Tonight I bring you something special.
As I've mentioned before in these diaries, right now I'm on my annual pilgrimage to the Western Michigan University International Congress on Medieval Studies, known affectionately among medievalists as K'zoo. This is quite simply the largest and most prestigious gathering of medievalists in North America, with over 3,000 scholars and graduate students presenting and listening to thousands of papers, workshops, musical performances, and material culture demonstrations. The book room alone is worth the price of admission, as 20-30 of the best academic publishers and used book dealers display their wares, often at very deep discounts, and when I say that it would be shockingly easy to drop the equivalent of a mortgage payment in about five minutes, I speak from personal experience.
I've presented twice as part of DISTAFF, Robin Netherton's coterie of medieval textile specialists, and hope to present next year or the year after as well. All my work for Robin has been serious, well researched, and (God willing) of lasting merit, and I am honored to call myself part of DISTAFF even though I am a lousy spinner.
Tonight, though...is a bit different.
Tonight I am presenting as part of the annual Saturday night session sponsored by the Societas Fontibus Historiae Medii Aevi Inveniendis, vulgo dicta, “The Pseudo Society.” This exclusive coterie of
insane dedicated jokesters scholars presents papers on such amazing discoveries as Geoffrey Chaucer being reincarnated as Bruce Springsteen, the sad death of St. Guthlac thanks to evil mortgage brokers and a real estate bubble, or the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon poem about Beowabbit (relative of Crusader Rabbit, who was alas killed and eaten by pious Muslims during the First Crusade), and I am honored to join their ranks this year.
Only a few hundred people can cram into Fetzer Auditorium at WMU to hear me live, but since you have all become like family to me over the past year or so, I'm going to share my paper with you, my loyal readers. Even better, I've included links to the images I've created to illustrate my paper! Please click to see what I'm talking about, and enjoy!
Noble, Honorable, and Utterly Unbelievable: The Unsung Influence of Jean-Louis de Pouffe
Like many who live in easy driving distance of New York, I try to make time to visit the riches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art once or twice a year. Its magnificent collections, including the medieval art and artifacts at the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, are unparalleled on the East Coast, and despite the occasional flub like the late unpleasantness with the Euphronios krater the Met is the museum for any art lover on the East Coast.
One day several years ago I was poking about in the Arms and Armor while a friend crawled underneath Henry VIII’s armor for a good look at the construction technique used to rivet the codpiece. Among the lesser exhibits is an entire case of fussy, dainty, deliciously overblown small swords, the sharp little confections worn by Georgette Heyer villains just before they shout "La!" and challenge someone to a duel. I was giggling at one sword set entirely with Wedgwood plaques when a mellifluous voice behind me asked me why I was laughing.
I turned and beheld a well dressed, imposing man with the natural dignity of an aristocrat. I blinked up at him, thought for a moment, and then pointed at the Wedgewood sword.
"That thing. Isn't it silly?"
He peered at the sword, frowned slightly, and shook his head. "Silly? Far from it. This, dear lady, is one of the very few artifacts that can be definitively traced to the lost collections of Chateau de Pouffe, home of the great French art lover Jean-Louis, Comte de Pouffe."
"Who?" I said, more bewildered than ever. "Jean-Louis what?"
The gentleman drew himself up and sniffed slightly. "Jean-Louis de Pouffe. He is a legend among medieval art scholars, the forerunner to Horace Walpole! Surely you've heard of him?"
There were faint shouts of "Hey, I wasn't hurting anything!" from the main hall, and I saw what might have been my armorer friend being dragged away by security guards, but my aristocratic friend had drawn me to another display case before I could react. "I see that you, like so many, have never heard of the greatness of Jean-Louis de Pouffe. Is that not so?"
I managed a nod.
"Deplorable! Whatever are they teaching in graduate schools these days?" he exclaimed. "This will never do. I have a few hours before my meeting with Mr. de Montebello to discuss the reattribution of de Pouffe artifacts owned by this museum, and it would be remiss of me not to remedy this sad situation. Let me give you a personal tour of the de Pouffe collection before - "
"Uh, my friend - " I glanced out at the main hall and saw that it was empty save for half a dozen Japanese tourists taking notes as a guide described the displays. It seemed I was alone, at least for now. "Well, I suppose - "
And thus it was that I spent the most interesting two hours of my life. My guide, one Cosimo de' Bombasto Sol-Luna delle Pasticchio Chiaroscuro Frulato Macchiato degli Agli auf Ulm, was the president of the International Society for De Pouffe Studies, the first (and, to date, only) academic association devoted to the life, collections, and legacy of this most influential, albeit unknown, proto-medievalist.
