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Here at last is the complete diary that was supposed to have gone live a few weeks ago.  I hope it was worth the wait!


My first scholarly attempt at describing medieval patchwork a few years ago was completely wrong.

This was partially my fault.  I made the common mistake of believing that just because much post-Renaissance art attempts to portray the world as realistically as possible, that pre-Renaissance art had the same goal, and thus the geometrically patterned cloths of honor hanging behind so many Madonnas represented actual textiles.  I had no idea that many of these alleged textiles were either allegorical (such as the “cloth of gold” in certain Netherlandish paintings of Madonnas where the donor who commissioned the painting requested that Biblical verses be incorporated into the “brocade” to show their piety), stock patterns based on Spanish silks (damn you, Bernardo Daddi!), or crude attempts to portray a striped or woven fabric by artists who did the best they could given the techniques available to them at the time.

These flaws were correctable, and thanks to several long, hard research sessions at local libraries, I was able to amend my paper sufficiently that three years, four drafts, and uncounted migraine induced by reading teeny-weeny print in dimly lit study carrels (curse you, WEB Dubois Library!) later, my paper was finally accepted for publication.  It came out last year to a fair amount of critical acclaim, and barring future archaeological discoveries, it's reasonably safe to say that future quilt and textile historians will have to deal with my work.

Alas, the same cannot be said for my first attempt at describing medieval patchwork, which was not especially scholarly but was deadly serious, at least to me.

It was the early 1990s.  I had just begun teaching classes on early quilting and patchwork in the Society for Creative Anachronism, America's largest medieval re-enactment and recreation group.  There was very little in print about either subject, and I had to do a lot of original research simply to prove that either patchwork or quilting had even existed during the Middle Ages.  Even then, I had certain people asking why I even bothered, or tell me to my face that I was wasting my time.

It stung, being called a fool, or deluded, or just plain wrong.  I won't deny that.  I may not have been an academic at that point, but I had my pride, and I was damned if I was going to admit that conventional wisdom was right when I was all but certain it wasn't.  And so, even during the height of the early 1990's recession, when money was tight and Wingding and I came closer to losing our house than I care to think about, I would somehow scrape together the extra money to purchase any book that contained even the tiniest fragment of information on pre-17th century quilting, patchwork or applique.

I rooted out a bare handful of references to early patchwork, most of the "well, the textile hanging off that balcony sure looks like a patchwork, so it probably is" school of speculative scholarship.  The best was a poem that described a quilt made of "two sorts of silk cloth in a checkerboard pattern," but until a letter by a French merchant boasting of the time in 1507 that he made an 8,000 piece wallhanging of wool and bet the whole town they couldn't match it surfaced a few years later, that was about it.  

I was on the verge of giving up when I hit what I thought was the jackpot:  an article in Quilter's Newsletter Magazine that described not one but two pre-17th century pieces of patchwork.  Better yet, these objects, one a 13th century Spanish cope, the other a 15th century English chasuble, not only had what the article's authors claimed were impeccable provenances, both were worked in complex geometric patterns that hinted at a long, rich, and hitherto unknown patchwork tradition that spanned two countries and several centuries.

Is it any wonder I all but swooned with delight?  And promptly incorporated these objects, which between them were worked in no fewer than five patchwork patterns, into my teaching and written materials?  

Or that I wanted to crawl into a cave, change my name, and wail uncontrollably to the stalactites and stalagmites and the blind white fish of the underground lakes when I found out five or six years later that the article I had seized upon with such ecstasy was completely, utterly, one hundred percent wrong?

That's right.

The article was wrong.  

And I, who had confidently relied on its accuracy when I passed along this wonderful new information to friends, family, and students throughout what we members of the Society for Creative Anachronism like to call "The Known World," was not only wrong, I was guilty of the greatest of scholarly sins:  I hadn't gone back and checked to see that my secondary sources were accurate.  If I had, I might have realized much, much earlier that:

- The supposed patchwork cope in Spain was actually a geometric brocade that had been identified as such thirty years earlier in the standard book on medieval Spanish silks; and

- The "Tudor cope" that was allegedly made for an English recusant family so their priest could fold up his vestments and pretend they were bed quilts had been made in the early eighteenth century, not the early sixteenth.

"Ouch," as they say in the Common Speech of the Western Lands.

It was major, and humiliating blow, and the memory of it hovered over my shoulder like a malevolent little guardian demon fifteen years later as I researched, refined, rewrote, and otherwise prepared what became "Anomaly or Sole Survivor?  The Impruneta Cushion and Early Italian 'Patchwork,'" the aforesaid scholarly article.  I double, triple, and quadrupled checked every single reference, no matter how small, to the point of e-mailing two Italian scholars, tracking down a copy of a 12th century poem in a language that I was unable to read, and asking a co-worker who was visiting his family in Budapest to translate a copy of a Hungarian book on a quilted royal patchwork.  Some of this work was unnecessary, and some was born of sheer paranoia, but I was absolutely determined that this time, this time, my research would be correct no matter what.

