Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Memorial Day goes Gothic: the Washington Chapel

(This is technically a day late, but I started on it yesterday.)

Happy Memorial Day, medievalists. I have to confess that, despite being a former soldier, if I couldn't go to work today or go back to my university to do an errand, I would've forgotten Memorial Day even happened. This is probably the real reason why we have state-sanctioned holidays. 

Before I show you these photos I assembled (some from my own camera, but most from elsewhere on the Internet), I'll share with you something I learned from my southern history class last semester. Did you know that southerners didn't commonly celebrate the Fourth of July until after World War II? I didn't, and I'm from a centuries-long line of southerners. You see, it took two world wars, suffering and bonding with men from the North and the West in godforsaken trenches and foxholes, in order for us southerners to feel truly a part of this nation again. Before that, southerners observed Memorial Day. In those days, it was called Decoration Day because families would decorate the graves of loved ones who died for the ill-fated Confederacy. The tradition of honoring the fallen of the "lost cause" continued even after anyone who had personally known those soldiers had died. In every single county of the South, you'll see a monument of a young man in Confederate dress, perhaps looking away into the distance. What about these fallen soldiers was so potent, so powerful that it would cause 3rd and 4th generation southerners after the war to venerate men they had never known?

Because there is power in sacrifice. Whether the cause was actually righteous or not is irrelevant; the simple truth is that in the Civil War, as in most modern wars, those who died were chiefly the nation's youngest, ablest-bodied men. The monuments show young men looking away into a life they never had. Now imagine nearly a million men with entire lifespans, dreams, and ambitions ahead of them, all put into the meat grinder of politics at the behest of the wrinkled politicians who have already lived theirs, whose greatest discomfort is the sweat soaking their over-starched Victorian suits as they look over war briefs behind a desk. That, I believe, is the tragedy which made Decoration Day the surrogate national holiday of southerners for a century. Sadly, the situation is not much different today. You may have noticed the memorial pages on your favorite news websites: so-and-so killed in the line of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan sometime between 2001 and the present, age 20. 24. 19. Perhaps, as you read this, you realize you've lived twice or even three times longer. If it were up to me, I'd pass a constitutional amendment requiring the President and at least 10% of all the members of Congress at any given time to take to the field of battle in person, whenever a war must be waged. Since no president wants to spend his entire term in a bunker in some remote wasteland, fearful of a suicide bomber charging in at any given moment, wars would end a lot more quickly. Though that, of course, is a debate for another time. For now, let's look at a unique monument to soldiers from an even earlier war.

Upon the hills of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where General George Washington's troops spent the winter of 1777, there stands a chapel in his memory, as well as those of the soldiers who died in the Independence War. Now, you may be well aware that our "national architecture" usually consists of classical knockoffs designed to make America look like the Roman Republic reborn. Abraham Lincoln looks over the National Mall, enthroned like Jupiter in a Greek temple. Thomas Jefferson stands proudly in a new Pantheon. But you may have never seen our national history (or "civic religion" as it called it in my previous post) given the Gothic treatment until now.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Washington Memorial Chapel, built between 1903 and 1917, last year. For a building that was raised, brick by brick, in the 20th century (and completed in the middle of World War I, no less) it is a magnificent edifice. It defies the modern man who says "we have forgotten how to build great temples" or "there is no money to build these wasteful things". 

The chapel itself has a modest seating capacity (about 200) but is quite well-furnished. The photo below is from the back of the nave in HDR so you can see all the little details. For example, the coats of arms of all the states studded amidst the wooden ceiling.

This one is in natural lighting.

I believe all the flags are of the original 13 colonies, and the one on the right, furthest from the camera, is George Washington's coat of arms. (For those curious, that design has been used by Washington's family ever since his ancestor, William de Wessyngton, took possession of Washington Old Hall in Durham in the 12th century! It appears on a 15th century window in Selby Abbey here.) I also seem to recall a tour guide saying that a flag of each of the 50 states is placed upon the altar every week so that prayers are made for the people of that state. The remaining two weeks are given to the territories and the District of Columbia. If that's not right, it's because I mixed it up with what a tour guide said when I visited the National Cathedral in DC, or because I just made it up. Moving on...