Signor Sol-Luna was a veritable fount of information, and before I knew it I had seen such treasures as Jean-Louis de Pouffe's strongbox , his personal meditation chamber, Virgin Ouvrante, dining table, Lady de Pouffe's cosmetic case, and many, many more pieces of medieval, Renaissance, and early modern art. By the time we reached the historic rooms which are the Met's pride and joy, I felt as if I knew both Signor Sol-Luna and Jean-Louis de Pouffe as if they were my own kin, for Signor Sol-Luna was nothing if not an amusing, erudite, and delightful speaker.
It was only after we had reached the Regency Room that I realized that I was not the only person hanging on Signor Sol-Luna's every word. He was in the midst of explaining that this room, with its plain, Greco-Roman forms (he spoke the word "neoclassical" as if it were an obscenity), contained nothing from the lost collections of Chateau de Pouffe, except possibly an ottoman in the corner, when I became aware of someone behind me. I turned, and beheld the self-same six Japanese tourists who had been in the Arms & Armor exhibit when I had first encountered Signor Sol-Luna, doing exactly what they had been doing two hours before: listening to a guide and taking notes. The only difference was that the guide was Signor Sol-Luna.
I turned to my new friend to inform him that he had enlightened more than one simple art lover that day, but alas! He was frowning at his watch, for it was now time - past time - for him to meet with the Met's director. Before I could so much as stammer my thanks, he had pressed a card into my hands, a kiss to my brow, and hurried off to the nearest elevator.
I stared at him, and then at the card, which gave only the name of his society, and then at the Japanese tourists. Their leader shrugged, turned to his fellows, and led them off toward the museum café. I should have done the same, but my curiosity had been piqued, for even after two hours with the worthy Signor Sol-Luna, I still had very little idea of just who Jean-Louis de Pouffe was.
My own research into Henry VIII's quilt collection has consumed most of my research time over the succeeding years, but whenever I have time I done my best to answer the most significant question of my scholarly life.
WHO IS JOHN GALT?
No, not that question! This question!
WHO IS JEAN-LOUIS DE POUFFE?
Tonight, ladies and gentleman, I will endeavor to answer that question to the best of my ability:
WHO WAS JEAN-LOUIS DE POUFFE?
The answer to this question is not quite as simple as it might seem. A perusal of Wikipedia proved singularly unfruitful, and hours spent the bowels of my local research library gave me nothing more than subluxations and a case of dust mite-induced asthma that nearly put me in the hospital. It was not until I managed to sneak into the locked collection at Sophanisba Stepford's Reformatory for Young Hussies and Trollops that my curiosity was satisfied.
It seemed that Sophanisba had been descended from a Napoleonic-era bluestocking named Sarah Davies, Lady Dwyryn-Porthmadog-Trawsfynydd. Lady DPT, who had become wealthy after the untimely death of her husband in a slate mining accident, eventually settled in a small town in France named Puteaux. There she engaged in authoring tracts about the raising of vegetable marrows, advocated for female education, and wrote reams of sentimental verse about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's epic love that dared not speak its name.
She also restored her local church, St. Severus-in-Puteaux, in the very latest modern style. Architectural historians have both blessed and cursed her ever since, but I was grateful, for Lady DPT's handwritten memoirs told me all I needed to begin my own quest for Jean-Louis de Pouffe.
They also contained an excellent recipe for apple pie a la flambe, but that will have to wait until my forthcoming book Stuffed to the Gills: Historic Cookery for the Modern Kitchen, which will be published as soon as I can reclaim the rights from that thief Nigella Law -
But I digress.
