Towards the Middle Ages to come: The temporalities of walking with W. Morris, H. Adams and especially H.D. Thoreau

  • Benjamin A Saltzman


By reading and situating Henry David Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking’ alongside Henry Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and the work of William Morris, this article argues that Thoreau conceived of the Middle Ages not as a past to be recuperated and recovered (as by Morris) or as a past to be gazed upon from our modern perspective (as by Adams), but rather as a future to remain perpetually before us as we saunter forwards, meandering between wildness and civilization.

‘I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life,’ writes Thoreau, ‘who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 657).1 To understand this art, one must turn to the Middle Ages, for according to Thoreau, the word ‘sauntering’ is either ‘beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la Sainte Terre” – to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer – a Holy-Lander,’ or it is less fancifully derived ‘from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 657).2 With these competing etymologies and with their emergence from the figure of the medieval pilgrim, Thoreau opens one of his most impassioned essays in defense of nature, in defense of ‘Freedom and Wildness.’ ‘Walking’ is the title of this essay, and it is also the vehicle for Thoreau’s engagement with nature, freedom, wildness and the encroachment of American civilization.3 The act, or rather the art, of walking takes on in the essay a character both active and passive, as the figure of the pilgrim journeying to the Holy Land is conflated with the figure of the crusader: ‘For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 657). The implications of this formidable statement will be discussed further below, but for now let it suffice to say that the ambivalence that Thoreau applies to the act of walking (as both peaceful pilgrimage and violent crusade) serves partly to capture the ambivalence of the American future and of its relationship to the land on which that future civilization will depend. Thoreau’s essay is riddled with references to the Middle Ages – not just to pilgrims and crusaders, but to knights errant and to Robin Hood, to confession and to Chaucer – a vision of the Middle Ages which Thoreau reimagines as a nebulous past adorned richly with tokens of the future, a future that is nevertheless distinct from the medieval and now belongs specifically to America, the Sainte Terre.

It has been argued that a ‘powerful nostalgia for medievalism’ in the form of American literature, arts, architecture and politics emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century and that it did so ‘as a cultural memory, a trace of an earlier time that the American consciousness linked itself to in the past as source, measured itself against in the present as contrast, and aspired to in the future as ideal’ (Moreland, 1996, 4). Christopher Hanlon describes a similar phenomenon in the American imagination of the medieval, where

an imagined British past is yoked into some configuration with some contested present, and sustained in that configuration through the strength of semiotic resemblance. In such medievalisms, the historically-remote event becomes what Charles Sanders Peirce would call an iconic sign of the present – the medieval past, in other words, enters into dialogue with the contemporary insofar as this reimagination of the medieval past is further reimagined to resemble that present, or to serve the needs of that present, in salient ways (Hanlon, 2010, 755).

Often implicitly tied to the medievalisms of the nineteenth century,4 these ideas of nostalgia are crucial for our understanding of the period and its own imagined relation to the past. But I would like to put pressure, at least from one angle, on the idea that the medieval past was reimagined in the nineteenth century as an ideal to which that century sought a nostalgic return.

Whereas, for example, American Neo-Gothic architecture and the Arts and Crafts movements that flourished in America and England certainly embraced a return to or revival of the Middle Ages, a different relation to history is evident in the work of Thoreau, especially when read alongside other nineteenth-century figures such as Henry Adams and William Morris, who approached the Middle Ages each with his own particular sense of temporality and perspective toward the past. One factor is the access that these men had to the artifacts of medieval history, as a matter of easily accessible national heritage (for Morris), or of architecture as seen through American eyes (for Adams), or of stuff imagined by someone who would read about, but never set foot in, the land where the European Middle Ages took place (for Thoreau).4 I chose these three figures with less forethought and design than the outcome of this essay may suggest (as one reader of this essay put it, I seem to have come upon this choice of authors ‘in the spirit of Thoreau’s purposeful aimlessness’). However, the result of this seemingly random triangulation is surprisingly productive: while Morris sought to revive the Middle Ages in the present and Adams gazed on the remnants of the twelfth century as though his eyes belonged to the same era, Thoreau positioned the Middle Ages not as something to be nostalgically recovered, recuperated and relived, but as a departure point for imagining America in its ideally always-present and always-medial transition from Wildness to Civilization.


Let me begin by briefly sketching some of the ways in which one of Thoreau’s contemporaries, William Morris, envisioned the Middle Ages and situated the medieval in terms of his own time. For examples of cultural movements that sought a return to the glorious ideals, architecture, symbols and art of the Middle Ages, we might turn to the Gothic revival of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries in Europe and America, or even to the romantic nationalism of late-nineteenth-century Germany. But for now, William Morris – though a product of his own unique innovation – will serve as an exemplary English medievalist and public intellectual of the nineteenth century. As the icon of medievalist nostalgia and revival through the Arts and Crafts movement, and also as an Englishman, he will function as the control (to speak in scientific terms) against which I shall compare the medievalisms of Thoreau and Adams.

