Saint George’s Day

By the western church calendar, today is the feast of St. George. He’s the patron saint of the military, and of England and Catalonia. The George Cross is part of the Union Jack flag, although today celebrating the feast in England is sometimes considered suspect, unless it is a purely religions and private veneration.

This is the statue I did NOT get to see when I was in Lübeck, Germany in 2017. It is St. George doing in a very sincere dragon indeed! It is a copy of a statue in Sweden, carved by and artist from Lübeck. Source:

St. George is one of those saints that lacks firm written sources, and is considered a wee bit suspect by the Roman Catholic Church. He remains popular in the Eastern Orthodox churches, and in the Church of England (or at least with followers of the Church of England.) There’s also a city in Utah named for him, which makes me giggle a bit. He’s not exactly the same sort of Saint as the Saints, Latter-day, who founded the town.

I want a copy for my church, but I don’t think the decorating committee would agree. Or the fire marshal. From:–330381322638029098/

St. George is thought to have been martyred on April 23, AD 303. He was born in what is now western Turkey, and since his father was a Roman soldier, he had to go into the army (like St. Martin of Tours, and several others.) The official version of the story is that he was martyred for refusing to make the sacrifices required by Diocletian’s anti-Christian edicts. There are no dragons in the official version. Alas.

The popular version is that George was in northern Libya, where a dragon had moved in, taken over a spring, and was killing the locals, their livestock, and everything else in the area. Various young ladies were offered to the dragon in hopes of appeasing it. George arrived and said that he, with the help of G-d, would deal with the beast. He did, did not ask to marry the young lady of the day, but instead preached the Gospel and converted the people.

In some versions of the story, he killed a dragon in England as well, thus he is the patron of England, as St. Andrew is the patron of Scotland and St. David (Dawi Sant) protects Wales. (Before George it was St. Edmund the Martyr.)

There was a much more elaborate, highly unofficial version, of the story of St. George that I have only heard and seen once, and that was in a chapel in a castle in the Czech Republic. It is much more detailed, with further adventures, and includes George being killed three times and coming back to life twice. I can guess why that version does not appear in church art or the semi-official depictions of the saint.

St. George also appears as a character in the winter pantomimes (Pantos) in England. Some folklorists see him as a stand-in for the Green Knight, the Oak King, the symbol of summer, killed by the Holly King/winter.


“She Walks in Beauty”

“She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!”

I’d never really read this poem until I heard it recited by Ron Pearlman on a collection of poems and music from the series Beauty and the Beast. (This was before his politics became too much for me.) Byron’s not one of my favorite Romantic poets, but his focus on the inner as well a outer appearance of his inspiration always catches my attention. In some ways it reminds me of another poem, one I met through one of Louis Untermeyer’ anthologies. The poem is “To Mistress Margaret Hussey,” or sometimes, “Merry Margaret.”

“Merry Margaret,

As midsummer flower,

Gentle as a falcon

Or hawk of the tower:

With solace and gladness,

Much mirth and no madness,

All good and no badness;

So joyously,

So maidenly,

So womanly

Her demeaning

In every thing,

Far, far passing

That I can indite,

Or suffice to write

Of Merry Margaret

As midsummer flower,

Gentle as falcon

Or hawk of the tower.

As patient and still

And as full of good will

As fair Isaphill,


Sweet pomander,

Good Cassander,

Steadfast of thought,

Well made, well wrought,

Far may be sought

Ere that ye can find

So courteous, so kind

As Merry Margaret,

This midsummer flower,

Gentle as falcon

Or hawk of the tower.”

John Skelton was an early Tudor poet, so he was very far from the Romantics in terms of politics and sentiment, perhaps. And some people have read the poem as being what today is called ironic – she’s as sweet and gentle as a raptor? Really? Is that a compliment? At the time, yes, it was.

Both poems describe beauty, inner and outer. Bryon starts with the outer and pulls inward. Skelton focuses on Mistress Margaret’s personality and is less fascinated by her physical appearance. When I was younger, I really liked Skelton’s poem. I identified with the hawk-like personality, although the “sweet and goodwill” part did not suit me as a teen (goodwill toward mankind was very far down on my list of feelings.)

Today, Byron’s poem conjures up a painting from the 1800s, a young woman painted in semi profile, turning toward the painter. In the soft light of candles the viewer sees that she has dark hair, dark eyes, and a calm expression with a slight smile on her lips. She wear a silk-satin dress in the pink-grey-purple shade called “ash of roses.” The painter captures her inner tranquility and beauty along with her physical attractiveness.

Novel Progress Update

The draft of Herbs and Empire is done at 89K words. I’m going to let it simmer on the back burner for a while while I work on those two fantasy stories.

Fair warning, the French-flavored story is getting dark. It’s still a positive ending, and all ends pretty well, but dang, it’s going some grim places on the way.

