Something I Wish I Had Made Explicit in My Dissertation

I’m never particularly satisfied with anything I’ve written.  The end result never tallies with the original vision in my mind.  When I go back and read again, I find so many lapses, so much unexplained and implicit.  What was entirely clear to me as I wrote is now muddled and slow on the page.  Does the reader get any of it?  Have I failed?1

In particular, my dissertation suffered from a lack of an adequate conclusion.  Frankly, I was tired and scattered and up against a deadline, and I didn’t take the time to properly sum up the whole of my research.  Thus, there are a number of points that I wish had been made more emphatically throughout, and I want to emphasize one here.

First, a bit of background because apparently not everyone has read my dissertation (ridiculous, you should be ashamed).  The subject of that noble work was Honorius Augustodunensis, an extremely popular author of the early twelfth century.  Honorius is notable for all sorts of reasons–you often find him cited as an exemplar of this or that aspect of medieval thought or one of the first to utilize some soon-to-be-widespread literary technique–but there is little comprehensive study of his works.  In a large part this is because Honorius has been classified as a “popularizer,” someone writing for wide audiences whose work is essentially unsophisticated summaries of more important intellectual figures.  Except in one aspect, this is not necessarily an unfair categorization.  Indeed, it’s one he himself readily admits to.  He tells us he is writing for the unlearned, that his style is crude, and that nothing in his works is original, save the effort he expended putting everything together.2

But it’s that bit about being unsophisticated that rings false upon even a cursory examination of his work. It turns out that the effort spent assembling everything was actually quite considerable, and the more we look, the more sophisticated Honorius’s thought appears. His background theology is quite advanced, based on a complex synthesis of John Scottus Eriugena, a maddeningly difficult thinker of whom Honorius is perhaps the most devoted medieval student, Augustine, and Anselm. It’s hard to summarize huge swathes of Christian thought in concise, clear, and easily memorized package. Moreover, there’s a profound unity to both what Honorius writes and how he writes it. The very style of the work, all his unique literary techniques, are in line with his theological outlook. Therefore, the writing itself works to convey the same ideas as the words and to practically enact the ideal of salvific contemplative pedagogy that animates his whole authorial mission. Pretty neat stuff.

Now, the big take-away of all this that I wish I had emphasized more is that this exploring all this demonstrates something very important about medieval thought and about a mistake we often make when studying it. Namely, the dismissal of Honorius by modern scholars rests on a false dichotomy between popular and learned works, between simplicity of style and sophistication of thought. “Simple” is not opposed to “theological” (much less, as it’s sometimes cast to “orthodox”). In fact, if Honorius is any indication, medieval authors expend tremendous effort and marshal considerable literary sophistication to impart correct theology in a simple package, often in the style itself. The simplicity of popular works3 is itself an expression of the theology–the Bible, after all, is written in a simple style–as important as the content which it contains.

Also, since these works are the means by which the vast majority of people seem to have gotten their basic instruction and are read by essentially everyone who is able, it’s foolish to oppose them to the teachings of the Church, some abstract orthodoxy. These popular works were orthodoxy, they were how the Church taught, and we must not allow our biases against “the popular”4 to cause us to forget that.

1. I’ve thought about this issue a lot recently, both because of frustrations with my work and because in Augustine’s On the Catechism of the Unlearned I found that he had the same struggle.  Indeed, that short work was written precisely in response to this problem.  He notes that he struggles with it in every sermon he gives, in all that he writes, yet his conclusion is that we should not be so hard on ourselves.  Yes, our words, bound by time and our own deficiencies, can never truly match the understanding we hold of a subject.  Nevertheless, we also must recognize that the effect of these words, limited as they might be, on others still has the potential to cue in them something more, for understanding ultimately doesn’t derive from the words of other men but from above.   Good advice that should be taken to heart.  

2. The fact that these are all common rhetorical tropes that virtually every author of the Middle Ages makes use of should probably give us some pause here.

3. Which are very often written and read enthusiastically by the most well-educated and theologically astute men of their age, something we ignore all too often.