Morris’s work, from upholstery to poetry, imitated and imported into his contemporary world the tapestry and imagination of those qualities that he associated with the medieval. His bookmaking techniques, for example, were motivated by a disgust at the shoddy mass-production of contemporary presses and culminated in the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891, where he produced elaborate volumes of Chaucer, inter alia, that mimic in print the highest ideal of an illuminated medieval manuscript.5 Morris’s manuscripts and printed publications, with their famously intricate initials, borders and illustrations, are reproductions that attempt not simply to replicate, but to exceed, the original – that is, to be more ‘medieval’ than anything actually produced in the Middle Ages. In fact, even John Ruskin wrote to Edward Augustus Bond, then keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, to say that Morris’s ‘gift for illumination is I believe as great as any thirteenth century draughtsmans [sic]’ (Braesel, 2004, 43; Peterson, 1991, 60).6 For Morris, manuscripts and printed books functioned as a means to fight the industrial revolution and actively revolve back to the book production, ergo the culture, of the more pristine and glorious Middle Ages.

To be sure, Morris and Thoreau were of two different generations and the founding of Kelmscott took place several decades after Thoreau’s death in 1862. But although they never met, their lives did overlap and their politics seem strikingly parallel. It has been argued, for instance, that Morris was ‘perhaps the closest analogue to Thoreau’ (Drinnon, 1962, 131). And along these lines we might compare, for example, the utopian and socialist impulses of Morris’s News from Nowhere with those in Thoreau’s Walden. Indeed, scholars have long recognized that ‘the first recognition of [Thoreau’s] modest but certain place in world literature came abroad, and in England, where the nascent British Labor Party, offspring of William Morris and Marx, used Walden as a pocket-piece and travelling bible of their faith’ (Canby, 1939, 225). Still, Thoreau’s influence on Morris was weak at best, and any influence in the other direction would have been quite unlikely. That their lives were parallel and not mutually influential, however, makes comparing them all the more productive.

Morris’s sense of medievalism probably began during his time at Exeter College, Oxford, between 1853 and 1855 and can be seen not only in News from Nowhere (a ‘Utopian Romance’ published toward the end of his career in 1892 at Kelmscott), but also as early as the publication of his Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems in 1858. Like Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, published a few years before Morris’s Defence,7 Morris’s volume of poems is distinguished by its rich series of medievalist romances. In an 1859 unsigned review of The Defence of Guenevere, Garnett came to the conclusion that ‘the difference between the two poets obviously is that Tennyson writes of mediæval things like a modern, and Mr. Morris like a contemporary’ (Garnett, 1859, 226–227). Morris’s treatment of the Middle Ages from a medieval perspective is especially evident in the final poem of the Defence, ‘In Prison,’ where isolated images that are not explicitly medieval take on and echo the medieval world constructed elsewhere in the Defence and therefore seem to reference little else besides the Middle Ages. For example, take the final two stanzas of the poem:

While, all alone,

Watching the loophole’s spark,

Lie I, with life all dark,

Feet tether’d, hands fetter’d

Fast to the stone,

The grim walls, square letter’d

With prison’d men’s groan.

Still strain the banner-poles

Through the wind’s song,

Westward the banner rolls

Over my wrong. (Morris, 1883, 247–248, Stanzas 2–3)

In isolation, this final poem could be set nearly anywhere and is beyond any particular historical moment. However, the ‘grim walls’ echo the ‘four great walls’ of the ‘Pagan castle old’ in which Sir Guy the ‘good knight’ is imprisoned 100 pages earlier in the poem ‘A Good Knight in Prison.’ The ‘wind’s song’ echoes the windy message to Jehane du Castel beau in the poem ‘Golden Wings.’ And the ‘banner-poles’ strained by that same wind and the ‘westward’ movement of the troops certainly recall those knightly, banner-bearing figures such as Olaf, the ‘king and saint’ in the poem ‘The Wind,’ as well as ‘the knight whom all the land calls’ Arthur in the poem ‘King Arthur’s Tomb.’ Morris’s final poem of the Defence, ‘In Prison,’ is a stationary poem that implicitly locks the speaker in a facsimile of the Middle Ages. The speaker – whose feet are ‘tether’d’ – specifically cannot walk or move, while the rest of the world continues to march on. The Middle Ages become inescapable, as the wind and the banner of war, development and change all move westward. It is this European and English reoccupation of the Middle Ages that, as we will see, contrasts with Adams’s strategy of historicism and especially with Thoreau’s vision, in which – rather than binding the reader to the past – he projects the reader into a new image of the future, specifically the future of American civilization.

At the same time, Morris’s medieval is not entirely static either, nor is it disconnected from a vision of the future. For example, the bridges that mark the utopian landscape of Morris’s News from Nowhere reveal the dreamlike nature of Morris’s medieval temporality. Waking up in a seemly new and foreign world, the protagonist looks over the familiar Thames in all its unfamiliarity. Taken down the river in a boat, he latches onto the sight of what just the night before had been an ‘ugly’ suspension bridge made of iron, and on this new day (perhaps even in our day)8 he contemplates his novel surroundings:

