Monday, March 19, 2012


Scala Coeli

("Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.”

In older translations, it’s “calves of our lips,” but Rupert Van Deutz preferred the former for reasons that will become obvious.)

After a month of rain the sun is finally shining through the windows into my Medieval Latin class. We’re reciting and translating the “Scala coeli,”or “Stairway to Heaven” from Latin to French at nine in the morning, a bitter irony. We're all so groggy that all we aspire to is the coffee machine in the hallway downstairs. “Scala Coeli” is, from what I can make of it, a savagely bullying book of so-called “edifying” stories compiled at some point in the Middle Ages supposedly with a view to inspiring Christian piety and putting aspiring penitents on the first tread of Led Zeppelin’s famous stairway (or maybe that great big escalator I once saw in an old movie). This is how most of the stories go: hapless, well-meaning optimist goes to bed at night, saying to self: “Ah, I’ll become a nun tomorrow,” or “I’ll devote my life to the Lord after this one last delicious wench,” then wakes up dead the next morning.

TOO LATE! These informercials have been brought to you by God, and that one-time offer was valid for a limited time only. If you’d accepted the offer last night, God would’ve forgiven all your sins. Not just some of them, but — yes, unbelievable — ALL of them! But wait! That’s not all! He’d also have thrown in a harp for your afterlife.

(as advertised)

I’ve just finished my American-translating-Medieval-Latin-into-heinous-French act. I like the performances after me to wipe away the memory of mine. Said professor having heaved his usual sigh of relief when I finished up without offering to do one more paragraph, I’m now basking in adrenaline and looking around at my classmates while I come down. And that’s when I notice, while someone else begins their Latin-to-French murmuring, that there’s yet another person sitting among us with a part of their body wrapped in white, sterile gauze.

What is it about Medieval Studies that makes us all begin to resemble mummies? When the History students vacate the classroom to let us in, the difference between our groups is dramatic: they’re all rosy-cheeked and fashion-savvy. The men wear thick, textured scarves jauntily, and the women wear cheery lipstick and flippy skirts, even high heels. They smile. Unlike us.

Is it all the old books embalmed in dry, worn leather that we read? Or the crumbling manuscripts that we handle with white cotton gloves in funereal archive rooms, soaking in through our eyes the harrowing narratives of torture and martyrdom? It’s a fact that at any one moment during this last semester, there has always been at least one person sitting among us with one or more bits of their anatomy wrapped in some kind of medical dressing.

There’s the woman sitting across from me with her foot in a plastic bag. Not to mention the obsessively neat guy with the apparently homemade or vintage (or just old?) cravat, and not an ironic cravat, but a dead serious cravat — who seems to have glued his hair to his head with a thick layer of black shoe wax, and sewn down the flaps of his jacket with heavy thread. He’s not suffering from any apparent injury, but there’s still a sort of if-I-glue-it-all-together-maybe-no-one-will-notice-I’m-falling-to-pieces spirit to his outfit and morbidly self-conscious demeanor. To his right is the Russian girl in sandals with her toes stained yellowish with iodine tincture and covered in some kind of stick-on plastic epidermal shield. And, voila, here we go: the pretty blonde, a musician (a cellist, I think), has three of her fingers swaddled in white gauze today.

Did the Devil appear to her disguised as her cello?

What happens to these medievalists? Is life just one long bloody battle between their bodies and the material world? Do they blindly step out of dusty library archives, right into open manholes? Are their insides constantly aspiring to become outsides?

What worries me mostly is when I begin to wonder how I fit in with them. So far, no bandages. But there may be something going on with my head. For some reason I think I’m feeling the Earth’s inner concentric shells sliding slowly and loosely, faraway and muted, fragile and tremendous ... a long, soft murmurous sliding. Could this be the "music of the spheres” the saints describe so ecstatically? If I listen carefully might I hear something beautiful? The saints were visited with such visions, usually after fasting and other bodily privations. Which reminds me: my throat is parched, and I’m currently staring sadly at my empty plastic coffee cup with a stupid, dog-like insistence unbefitting of my level of education.

I woke up much too early and haven’t had enough coffee, is what’s giving me visions. My dog, Carmen, is in heat and wakes me up at sunrise now. The first thing I see every morning is her eyes, turned on me at hi-beam, full of urgency, and welling up with expectation, as if she knows that this time, when we go outside, I’m going to lead her to the strange and intense fulfillment that she only begins to suspect as she searches the sidewalk for traces of it, her teeth chattering softly in her tension. Her eyelashes seem longer. She’s developed a sweet, babyish musk.

Yesterday, we were pursued for an hour in the Jardin du Luxembourg by a lost and enamored poodle, who I had to escort to the commissariat, and he jumped — not walked — yes, jumped like a kangaroo, jumped as high as my waist, boinged all the way there in an effort to reach Carmen (who I was now carrying in my arms for birth control reasons).