4. Or, as sometimes seem to be the case, against medieval beliefs/practices that have become unfashionable, gauche, to our modern “sophisticated” eyes.


Mission to Asia

One of my great frustrations is that the very thing which draws me to a subject is the degree to which it outstrips the ability of my words, and even conceptions, to describe it.  It’s the space beyond the edges of the text that fascinates me.  Those things of which we only catch glimpses, brief tantalizing hints of an impossible to reach whole, and like Augustine with time, I’m fine as long as no one asks me to explain.  Hence my attraction to the dim forgotten corners of history, the dark ages, to the aporia of Plato, and, relevant to the topic of this post, to travel narratives.

These narratives by their very nature are only fragments, scattered impressions of a world necessarily alien to both author and reader.  Somewhere beyond the words of a travel narrative is the memory of place and time which is irrevocably lost, faded.  W.G. Sebald’s use of scattered, haunting photographs in his writings is the greatest expression of this that I’ve encountered thus far.

The world, central Asia in the wake of the Mongol conquests, of Christopher Dawson’s collection Mission to Asia is fascinating in its incomprehensibility.  The most famous and detailed account within is William of  Rubruck’s, whose words imbue me with a strange sense of tragedy.  William was sent by the king of France, the future St. Louis, to meet with Sartach, the future ruler of the Golden Horde and rumored to be a Christian.  The expedition is a failure from the outset.  Sartach is no Christian. William’s missionary efforts are in vain.  The Great Khan wants no alliance. This failure infuses William’s writing with sadness and wasted opportunity, a sense that the cliffs of despair are not far distant, warded off only by a sliver of desperate hope.

There’s disappointment not only for William, but me as well, as William offers a rather prosaic explanation for the wondrous stories of Prester John:

In a certain plain among these pasture lands was a Nestorian, a mighty shepher and lord of all the people called Naimans, who were Nestorian Christians.  On the death of Coir Chan, this Nestorian set himself up as a king and the Nestorians called him King John, and they used to tell of him ten times more than the truth.  For the Nesotorians coming from these parts do this kind of thing-out of nothing they make a great rumor.  This accounts for their spreading the story that Sartach was a Christian, also Mangu Chan and Keu Chan, just because they pay a greater respect to Christians than to other people.  And yet the truth is they are not Christians. So in the same way the great tale of this King John went abroad.  Now I passed through his pasture lands and nobody knew anything about him with the exception of a few Nestorians.  (122)

Years ago it was Prester John, first encountered in Hanover Public Library’s copy of Baudolino which I checked out between re-readings of books about sea monsters and ravishings of the science fiction section,  that kindled my interest in the Middle Ages. William’s account seems all too plausible, all too tawdry and dull (but how could it be otherwise?).  A far cry from:

XIII.—In our palace we eat once a day; each day thirty thousand men eat at our board, besides the guests that come and go. And these all receive their charges from our palace, both in horses and other things also. That table is made of precious stone called smaragdns, and it is supported by two pillars of amethyst. The virtue of this stone is that it suffers no one to get drunk so long as he sits thereon. Before the doorposts of our hall, near where the combatants are, there is a watch-tower of great height, and thereto one climbs by one hundred and twenty-five steps; and these steps, some of them are made of porphyry, blended with the blood of serpents, and alabaster ointment. The third part at the bottom of these is made of crystal, and jasper, and sardooyx, and another part, at the top, is of amethyst, and amber, and jasper, and sardonyx, and panthera. This watch-tower is supported by one pillar, and on this there is a base, that is, some stone-work so called, and on this base two columns, that is to say, arms; and on these there is a base, and on this four columns, and again a base, and on this sixteen arms; and so the work proceeds, until the number thirty-four is reached, and then the number of the bases lessens, and the columns, until they come to one, and that by ascending upwards, as they increased before, ascending to thirty-four.