I was going to say, ‘But is this the Thames?’ but held my peace in my wonder, and turned my bewildered eyes eastward to look at the bridge again, and thence to the shores of the London river; and surely there was enough to astonish me. For though there was a bridge across the stream and houses on its banks, how all this was changed from last night! The soap-works with their smoke-vomiting chimneys were gone; the engineer’s works gone; the lead-works gone; and no sound of riveting and hammering came down the west wind from Thorneycroft’s. Then the bridge! I had perhaps dreamed of such a bridge, but never seen such an one out of an illuminated manuscript; for not even the Ponte Vecchio at Florence came anywhere near it. It was of stone arches, splendidly solid, and as graceful as they were strong; high enough also to let ordinary river traffic through easily. Over the parapet showed quaint and fanciful little buildings, which I supposed to be booths or shops, beset with painted and gilded vanes and spirelets. The stone was a little weathered, but showed no marks of the grimy sootiness which I was used to on every London building more than a year old. In short, to me a wonder of a bridge. The sculler noted my eager astonished look, and said, as if in answer to my thoughts, ‘Yes, it is a pretty bridge, isn’t it? Even the up-stream bridges, which are so much smaller, are scarcely daintier, & the down-stream ones are scarcely more dignified and stately.’ I found myself saying, almost against my will, ‘How old is it?’ ‘Oh, not very old,’ he said; ‘it was built or at least opened, in 2003.’ (Morris, 1892, 9–10)

This bridge is the stuff of dreams, or of illuminated manuscripts. (The two may not be all that different.) It exceeds even the medieval imagination of what a bridge could be, and above all it fools our dreamer and tempts him, almost against his will, to ask how old it is. The bridge signals the age in which our dreamer finds himself, and without the sculler’s temporal point of reference – ‘it was built or at least opened, in 2003’ – we and our dreamer would have little way of knowing that we find ourselves in the future and not the medieval past. As the sculler proudly predicts, this majestic bridge is not the only one that will catch our dreamer’s attention; venturing up the Thames, he will rejoice in witnessing every beautiful stone and oak bridge that stands in place of an ugly iron one from his former life. In Morris’s imagined future, the beautiful medieval will have substituted for the ugly present, and the medium of that substitution is none other than a collection of bridges.

While those bridges are distinctly utopian, Morris’s most elaborate printing projects – with the fine texture of the paper, the richness of the binding and the opulence of the artwork – serve as a more palpable bridge between the then and the now. These projects, like much of his poetry, situate the Middle Ages within Morris’s contemporary grasp. In other words, Morris and his circle – which, for instance, might include John Ruskin’s revival of Gothic architecture or the ‘deep mediaeval coloring’ of the Rossettis’ poetry that one critic considered to resemble the ‘quaint bejeweled setting of an old thirteenth- or fourteenth-century manuscript’ – sought to carry the medieval forward as an ideal form of the present (or future) and incorporate its beauty, social harmony and splendor into and in place of their own contemporary moment (Law, 1895, 447).


In his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, an erudite guidebook for architectural ‘tourists,’ Henry Adams walks through the French countryside attempting to appreciate the sights and, specifically, the architecture of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries as though he were viewing them from the perspective of those living in the Middle Ages (a perspective that he readily admits to be impossible) (Adams, 1913; privately printed in 1904). In imagining his position within time as the position of the tourist, walking and looking, Adams does not attempt to retrieve the Middle Ages from the past and incorporate them into the world of the present (as Morris does), but instead attempts to understand the past on its own terms and leave it in its own time. In this respect – that is, his acknowledged distance from and passive interaction with the past – Adams is much closer to Thoreau than either of them is to Morris. Yet although Adams and Thoreau are both invested in similar activities of walking through the Middle Ages, they look to the Middle Ages in divergent and telling ways.

In advancing this distant sense of temporality, Adams frequently relies on the metaphor of youth. In the second paragraph of the book, he writes:

The church stands high on the summit of this granite rock, and on its west front is the platform, to which the tourist ought first to climb. From the edge of this platform, the eye plunges down, two hundred and thirty-five feet, to the wide sands or the wider ocean, as the tides recede or advance, under an infinite sky, over a restless sea, which even we tourists can understand and feel without books or guides; but when we turn from the western view and look at the church door, thirty or forty yards from the parapet where we stand, one needs to be eight centuries old to know what this mass of encrusted architecture meant to its builders, and even then one must still learn to feel it. The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young. (Adams, 1936, 1–2; emphasis added)

To the west, the wide ocean, the wide sand, the stunning height and the infinite sky all capture the feelings of the tourist as he first walks up and climbs to the platform. The west, open and expansive, is associated with the physical walking, climbing and wandering guided by the instinctual feelings of the tourist, the modern-day pilgrim. Turning away from the west, toward the church door, toward the historical past and toward the books that contain its details, the tourist becomes baffled and restricted. He becomes reminded of his age, both his own personal age (that he is too old – eight centuries too old) and his own historical age. The disjuncture between these centuries makes completely inaccessible the minds of those who built the church; the impossibility of growing ‘prematurely young’ reminds the tourist of his current position in history, which is always moving forward and always moving away from that twelfth-century past. Throughout Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Adams frequently uses the impossibility of returning to one’s youth as a reminder of the temporal distance between the reader and the architecture (or, the minds) of the Middle Ages, a distance which at every turn is narrowed by Adams’s eloquent and enrapturing prose.9 Just as the reader begins to become engrossed in the details of a particular feature of the Chartres cathedral or an iconographic detail in an image of the Virgin, Adams pulls back and reminds the reader to walk in a certain way or turn in a certain direction or consider his/her relation to the past.

