Monday, September 26, 2016

9 of the worst monarchs in history

History Extra

Mary, Queen of Scots lacked political skill says Sean Lang. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

History has no shortage of disastrous rulers; this list could easily have been filled with the Roman Emperors alone. Rulers have been homicidal, like Nero or Genghis Khan; incompetent, like Edward II; completely untrustworthy, like Charles I; or amiable but inadequate, like Louis XVI of France or Tsar Nicholas II.
Some royal stinkers were limited in their capacity to do serious harm: the self-absorbed Edward VIII by his abdication, the narcissistic prince regent and king, George IV, by the constitutional limits on his power. And the mass murderer and self-proclaimed ‘Emperor’ Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Empire might have featured on this list had his imperial status been international recognised, but it wasn't.
Nearly-rans include the French Emperor Napoleon III, whose delusions of competence led to disaster in Italy, Mexico and finally defeat at the hands of Bismarck, and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, a ludicrously gauche and immature ruler but not actually responsible on his own for launching Germany, and the rest of Europe, into the First World War.
The nearly-rans also include the extravagant waste of money and space that went by the name of King Ludwig II of Bavaria; and absentee monarchs like Richard I of England and Charles XII of Sweden – both of them great military leaders who spent much of their reigns away at war, including time in captivity, instead of seeing to the affairs of their kingdoms.
Here, then, is my list of the nine worst monarchs in history…


Gaius Caligula (AD 12–41)

There are plenty of other contenders for worst Roman Emperor – Nero and Commodus for example – but Caligula's mad reign sets a high standard. After a promising start to his reign he seems to have set out specifically to intimidate and humiliate the senate and high command of the army, and he gave grave offence, not least in Jerusalem, by declaring himself a god; even the Romans normally only recognised deification after death.
Caligula instituted a reign of terror through arbitrary arrest for treason, much as his predecessor Tiberius had done; it was also widely rumoured that he was engaged in incest with his sisters and that he lived a life of sexual debauchery, and this may well be true. The story of his making his horse a consul, meanwhile, may have been exaggerated, but it was not out of character.
Caligula’s unforgivable mistake was to jeopardise Rome's military reputation by declaring a sort of surreal war on the sea, ordering his soldiers to wade in and slash at the waves with their swords and collecting chests full of seashells as the spoils of his ‘victory’ over the god Neptune, king of the sea and by his failed campaign against the Germans, for which he still awarded himself a triumph. He was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard in AD 41.
Caligula’s successor, Claudius, was an improvement but, despite the favourable picture in Robert Graves's famous book I, Claudius, not by much.


Pope John XII (954–964)

Even by the lax standards of the medieval papacy, John XII stands out as a disaster of the highest order. He was elected pope at the ripe old age of 18 as part of a political deal with the Roman nobility, and he inherited a conflict for control of Italy between the papacy and the Italian king Berengarius.
John had the support of the powerful German emperor Otto I, who swore to defend John's title, but John himself was too taken up with a life of drunken sex parties in the Lateran to care too much either way. He recovered from his hangover enough to accept Otto's oath of undying loyalty and then promptly linked up behind Otto's back with his enemy, Berengarius.
Understandably annoyed, Otto had John overthrown and accused, among other things, of simony (clerical corruption), murder, perjury and incest, and he replaced him with a new pope, Leo VIII. However, John made a comeback and had Leo's supporters punished ruthlessly: one cardinal had his hand cut off and he had a bishop whipped.
Full-scale war broke out between John and Otto, until John unexpectedly died – in bed with another man's wife, or so rumour had it.


King John (1199–1216)

The reign of King John is a salutary reminder that murder and treachery may possibly be forgiven in a monarch, but not incompetence.
John was the youngest and favourite son of Henry II, but he had not been entrusted with any lands and was mockingly nicknamed John Lackland. He tried unsuccessfully to seize power while his brother Richard I was away on crusade and was sent into exile upon Richard's return.
On his accession John had his own nephew Arthur murdered, fearing Arthur might pursue his own, much better, claim to the throne, and he embarked on a disastrous war with King Philippe-Auguste of France in which he lost the whole of Normandy. This singular act of incompetence deprived the barons of an important part of their power base, and he alienated them further with arbitrary demands for money and even by forcing himself on their wives.
In exasperation they forced him to accept Magna Carta; no sooner had he sealed it, however, than he then went back on his word and plunged the country into a maelstrom of war and French invasion. Some tyrants have been rehabilitated by history – but not John.

c1215, the seal of King John of England to the agreement with the barons. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