XIV.—Now the columns and bases are of the same kind of precious stone as the steps through which men ascend. On the summit of the highest there is a watch-tower placed by some graceful skill, so that no one in the various kinds of laud subject to us can work any fraud, or treachery, or dissensions against us whatever, nor those among us, without it being clearly seen from that watch-tower, and without its being recognised who they are, or what they do. There are three thousand men of arms ever guarding this watch-tower night and day, lest by chance it be broken or overthrown to the ground.

XV.—Each month in the year seven kings serve me, each one of them in his order, and forty-two princes, and three hundred and fifty-six earls. That number is always at our board, without those placed in the various duties in our palace. At our board there eat each day, on the right twelve archbishops, and on my left hand twenty bishops, and the patriarch from the place where is the grave of the Apostle Thomas and he that is in place of a pope. (The Letter of Prester John)

William’s own sadness can, I think, be witnessed most acutely in one of the few moments when his traveling companions express interest in his faith.  He has neither the time nor the resources to truly instruct them, and in lieu of books:

I will teach you a word which you will bear in your hearts, by means of which both your souls and your bodies will be saved for eternity.”  But whenever I wanted to instruct them my interpreter let me down.  However, I wrote out the “Credo in Deum” and the “Pater noster”, saying, “Here is written down what a man ought to believe about God and a prayer in which petition is made to God for everything which is necessary for man; therefore firmly believe what is written here although you cannot understand it and ask of God that He will do to you what is contained in the prayer written here, which He Himself taught His friends with His own lips; and I trust that He will save you.  I could do no other, for to speak words of doctrine through such an interpreter was dangerous; nay, it was impossible, for he did not know the words. (146-7)

That line “I trust that He will save you” expresses a desperate hope that even in this desolate, alien country, even with the faith reduced to incomprehensible, quasi-magical formulae, William’s mission might not be in vain.*

William’s efforts are plagued not merely by the difficulties of travel, hostile Nestorians, and inept translators.  These he might have dealt with.  It’s the overwhelming apathy that plagues him the most, that seems to slowly wear him down towards despair.  Not a rejection of what he teaches but far worse, indifference.  We see this in his famous account of a debate between Buddhists, Muslims, Nestorians, and himself, arranged by the Great Khan.

I then gave a place to them [the Nestorians] and when they wanted to dispute with the Saracens the latter replied: “We grant that your faith is true and that whatever is in the Gospel is true, therefore we do not wish to argue on any point with you.”  They admitted that in all their prayers they beseech God that they may die a Christian death.

There was an old man there, a priest of the sect of the Uigurs, who say there is one God and yet make idols, and the Nestorians spoke a great deal with him, giving him an account of everything from the coming of Christ to the Judgment, and also by means of comparisons explaining the Trinity to him and the Saracens.  They all listened without a word of contradiction, yet not one of them said, “I believe, I wish to become a Christian.”

When this was finished the Nestorians and Saracens alike sang loudly while the tuins [Buddhists] kept silence, and afterwards they all drank their fill. (193-4)

Christianity is tolerated in this world, even favored.  It’s a nice thing, maybe the nicest thing, but it is ultimately just one thing among many, not worthy of serious commitment.

There’s something else lurking in William’s final moments at the court though, perhaps another fragment of hope mixed with desperation shining through in his final audience with the Great Khan who, William tells us, is quite drunk at the time.

When he had said this I asked his leave to say a few words.  “You may speak,” he answered.  Then I said: “My Lord, we are not warlike men, we would like to see those holding dominion over the world who would govern it most justly according to the will of God.  Our duty is to teach mean to live according to the will of God; for this reason did we come to these parts and we would gladly have remained here if you had allowed it.  Since it is your good pleasure that we return, it must needs be I will go back and carry your letter to the best of my ability in accordance with your commands.  I would like to ask of your Eminence that, when I have taken your letter, I may be granted your permission to return to you, especially as you have some poor serfs at Bolac who speak our language and need a priest to teach them and their children their faith, and I would gladly abide with them.”  He replied, “Provided your masters send you back to me.”  I then said: “My Lord, I do not know what my masters have in mind, but I have permission from them to go wherever I will, where there is need to preach the word of God; and it seems to me that it is most necessary in these parts, therefore whether he send back an envoy to you or not, given your permission I would return.”