To return to my research, Lady DPT's account claimed that the de Pouffes were descended from a failed Templar namedJean-Louis de Puteaux, Sieur de Puteaux. This young knight was not particularly handy with a sword but very good with figures, and by the time the Templars fell in 1307, he had advanced to the position of chief bookkeeper at the Isle d'Longue Temple. There he had a fine time keeping the books, counting the money, and admiring whatever beautiful or rare object grateful pilgrims donated to support the work of the De Molay Fund for the Reformation of Young Hussies and Trollops. To quote Lady DPT:
"There he might have stayed to his last days had not Dame Fortune's wheel turned in a most unexpected way. As we all know, on Friday the 13th of October in the year of grace 1307 the Templars were accused of grievous wrongdoings, among them blasphemy, devil worship, and unnatural acts, and arrested en masse.
"Hoping to save his life and his eternal soul from damnation, Jean-Louis de Puteaux bought his life – and, so rumor has it, acquired his fortune – at the expense of his brother knights, admitting all sins before the authorities had but warmed up the Iron Maiden. The Church and Crown were most pleased with his willingness to tell all, and soon Jean-Louis de Puteaux, former Templar, was a wealthy and well-connected man."
Here Lady DPT was evidently interrupted by someone on business from Rennes-les-Chateau, for her memoirs go off on a 20 page rant about the bad timing of "that damned Merovingian from Sion!" When she resumes the story of Jean-Louis de Pouffe, it is in an excerpt from an account of her meeting with Freres Jacques de Choiseul-Borbon-Marmoset, a shady but knowledgeable abbe who ran an antiques business on the side:
"…All this is very well and good. But how came Jean-Louis de Puteaux to be Jean-Louis de Pouffe? I have traveled much in France and never have I heard of such a place. Was it one of de Puteaux’s estates?”
My friend’s face grew grave. “Alas, would that it were that simple! The name de Pouffe was given to the noble, honorable Milord de Puteaux by his enemies.
“For know, my dear lady, that not all were pleased by Jean-Louis de Puteaux’s actions during the fall of the Templars. Those who had escaped, or were related to the dead, spread vicious rumors that he had – er, I hesitate to speak of this before a lady – “
“I am a widow, as you know, and my late husband was not a man of chaste habits,” I said with a sigh. “There is little that shocks me, so speak!”
He turned as red as a sunset but complied. “’Tis said that de Puteaux gave more than knowledge to the King’s men. According to what I have been told, and do in part believe, he was accused of offering his body in carnal ways to the Crown inquisitors. I know not if this was so, but – “
“I can see why it would lead to a new name,” I murmured. “So that is how he became known as ‘Jean-Louis de Pouffe.’”
“There is more, I’m afraid,” said Frere Jacques. “His wife, one Ursula de la Bouillebasse, was married to him for money, not love. She cursed him and his descendants, one and all, to prefer the company of men to women, in every way. The only exception would be on Friday, the 13th of October in the year of each one’s marriage, so that the next Sieur de Pouffe would be born to whatever hapless lady was persuaded to marry into that famed but accursed line.”
“How dreadful!” I cried. “And it is so even to this day?”
He nodded sadly. “Even so, good Mistress. There is but one de Pouffe in each generation, always a boy, and always similar in form, likeness, and taste to his ancestor. Why, the family’s very motto is rendered in English as ‘Oooo, shiny!’”
Lady DPT's account gave me enough information that I was soon able to unearth the startling, tragic truth that the worthy Signor Sol-Luna had only hinted at. For it seemed that the de Pouffes had not only become rich, they had stayed rich, and by the reign of Louis XVI had amassed an enormous collection ofbibelots, knick knacks, dust catchers, and objets d'art that was so vast, and so renowned, that the mere mention of the name "de Pouffe" nearly gave Horace Walpole a fatal case of apoplexy.
This de Pouffe, surnamed "Le Magnifique" for his amazing collections, was the son of an amateur opera singer renowned for his high opinion of himself. He had met a bad end when he challenged the legendary castrato Farinelli to a singing contest and asphyxiated trying to hold a high C for two minutes straight.
This unfortunate de Pouffe’s widow, a rare Lady de Pouffe who genuinely loved her husband, mourned by coddling and indulging her only son almost from the cradl. A gifted swimmer, he became the youngest water polo player in France, aided and abetted by his best friend, the dauphin Phlippeur. His mother, determined to honor her husband's memory, made sure that the young Jean-Louis received the best of everything: he was tutored in the theatrical arts by his father's court dwarves, Le Ligue de Sucette, and jousting by Pan Wan de Gretzky, keeper of Le Coup de Stanley.