Fortunately I seem to have succeeded, for I've yet to receive anything but plaudits for "Anomaly or Sole Survivor," and a good thing, too.  My life isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it sure beats trying to write these diaries while doing penance for my scholarly sins in a cave surrounded by blind white fish, bewildered bats, and uncounted millions of stalactites, stalagmites, and cave formations that look like Jesus riding a T-rex to the defense of General Custer.

Alas, the same cannot be said about the subject of tonight's madness.  This brilliant, erudite, multilingual scholar was one of the lights of his age, a worthy citizen of the Republic of Letters that united Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and even Muslim scholars in the early modern age.  He has been called "the last man who knew everything," and had it not been for a book that stormed the very gates of scholarship in a doomed quest to translate the untranslatable, he might well still be counted one of the lights of his age.  

The scholar in question was a Jesuit linguist, translator, and polymath named Athanasius Kircher.  The book that made him a laughingstock was called Egyptian Oedipus.  In it, he did nothing less than attempt to solve one of the most vexing scholarly questions of his age:  how to translate the mysterious hieroglyphs that adorned so much Egyptian art, architecture, and obelisks.

And since he wrote in the 1650's, not the early 1800's, he got it completely wrong.

Athanasius Kircher has been called "the last man who knew everything," and it's something of a shock to realize that by the standards of his day, this assessment wasn't all that far off.  Born at the turn of the 17th century in what is now Germany, he was the youngest of nine, and so manifestly intelligent that he had gone off to study at the Jesuit college at Paderborn when he was only 13 or 14 years old.  While there, he studied not only the customary course of religion, theology, and philosophy deemed suitable for a future cleric, but geology, vulcanology, and other natural sciences.  If that weren't enough, he had such a facility for language that he studied Hebrew on the side with a local rabbi who must have been delighted to have such a fine student, Christian or no.

Alas, Kircher's academic idyll came to an end after but a few short years.  The Thirty Years' War had just broken out and the Protestants were advancing on Paderborn, so Kircher made tracks for staunchly Catholic Cologne in 1622.  On the way he managed to fall through a hole in the ice while crossing the Rhine, but not only did he suffer no lasting damage, the authorities sent him off to teach in Koblenz as soon as he'd thawed sufficiently.   There Kircher distinguished himself enough that he was sent to Heiligenstadt after only two years.  On the way he was captured and nearly executed by rampaging Protestant soldiers, but once again he managed to cheat the hempen fingers of Death and fulfill his assignment.

It was in Heiligenstadt that the true breadth of Kircher's interests began to emerge.  Not only did he teach Hebrew (understandable for a man of the church) and mathematics (one of the traditional seven liberal arts), he also taught Syriac (useful for language buffs and/or the remaining fanatics who still dreamed of a Crusade, no doubt), learned enough about fireworks and ordnance to put on a grand display for the Elector Archbishop of Mainz, and designed sets and what we'd now call "special effects" for theatrical productions.  This was in addition to completing his studies for the priesthood, learning as many Oriental and Near Eastern languages as possible, teaching Hebrew (and Syriac) at the University of Würzburg, and reading enough in the exciting field of natural philosophy (we call it "science") to write a scientific treatise, Ars Magnesia, when he was only 30 or thereabouts.

Alas, war once again drove Kircher from his cozy little scholarly bubble.  The very same year he published Ars Magnesia (which is about magnetism, not laxatives, title not withstanding), he had to flee to the Papal University in Avignon to avoid being overrun by yet more of those pesky Protestants.  There he befriended well known scholar and proto-networker Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, who may not have known everything but knew almost everyone worth knowing in the Republic of Letters, and began a lively correspondence about Kircher's latest obsession:  Egyptian language and culture.

Egypt may have been something of a cultural and political backwater in the 17th century, but its glorious past was obvious to anyone.  The pyramids, the old temples, legend of the now-vanished library of Alexandria, the fascinating inscriptions that decorated every square inch of stonework - these were proof that Egypt had once been the home to giants.  Add in the rich history of the Coptic Church, and the common belief that legendary Egyptian author/priest/polymath/theologian Hermes Trismegistus had written the so-called Corpus Hermetica (seemingly ancient writings that were astonishingly prescient in limning Christian theology centuries before the birth of Christ), and it's little wonder that Egypt, both as an actual place and as an idea, was like catnip to early modern scholars:  heady, intoxicating, and guaranteed to make even the best and brightest go a tiny bit mad.