King Richard II (1377–99)

Unlike Richard III, Richard II has good reason to feel grateful towards Shakespeare, who portrayed this startlingly incompetent monarch as a tragic figure; a victim of circumstances and of others' machinations rather than the vain, self-regarding author of his own downfall he actually was.
Learning nothing from the disastrous precedent of Edward II, Richard II alienated the nobility by gathering a bunch of cronies around him and then ended up in confrontation with parliament over his demands for money.
His reign descended into a game of political manoeuvre between himself and his much more able and impressive uncle, John of Gaunt, before degenerating into a gory grudge match between Richard and the five Lords Appellant, whom he either had killed or forced into exile.
Richard might have redeemed himself by prowess in war or administration, but he possessed neither. Henry Bolingbroke's coup of 1399, illegal though it no doubt was, brought to an end Richard's disastrous reign. Richard II has his defenders nowadays, who will doubtless take issue with his inclusion in this list, but there really is very little to say for him as a ruler.


Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’ (1547–84)

Prince Ivan Vassilyevitch grew up at the hazardous court of Moscow, his life often in danger from the rivalry of the boyars – nobles. It gave him a lifelong hatred of the nobility and a deep streak of ruthless cruelty – aged 13 he had one boyar eaten alive by dogs.
Ivan was Prince of Muscovy from 1533, and in 1547 he was crowned Tsar (Emperor) of all Russia – the first ruler to hold the title. He crushed the boyars, stealing their lands to give to his own followers; he also condemned millions of Russians to a permanent state of serfdom.
Ivan took a vast area of Russia as his personal domain patrolled by a mounted police force with carte blanche to arrest and execute as they liked. Distrusting the city of Novgorod he had it violently sacked and its inhabitants massacred, and he embarked on a disastrous and ultimately unsuccessful series of wars with Russia's neighbours.
Ivan beat up his own pregnant daughter-in-law and killed his son in a fit of rage. Ivan was in many ways an able ruler, but his ruthlessness, paranoia and taste for blood earn him his place in this list.

c1580, Ivan IV, Tsar of Russia from 1533, known as 'Ivan the Terrible'. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)


Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–67)

We are so familiar with the drama and tragedy of Mary's reign that it is easy to overlook the blindingly obvious point that she was absolutely useless as queen of Scotland. Admittedly, ruling 16th-century Scotland was no easy task, and it was made harder still for Mary by the stern Presbyterian leader, John Knox, and her violent, boorish husband, Lord Darnley.
Nevertheless, Mary showed none of her cousin Elizabeth's political skill in defusing religious or factional conflict, and she headed into pointless confrontation with Knox and the Presbyterians. At a time when female rule was generally regarded with suspicion in any case, she played up to the stereotype by appearing to live in a cosy world of favourites – including her unfortunate Italian guitar teacher, David Rizzio.
Mary’s suspected involvement in the spectacular murder of Darnley on 10 February 1567 was a political mistake of the first order; her marriage three months later to the main suspect, the Earl of Bothwell, was an act of breathtaking stupidity. It is hardly surprising that the Scots overthrew Mary and locked her up.
Having escaped, she was mad to throw away her advantage by going to England, where she could only be regarded as a threat, instead of to France, where she would have been welcomed with open arms.


Emperor Rudolf II (1576–1612)

Some historians are kinder to Rudolf than in the past, but by any standards he was a disastrous ruler. He was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1576, though he was prone to long bouts of deep depression and melancholia and he spent most of his time dabbling in alchemy and astrology.
A staunch Catholic, Rudolf tore up the religious settlement that for the past 20 years had kept Germany's Catholics and Protestants from each others' throats, and embarked on a crusade to eradicate Protestantism from Germany's towns and villages.
When the Protestants formed a self-defence league, the Hungarians rose in revolt and the Turks launched an offensive, Rudolf shut himself up in Prague Castle and refused to speak to anyone. Eventually the Habsburgs had to agree to replace Rudolf with his brother, Matthias, who restored the religious peace in Germany and signed treaties with the Turks and Hungarians, only for Rudolf to fly into a rage and start up the Turkish war again.
Rudolf reluctantly signed the letter of majesty granting freedom of worship to Protestants in Bohemia but then embarked on a programme of persecution. The Bohemians appealed to Matthias for help, and in 1611 Rudolf was forced to hand power over to his brother. He died a year later, having laid the foundations for the disastrous Thirty Years’ War that would tear Europe apart within six years of his death.