For Adams, one must examine the Middle Ages as a pilgrim. One must walk through them, even revere them, but never attempt to pull them toward us. The tourist travels to the Middle Ages; the Middle Ages do not travel to the tourist. Quoting the first lines of the Canterbury Tales (which Thoreau similarly evokes in support of walking and pilgrimage, as we will see below), Adams thus explains that ‘The passion for pilgrimages was universal among our ancestors as far back as we can trace them. For at least a thousand years it was their chief delight, and is not yet extinct’ (Adams, 1936, 16). Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres itself is very much a pilgrimage, as it walks the reader from place to place and from architectural feature to architectural feature. Adams even stops the narrative after entering the cathedral at Chartres, asking the reader to wait 10 minutes in order to ‘accustom our eyes to the light’ (Adams, 1936, 87). The notion of pilgrimage, to Adams, is a connection to our ancestors, much like the church door – the ‘pons seclorum’ – which, as explains, is ‘the bridge of the ages, between us and our ancestors’ (Adams, 1936, 5). Without dragging the Middle Ages forward, Adams invites us to connect with those ancestors and appreciate their otherness: ‘If we could go back and live again in all our two hundred and fifty million arithmetical ancestors of the eleventh century, we should find ourselves doing many surprising things’ (Adams, 1936, 3). We remain connected to the always foreign and unreachable past; yet that past is irrecoverable, for ‘one knew life once and has never so fully known it since’ (Adams, 1936, 3).

Adams’s understanding of the past is built on an understanding of time as expressed in geological layers. Each layer informs the next, and it is impossible to access the lower depths without first unearthing and dusting away those layers closer to the surface. But the understanding of historical layers works the other way, too. For Adams, ‘one must live deep into the eleventh century in order to understand the twelfth, and even after passing years in the twelfth, we shall find the thirteenth in many ways a world of its own’ (Adams, 1936, 11). Adams’s appreciation for the uniqueness of each historical moment shows itself here and also in his detailed consideration of the processes by which the cathedrals were built, as he imagines the order in which various compartments, chambers, towers and halls were added onto one another over the ages.10 As a reader, one must traverse from one’s own historical moment all the way back to the eleventh century, only to begin progressing through the stratified architectural remnants that accumulated as the centuries advanced. And yet, despite this stratified view of history, ‘One looks back on it all as a picture; a symbol of unity; an assertion of God and Man in a bolder, stronger, closer union than ever was expressed by other art and when the idea is absorbed, accepted, and perhaps partially understood, one may move on’ (Adams, 1936, 45). Stratification takes on a different meaning under the divine unity of Christianity. But with this unity, the goal remains the same: try to absorb and accept, then move on. As we will see, this is similar to Thoreau’s principle of walking, too.

Adams argues that no matter how deeply we gaze upon the great cathedrals of the late Middle Ages, the ‘feeling’ of the Middle Ages will not return to us:

Our age has lost much of its ear for poetry, as it has its eye for colour and line, and its taste for war and worship, wine and women. Not one man in a hundred thousand could now feel what the eleventh century felt in these verses of the ‘Chanson,’ and there is no reason for trying to do so, but there is a certain use in trying for once to understand not so much the feeling as the meaning (Adams, 1936, 29).

The ‘color’ of the Middle Ages, which Adams sees as irretrievable and irreproducible today, is precisely that same ‘deep mediaeval coloring’ which Christina Rossetti and others in Morris’s circle were credited with having brought back (Law, 1895, 447). The attempt to retrieve or re-conceive the Middle Ages in the nineteenth century also presented an unforeseen danger. Many manuscripts were permanently damaged by attempts to clean and preserve them with chemical agents, and many buildings were hastened to their ruin by nineteenth-century attempts at repairing and expanding their medieval qualities. ‘The worst wrecker of all,’ writes Adams, was ‘the restorer of the nineteenth century’ (Adams, 1936, 69). This damage was done not merely by restorers with a bottle of acid and a heavy hand, but also by the critics who similarly destroyed the artifacts in their attempts to recover feeling from the things of the eleventh and twelfth centuries: ‘Critics are doing their best to destroy the peculiar personal interest of this porch [of the church], but tourists and pilgrims may be excused for insisting on their traditional rights here, since the porch is singular, even in the thirteenth century, for belonging entirely to them and the royal family of France, subject only to the Virgin’ (Adams, 1936, 78). Adams’s ideal image of pilgrims and tourists is painted in the hopes that they might connect with the Middle Ages and their ancestors through the act of walking, but that in moving forward they do not touch, repair or build upon those remnants left behind. It may be correct to call Adams a ‘historical visionary,’ as Moreland does, but only because he looked to the past and sauntered through it (Moreland, 1996, 77). Discontented as he was with his own contemporary society, Adams may have delighted in observing medieval architecture and artifacts, perhaps accepting the Middle Ages as the ‘ideal,’ but they represented an ideal no longer fully accessible – an ideal irreconcilable with the temporal distance of those continually maturing centuries that stand between.