So it was with Kircher.  By the early 1630's he'd established himself at the Jesuit Collegio Romano, where he soon was held in high enough esteem that he could devote himself primarily to researching, well, everything:  fossils…geology…Oriental languages, including the first Coptic dictionary by a European…Chinese history and culture…epidemiology (he was one of the first to suggest that microorganisms caused the plague)…mechanics…music theory…optics…volcanoes…horology…microscopy…basically, if it existed, Kircher wanted to know all about it.  And he was no mere dilettante, oh no!  Kircher produced approximately 40 books on all these subjects and more, each one distinguished not only by its author's signature research, but by a syncretic approach that drew upon his prodigious knowledge of similar subjects to produce books that were not only as learned and reliable as anything that had come before, but large and heavy enough that they could serve as the traditional heavy blunt instrument in the Baroque version of Clue.

He even proposed a unique musical instrument, the so-called Katzenklavier, which would have involved taking large numbers of living cats, determined the pitch of their mews, and then spiked or pricked their tales at precise intervals to make them yowl out tunes.  He does not seem to have actually made this appalling fascinating device, for which we can (and the cats of Europe) can be eternally thankful, but it can safely be said that even describing such a thing earned him a unique place in early modern history.

It is little wonder that by the time he died in the 1680's, Athanasius Kircher was a legend for his vast learning, his pioneering work on the Coptic language, and his great literary output.  Europe had not seen a man of such intelligence, talent, and astonishing erudition since Leonardo da Vinci over a century before.  So why is he all but forgotten today?  

The answer can be summed up in one simple word:


Kircher had always been fascinated by hieroglyphics.  So great was his interest, and so strong his conviction that his knowledge of Coptic would be enough for him to do what others could not, that he devoted considerable time and energy in his early thirties to persuading his superiors to send him to Egypt as a missionary.  Never mind that the last known example of hieroglyphics as an actual writing system dated from almost 1300 years earlier!  Kircher, with his astonishing facility for languages, his network of correspondents and contacts, and his keen mind, would prove the naysayers wrong and restore the glorious knowledge of the past to the present.  He even seems to have made up some of the evidence he presented to de Pereisc and other allies to advance his expedition, or least relied on some very questionable sources for his insistence that Arabic legends and the Coptic language would allow him to succeed where others had failed.

He never did make it to Egypt, and he never correctly translated a hieroglyph.  But he came so close.  So very, very close.

For Kircher, who had added hieroglyphics to his list of obsessions as early as 1628, before his second flight from the Protestants, made several correct assumptions.  Unlike the earlier scholar Bolzani, who had argued in the 1560's that hieroglyphics were purely symbolic and would never be comprehensible to Europeans, Kircher was convinced that they were indeed a language, and one that could be deciphered by the diligent scholar.  He already knew Coptic, which he (correctly) believed preserved the last remnants of ancient Egyptian language, and his correspondence network of over 700 scholars and experts gave him access to the best libraries, manuscripts, and minds of his time.  Even better, he figured out the crucial relationship between hieroglyphics and the later, simpler hieratic writing system.  If he'd only had access to the Rosetta Stone, who knows what this brilliant and learned man might have accomplished.

Alas for Kircher and his later reputation, he had no such access.  The closest he came was the close examination of the numerous obelisks that wealthy Romans, many of them cardinals, Popes, or other clerical figures, began to steal obtain from Egypt and re-erect in Counter-Reformation Rome.  Some of these mysterious artifacts ended up in private collections and gardens, like the one that is still in the Papal gardens today, while others ended up as the centerpiece of piazzas, fountains, and other public gathering places named for the powerful men who'd stolen brought them to the Eternal City.  They were signs of their owner's wealth, power, and potency prestige, and since Kircher was just about the only person alive who had even the slightest idea of what they said, it was only natural that the obelisks' thieves new owners turned to him for help in translating the attractive but maddening inscriptions of falcons, serpents, deities, palm trees, etc. that adorned these wonderful objects.

And course, no one particularly minded when Father Kircher, the great scholar and polymath, added to the wonder of the obelisks by having hieroglyphics of his own incomprehensible devising carved into whatever part of the obelisks had been left blank by their legal original owners.  He was only filling in the gaps, after all, so why not?  Nature abhors a vacuum, and that applies to obelisks as much as the atmosphere, doesn't it?

That future Egyptologists might beg to disagree seems never to have crossed the minds of Kircher, his patrons, or anyone else.  Kircher was such an expert, and knew the standard hieroglyphics so well, that no one thought to question whether he was actually right.

Worse, the sheer scale of Kircher's erudition seems to have prevented him from considering that he might, just might be heading down the wrong scholarly path by relying so heavily on existing sources instead of the brand-new scientific method.  Other scholars had already cast serious doubt on the age of the Corpus Hermetica on historical and linguistic grounds, to the point that by the time Kircher was in his heyday the average member of the Republic of Letters knew better than to believe that Hermes Trismegistus had even existed, let alone was actually Moses.  Kircher did not agree, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, but by then his sterling reputation and his ability to cite literally whole libraries of texts in support of just about everything he said, overruled any naysayers about hieroglyphics, Hermes Trismegistus, or anything else.