c1590: Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1576, as Vertumnus, ancient Roman god of seasons who presided over gardens and orchards. From the Stoklosters Slutt, Balsta, Sweden. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar (1828–61)

At a time when the Europeans were spreading their colonial holdings around the world, Queen Ranavalona was able to keep Madagascar free of British and French control, but she did so by establishing a rule so ruthless that it has been estimated that the population of her kingdom was halved during her reign.
Queen Ranavalona maintained her power by retaining the loyalty of the Malagasy army and imposing regular periods of forced labour on the rest of the population in lieu of taxation. On one notorious occasion she organised a buffalo hunt for herself, her nobles and their families and followers, and she insisted that an entire road be built in front of the party for them all to advance to the hunt in comfort: an estimated 10,000 people died carrying out this particular piece of folly.
Queen Ranavalona faced several plots and at least one serious coup attempt; as she grew more paranoid she forced more people to undergo the notorious tangena test: eating three pieces of chicken skin before swallowing a poisonous nut that caused the victim to vomit (if it did not actually poison them, which it often did). If all three pieces were not found in the vomit, the victim was executed.
Having encouraged Christianity at the start of her reign, Queen Ranavalona changed policy and instituted ruthless persecution of native Christians. She survived all plots against her and died in her bed.


King Leopold II of Belgium (1865–1909)

Leopold's place in this list results not from his rule in Belgium, but from the crimes committed in the enormous kingdom he carved out for himself in Congo. He obtained the territory by international agreement and named it the Congo Free State; it was not a Belgian colony, but the king's personal fiefdom.
The CFS was presented to the world as a model of liberty and prosperity, devoted to the elimination of slavery. Only gradually did the world learn that it was in fact a slave state in which the Congolese were ruled by terror.
As Leopold raked in the riches from Congo's enormous reserves of copper, ivory and rubber, the Congolese were forced to work by wholesale mutilation of their wives and children, usually by chopping off their hands or feet. Mutilation was also widely used as a punishment for workers who ran away or collected less than their quota.
An investigation by the British consular official Roger Casement revealed that the Belgian Force Publique regarded the Congolese as little more than animals to be killed for sport. The king fought a high-profile legal battle to prevent details of his regime in Congo from being made public, and it took an international campaign to force him to hand Congo over to the Belgian government.
Leopold's name is forever associated with the Congolese reign of terror, and that alone justifies his inclusion in this list.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

How King Henry I made and blew a fortune

History Extra

Henry I receives French envoys near Gisors, north of Paris, in this illumination from the ‘Chronique de St Denis’, c1335–40. The king spent much of his income on war on the continent. (AKG)

The year 1124 wasn’t a good one to be an English moneyer. Things started to go seriously wrong for the men who minted the country’s coins when King Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, found that the coins he needed to pay his knights at the end of a campaign in Normandy were of poor quality. So infuriated was Henry by this discovery that he sent orders to England that all moneyers should be punished – by losing their right hands and being castrated. His command was carried out by his chief minister, Roger, bishop of Salisbury, over Christmas that year.
Yet not every moneyer, it seems, was subjected to this hideous fate. We know this from an entry in the pipe rolls – the records of financial transactions, collated by the English Exchequer – for 1130. “Brand the moneyer accounts for £20 that he might not be mutilated with the other moneyers,” it declares. It’s the briefest of references to the moneyers’ ordeal but it proves that, for one of their number at least, this episode didn’t have the most painful of endings.
It is entries such as these that make pipe rolls such a valuable resource. Dating from the early 12th century, they are the record of annual accounts that were collated by sheriffs, the king’s principal financial officials in the counties. Each year the sheriffs had to attend a review of these accounts at the Exchequer (located in Westminster), which took its name from the checked cloth on the table round which the members of the court sat. Counters were set out on the cloth showing how much the sheriff had paid, and how much was still outstanding. The written record of that audit was recorded on rolls, which looked like sections of pipe.
So what do pipe rolls tell us about the wealth of Henry I? First of all, they reveal that £24,000 was paid to the Treasury as cash, or accounted for as expenditure in 1130. The largest single item came from royal manors, most of which provided a cash payment to the king as well as yielding produce. 