The precision with which Adams guides his reader’s attention to the architectural details and the specific historical milieux in which they were produced – thus the historical layers they represent – is not to be found in Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking.’ However, Thoreau’s prose carries itself in a fashion similar to that of Adams’s, taking in and conveying the landscape on foot. As Thoreau’s essay advances, it frequently touches back on broad emblematic tokens of the Middle Ages. Indeed, as we have seen, the essay opens with an etymological explication of the word ‘sauntering,’ the task either of the medieval pilgrim as ‘Sainte-Terrer’ or of the vagrant who is ‘sans terre.’ But those two passive forms of movement and travel take on a more active, perhaps even violent, characterization when Thoreau goes on to explain that ‘every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 657). The icon of Peter occupies us, as we each individually walk forth, conquering once again the Holy Land (scil. America) from the Infidels (scil. those doctrinaire, market-oriented individuals against whom transcendentalism is reacting; or even, perhaps, the ‘Indians’ if read in the spirit of Manifest Destiny). The figure of the walker is a contested one: part pilgrim, part crusader; part medieval, part new.

Delineating this ideal figure of the walker at the outset of the essay, Thoreau even assigns him his own estate: ‘The Walker – not the Knight, but Walker Errant,’ writes Thoreau, ‘is a sort of fourth estate outside of Church and State and People’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 658). When the walker is imagined to replace the knight errant – a romantic type character who is neither pilgrim nor crusader, yet who embodies something of both – the walker’s relationship to the medieval becomes all the more tangled, but inseparable. Thoreau rewrites the three estates, and I would argue that here those estates betray a specifically medieval undertone. Of course, as it has been argued, the three estates (with the fourth added) could refer to the fourth estate of writers and editors that was popularized several decades earlier by Thomas Carlyle.11 Although Thoreau had read and even reviewed Carlyle’s writings,12 he seems here to sidestep the three estates of the ancien régime and the fourth estate of journalists, instead looking farther back to the Middle Ages. Those same scholars who have focused on the more contemporary Carlylian reading of the walker as fourth estate have consequently excised Thoreau’s ‘Walker Errant’ of his distinctly medieval lineage (Anderson, 2006, 87; Mariotti, 2010, 122–123). Before the estates of the seventeenth century and before Carlyle could popularize the addition of another estate, we find those of the Middle Ages as captured, for instance, in Gower’s Mirour de l’Omme and the Vox Clamantis, where the sub-classes of merchants and lawyers are already putting pressure on the perfect tripodal balance of medieval society’s ideal structure: nobility, clergy and peasantry.13 The fourth estate of the walker exceeds the Middle Ages and explodes, to borrow a phrase from Mann, the ‘skeletal structure of medieval society’ (Mann, 1973, 55). Yet the fourth estate of the walker also precedes the Middle Ages, as ‘knights of a new, or rather an old, order’ that is ‘a still more ancient and honorable class’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 658). The walker is at once older than the Middle Ages and more novel.

The notion of pilgrimage evinced in the opening paragraphs of Thoreau’s essay is quite different from the one maintained by Adams, yet both emphasize the connection that the act of pilgrimage creates between the contemporary readers and their ancestral pilgrims of the Middle Ages. In our current pilgrimage, we are thus walking and ‘reconquer(ing)’ just as our ancestors walked and conquered once before. Such a clean typology between the Holy Land and America might, however, be slightly misguided. Thoreau’s conception of time and the relation between future, present and past is far more complex than can be conveyed by the notion of linear prefiguration. He begins with the figures of the pilgrim and the crusader, distinctly medieval and concretely historical references. But the ideal walker, Thoreau hopes, is one who sets out ‘never to return’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 657–658). And lest this never-ending enterprise seem ill-defined, Thoreau suggests that in order truly to walk we must be ‘prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.’ If typology typically depends on a sense of history in which a past event prefigures its fulfillment in a future event and the significance of the future event is established in relation to its prefiguration, then Thoreau’s never-returning walker begins with the first historical moment – the banner of crusade – and progresses forward, never wishing to return home to that original historical moment of the Middle Ages, thus rendering its typology unidirectional.

This resistance against turning back is best exemplified throughout the essay by Thoreau’s emphasis on the principles of westward movement. As we will see, Thoreau’s desire to walk westward and never return parallels nicely Adams’s desire to feel the infinitude of the west (the wide sea and the unending sky), and then to turn back to the church door, observe its details and move on. But Thoreau is more direct on the matter. Describing his tendency to walk from his home in a particular direction, Thoreau writes, ‘Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free …. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 662). The practical act of walking reaches its theoretical height when Thoreau explains that, ‘We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 662). Yet amidst these images of a determined future westward, Thoreau, like Adams, glances back to Chaucer (whom he frequently elevates to a status equal to that of Homer):

‘Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages

And palmeres for to seken strange strondes.’

Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a west as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down. (Thoreau, 1862b, 663)14

This is one of several moments in the essay where Thoreau uses the past of the European Middle Ages in order to explain and evoke a distinctly American (and explicitly not European) future. More than once, Thoreau plots time onto geography. The future is west; the past is east. But Thoreau and Adams are certainly not alone in doing so. The nineteenth-century Swiss-American geographer Arnold Guyot, whom Thoreau quotes at length, argues that civilization always progresses from east to west, and each step ‘is marked by a new civilization superior to the preceding, by a greater power of development’ (Guyot, 1906, 221; quoted in Thoreau, 1862b, 663).

