Road Trip Through History: The Gateway Arch

I must begin by admitting that it is possible to drive from Chicago to Springfield Mo in one day. I have done it alone and with My Own True Love many times. But when faced with the prospect of the drive this past Christmas we looked at each other and admitted that we were tired. Really, really tired. Instead of sucking it up and pushing through, we decided to overnight at Saint Louis and spend a couple of hours the next day at the small museum at the base of the Gateway Arch. It was a really good decision

The museum has been completely renovated since we last visited it—thirteen years ago almost to the day. What a difference a decade makes!

The Arch is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, a site which had been important to America’s history since the days of Cahokia. When the location was named a National Historic Site in 1935, it was intended as a monument to westward expansion. The museum in its current form offers a more complex version of that story.

The exhibit is divided into six sections, titled

• Colonial St. Louis
• Jefferson’s Vision
• Manifest Destiny
• Riverfront Era
• New Frontiers
• Building the Arch

Despite the tone of the titles, each section, with the exception of “Building the Arch,” was designed to look beyond the story of westward expansion as it was taught in my school years. Women, people of color, and Native Americans are explicitly included, both in the form of individual biographical panels and in discussions of how the expansion of the United States into the west affected their lives and their rights. (I was stunned by a series of panels that laid out the effects of the Louisiana Purchase. Basically everyone living in the region prior to the Purchase lost rights and economic opportunities.) One of the central ideas is how experiences of westward expansion differed, summed up in a triple panel with the titles “How the West Was Won”, “The North Was Taken From Mexico”, and “The West was Stolen”.

I came away with new insights into stories I thought I knew and stories I had never heard.*

The museum is well worth a stop, even if you have no interest in taking the tram ride to the top of the arch. (Which we did not.) Be sure to leave time for the bookstore, which has an excellent selection of books that reflect the themes of the museum.

Once again, the National Park Service does not disappoint.

*How many times have I said something similar in ten years of blog posts? “So Much I Don’t Know” could be the subtitle of this blog.


Tamaris, Boccaccio, and the Importance of Being Her Father’s Daughter

15th century image of Tamaris painting an image of the Virgin Mary. Bibliothèque nationale de France


As I mentioned in my last blog post, Mary Wellesley’s The Gilded Page includes a recurring theme of women who were involved in the creation and use of medieval manuscripts, and why we know about them.

One of my favorite examples: the teeth of a middle-aged woman buried in a church-monastery complex in Germany show traces of ultramarine pigment, a very expensive paint used to color the robes of the Virgin Mary in manuscripts. She probably got the pigment on her teeth when she sucked her paintbrush to give it a fine point to allow her to work with more precision. Sometimes you have to look closely to find women who are otherwise forgotten.

Examples like this are fascinating, and resulted in lots of exclamation points and notes in the margins of my copy.  But it was a different reference that sent me running down a research rabbit hole. Wellesly mentions a fifteenth century manuscript in the Bibliothèque national in France depicting a woman named Tamaris,* a painter who lived in the fifth century BCE. According to Giovanni Boccaccio,** says she was the daughter of a painter, Micon the Younger, who “scorned womanly tasks and practiced her father’s craft with remarkable talent” and was an acclaimed artist during her lifetime.

Wellesly was interested in the man grinding material to make paints on the table next to Tamaris. But it was the phrase “and practiced her father’s craft” that caught my attention. One of the recurring themes that I found in the stories of women warriors is that many of the women were encouraged by their fathers “to scorn womanly tasks” in favor of the arts of war. Evidently the same rubric can be applied to women in other fields.

Anyone have other examples to share?

*Alternatively Thamyris, Thamar and Timarete. Because why make it easy.

**In his work On Famous Women !!!! Why did I not know that this existed?

Evidently Tamaris was a popular subject. This image of her painting the goddess Diana appears in another 15th century French manuscript, De Cleres et Nobles Femmes. British Library.

The Gilded Page

I finally finished reading Mary Wellesley’s The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts, which I started reading in late September. The delay is a commentary on the chaos of my life over the last few months, not on the quality of the book, which is fascinating.

I’ve read a great deal about illuminated manuscripts over the years, in both medieval Europe and the Islamic world. As a result, I feel like I have a firm grasp on the physical production of manuscripts, or at least as firm a grasp as a non-specialist, non-artisan can have. (Believe me, no one wants a book that I have carefully copied by hand, or one that I have illustrated. These are not my skills.)

Wellesley approaches the question of medieval manuscripts from a different angle. Though she never loses track of the manuscripts she discusses as physical objects—what she describes as "tangible, smellable, visual encounters with the past”*—she focuses on them as collections of human stories. They give us clues about the people who commissioned them, the scribes who copied them, the artists who illustrated them, the authors who wrote them—and the people who interacted with, and sometimes altered, texts over time. (Her discussion of the use and abuse of Chaucer’s text, and his persona, was particularly interesting. ) She looks at the role of scribes outside monasteries and the growth of commercial publishing prior to the printed word. And she repeatedly challenges our assumptions about who created manuscripts.

I suspect it will not surprise any of you that I was particularly fascinated by the glimpses of women as patrons, artists and scribes of manuscripts that are a running theme throughout the book, and are the subject of the final chapter , titled “Authors Hidden”.  In fact, Wellesley uses the role of women in the production of texts in different ways to express one of her major points:

“Our imagination of the past is delineated by patriarchalism infused with prejudice. If we were wrong in imagining that all scribes were men, what else might we be wrong about? The past is, as ever, richer and more intriguing that we imagine.”

Sing it, sister!


* It had never dawned on me that parchment manuscripts, like old books, and for that matter newly printed books, would have a distinctive smell. Bibliophilia engages all the senses.