Le Magnifique came into his inheritance at the age of 25 and was determined to live the good life. This meant indulging his love of days of old, when knights were bold, by supplementing the family treasure with every single item from prior to 1600 that he could beg, borrow, wheedle or otherwise obtain from the churches, palaces, and town halls of Europe. Not only that, he set about living as if he were alive in those glorious days as much as possible, down to dressing and dancing like a medieval prince.
This amazing lifestyle, and the even more amazing house Le Magnifique built in 1787 with the aid of Phlippeur, attracted visitors from all over Europe. Relics, drinking vessels, tableware, knick knacks,whole rooms wrenched from Italian villas and German castles - de Pouffe spared no expense in bringing the fine and decorative arts of pre-Renaissance Europe to his home, and if some were perhaps a bit plain before they arrived, he soon remedied this lack.
Alas, all good things come to an end, and so it was with Chateau de Pouffe and its master. Puteaux was far enough from Paris to avoid involvement in the French revolution for the first two years, but by 1791 the Jacobins had heard enough rumors of the immensely wealthy, immensely ornamented collections, and sent a coterie of trained architects to Puteaux. In short order they had roused the local jacquerie to a frenzy not seen since the Fronde, andthe resulting riots riots Phlippeur to go to sea, and Le Magnifique and his namesake son to flee into the night.
Le Magnifique himself, shattered at the loss of his collections, wandered the waterways of Europe seeking his beloved dauphin. His son, a fine singer who had been trained by his father's midgets, attempted to pass himself off as a relative of Farinelli's but was unfortunately exposed after a performance of Le Nozze de Figaro where his performance as the lovesick Cherubinowas deemed too realistic after he "attempted to slip Madame Laschi the 'old salami'" (La Vecchia Salami).
The pieces that made up the great collection were either destroyed, stripped of all ornamentation, or carted away to Paris. Eventually most of the surviving items were sold at auction to finance Robespierre'sFestival of the Supreme Being, although there are persistent rumors that certain choice pieces were hidden in the Incorruptible's secret vault beneath Notre-Dame, which newscaster Ian Graham attempted to open during a live broadcast a few years ago. Certainly some of the finest items inspired Viollet-le-Duc and Gilbert Scott, although the story that John Ruskin was so appalled by certain de Pouffe-inspired items that he dropped the first draft of Fors Clavigera into a fire is a vile canard.
It was not until the valiant efforts of Signor Sol-Luna and his friends in the International Society for De Pouffe Studies that the lost collections of Chateau de Pouffe began to emerge from the layers of obscurity and false provenance that had followed them into the finest museums of Europe and the United States.
As for the de Pouffes themselves, they eventually emigrated to Canada, where they did their best to blend into the general population. The best known contemporary member of the family, hockey player Jean-Louis "Red Light" de Pouffe, distinguished himself as the only goalie in NHL history to give up a triple hat trick in a single period during the infamous "Mollusk Storm" game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings on February 29, 1977. De Pouffe, then a promising junior player, was called up from the Chicoutimi Cucumbers when both Ken Dryden and Michel Laroque were felled by food poisoning. De Pouffe, who was only 18, proved helpless against the Red Wings, and never played again in the NHL. He did, however, earn himself hockey immortality and the nickname "Le Poisson du Garbage" by picking up an octopus flung from the stands after the eighth goal and eating one of the legs. He moved to Russia, played for a tractor factory team, and now lives in Quebec near the Bergevin-Racicot Home for Young Hussies and Trollops, where he teaches goaltending, advises the young residents on fashionn, and occasionally pickets the local Rouge Homard when they have their All You Can Eat Octopus Special.
The de Pouffe collection,for all that it is long gone and all but forgotten, must be regarded as an early example of a connoisseur gathering medieval artifacts and attempting to preserve them for future generations. For that alone we must honor Le Magnique de Pouffe as a pioneer student of the Middle Ages, even if his taste left something to be desired by modern standards. As for his continuing influence, one need look no farther than the nearest Cineplex, the cover art for rock groups such as Den Fruktenvart Fisk, or the cover of the average fantasy novel. Given the popularity of such entertainments, it can be safely said that Jean-Louis de Pouffe, noble, honorable, and utterly unbelievable, may be the most influential medievalist of all time.