Thoreau’s reading of Guyot (who himself migrated west from Switzerland) could not have been ignorant of Guyot’s accompanying reflection on the Christian unification that took place during the Middle Ages. In his lecture on ‘History and Geography,’ Guyot arranges geography in similarly temporal terms:

All the nations of the earth must unite together in spirit, by the bonds of the same faith, under the law of the same God. This is the lofty goal to which henceforth all human societies ought to aim …. But what people shall be charged with this immense work? Shall it be that old Roman society, wholly pagan still in its origin and in its forms, stained by slavery and violence, condemned long since to perish for its crimes? … No, it is glory enough for the Roman world to have received and borne in its bosom this precious seed of the future, and to have shielded its earlier growth. The Church had her birth there, but the Christian world must needs bloom elsewhere. The North is summoned in turn: the fierce Germans, after five centuries of struggle, break down the old empire, but adopt Christianity. In the midst of this great and universal ruin, the Church alone remains upright, and becomes the corner-stone of the new edifice. Civilization passes to the other side of the Alps, where it establishes its centre. A still virgin country, a people full of youth and life, receive it; it grows under the influence of the Christian principle of unity and brotherhood. A common faith unites all the members of that society of the Middle Ages, so strangely broken up; those nations, so different, so hostile to each other in appearance, nevertheless look upon one another as brothers, and form together the great family of Christianity. (Guyot, 1906, 299–300)

The Middle Ages are understood as the birth of a unified Europe and are thus responsible for Guyot’s vision, albeit a terrifying vision, of European domination. It is not, Guyot suggests, the Romans that built this edifice, nor was it the Germanic tribes, but rather the development of nationhood in the later Middle Ages during which a common faith (Christianity) unified otherwise opposed groups of people. Within this vision of a towering European edifice (the rhetoric of building and architecture cannot be ignored), America has its critical place, for ‘America, while preparing to make new advances in social sciences, is already laboring in concert with Europe for the civilization of the world, which will not be complete without her’ (Guyot, 1906, 305). The conquering and development of America is thus modeled, according to Guyot, on the unification of the disparate states of Europe during the Christian Middle Ages. But for Thoreau, the American progression westwards is not a matter of completing the ‘civilization of the world,’ nor is Thoreau advancing a proposal for quite the same degree of fierce colonization and European superiority. But one cannot help reading in this light the metaphor of the crusaders reconquering ‘the Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels’ that Thoreau posits in the opening paragraphs of ‘Walking.’ When Thoreau passively and peacefully walks west from his Concord home, is his walk really so passive and so peaceful?

Further along in the essay, Thoreau recollects a ‘panorama of the Rhine,’ which he had seen a few months prior. ‘It was like a dream of the Middle Ages,’ he recounts. ‘I floated down its historic stream in something more than imagination, under bridges built by the Romans, and repaired by later heroes, past cities and castles whose very names were music to my ears, and each of which was the subject of a legend. There were Ehrenbreitstein and Rolandseck and Coblentz, which I knew only in history …. I floated along under the spell of enchantment, as if I had been transported to an heroic age, and breathed an atmosphere of chivalry’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 664). Again, we hear the same story as told above by Guyot: with Rome’s fall came the Middle Ages and their glorious structures of civilization, now only left in legend and ruin – in history. But soon thereafter Thoreau views another panorama, this time of the Mississippi. Eying it ‘in the light of to-day,’ he reports: ‘I saw that this was a Rhine stream of a different kind; that the foundations of castles were yet to be laid, and the famous bridges were yet to be thrown over the river; and I felt that this was the heroic age itself, though we know it not, for the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 664–665; emphasis in original). Thoreau carefully constructs a temporality in which, even while looking back to medieval legends and ruins – looking back to one heroic age – he is ‘still thinking more of the future than of the past or present’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 665).15 And in this future, America will be inadvertently building its own bridges, to be passed under and walked over, to separate humans from the brute force of nature – products of not just a new heroic age, but the heroic age. The bridges of the Rhine serve a different purpose now that they have become ruins; like the doorways at Mont-Saint-Michel, they are the sort of Adamsian pontis seclorum that stand between us and the history of the past. By comparison, the dreamlike bridges in Morris’s News from Nowhere represent a future reproduction of the medieval structures in all their glory, as though they were ‘out of an illuminated manuscript.’ But for Thoreau, the dreamlike ruins of the Rhine are still ruins, still the concrete rubble of history, and yet they evidence a past beyond imagination. The heroic age, on the other hand, in which Thoreau rejoices is not the former age of the European ruins nor a hypothetical age of renewed medieval culture, but rather the heroic age of the present. It is the age of anticipating the bridges to come, the bridges ‘yet to be thrown over the river’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 665).

The process of building and moving west is necessarily part of a cycle, a version of translatio imperii, but a version which depends on a period of pre-existing wildness. The narrative of this cycle – exemplified by Rome’s growth out of wildness and into the greatest of civilizations, ultimately falling to the wild Germanic tribes, and also by the pre-historical Native American civilizations which built their own monuments and temples that have by now turned to ‘dust and primitive soil’ – is sidestepped in Thoreau’s vision of an American future (Thoreau, 1868, 265). Thoreau locates the opportunity of this future in the unique potential for America to develop not in the direction of civilization, but in a perpetual saunter between wildness and civilization. As perpetual saunter, the future of America would not be given to a movement between two typological reference points cyclically pursuing one another, but instead would continually traverse and explore the middle space between those two points.