He kept silent and sat for a long time as if turning things over in his mind, and the interpreter told me not to speak any more.  However, I anxiously awaited his reply.  At last he spoke: “You have a long journey ahead of you, fortify yourself with food so that you may be strong enough to reach your own country.”  And he had given me something to drink.  I then left his presence, and never afterwards returned.  If I had had the power of working miracles like Moses, he might have humbled himself.  (196-7)

Though maybe I read too much into this, I can picture it all, better than any other scene in William’s narrative.  Somehow it’s the Khan’s drunkenness that makes it so real, that gives it the sense of a moment on the precipice, a chance not quite seized.  And that last line, if only.

Finally, and on a somewhat different note, there’s an off-handed comment by William that I found intriguing.  He advocates for the reconquest of the formerly Byzantine lands (Turkey) which he passes through on the way home.  He’s convinced it could be accomplished easily, for

I can inform you that not one man in ten there is a Saracen; rather are they all Armenians and Greeks and the power is in the hands of boys. (219)

A different picture than I expected, indeed the whole of the lands through which William, and the others in the collection whom I have unjustly neglected, journeyed is unexpected and strange, leaving only the barest sketches in my memory.  That’s what makes it a joy to read, to explore.



*Compare John of Monte Corvino, perhaps the most remarkable character in Mission to Asia, doggedly baptizing thousands in China with no support, no companions save a few Italian merchants.  I am thoroughly impressed by John.  He seems to have been an amazing man.

More on Nature on the Fringes

In the last post, we noted that, at the edges of things, the order of nature breaks down.  Exhausted by the work of creation, she begins to tire of her labor and the whole tapestry begins to fray.  It resembles the sea, unfathomable and vast, mysterious and dangerous.

There’s another factor on this particular edge, Ireland, which also disrupts the order of things.  Its roots lie in the deep connection between the natural and social orders.  At their heart the two are inseparable, both facets of the larger harmony of Creation as it extends through space and time.  To skip a good bit of exposition on the character of creation in medieval thought, we might get an idea of the general understanding by picturing an infinite and beautifully arranged series of imperfect mirrors, all reflecting a light so bright that it appears as darkness beyond black (cf. fuligin).  The natural and social orders are both a subset of these mirrors, simultaneously interlinking with and reflecting each other, giving us glimpses, tantalizing fragments, of the primal order which underlies them both.

The immediate consequence of this in Gerald of Wales is that the social structure of the bounds of the world mirrors the natural, less refined, unpredictable, raw and not fully formed.  Thus, the barbarism of the Irish,

They are a wild and inhospitable people.  They live on beasts only, and live like beasts.  They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living (101).

He tells us with astonishment of sailors venturing near the extreme edge of the island encountering truly barbarous folk, men wearing only hides who had never seen bread or cheese, even taking some home to show their people as a wonder, who knew nothing of Christ (110-112).  Such men could only exist on the outskirts, beyond the pale of civilization (to say nothing of the customs which Gerald describes on the preceding page, kings confirmed in their dominion by intercourse with a mare).  On the fringes of the edge, where nature herself has grown tired, so to do the structures of man fail to take root.

Thus also, the forthcoming disruption of the Norman Invasion, which precipitated Gerald’s visit to the island and the writing of his account, is presaged by the warping of nature.  A frog, a poisonous beast which ought to have died upon contact with Ireland’s soil due to the island’s natural enmity towards the venomous is found alive after many days,

While the English, and more so the Irish, regarded it with great wonder, Duvenaldus, the king of Ossory, who happened to be there at the time, with a great shaking of his head and great sorrow in his heart at last said: ‘That reptile brings very bad news to Ireland.’ (52)

So too does the appearance of a fish “of unusual size and quality” possessing (among other wonderful things) three gold teeth prefigure the imminent conquest of the country.  Wales, Gerald tells us in his description of traveling through that country, experienced similar portents on the eve of their subjugation by the English.  Beware unusual fish.