A hunting scene from the 11th century. Huntsmen, hawkers and forest wardens all appear on the pipe rolls in Henry I’s reign. (Bridgman Art Library)

Taxing times

The king also had important rights over towns and cities, and from the church. When bishops and abbots died, their revenues were paid into the Treasury until a successor was appointed. Henry could, of course, also levy taxes, of which the largest in 1130 was the famous Danegeld. By the 12th century this was no longer paid as tribute to the Vikings, but towards the cost of the monarch’s knights. 
Beyond land and taxation, the pipe rolls for 1130 tell us that the king could make plenty of money for, well, simply being king – and there were a number of ways in which he could do so. Justice was one of the king’s most lucrative sources of income. If, for example, you were caught hunting Henry I’s deer then – thanks to the forest laws introduced by his father, William I – you’d be hit with a hefty fine. And, if you needed permission from the king to succeed to large estates, to marry an heiress or a widow, the chances are you’d have to pay him for the privilege. 
The king was able to intervene in human relationships in this way because he was the overlord of the greatest magnates – and they, in turn, had similar rights over their tenants. This system was simply part and parcel of medieval ideas of lordship. 
The fines that the king levied on his subjects could be enormous – the equivalent to the annual proceeds of the king’s lands in two or three counties – so large, in fact, that they often had to be paid off in instalments. If the debtor was a royal favourite, the chances are he’d never have to pay the fine – though the debts still yielded rewards for the king, acting as a spur to loyalty.
Yet the monarch had to be careful not to alienate his most powerful subjects by levying fines too indiscriminately. Henry’s I grandson, Henry II, seems to have been so sensitive to the dangers of turning his subjects against him that he abandoned this form of raising revenues altogether. However, his son, King John, was far less squeamish about imposing fines – a policy that helped contribute to the Magna Carta crisis.

This illustration shows officers weighing coins at the Exchequer in the 12th century. (Alamy)

Out of favour 

Another valuable source of income for the king were the Jews. They had arrived in England after 1066 – probably from Rouen – and, by 1130, there was an important Jewish community in London. The pipe rolls give an insight both into their financial dealings and their vulnerability. 
The king was notionally the Jews’ protector, and the Jewish community could, in theory, enlist his help in collecting money that they were owed. However, the pipe rolls for 1130 reveal that, on their account, Jews owed £2,000 “for a sick man whom they killed”. This phrase suggests that Jews were already falling under suspicion of harming others, a dark foreboding of the accusation in King Stephen’s reign that they were responsible for the ritual murder of a child in Norwich.
So pipe rolls tell us a good deal about the source of the king’s revenues. By studying a sequence of rolls we can also identify when and where royal officials were applying pressure. We can see, for instance, how legal reforms introduced by Henry II brought in more money. 
Before the survival of other kinds of administrative records, pipe rolls are also the only source of detail we have available to us about spending. For example, they record the money that sheriffs laid out as the royal court moved about the country, or crossed the Channel. A close inspection of the pipe roll for 1130 reveals that a good deal of the spending on food, spices and wine in that year was accounted for by the sheriffs of London.
The 1130 roll also tells us that the sheriffs were instructed to spend money on the Tower of London – which housed a number of distinguished prisoners, including Henry I’s cousin, the Count of Mortain, who was rumoured to have been blinded on the king’s orders. There is also a reference to spending on two arches of London Bridge, which linked the city with the thriving suburbs of Lambeth and Southwark. 
The king’s hunt was another major expense. Huntsmen and forest wardens figure on the rolls, as do hawkers. The best hawks came from Norway, via Lincoln, where a man name Outi accounted for 100 Norway hawks and 100 falcons. The trade is a reminder that, although Viking raids were on the wane, Viking traders were still very much in evidence at Lincoln and other ports along the east coast. 

Monied monarch

Henry I was renowned for his wealth. Even as early as 1087, when he inherited £5,000 from his father, he always seems to have had ready money at his disposal. Yet he also spent it. He invested huge sums in war, most of all in the capture and retention of Normandy. After he became king he launched a successful campaign to take over the whole duchy and, by 1104, we hear of him levying heavy taxes and taking large quantities of money across the Channel. 
Normandy’s defence continued to absorb resources, in campaigning, in subsidies to allies, and in defence. The frontiers of the duchy were ringed with castles, now increasingly being built in stone. 
Arrangements for the marriages of Henry’s son, William, and his daughter, Matilda, also came at a high price. In fact, it may have been the need to raise cash for Matilda’s wedding to the German king that led to the birth of the Exchequer in the form we see it in 1130. Henry also laid out great sums in gifts to churches, including the abbey he founded at Reading in the 1120s.
The royal court was a theatre of power and had to convey a sense of magnificence. On great occasions, such as the reception of the pope at Rouen in 1131, Henry I had to put on a good show. This meant that he needed a large retinue to accompany him on his progress across his kingdoms – something that was, in itself, a major logistical exercise. 
During the reign of Henry’s older brother, William, local people had been so frightened of the arrival of the court that they had run off and hid in the woods. Henry, it was said, made sure that its members paid for the provisions they’d taken. 
For this fascinating nugget of detail on the relationship between a medieval ruler and his subjects, we must again thank the pipe rolls. Yes, they are a unique record of royal finances but they are so much more than that: for they provide a priceless snapshot of English society in the early 12th century. 