I’m on the road, so I won’t be commenting today.

The Harrowing of Hell

I took the photo in Colmar, France in June 2018, at the spectacular museum of Renaissance and Medieval art there. The museum is better known for containing the Eisenheim Altarpiece. However, it has many other works of visual art, as well as some items from when the region was a major wine producer.

One thing about the above painting, also once part of an altarpiece, was the unusual depiction of the Harrowing of Hell. Some of you might still recite the Apostles’ Creed with the phrase “… He descended into Hell. On the third day He arose from the dead…” Popular belief and Church teaching held that Jesus descended into the realm of endless death, broke open the gates, and brought out the pre-Christian believers (Adam, Eve, Moses, Joseph, Isaiah, and so on), as well as ending Satan’s power once and for all. The scene was popular in art of the Medieval and Renaissance Eras. Dante, in The Inferno, comments that the gates could not be repaired.

The version of the story shown above depicts Jesus standing on a well-smushed Satan, and leading Adam and Eve out of Hell. I was also intrigued by how nonchalant the angels carrying Jesus’ train look, as if this is just one of those normal court ceremonies they serve at. The hinge-post on the door is a nice detail, and shows how some gates were hung at the time.

Cedar Posts and Memories

The rain on Sunday brought out the scent of the neighbor’s new cedar fence, filling the air with the heavy, piny-spicy smell of cedar. It’s different from a cedar chest of cedar closet, rougher, harder, not as sweet. I sniffed appreciatively as I enjoyed having cool, dust-free air come in the open window.

And for some reason, my mind went to Poland. The scent had nothing to do with that city, down on the edge of the High Tatras Mountains, but that’s what came to mind. Perhaps because so much of the town was built of wood, logs and planks and shakes. I could see the rounded sides of the houses, log on log, and behind them the sharp teeth of the snow-glazed peaks. The air smelled a little of pine, or of rain and hot dirt the afternoon when it stormed. Pine was in the air, because of the pine trees in town, but not cedar. Yet the cedar called up the memories.

Diesel exhaust to me is Vienna. Why? Because of wandering the oldest part of the city in the very early morning hours, five AM to seven AM or so, when deliveries are permitted. The faint whiff of a truck a few blocks or buildings over conjures up pastel buildings, the Anker clock, St. Rupert’s church, Stephansdom, cool early morning when the sky has sun but not the streets just yet.

It’s odd, how scents work. Just ask Kipling, who asked a soldier from Australia during the Boer War.

(New South Wales Contingent)

Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack–
They start those awful voices o’ nights
That whisper, ” Old man, come back! “
That must be why the big things pass
And the little things remain,
Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

There was some silly fire on the flank
And the small wet drizzling down–
There were the sold-out shops and the bank
And the wet, wide-open town;
And we were doing escort-duty
To somebody’s baggage-train,
And I smelt wattle by Lichtenberg–
Riding in, in the rain.

It was all Australia to me–
All I had found or missed:
Every face I was crazy to see,
And every woman I’d kissed:
All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows!
(As He knows I’ll do it again),
That smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain–
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

I have forgotten a hundred fights,
But one I shall not forget–
With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

Strange but Cute: Gaudi and Hundertwasser vs. Brutalism

[Edited to add: Some images were copyright and had the watermarks stripped off. I was not aware of that. Those images have been removed.]

Can concrete buildings be attractive, or at least neat? I was reading an article lamenting the lack of historical preservation granted to 1950s-70s Brutalist architecture, and then started thinking about concrete. Which led to Gaudi and La Sagrada Familia, and because I’m Odd, the Hundredwasser Haus in Vienna. Personally, I will not miss most Brutalist structures, although in a few cases, what replaced them is less attractive, at least to me. I understand why some Brutalist structures were constructed, but that doesn’t improve the aesthetics.

Brutalism is the term applied to the heavy, grey cement and steel and glass structures built between roughly the Bauhaus period of the 1930s and the 1970s. The 1960s were sort of the heyday for the stuff. Officially, it began in the 1950s as a “modern” aesthetic to counter the nostalgia of the 1940s and the neo-Everything styles of the late 1800s-early 1900s. It tends to be mostly steel and concrete, with basic shapes (square, oblong, a few curves, or a lot of really strange curves) and no trim. It was not painted, and loomed in a morose grey way over the cities of England, Europe, and the US. It was very much form and function, without wasting materials on decorative features. It could be built quickly if the design were simple. Some later designs push the limits of materials and structure. It was considered very modern, the style of the future. Universities adopted it, although usually with more decoration and trim.

Not simple, but cold. That’s the library at UC – San Diego. Source:

From a CNN article about saving Brutalism. This is public housing in Warsaw.