This may be why his "translations" of hieroglyphics were so very, very wrong.

Consider, for instance, the phrase dd Wsr.

We now know that this translates merely to "Osiris says."  There's nothing mystical, hermetic, or particularly fascinating about it, any more than there's a hidden meaning in its modern equivalent in a bit of dialogue.  But in Kircher's translation, this simple two word phrase becomes the followinghowler:

The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis; the moisture of nature is guarded by the vigilance of Anubis.
That jackal-headed Anubis stands vigilant guard over moisture would probably surprise the ancient Egyptians almost as much as it surprised Kircher's contemporaries.

Equally surprising was Kircher's explication  in Pamphilian Obelisk of the inscriptions on the  (you guessed it) obelisk in the Piazza Navona.  This artifact, originally constructed during the reign of the Emperor Domitian for the Roman temple of Isis, was an offering to the Egyptian gods Maat and Amun, and included the following straightforward declaration as part of its dedication:

"Horus, strong bull, beloved of Maat."
Kircher, who knew Coptic but not hieroglyphics, turned this into a long, rambling Neoplatonic discourse on the "Triune Divinity Hemphta," "genies of the Southern Choir," and the fructification of the "sensible World."

As Mr. Spock might put it, "Fascinating."

Even more fascinating is another inscription that wasn't even writing, but a mere picture of a scarab...that somehow turned into a long, flowery, somewhat absurd description how the universe is joined in epic and divine love by the Soul of the World, based on Kircher's method of parsing every single stroke and dot and line on a hieroglyph as having its own mystical and encoded meaning.

Now, in Kircher's defense, it must be said that he seems to have been aware that his scholarly obelisks were built on sands as shifty and insubstantial as the dunes that had buried the Great Sphinx.  His magnum opus, Egyptian Oedipus, went into so much detail on Kircher's sources, the history of ancient Egypt, Arabic legends he was convinced held the key to hieroglyphics, Hermes Trismegistus, and everything but the kitchen sink of the Collegio Romano, that modern scholars such as Daniel Stoltzenburg suspect he might have been trying to convince himself as much as his audience that he'd unlocked the key to one of the great intellectual mysteries of his time.   There's a defensive quality to some of Kircher's scholarship that seems at odds with his prodigious learning and his reputation as one of the most intellectually accomplished men of his time.  Could he possibly have known that his day, and the day of the sort of all-encompassing erudition that had shaped his work, was ending, and that future scholars would be specialists who relied on empirical evidence rather than appeals to the past?

It is no surprise that Kircher's work slowly sank into obscurity after his death in the 1680's.  For all his brilliance, at its core most of his work was explaining and updating what had come before, not new discoveries of the sort made by Newton or Descartes.  His work on foreign cultures, such as a very curious attempt to do unto Chinese what he'd done unto hieroglyphics, was not even close to being adequate for the needs of a rapidly evolving world, and by the time the French scholar Champollion actually succeeded in translating hieroglyphics during the early 19th century, Kircher was all but forgotten except as a pioneer who had done his best with what knowledge he had.

Oddly enough, Kircher and his works have been enjoying something of a vogue in the last few decades.  His love of technology and his syncretism have led to him being taken up as a forerunner by postmodernists and lovers of the bizarre.  Intellectuals such as Umberto Eco, historians like Anthony Grafton, and artists like Cybele Varela have drawn on Kircher's work in their own writings, while cultural historian John Glassie claims to have found traces of Kircher's influence in figures as disparate as Poe, Bernine, Verne, Mesmer, and even Marcel Duchamp.  There's even been an attempt among historians to translate and work their way through Kircher's elegantly dense Latin to see what, if anything, his work can contribute to our knowledge of early modern European culture, particularly in regards to art, writing, and religion.

It is John Glassie who perhaps best summed up the legacy and the work of this fascinating, maddening figure.  He wrote that Kircher deserves credit

"..for his effort to know everything and to share everything he knew, for asking a thousand questions about the world around him, and for getting so many others to ask questions about his answers; for stimulating, as well as confounding and inadvertently amusing, so many minds; for having been a source of so many ideas—right, wrong, half-right, half-baked, ridiculous, beautiful, and all encompassing.”  

It's certainly hard to dispute any of this; any world where Horus, strong like a bull, morphs into the triune divinity Hemphta, is one that would be worth exploring.  At the same time, it's hard to forgive Kircher for his fascinating but infuriating inscriptions on those obelisks, most of which modern scholars have been unable to figure out….


So...have you ever seen an obelisk?  Tried to decipher hieroglyphics?  Been to Rome?  Tried to write in hieroglyphics?  It's Saturday night and you know what that means...


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