Henry I: a brutal but capable ruler  

As the youngest of William the Conqueror’s sons, Henry may originally have been intended for the church, hence the care given to his education and the later nickname ‘Beauclerc’. However he was knighted before his father’s death and then had to make his way in the world. He got his big chance in 1100. His brother William Rufus was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest, while his eldest brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy, was still absent on the First Crusade.

This 14th-century illumination shows the death of William II, shot by an arrow in the New Forest in 1100. William’s sudden demise gave his younger brother, Henry, the opportunity to seize power. (AKG)
Despite arguments for delay until Robert’s return, Henry was speedily crowned king. Six years later he defeated Robert and captured Normandy as well. After that, his chief aim was to ensure that his son William – and not one of Robert’s offspring – would follow him as king. In 1120 it looked as though he had been successful, only to have his hopes dashed when William and many of the court drowned in the wreck of the White Ship, the Titanic of the 12th century. 
Henry proved to be an able if fairly brutal ruler. His reign witnessed important developments in the way that England was governed and in the agents of government. His first marriage allied him with a descendant of the pre-Conquest kings and with the rulers of Scotland; his second proved childless. 
Most of his children were born outside marriage: he has the dubious record of the most acknowledged illegitimate children of any English king. He lived on into his 60s in relatively good health, and died in Normandy after eating a dish of lampreys against his doctor’s advice. His body was embalmed (not entirely successfully) for transportation to England, and was buried at Reading Abbey.
Judith Green is emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy (CUP, 2009).

Saturday, September 24, 2016

How to send a letter in medieval England

History Extra

Illustration from the 1370s showing a messenger delivering a letter. (Bridgeman Art Library)

1) Send for your scribe

In the 15th century people wrote letters for many reasons – if they could write at all – and the first challenge was to get it down on paper
Late medieval letter-writers were concerned with many of the same topics that move us today. Men and women nurtured long-distance love affairs, lawyers debated legal disputes, and buyers of property discussed houses. Letter-writers ranged from high-ranking servants to royalty. 
Women were prominent senders and recipients of mail. For example, there are over 60 surviving letters sent by Margaret Paston of Norfolk to her lawyer husband, John, whose work took him away to London (you can see one overleaf). Correspondence could range from the mundane to the out-of-the-ordinary. A letter that Margaret sent to John in 1448 urged him to dispatch crossbows to fight off attacks by hostile neighbours. Margaret reported that servants had made bars across the doors and were shooting from every corner of the house. Margaret then goes on to ask for almonds, sugar and cloth to make the children new gowns.
Correspondents often penned the letters themselves – especially if they were merchants and lower-ranking gentlemen. Yet the preferred option was for servants to do the writing – especially for gentlewomen, who rarely put pen to paper. Medieval people did not see handwriting as proof of a letter’s authenticity in the way that we do today. So when the handwriting of wealthy men or women does appear, it often looks inelegant – because they had no need to practise. 
As the 15th century drew to a close, more correspondents began to write their own letters. However, before then, the best way to put words onto paper was through the hand of a trusted scribe. Once they’d finished writing, scribes could dry the ink quickly by dusting it with ashes from the chimney. Then they’d fold the letter, tie it up with strips of paper, and give it a wax seal. 

A 15th-century illustration shows a man writing a letter. (Bridgeman Art Library)

2) Find a messenger going the right way

In the days before a national postal service, selecting the right man or woman to convey the letter to its destination was critical
Once the name and address was written on the outside, the missive was ready to begin its journey. Though letters traversed England with great frequency in the 15th century, there was no sign yet of a postal system that we would recognise today. That only developed after the appointment of the first master of the posts, Brian Tuke, in 1512. 
In the century before any signs of a regulated post, there were three main ways to send a letter: with your own servant, with a paid messenger, or with a carter, who hauled heavy goods around the country. 
Using your own servant was the safest and cheapest option, but it was not always possible to spare a member of the household for what might turn out to be a long journey. Paying a messenger or carter to deliver your message was often more convenient, especially if the letter was following a well-travelled route. However, it could be difficult to find a messenger able to travel at the right time – so letters often sat unposted for days.
In 1448, one servant of the knight Sir John Fastolf wrote to excuse his tardiness in replying to his master’s correspondence: “If messengers to London could have been found before Christmas, the letters were ready to go.”