Critics leaped to attack the new design style. It was cold, hard, boring, unhuman. The use of quasi-Brutalist as the preferred building style of Communist dictators didn’t help the reputation of Brutalism, and led to the joke that it was “Stalin Baroque” or “Khrushchev Eclectic.” As much as I loathe Stalin, his taste in building style wasn’t quite that bad. It wasn’t great, but he was old-school and favored grandiose and palatial. Those are terms not applied to Brutalism, although grandiose might fit (in the negative sense, often, if you are in the Eastern Bloc). Another flaw with the style is that running pipes and conduits and wires through the buildings is very hard, unless you build a framework inside and hang paneling. Or run everything outside, which has its own flaws.

However, concrete buildings are easier to make in a hurry, weather and location permitting. They are less expensive than steel and glass, much less than stone or wood or brick in many places. Concrete scales up easily, something not true of wood and brick. If you needed something relatively fast, relatively cheap, and pretty sturdy if done right, Brutalism it was. That described a lot of the rebuilding done in the non-historic parts of Europe after 1945.

In contrast, Gaudi took cement and did weird and wonderful things with it. It looks organic, flowing and touched with color. Now, his style is NOT fast or inexpensive, and required a lot of engineering to make work, especially the great cathedral of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.


The interiors can be relatively sane (like in the apartment house) or off the wall.

Antoni Gaudi worked on commission, and was pushing the limits of what was possible in the 1900s-1920s. Casa Batllo is part of that.

And then there’s the cathedral, which is almost finished. Only a hundred years or so in the making, which for a cathedral is about average. Average if you go back to the 1000s, that is.

The drippy bit is NOT what people expected, but it’s cool.

It’s cool, and controversial. The source article for the above image goes into a lot of detail.

I think it is the curves and the playful sense in Gaudi’s work, and that of Hundertwasser in Vienna, that appeals to me. It’s not about being modern or industrial or powerful, but about playing with forms. It has the same problems as Burtalist in terms of materials and pipes and wires, and leaks. But it feels more human.

There are virtues in both, but I don’t care for Brutalism unless it is modified and softened.

In the Saddle or On the Saddle

It’s a phrase I’ve never, ever really thought about. Why do we say, “back in the saddle” or “swung up into the saddle?” We mount a horse, or get onto a horse, rarely fork a horse (old term, very rarely used today in most places). But saddles are always “into.”

You have to go back to the Middle Ages, and then to the Spanish saddles brought to the New World. Don’t think about a modern English style saddle, which is designed to be light and to allow the rider and horse the greatest sense of contact between them.* Think back to who owned horses and rode them and what most saddles were used for: either stabilizing cargo, or war.

The goal was to keep the rider seated no matter what, especially when you rode with straight, extended legs. The saddles had high pommels and cantles that secured the rider when he was hit from the front or behind. It also helps keep an injured or exhausted rider from sagging and falling backwards or forwards. Sideways is also a bit of a challenge, but you can fall off in any direction if you try. Or the horse helps you.

This is a replica jousting saddle. You get into it, not onto it. Creative Commons fair use. Original source:

Here you see a version of the saddle in action, modified for the rider’s armor. It’s a great article about the how and why of re-creating a medieval saddle, and the results for horse and rider.

A 15th century saddle for show or parade. However, you can see the height of the pommel and cantle. This one is in the Met Museum.

These are the type of saddles most writers talked about, unless they described a specific sort of other saddle – pillion pad, or pack saddle, or box saddle, or side-saddle, or . . . These were the sort brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and used on war horses and mountain horses. Below is a Spanish colonial saddle from the late 1700s-early 1800s. It should look familiar.


To this day, charro saddles and others have higher, more snug pommels (or swell) and cantles than do some other western saddles. Because of this Spanish tradition, it is common in American English to say that you get into the saddle, even if you are riding English style.

Some modern dressage saddles retain the older medieval features if you are doing the Airs Above the Ground (Austria and Portugal, France are about the last places to learn this tradition.) I have a barrel-racing saddle that I love. It has a relatively snug seat, as well as suede on the outside, so the rider fits more snugly for making tight turns and rapid accelerations/decelerations. I got to sit in a replica medieval saddle once, and it really helps lock in your posture and where you put your weight.

And so, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sang about “Back in the saddle again,” because that’s what vaqueros did, and what modern cowboys do. And reenactors, and advanced dressage, and . . .

*Bareback’s no fun for extended periods, and not stable. For either horse or rider, especially once you shift into the trot or canter.

Who Was Meeting Where?!?