The details on the woodwork behind the choir stalls are especially remarkable. The choir is guarded by statuettes of soldiers in the uniforms that would have been seen in Valley Forge. I can't tell what's written below them, under the coats of arms.

"Idols" of Washington:

The chapel also sports a monk-less cloister:

Though a national shrine, there are many memorials for the foreign generals who trained the colonials at Valley Forge or otherwise fought in the war. This floor seal names Casimir Pulaski, a Polish noble who saved Washington's life and commanded one of only a few cavalry regiments in the entire Continental Army. He was mortally wounded in the Battle of Savannah and is one of only seven people to have ever been awarded "honorary American citizenship". Similar seals exist beside this one for the Marquis de Lafayette, the Comte de Rochambeau, and Baron von Steuben, among others (in case anyone forgot that the American Revolution was an international endeavor).

Detail of a stained-glass window in the "Patriot Tower".


The Washington Chapel is such a charming, Gothic edifice that it's no wonder it's a popular wedding destination. I'd get married there myself if it weren't Episcopal and wouldn't require an Episcopal's bank account to rent out. But as an experiment on conforming Americana to a romantic medieval aesthetic, I give it high marks. And for the skeptics out there, please be aware that the Gothic royal chapels of Europe (such as Saint George's Chapel at Windsor Castle) are no less works of propaganda to boost the egos of their kingly patrons. By contrast, the Washington Chapel was built entirely by donations from private citizens. It was built upon the romanticism of the American citizenry; the same which allows fallen servicemen and women to be revered in this country more than any other in the world, and which raised up a thousand monuments in a post-war South. The phenomenon is not really so different from that which created so many saints by popular acclaim in the early medieval world, and that which built the great shrines of Santiago de Compostela and Thomas Becket from the offerings of pilgrims. With due respect to American canonized saints like John Neumann and Kateri Ketakwitha, they just don't occupy the same space in even a pious American Catholic's heart, much less an average American who has certainly never heard of them. For good or ill, our soldiers and generals are the closest thing we in the United States have to saints. And if the cult of the American warrior is not an example of modern medievalism, I don't know what is.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A good week for medievalism, and thoughts on education

I've been remiss in posting, dear friends, but the world still turns whether or not I issue forth a new article every week. This week is especially good for the medievally minded, and here's why:

1.) J.R.R. Tolkien published a new book. The mastermind behind middle-Earth is starting to rival Tupac in posthumous contributions; this time, it's The Fall of Arthur, an unfinished epic poem giving us Tolkien's spin on the matter of Britain. I've not yet read it myself, but from what I know, Tolkien has dispensed with the Grail and the courtly love traditions, opting instead to give his audience a raw, more "English" approach to the legend of King Arthur and his war against the Saxon invaders of the early Middle Ages. I have full faith that his style won't bear any resemblance to that abortion starring Clive Owen. However, buyer beware: the poem only occupies a small portion of the book. The bulk is filled by notes and essays written by his son Christopher on "The Poem in Arthurian Tradition" and other such subjects. You'll be disappointed if you were hoping to pick up a fully-fleshed, or even half-fleshed work.

2.) Sir Christopher Lee will release his next metal album tomorrow on his 91st birthday. Talk about a prolific career: Lee, who is old enough to have fought in World War II (and did), already holds the record for the biggest filmography of any major actor ever. Aside from reprising his role as Saruman in the Hobbit films, he can also boast of being the oldest metal performer of all time. Tomorrow will usher the arrival of Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, a sequel to Lee's previous album (Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross).

A music video from Lee's previous album:

3.) For those of you who are fans of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga, HBO's Game of Thrones next episode (the following Sunday, as there is no episode scheduled tonight) is titled "The Rains of Castamere". If you've read the books, then you already know what's about to happen. If you've only been following the TV series...... well, gird your loins. Winter is coming.

"And so he spoke, and so he spoke, that Lord of Castamere but now the rains weep o'er his hall with no one there to hear."