The metaphor of walking allows Thoreau to unground wildness and civilization: the very goal of walking is to get lost, to follow untrodden paths, and not to travel on the roads that guide their travelers efficiently and directly to a specific destination and return them with the same degree of ease. Like the walker who changes course, domesticated animals, Thoreau admires, can similarly revert back to their original wildness: ‘I love even to see the domestic animals reassert their native rights – any evidence that they have not wholly lost their original wild habits and vigor’ (Thoreau, 1868, 287). The reference is to an idea widely held during the Middle Ages and captured beautifully in Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale:

Take any brid, and put it in a cage,

And do al thin entente and thy corage

To fostre it tendrely with mete and drinke,

Of alle deintees that thow kanst bithinke,

And kepe it also clenly as thow may,

Although his cage of gold be never so gay,

Yet hath this brid by twenty thousand fold

Levere in a forest, that is rude and cold

Goon ete wormes and swich wrecchednesse.

For evere this brid wol doon his bisiness

To eschape out of his cage, if he may;

His libertee this brid desireth ay. (Chaucer, 2005, ix, 163–174)

For Thoreau, the wild is equated with an original state of being, making the turn from domestic to native a temporal matter. But more than a return to an origin, in the temporal sense, the venture into the wild is a return to freedom – the freedom to move and saunter between domestication and nativeness, between civilization and wildness. Thoreau’s entire essay is framed by this sense of freedom; indeed, the very first sentence begins, ‘I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 657). And after considering the relationship between the medieval castles and ruins of the Rhine and the future bridges of the Mississippi, he writes, ‘The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 665). In walking west toward the wild, rather than back toward the edifices of civilization, the world as a whole (which includes both civilization and the wild) will be able to maintain itself, for ‘every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 665). The rhythm of Thoreau’s essay settles into this play between wildness and civilization; in order to progress forward, civilization always requires a preexisting expanse of wild territory before it. However, Thoreau does not envision the future of America as a future in which civilization overcomes wildness, instead he declares: ‘Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 665). For without this wildness, civilizations risk becoming cannibalistic consumers of themselves – as, apparently, was the case in Greece, Rome and England – where ‘the poet sustains himself merely by his own superfluous fat, and the philosopher comes down on his marrow-bones’ as opposed to the wild ‘marrow of koodoos devoured raw’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 665, 667).

The narrative of the Middle Ages – envisaged as the moment of unification, the instant in which civilization meets wild, the period of time that is by definition medial – becomes the banner of this American future in which wildness is preserved and yet the world is sustained by the convergence of the civil and the wild. The repeated invocation of Rome by Thoreau and Guyot, who both emphasize it as a civilization born from and felled by the wild, acts as a reminder of this enduring cycle, which the Middle Ages manipulated and escaped by virtue of their mere existence in the middle, between modernity and antiquity. The key feature of the Middle Ages that allowed them to function independent of this cycle was the unity produced by Christianity, described by Guyot as the peaceful bringing together of otherwise adversarial tribes and nations (who still retained their wildness independently). The precursor to this imagined unity of the Middle Ages is the story of Rome’s founding and fall, to which Thoreau connects himself by invoking his own ancestral wildness. But, significantly, he does not dwell on its pastness:

Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were. (Thoreau, 1862b, 665)

Only a walk, in the mind of Thoreau, can overcome this cycle of wildness and civilization. Modeled on the unity and balance of the Middle Ages, which followed the rise and fall of the Roman empire, that continual walk in the general direction of the west, toward the wild, toward the setting sun, will be the walk within and toward America. ‘So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn’ (Thoreau, 1862b, 674). So ends Thoreau’s essay, in a perpetual saunter toward the bright autumnal future that is within each of us and that, at the same time, is distinctly American.16

For Thoreau, the wildness on which the future America will thrive is its terrain, its geography and its land, which, when walked, offer almost infinite space for exploration. That wild terrain to the west is for Thoreau as the western view from the top of Mont-Saint-Michel is for Adams. Both are experienced in the act of walking or climbing or touring; both receive their context and inspiration from the Middle Ages, from the minds of the twelfth century or the church door to the east; and both require neither guidebooks nor libraries. Of course, because Adams is more deeply concerned with the detailed architectural features belonging to specific periods of the Middle Ages, it is difficult to locate the figure of America in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. One can gaze out from the top of Mont-Saint-Michel and imagine a medieval landscape, but one can never fully inhabit it. The bridge of time that both connects and separates the medieval from the present is to be found and experienced in the physical doorways of a medieval building, but for Adams those bridges – the pontis seclorum – can never be fully crossed over and the medieval on the other side can never be fully carried back. Morris, on the other hand, envisioned the possibility of a future incarnation of the medieval, a future where the bridges of the Thames replicate and yet surpass the splendor of those found in illuminated manuscripts, precisely those books which for Adams and Thoreau hold their readers captive in the libraries that attempt to lay claim to the past. For Morris that future vision of the Middle Ages is both final and finally back. But Thoreau, whose essay is much more concerned with the particular landscape and politics of America, envisions the future of America neither as a new Rome (destined to a demise at the hands of less-civilized warriors) nor as a new Europe (already much too civilized), but as a New Middle Age altogether, one in which civilization is infinitely engaged in walking toward freedom and meeting the wild halfway – without succumbing to it or overcoming it fully and thereby falling vulnerable once again to the menace of wildness.