So, some years ago, (like, twenty-five*) I was in Cologne, Germany. The small, family-owned hotel, sat three blocks from the train station and cathedral. It was nice, relatively quiet (backed up to the switching yard, so no wild parties back there) and was convenient. As is my usual habit, I got up very early and went strolling. I got a bite to eat at a stehcafe, a bakery-cafe with shelves for eating off of, but no tables. The name is “standing cafe,” and it was for commuters and working men. I didn’t quite blend in, but everyone ignored me, which was fine. The tea was hot and black and the pastries were fresh.

As I wandered back toward my hotel, I saw a couple guys in leather jackets and pants. Now, the hour being early and Cologne being Cologne, I shrugged. Far me it from me to say anything about people who close the club, then go to a diner until dawn. A few minutes later, some construction guys went by, grumbling about thus and such.

After official breakfast, I heard a mild commotion outside the hotel, and eased my window open and leaned out. In addition to the leather-clad guys, who now numbered well over a score, and construction workers, there were guys in full American Indian regalia, some in US enlisted sailor suits, a few US highway cops, and cowboys. What on earth?

Then the first chords of very familiar music started, and realization dawned. “Young man, there’s no need to feel down, I said/ Young man, pick yourself off the ground . . .”

And of course, everyone danced along with the chorus.

It was a convention of the German Village People Fan Club. The guys were having a grand old time dancing in the street, the rest of us were having fun watching and cheering, and the locals shrugged. Cologne has always been more mellow than other parts of Germany.

I had no idea that there was an international association for Village People fans. There was, might still be, and the members there finished their opening and headed off to the indoor venue. I went back to museum-prowling, art viewing, and history basking.

I’d forgotten about that until the other night, when I was chaperoning a school dance. One of the songs the kids played was a re-mixed version of “Y.M.C.A.” Another teacher and I grinned, and I called, “Backwards skate!” That brought even more memories, because the song was a staple at skating rinks when I was a kid.

*I do not want to believe that it’s been that long, but it has. SIGH. I miss that Germany.

Free Cities, Imperial and Otherwise

The free cities of Europe seem to have been one of those odd historical quirks that didn’t arise elsewhere. The first ones go back to the Classical Era of Greece and Rome, and were cities that were founded by a king or prince, and administered by a representative of the monarch, but otherwise governed themselves. A few could coin money. All could defend themselves from interlopers from behind good walls. The pattern continued in the Middle Ages.

Some of the oldest free cities (slightly different from later Imperial Free Cities) were Roman settlements (Cologne, Kempten, Augsburg, Basel). They would later buy or fight their way to free city status, although Cologne never quite made it, leading to ongoing spats between the city and the Prince-Bishops over jurisdiction and taxes. Others developed as foundations made by nobles or abbeys in the 900s-1200s, or were chartered by the Holy Roman Emperors and administered by Vögte (Voigts). The vögte represented the interests of the Emperor and had final say in city management, unless an appeal was made to the emperor himself. These cities took care of their own daily affairs and administration, and had walls. Unless a place had walls and could keep people out for at least two days, it was not a city, most certainly not a free city.

A large number of free cities and Imperial Free Cities date from the 1000s – 1100s. Hamburg, Magdeburg, Lübeck, Rostok, the Hansa cities, were founded or re-founded at this time. Warmer weather with better sea conditions played a role, as did the expansion of Imperial power into formerly Viking-plagued areas. Increasing wealth allowed the cities to buy their freedom. In some cases, if the founder’s family died out, as in the case of Schwäbish Hall, the town became a free city. (Barbarossa wanted the salt revenue, the city wanted freedom, and a bargain was made.) The Imperial Free Cities had seats in the Imperial Diets along with the princes, but their votes counted for less, and so many didn’t actively participate in that part of the Holy Roman Empire’s administration.

When you look at free cities, you will often find that they are based on trade and commerce. All were self governing to a greater extent, all had walls, all had conflicts with magnates (lay or ecclesiastic) who wanted to control and tax them, and all had pretty rigid social stratification based on employment. The Hansa cities* were and are the best known, and Lübeck was the first among equals. Nuremberg too was ruled by the wealthy merchants, the patricians, who made money from metalwork, then weapons, map making, armor making, and engraving (both printed and on objects). Some became city states, but most did not. The numbers waxed and waned as did their collective political power. No major noble liked having a free city in or near his jurisdiction because he could not tax or control them. They provided an option, and some were in some cases amazingly wealthy.

By the 1800s, most cities had lost their independence. The hard times of the 1300s-1400s cost a few their freedom as they sank into debt, or lost population due to plague and war. The wars of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War also took a toll. Napoleon finished off several free cities that did not regain their freedom in the re-mapping of 1815. Without the Holy Roman Empire, being an Imperial Free City meant . . . nothing in legal or economic terms.

*Not all Hansa cities were free cities. London was not. Bruges varied, and even Bruges got cross-wise with Emperor Maximilian, who opted to move the main port to Antwerp. That was the end of Bruges as a financial power.