Perhaps it is the fraying of nature and the corresponding simplicity of the political order which allows for an immediacy to the Irish encounter with nature, an immediacy which leaves the men closer to beasts, but which gives fuel to the fire of monastic devotion that even Gerald can’t help but praise.  This immediacy, the close connection to nature on the edges, provides the locus for the characteristically Irish devotion of exile and solitude which seeks the boundaries, places which lay bare the energies of nature in which we might glimpse flashes of her Creator and Guide.

Indeed, the predominance of miracles in Gerald’s account are nature miracles, animals behaving strangely, mysterious wells, holy hedges.  Like nature, there is a dangerous inscrutability to the saints of Ireland.  They are a vindictive bunch, inclined towards cycles of revenge and anger, capable of great holiness, but with danger lurking just under the surface (91).  In them we see a mirror of the order of the world in which they live-nature wild, unfathomable, and raw; society barbarous, violent, and unformed-for the sacred is a mirror too.

Loneliness on the Edge of the World

A passage in J.A. Baker’s obsessive, wonderful little book, The Peregrinebrought together a number of threads which have been tossing around my head lately.  He writes, describing his home in the south of England “out there at the edges of things,”

Farms are well ordered, prosperous, but a fragrance of neglect still lingers, like a ghost of fallen grass.  There is always a sense of loss, a feeling of being forgotten.  There is nothing else here; no castles, no ancient monuments, no hills like grey clouds.  It is just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields.  Dim, flat, desolate lands that cauterize all sorrow.  (8)

The same sense, of loneliness, loss and exile, pervades the Anglo-Saxon poetry that I’ve been enjoying recently.  We might forget it today in the wake of England’s great empire, but the British Isles were truly at the edge of the world in the geographical consciousness of the Middle Ages.  Gerald of Wales in his Topography of Ireland puts it beautifully,

For beyond those limits [of Ireland] there is no land, nor is there any habitation either of men or beasts — buy beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in boundless space through its unsearchable and hidden ways. (31)*

Beautiful, but terrifying.  No wonder then that Anglo-Saxon poetry is so riven with sorrow and loneliness, a desperate craving for the warmth of home and fire.  No surprise also that there’s an almost overwhelming feeling of tenuousness in their poetry and in the writings of authors like Bede, a recognition of just how fragile the security that hall and hearth provide, think Heorot.  Against this background, Bede’s monasteries are anchors, squat fortresses of stability in an ever-shifting landscape.   One can see the appeal.**

At the edges of things, reality becomes frayed.  Gerald tells us

For sometimes tired, as it were, of the true and the serious, [Nature] draws aside and goes away, and in these remote parts indulges herself in these secret and distant freaks (31)

And not only are we at the edge of space but time as well.  The world has grown old and grey, the past faded and fallen into ruin

The days are gone
of all the glory
of the kingdoms of the earth;
there are not now kings,
nor Cæsars,
nor givers of gold
as once there were,
when they, the greatest, among themselves
performed valorous deeds,
and with a most lordly
majesty lived.
All that old guard is gone
and the revels are over
the weaker ones now dwell
and hold the world,
enjoy it through their sweat.
The glory is fled,
the nobility of the world
ages and grows sere,
as now does every man
throughout the world. (83-9)

Nature tires and warps in her decay,

This indeed was the true course of nature; but as the world began to grow old, and, as it were, began to slip into the decrepitude of old age, and to come to the end, the nature of almost all things became corrupted and changed for the worst. (53)

Unsurprising then that she might throw up monsters in the dark, against which all we can do is huddle around the slimmest glimmers of light.



*Strangely, Irish literature seems to display less awareness of this.  Perhaps they’re so on the edge that they don’t realize they’re on the edge.

**You get a similar sense in a very different context in Richer of Saint-Rémi’s Histories, a book I hope to write about at length later.