Without being imprisoned by the nostalgia for the romance of a national or European past (as Morris seems to have been), Thoreau and Adams engage with, yet separate themselves and their readers from, the Middle Ages; they do so as Americans whose experience of the medieval cannot be, as it is for Morris, one of national history and identity; they do so as visitors who at most can journey to Mont-Saint-Michel or study panoramas of the ancient bridges of the Rhine; they do so, above all, just as the ambulator frees himself in nature. A walk is where time meets land and space: as the walker traverses the liminal expanse of geographic wilderness, time passes. And America’s future, Thoreau anticipates, thus lies forever balanced in the middle of the temporal and spatial negotiation between civilization and wildness. The future of the country would not be built by men sitting in their libraries dwelling on the wonders of past ages, but by those who saunter on, continually seeking out and exploring the wild, free and never-returning.


  1. 1.

    I should like to thank Dorri Beam and the anonymous postmedieval readers for their careful and fruitful critiques of this essay.

  2. 2.

    Thoreau’s source is Johnson’s Dictionary, but Thoreau has added the phrase ‘in the Middle Ages’ (Thoreau, 1799, s.v. saunter; see Moldenhauer, 2007, 571).

  3. 3.

    ‘Walking’ began as a lecture entitled ‘Walking or the Wild’ delivered in 1851 and was then posthumously published by the Atlantic Monthly in June 1862 (a few substantial changes were made against Thoreau’s wishes, particularly with his references to Christianity). It was published again a year later in Excursions, a volume of ‘fugitive pieces’ collected by his sister, Sophia E. Thoreau (Thoreau, 1866, vii). See Moldenhauer (2007, 561–570).

  4. 4.

    Thoreau was a voracious reader of travel books from every corner of the world, but famously never physically journeyed outside of North America (see Christie, 1965).

  5. 5.

    On Morris’s use of medieval manuscript illuminations as a model and inspiration, see Braesel (2004).

  6. 6.

    A facsimile of the letter is available in Ruskin (1966).

  7. 7.

    Tennyson published Idylls of the King in parts between the years 1859 and 1885 (Tennyson, 1958). For one perspective on the relationship between the poetry of Tennyson and Morris, see Faulkner (2009). For another, see Saltzman (2011).

  8. 8.

    The asynchronous ‘when’ of this passage brings to mind Dinshaw’s approach to the ‘queer temporalities’ of medievalism (Dinshaw, 2012).

  9. 9.

    The youth metaphor appears again at pages 66, 88, 94; Adams concludes the volume with the sentence: ‘You can read out of it whatever else pleases your youth and confidence; to me this is all’ (Adams, 1936, 377).

  10. 10.

    This attention to the unification of discrete periods of time within the fabric of a medieval wall recalls Nicholas Howe’s reflection on modern scholarship that focuses exclusively on the period under study: ‘It is an awkward historicism, after all, that allows the past of a building to be seen but banishes its future’ (Howe, 2008, 20).

  11. 11.

    In his On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History, Carlyle famously relegates journalists to the new fourth estate in Parliament: ‘[Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all’ (Carlyle, 1841, 194). Yet he goes on to champion the estate for producing the ‘most momentous, wonderful and worthy’ of things, which ‘we call Books! Those poor bits of rag-paper with black ink on them; – from the Daily Newspaper to the sacred Hebrew Book’ (Carlyle, 1841, 195). A few years earlier, however, in The French Revolution, Carlyle bewailed the biblical proliferation of this estate in a more narrow sense: ‘Alas, yes: … A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up; increases and multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable’ (Carlyle, 1837, 327).

  12. 12.

    In the review, Thoreau considers On Heroes to have been most representative of Carlyle’s writing, ‘a good specimen brick’ (Thoreau, 1847, 244).

  13. 13.

    One of Thoreau’s Harvard classmates, Weiss recalled that he owned ‘a good many volumes of the poetry from Gower and Chaucer down through the era of Elizabeth’ (Weiss, 1865, 96). On medieval estates and estate satire, see the classic study by Mann (1973).

  14. 14.

    Adams similarly equates the ‘grand style’ of the eleventh century to the feel of Homer (Adams, 1936, 25).

  15. 15.

    Likewise, Adams treats the difference between French and Norman architecture as a dispute that would be echoed and resolved in contemporary New York City: ‘when tourists return to New York, they may look at the twenty-storey towers which decorate the city, to see whether the Norman or the French plan has won’ (Adams, 1936, 54–55).

  16. 16.

    In his essay ‘Autumnal Tints,’ Thoreau reflects on that rich golden season with its brightness – of leaves and daylight – that immediately precedes the falling of foliage and darkness of winter. He opens the essay by noting that ‘Europeans coming to America are surprised by the brilliancy of our autumnal foliage. There is no account of such a phenomenon in English poetry, because the trees acquire but few bright colors there’ (Thoreau, 1862a, 385).


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin A Saltzman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishUniversity of California

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