In other news, I've been dwelling a lot on what really matters to the average American, and how to gain their attention. I never expected this blog to go viral, but my goal from the beginning has been to reach a relatively broad audience. If I can't go beyond the tweed jacket and pipe smoking crowd, then I've failed. The trouble is that I often feel completely out of touch myself. In my column a couple months ago, I already outlined how Pope Francis and I seemingly exist on two different planets, despite being of the same religion. Not long ago, I had the unpleasant experience of feeling like a dinosaur in my mid-20's when I was substituting for a high school class and the given assignment was to watch The Empire Strikes Back. No one in any of the classes that day had ever seen a Star Wars movie before, not even a nerdy kid in the back of the room to play the exception to the rule. It makes sense now, but at the time, it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea that an entire generation could miss out on what I took for granted to be a staple of pop culture. 

Now, obviously there's nothing to gain from being able to distinguish the various kinds of TIE fighters or AT walkers, but I learned a valuable lesson that day: the things which I assumed were part of a commonly shared American culture don't actually exist. I routinely ask students what sorts of movies they watch or games they play, and find that despite the fact that I'm not much older than them, my interests and theirs rarely ever coincide. The same can probably be said for the entire faculty at innumerable inner-city schools across the nation. Google for accounts from inner-city public school teachers and you'll find the same story everywhere: white, middle-class do-gooder seeks to change the lives of disadvantaged kids in poor areas, then experiences severe culture shock on his first day when he realizes it was nothing like his own school. All of a sudden, yesterday's bickering over the effects of Harry Potter on our kids seems ludicrous when you come across a whole classroom of high schoolers who are incapable of reading any of those books, even if they wanted to (they probably don't). Worried about helicopter parents intruding into every aspect of their adult children's lives? Instead, be thankful they have the time and energy to bother in the first place. There are countless schools where parental involvement is almost nonexistent because the parents have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. The children who have been saddled by generational poverty go on to have more children, and the cycle perpetuates itself. And since lower-class families reproduce at a higher rate than the affluent middle classes, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who will be inheriting America in 20 or 30 years.

The above statement, to be clear, is not a preamble to a racist or eugenicist rant about the direction our nation is going. Nor does it precede a patented 7-step solution based on what the medievals would have done, because (as members of a subsistence economy) they wouldn't have done anything. Public education is an entirely modern construct which requires a modern solution, if it can be fixed at all. I'm merely raising a question: in 30 years, what will be the ties that bind our western, American culture? Certainly not the civic religion of the Founding Fathers, those ancient dead white men who owned slaves and whose descendants stole half of Mexico. (It's already a usual sight for entire classrooms to remain seated and gab through the Pledge of Allegiance. I don't know why schools still bother with it.) Nor will it be Christianity, which continues its endless fracturing and commercialization at the hands of hack preachers. Shakespeare? He's already been the bane of high school students for generations, but I've spoken to students who were seniors and never exposed to the Bard at all because it wasn't relevant to achieving acceptable standardized test scores. (I was amused when one student thought I was British because of the way I speak, though I assure you my dialect is your average newscaster American.) To those certain "conservatives" who think education is useless if it doesn't gear people toward being a cog in the industrial workforce, I hope you're happy. At any rate, despite the current over-saturation of liberal arts graduates, the future doesn't bode well for the humanities, much less medieval studies in particular. Ironic that as we lose sight of our past, we're bound to resemble the world as Saint Gregory of Tours saw it, when in describing 6th century Gaul in The History of the Franks he said,

"With liberal culture on the wane, or rather perishing in the Gallic cities there were many deeds being done both good and evil: the heathen were raging fiercely; kings were growing more cruel; the church. attacked by heretics, was defended by Catholics; while the Christian faith was in general devoutly cherished, among some it was growing cold; the churches also were enriched by the faithful or plundered by traitors-and no grammarian skilled in the dialectic art could be found to describe these matters either in prose or verse; and many were lamenting and saying: 'Woe to our day, since the pursuit of letters has perished from among us and no one can be found among the people who can set forth the deeds of the present on the written page.'"