Three Fragments of Tacitus

I remembered Tacitus as a grumpy stick-in-the-mud, and, while that’s not necessarily an incorrect characterization, I actually enjoyed re-reading him more than I expected.  Three passages which stood out to me, all from the Agricola:

There is no great difference in language [between the Gauls and the Britons], and there is the same hardihood in challenging danger, the same cowardice in shirking it when it comes close. (62)

Interesting that we encounter Romans with this same stereotype of the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth, albeit from the other side. I doubt Monmouth read Tacitus, though I have no idea of the Agricola’s reception in the Middle Ages, but I wonder if some diligent detective work might uncover a line of transmission.

Here’s some of that old Tacitus crabbiness:

And so the population was gradually led into the demoralizing temptations of arcades, baths, and sumptuous banquets.  The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization’, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.  (73)
We might consider in what ways today that we’ve become enslaved under the guise of ‘civilization.’  Quite a few, I think.
Memory has been on my mind a lot lately, in reaction to loss, in Honorius’ writings, and in the classical texts in which I’ve been whiling away my time.  It’s an enduring concern of the ancients, so much of what they write, particularly histories, is to prevent us from forgetting those who’ve come before.
But representations of the human face, like that face itself, are subject to decay and dissolution, whereas the essence of man’s mind is something everlasting, which you cannot preserve or express in material wrought by another’s skill, but only in your own character.  All that we loved and admired in Agricola abides and shall abide in the hearts of men through the endless procession of the ages; for his achievements are of great renown.  With many it will be as with men who had no name or fame: they will be buried in oblivion.  But Agricola’s story is set on record for posterity, and he will live. (99)
 History, memory, art, poetry, immanence and distance, all bouncing around in the back of my brain, like an itch that I can’t scratch.  Frustrating, but perhaps if I stare into the mist long enough something real might emerge.  We’ll see.

Framing and the Loyalists

Trying to post more, and thus gathering some scraps that have found their way into my notebook over the past few months.

The plight of the Loyalists during and after the Revolutionary War is interesting to me, especially how they’re portrayed in our history books.  For instance, look at the framing here in Joseph Ellis’s Revolutionary Summer, speaking about the initial votes for war:

In Pennsylvania the Quaker elite remained resolutely committed to a political solution at all costs. And in New York, many of the wealthiest merchants remained outspokenly loyal to the crown.  Despite the looming menace of the British invasion, both legislatures refused to alter instructions to their delegates to the Continental Congress.

What then happened in both colonies exposed the latent political power of the bottom-up approach.  In Pennsylvania, the radical mechanics of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s most ardent constituency, soon supported by petitions from four surrounding counties, challenged the authority of the current legislature to speak for the people.  In effect, they argued that the elected representatives had forfeited their right to govern by ignoring the seismic shift in popular opinion on the independence question over recent months.  And, in a dazzling display of political agility, these  mechanics, artisans, and ordinary farmers mobilized enough supporters to create a provisional government dominated by pro-independence representatives.  (Their key reform was to expand the electorate by limiting the property qualification to vote, thereby ensuring a comfortable majority in the constitutional convention and the new legislature.)  One of their first acts was to register their “willingness to concur in a vote of the Congress declaring the United Colonies free and independent states.” (pg. 53)

So, elites and the wealthy (implicitly “the bad guys”) wish to remain loyal to Britain “despite the looming menace of the British invasion.”  Wait, why would their loyalty to Britain be in spite of this impending military action?  Weren’t the Loyalists in favor of suppressing their rebellious fellow colonists?  What happens next is that the revolutionaries usurped the power of the legally elected representatives because those representatives didn’t agree with the revolutionaries in order to institute reforms which allowed those revolutionaries to take power.*   In other words, they used the mob to overthrow the government. Yet, the way it’s written works to suppress any niggling suspicion that the Revolutionaries might have been less than honorable in their dealings.  After all, they’re just realizing the “latent power of the bottom-up approach.”

