
Having spent much of a morning brooding around happily in the Keats-Shelley house, I decided that I had to visit their graves. The following day was Lucy’s seventeenth birthday, but fortunately she was delighted by the idea (the nut really doesn’t fall far from the tree!) so we hopped on the metro back down to Piramide, where the Cimitario Acatolico lies right behind the pyramid a first century Roman named Cestius built as a monument to himself. It turns out to be quite possibly the loveliest cemetary in the world, on a slope with cypress trees and flowers and green grass everywhere. The noise of the city fades the instant you enter, blocked by high walls and that huge pyramid; you could be a hundred miles from Rome. Lots of cats prowl the gravestones, looking sleek and happy: the cemetary is also a cat sanctuary. The cats are neutered, vaccinated and fed, but other than that left to their own devices, as companions of the dead.
Severn wrote that when he went to visit Keats’ grave in the spring after his death it was already covered with violets and tiny daisies, and that the beauty of the spot was some consolation in his grief. I can well believe it. Keats wanted nothing on the tombstone but “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” but he didn’t exactly get his way, because Severn took care of the arrangements and the text: “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a Young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Severn himself is buried right next to Keats; he stayed in Rome for quite a few years as a painter, then returned to England, and was eventually sent back to Rome as British consul, in which capacity her served for a long time. Apparently everyone adored him, though his reputation as Keats’ friend always outshone his reputation as either painter or diplomat. Severn’s grave identifies him as the friend of John Keats, thus eliminating any possibility of anonymity, and sometime at the end of the century some well-wishers added a memorial placque with a nifty little acrostic, much decried by people like Oscar Wilde (who thought it was tacky):
“K-eats! if thy cherished name be “writ in water”
E-ach drop has fallen from some mourner’s cheek;
A-sacred tribute; such as heroes seek,
T-hough oft in vain – for dazzling deeds of slaughter
S-leep on! Not honoured less for Epitaph so meek!”
Further up the hill, that odd couple Shelley and Trelawney are buried side by side. Trelawney deserves a post all of his own, and perhaps I’ll get to that some day.
I’ve decided not to make any plans while I’m here. I’m not doing research in Rome, after all, I’m just here to meet up with Lucy, who’s on a seriously hard-core-planned-down-to the-minute trip with her Latin class. Whatever I need to learn about classical Rome, I’m sure she will teach me. No, I’m going to drift…
On Saturday I drifted to Piramide, to see an old friend. I drifted via San Pietro in Vincoli, because it was close to the Colosseo Metro stop. I stared for a while at Michaelangelo’s Moses, and he stared right back. He’s virtually the only part of the tomb of Julius II that the great man actually completed; the rest was finished by his students, and this is really shockingly evident when you look at it. The rest of the sculptures, Rachel and Leah, and the Virgin and Julius himself up above, are… well, nice. Moses is anything but. He’s just burning up with power, incandescent, and the rest of the tomb might as well be a whitewashed wall.
At Piramide, I spent a while sitting on the steps and pondering the ruins of the Porta Ostiensis in the Aurelian wall. The classical city of Rome didn’t have massive fortifications, although it had city walls, and this was the gate that opened on the way to Ostia, the port of Rome, down on the coast. The really massive fortifications here were begun in the 3rd century, though what remains looks to me much later—thirteenth or fourteenth, perhaps, though as usual my guidebooks are silent on the medieval details. Tommaso had said he would meet me; I wondered whether I’d recognize him, but was fairly certain that I would. A little confusion arose, though, because he sent his partner Franco to pick me up instead, and had told Franco I was a blonde, which of course I was years ago in California. We sorted it out eventually, and back we went to their apartment for lunch with their two remarkably beautiful children. Tommaso is writing a book about walking around Rome, quite literally around it, in a big circle. When the line he has traced, much more regular than those Aurelian walls, leads through a school, or someone’s apartment, he knocks on the door and asks if he may walk through. And yet even Tommaso, who’s lived in Rome almost all of his life, confesses that he doesn’t know much about the medieval city; it’s a ghost, hanging intangible between the stupendous ruins of the classical past and the palazzos of the Renaissance. When I rack my brains to come up with even an anecdote about Rome in the Middle Ages, I get nothing but a vague recollection of a story told by Liutprand of Cremorna, who visited the city on behalf of the Holy Roman emperor Otto (III? I think so) and reported a scandalous story about a pope who was sleeping with his mother. It’s hard to know quite how reliable Liutprand was; he also visited Constantinople and witnessed the Byzantine emperor flying up to the ceiling in a magical mechanical throne. Still, the impression he gives of Rome near the turn of the first millenium is one of damp, disorder and decay.
Then there’s Margery Kempe. Someone ought to do a tour of Rome, walking in her footsteps. It’s a pity I didn’t think of this sooner, since I don’t generally travel with a copy of the Book of Margery Kempe, and thus have to patch together my vague recollections of her visit here in about 1415. She was on her way home from Jerusalem, when God instructed her to go to Rome. I imagine He thought (or she thought that He thought) that the Roman clergy needed to be licked into shape; this was the period of the Great Schism, with one Pope in Rome, one Pope in Avignon, and a third in Pisa. The idea of a Kempian pilgrimage around Rome occurred to me when I found myself by accident standing in front of a church dedicated to Saint Brigid of Sweden, who visited Rome some 50 years before Margery (and 650 years before me); Margery was a great admirer of Brigid’s, because they were both closely acquainted with the Holy Family. Brigid had visions of the Nativity, while in one of Margery’s more famous devotional daydreams, she sees herself bustling around with clean linen and hot water as the Virgin goes into labour.