There, a sarcastic gendarme refused to take him in. He tried to palm some mediocre discourse off on me about the “birds and the bees,” implying that I was at fault for walking around with a bitch in heat. Saying outright, not even implying it, that  I deserved to have “des difficultés” — as if his lesson in dog-owner civics changed anything for the lost dog!* There was a huge scene in spite of me and my limited (non-academic) French. I probably blustered out an archaic subjunctive usage or two. But I couldn’t help it. I was so worn out and frustrated from running away from dogs all week. The next two weeks will find Carmen leading a cloistered life with me upstairs in our garret, our own personal gynaeceum, members of a harem of two, for my own peace of mind, and hopefully limiting the number of lost dogs in Paris.

Professor Schindler is now recounting an erotic vision of a famous medieval penitent (Rupert von Deutz), and my ears prick up: did I just hear something about an “extraordinary mouth to mouth” and an “erotic trembling”? Wait, Rupert is kissing who? Did I hear that right — he’s kissing Jesus Christ on the cross? And there’s tongue involved? Did I hear the word “breast”? At the front of the room Professor Schindler is asking, “Should we go over this text again?” and looking around. He repeats the question, his eyeglasses flashing in what might be mischief. He’s just put a bustle in our hedgerow, and I can’t believe these sad-sack medievalists aren’t crying out simultaneously with a lusty “OUI!” as I’m tempted to do in a mix of worldly joviality and schoolboy titillation.

In my mind I yell, “Yes, s’il vous plaît, re-read le texte!” and raise a Rabelasian glass of red wine to cheer him on, but my mouth, like the rest of my body, has gone somehow dormant with the rest of the class. I want to rewind that bit about the “tremblement érotique.” Undiscouraged, our professor is looking up at us between sentences, asking, “O.K.?,” (pronounced “Oh-keh? Oh-keh?”), as he elaborates on the “bouche à bouche”and the “baiser extraordinaire.” Maybe he, too, is beginning to wonder if we are all simply embalmed stiff with academic turpitude. Thinking we could all use a baiser extraordinaire right about now.

Oh, re-read the text! It can only help. I start to raise my hand. It’s Spring, and the sun is out. There are reflections of open windows glimmering gently on the ceiling.

*NB: Two weeks later, Carmen was out of heat and back to neutral doghood. On our way back from the park, we saw the enamored poodle in a doorway down the block from our place, now very scruffy, with dead grass clinging to his matted fur, a desperate, haunted look in his eyes. But he didn’t recognize the one he’d given it all up for now, because she didn’t smell the same. He just glanced at us blankly, then turned away to strain his gaze upon the park entrance across the street. Sort of the way I looked at my coffee cup that morning.

Previously: The Devil's Coach, or A Weekend in Bordeaux.

Carolita Johnson's cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.

49 Comments / Post A Comment


poor sad poodle. :( i want to hear more on this erotic jesus fanfic!

i think i need to read Domesday Book again.


@LeafySeaDragon For more Jesus erotica, Teresa of Avila is your girl,

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.


@Decca Oh yeah, that's the stuff.


@Decca Wowza (it's really hard to find a non-religious exclamation, ok?). Clearly the Holy Spirit learned how to use contraception at some point between schtupping her and Mary.

Passion Fruit

Nothing to say but I loved it!

Queen of Pickles


Socks = knocked off. Just like always.


@Floorcake (blush!) thanks!


Carolita's vignettes are my favorite. I hope the poodle made his way home.


@themegnapkin Paris is dog heaven. I'm sure he found his way to A home if not his original one! I felt so bad for him for his loss, though. But I'm sure he fell in love again
. It was paris after all!


that devil cello is my favorite.

Cat named Virtute

Oh man, this was just the thing my day needed. I love your stories, Carolita. Like heyits, I also love the devil cello, and would definitely buy a t-shirt or tote with that picture if you're into making that happen!


@Marika Pea@twitter Hmmm!

Emily Garten@facebook

@Marika Pea@twitter So would I!


I love the Sacred Heart on the escalator.


@Decca That Simpsons reference makes a lot more sense now.


@Decca And yet Jacob's angels still need to use the ladder...

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

Ok, Paul, here we go: "Top Ten Signs You Might Be Experiencing Something Other Than Religious Ecstasy"


@Bus Driver Stu Benedict you have ecstatic visions just after having bought a new vibrator. You are having visions... and ate a mushroom omelette for breakfast.


@PistolPackinMama My migraine auras are starting to look a LOT like Hildegards. Sometimes if I'm getting a migraine, I rub my eyes real hard and try to see the dancing angels. They're pretty amazing.

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

Ecstasy, I hear that's something the kids do these days. Paul? You're a musician, what do you know about Ecstasy?