This is all especially interesting to me because Ellis spends a lot of time dwelling on what he takes to be the two fundamental contradictions at the heart of the early American project, slavery and the limited franchise, particularly that the vote was denied to women.  I’m not convinced that these are the contradictions he makes them out to be, or at least that they’re the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the ideals of the Revolution.  What I take to be the fundamental contradiction is nicely illustrated by the fate of the Loyalists, and it operates under the surface of a great deal of America’s political understanding to this day, long after the questions of slavery and women’s suffrage have been addressed:  you’re free to choose whatever you’d like, as long as you make the right choice.  



*n.b. Not agreeing with the Revolutionaries obviously means that the representatives had forfeit their right to govern.   If they were fit to govern, they would agree with the Revolutionaries, who are obviously correct (see also, French Revolution, Russian Revolution, every revolution ever).  Later, Ellis describes the confiscation of Loyalist and Neutral properties during the struggle for New York, taking care to note how civilized and careful it was.  One wonders if the people whose homes and property were being stolen agreed with this assessment.

Accounts of Medieval Constantinople

Reading Accounts of Medieval Constantinople, which contains a lot of really fascinating stuff.  Constantinople has a fundamentally different feel than the Latin West.  This passage sums it up nicely, I think:

And Constantine the Great set up this lofty column and the statue of Apollo as Helios in his name, affixing nails from those of Christ’s crucifixion as rays on its head, shining like Helios on the citizens.  2.45

Medievals (speaking here of the Latins in particular) are often described as not having a sense of the past.  They tend to flatten everything into an eternal present.  One of the consequences of this is that nothing feels old precisely, everything is just sort of there.  You feel as if someone could walk in from the past (and indeed, figures from the past quite often do walk on to the scene in hagiography and the like) as if it were the next village over.  Constantinople is quite different.  There’s a palpable awareness of the Greco-Roman past.  The city endlessly accreating statues.  Thus, we have a different sort of eternity than that which we find in the west, an eternity of persistence compared to an eternal present.*  In Boethian terms, semipiternity vs. eternity.  Perhaps we can find the same thing in descriptions of medieval Rome (I can’t recall having read any to be honest).

Some of the city’s marvels would have been truly amazing to see (or hear in this case):

The so-called Boukinon (trumpet.) — In Olden times, there were trumpets on the top of the walls.  Underneath, the wall was hollow like a cistern, and when a heavy south or north wind blew, strong currents of air came up as the waves of the sea were repulsed from the walls, and a melody of the sirens was heard, and the tower opposite responded.  When the Roman fleet was ready to depart, it assembled there, and the ships sounded together with the sound of the towers, and departed.  3.38

Even amidst this grandeur there’s an air of ruin, especially since we know where it all ends; the greatest city in the world reduced to a huddle of villages in the rubble of imperial splendor and Constantine XI, having torn off his imperial vestments, and charging to death in the breach.  This all might be just because I read The Ruin earlier today for my Tolkien class (or geez, maybe just from all the Tolkien)


* I’ve been thinking a lot of the eternal present and Benedictine monasticism lately.  I’ve even attempted to write comparing the Benedictine sense with the self-destructive eternal present of the aristocracy in the wonderful Transylvanian Trilogy.  Nothing coherent has emerged as of yet.


(Gawain and some of Arthur’s other knights are at the court of the leader of the Romans, Lucius Hibernius)

As Lucius was replying that he had not come there in order to withdraw, but rather that he might govern the country, his nephew Gaius Quintillanus who was present was heard to mutter that the Britons were better at boasting and making threats than they were at proving their courage and prowess on the battle-field.  Gawain was immediately incensed at this.  He drew his sword from the scabbard which was hanging at his belt, rushed at Gaius and cut off his head.

(the Britons make a run for it as the Romans give chase)

In the meantime Marcellus Mutius was making every effort to avenge Quintillianus.  He was already threatening Gawain from the rear, and was on the point of laying hold of him, when Gawain swung around and with the sword which he brandished clove him through helm and head to his chest, bidding him, when he got to hell, to tell Quintillianus, whom Gawain had just cut down in camp, that this was why the Britons were so good at boasting and making threats.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, x.4