It would be difficult, I suppose, to reconstruct Margery’s itinerary, even if I had brought along a copy of her book. She’s not big on geography, or description. Rather, it’s the people she remembers, and that one remembers after reading her: the various priests who either oppose her or support her, the wealthy ladies who invite her to dinner, the fellow travellers who keep ditching her because they can’t stand being preached at while they eat. She does, if my memory is at all reliable, have a sort of vision of herself in a mystic marriage to Christ when she visits St. John Lateran. And she constantly bursts into tears at the sight of baby boys, because they remind her of Jesus and the sufferings of her mother (my friend Tommaso’s little boy, not quite two, with extraordinary golden curls, would have reduced her to a puddle).
Most of the churches Margery visited in the fifteenth century would be unrecognizable to her now. Even the most ancient were rebuilt again and again in the Renaissance and during the Baroque period. Yesterday I visited three of these, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Pudenziana and San Prassede. The Basilica of Santa Maria was built by Sixtus III (432-440), but Sixtus wouldn’t recognize it now, with its Baroque façade. Inside, you can still see a series of 5th century mosaics—well, I couldn’t see them very well, because I had not brought binoculars, and they’re embedded in the wall quite high up in the nave. There are later mosaics, more visible to the naked eye and quite Byzantine in style, in the apse. What really takes your breath away, however, is the ceiling, all coffered in gold, the first gold to come out of Peru, donated to Alexander VI by Ferdinand and Isabella. The two smaller churches are much less altered. Santa Prassede, which dates to 822 has really wonderful mosaics in the chancel. There’s a flat dark blue sky, full of the most well-organized clouds you’ve ever seen, all lined up in rows rather like the stars on an American flag. Below these, saints and angels, and below these, flat green grass with red flowers as tightly ranked as the clouds above. The whole thing gives a wonderful impression of the coherence and unity of the divine plan. In a side chapel, there is a piece of the column to which Christ was tied in order to be scourged. I would have liked to have spent more time in this dark little church, but I was kindly encouraged to leave at half past noon, so the priest could go have his lunch. The third of these ancient churches, Santa Pudenziana, is dedicated to a senator’s daughter who used to help prepare the bodies of the martyrs for burial. I couldn’t explore it thoroughly either, because it was a Sunday. Nowadays, it is the Philippino church in Rome (I’m not sure why) and it was absolutely packed; a Mass was being said in Tagalog. I stood in the back for a while, feeling, as I rarely do, tall. And a bit conspicuous.
Rather typically, I failed to get my touristic act together today. I spent too much of the morning running errands (post office… money machine… pharmacy for ibuprofen for my aching knee… thank heavens ibuprofen is the same word in Italian) and got myself over to Trastevere just in time to discover that both St. John Chrysostom and Santa Cecilia close up at one o’clock. Beyond the Centro Storico, apparently, everything follows the old fashioned Italian schedule of long naps in the afternoon. Trastevere, however, seems to have changed very little since Margery’s day: narrow little crooked streets, lots of laundry hanging from the windows. Which makes me wonder a bit about Margery’s laundry. She insisted on wearing white clothes, as a mark of her born-again virginity, granted her by divine favour after 20 years of marriage and thirteen children. It must have been awfully difficult to keep them clean on pilgrimage. In Rome, if I recall correctly, she actually agreed to dress like a normal person for a while, and the skeptic in me wonders whether the difficulty of doing laundry in a pilgrim hospice (she stayed at St Thomas of Canterbury) may have been a factor here. It’s tricky enough washing out the occasional T-shirt in a hotel with running water, after all.
A word about my hotel: I love it. It claims to be one of the oldest in Rome, dating back to the Middle Ages, but in the same breath (a breath inscribed on a panel by the door) admits that it was entirely demolished and rebuilt in the nineteenth century, a perfect example of the imaginative recreation of the medieval. Still, it doesn’t feel particularly Victorian (or Vittorian). It’s a warren of little corridors around a central courtyard; my room is one of the simplest (i.e. cheapest), with furniture that must be at least a century old, and not much of it. No air-conditioning, but a big ceiling fan, and in any case it’s been rainy the last two days. The bathroom is down the hall. The courtyard is mostly occupied by American music students, here for a festival; as I write this, a couple of guitarists are rehearsing something classical and beautiful that I can’t identify. The people in the hotel are very friendly; yesterday I watched the Italy-New Zealand match with one of the guys who manages the desk. Absolutely shocking: a draw between the defending champions and the Kiwis who were ranked something like 103rd coming into this! At a potentially exciting moment, a girl wandered in wanting to buy internet time (you pay by the hour). “What… now???” my new friend said in disbelief. And tore himself away to fulfill her request, missing only the entrance of a new player on the New Zealand side. It’s Albergo del Sole, right off the Campo dei Fiore.
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.