Haha! No comment! That was a little after my time anyway.

Oh, come on, Paul! You must have done something like that. What was it? The reds? Bennies? Jets? Bolivian Marching Powder? Banana peels?

I do like sliced banana in my cereal...

Oh, well, that figures... *makes note on index card*


I am in my stuffy, overheated, broken radiator office with no window. My polar-bear-like body has a mid-July trickle of sweat rolling down its spine and it smells like a dryer in here. I can't concentrate on work.

Mentally, I am outside in European sunshine and around the corner, this gentle drama is unfolding. *love*

God. Clearly my brains are scrambling. Please, Building Guys, turn off the heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeat.


@PistolPackinMama glad to help! :)


Your professor was Letterman?


@steve Haha! He was a cross between letterman and jagger. Oddly sexy for a medievalist. Or else I was seduced by his material...


Another fantastic piece, Carolita, and another nod to one of my favorite movies, A Matter of Life and Death! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one wondering why we don't spend more time on the sexy bits in class. I'll have to send this along to all my Medievalist friends.


@demi-mondaine Good ol' medievalists! Aren't they great, though? All the medievalists I know are big Led Zep fans, too, oddly.


@carolita Oh, mine too! When you think about it, that's not surprising at all; there's something so delightfully Ren-Faire-y about Zeppelin.


@demi-mondaine Exactly. It's befitting.


I think one of my favorite things about Carolita's posts (aside from ALL OF IT) is that even when I don't look at the byline (which I never do), I can always always tell who's it is.


@sophi I'm putting that one in my pocket and smiling on my way to work. ;)


I loved this! I would buy a book of these essays/comics in a heartbeat.

Also, this is completely unrelated, but HOW do you pronounce your name?? Car-olita, or Care-olita? Or something else? Sorry, but it really bothers me when I read something (especially a name) and I don't know how to pronounce it.


@ilikemints don't forget Ca-ro-LI-ta. Her Mum's Ecuadorian (which very well may mean this is how she refuses to pronounce it!)

(and happily, Ms. Johnson, I got to reread your very first article here in my fact-checking on where you said your Mum is from.)


@ilikemints as @hopelessshade says, it's Caro-LI-ta. Yep. Although I tend to make it easier for Americans and just let them say, "Caroleeda." ;) I don't mind Caroleeda, it's close enough. Better than Carlotta, which I get a lot! ha.


It's International Hug A Medievalist Day on the 29th of March - I hope you get lots of hugs for it, Carolita!


@Verity you're kidding! Really? Who knew! <3!


@carolita According to Facebook that is indeed the case!

Irma Vep

This is just amazing, Carolita. Thank you, thank you!


@Irma Vep no, thank YOU!


As much as I love your stories, @carolita, why don't you spay your dog?


@anotherkate I didn't spay Carmen all those years ago because I had committed to breeding her with a friend who had a male dog. It never happened because the male was very independent and was never available (he travelled a lot, and also was a neighborhood dog in Madrid at times, long story). Anyway, the only time they mated it hadn't taken. Carmen's bf died before they could try again, and I had hopes of another union but Carmen was totally monogamous to the end, was not interested in any other dogs, though she occasionally turned her head for dogs that resembled her old beau, but only to look. So no little Carmens ever came of it. If not for those plans I'd gladly have spayed her. Anyway, it wasn't MY fault other people let their dogs run leashless in the streets of Paris. That's against the law. I was an adequate citizen in that respect, and the gendarme was in the wrong.
Carmen, btw, rests in peace. I now have a rescued, and neutered dog. ;)


I thought I commented yesterday - but the devil cello is maybe the best thing I've seen all week.


@anachronistique Thank you, and is that an Ozma of Oz illustration in your avatar, by any chance? Or is it Glinda? It's so tiny, but it looks familiar!


@carolita It's a Mucha painting, "Princess Hyacinth." (LOVE art nouveau!!)


This is great. But how could you leave the poodle????? That part makes me so sad.

Helen Stanley

I can't believe I didn't catch this when it was first posted! Medievalists forever!

It makes me think of the last time I was wrapped in gauze, when I burned the crap out of my hand and neck as the result of a depilatory wax explosion. (Never again!) I had to wear dressings for weeks, and then the doctor said I should still be careful about sun exposure to avoid scarring, so I uv-treated some silk scarves and gloves and wore them during daylight hours until the scars faded (including to the International Medieval Congress). I looked like such a crazy lady.

Has anyone read Handlynge Synne? (it sounds like Scala Coeli is in a similar vein.) I'm studying it right now, and I love how in half of the stories a ghost appears and says something like, "I'm in hell because I spent too much money on hats and now every day flaming cartwheels incinerate me from head to toe and then my ashes reconstitute themselves and it happens again. Don't be like me!"


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