3) Have mail guarded from your enemies

Journeys in medieval England could be hazardous, so correspondents could only pray that their letters weren’t intercepted en route
“I would rather a letter be burnt than lost,” wrote a servant of Sir John Fastolf. Why was he moved to reach this conclusion? Because 15th-century England could be a hazardous place for a letter to travel around – especially if the letter contained sensitive information. Medieval writers lived in fear that an enemy might intercept a confidential correspondence and turn it against them as evidence in a legal dispute. The same servant mentioned above added a classical Latin metaphor to demonstrate the strength of his concern: “Ne forte videant Romani,” which translates as, “Lest perchance the Romans should see it.” Knowledge was power, especially in the possession of your enemies.
It was not just malice that threatened the medieval missive. With so many letters and other goods travelling around the country, there was a risk that a letter might go astray. This misfortune befell Walter Paston in 1479, when one of his letters was mistakenly dispatched to London with some money sent to the capital for safekeeping. Paston later explained this mishap thus: “Mister Brown had a lot of money in a bag, which he dared not bring with him, and at that time my letter was in the same bag. He forgot to take out the letter, and sent it all together to London.”

4) Try to track down the letter’s recipient

Pity the poor messenger. He might travel hundreds of miles to deliver a letter, then, once he’d arrived, could only pray that someone was home
If the letter’s safe passage to its intended recipient was a source of stress to the correspondent, then spare a thought for the man or woman charged with delivering it. 
The medieval equivalent of today’s postman sometimes had to travel from one end of the country to the other to convey letters to the person to whom they were addressed. And, as medieval property-owners often moved regularly between several houses, there was no guarantee that the recipient would be at home when they got there. 
One letter written in 1450 to the chaplain of Caister Castle in Norfolk gave no less than three alternative points of delivery for the bearer to try if the chaplain was not to be found at the castle.
And if the messenger arrived at the wrong time, he was often in for a long wait. A man who carried a letter for William Stonor of Oxfordshire reported back that he had tried to deliver it, but that the recipient was not at home. He reassured Stonor that he would try again later: “John Cheyney is out hunting with his hawk, as soon as he comes home I will deliver your letter.” 

Medieval illustration showing a messenger deliver a letter. (Bridgeman Art Library)

5) Bad news? Don’t shoot the messenger

Sometimes a letter could send its recipient into a fit of rage. That’s when it paid to select a messenger who was skilled in the art of conciliation
So the messenger has finally delivered your precious letter. Yet that didn’t necessarily mean their work was done. Sometimes they were also tasked with delivering a verbal message. In other instances – especially if the recipient was offended by the contents of the letter – they might have to act as a diplomat. 
In 1449, the Paston family had to use a female servant to convey a letter to a man who had forcibly taken possession of their manor, because no male servant was willing to take the risk. At a time of heightened tension, using a woman letter-bearer paid dividends. She was, we’re told, received “with great cheer” and her spoken message was listened to graciously. Previous male messengers hadn’t enjoyed such a warm reception.

6) Burn after reading

Some people insisted that letters be destroyed, while – luckily for us – others were obsessed with filing them away
Some 15th-century writers gave instructions that their letters should be burnt after reading. Others put the most sensitive information at the foot of the page, intending it to be torn away and disposed of. Each of these methods was designed to restrict access to confidential information. However, the very survival of these letters shows that such commands were not always obeyed. It seems that medieval correspondents’ desire to avoid written records was equalled by an obsession with keeping evidence.
Sir John Fastolf had a specially designed archive in the tower of Caister Castle, where his servants collected his letters and other documents. Just like today, designing a method for sorting and storing this material could be difficult. Fastolf’s servants regularly had trouble finding written material once it had been put away. Even his own stepson complained that he could not find any of the records he needed, nor could “any man that he knew of”. 
However, despite the flaws in the organisational system, it protected the letters from loss or damage. It is this obsession with preserving written evidence that we have to thank for the survival of medieval letters today – letters that tell us so much about how people organised their lives during that fascinating period.  
Deborah Thorpe is a research associate for the University of York on the Digital Index of Middle English Verse project. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Viking Discovery of Iceland

Ancient Origins

The Vikings’ next step out into the Atlantic – the discovery and settlement of Iceland – is one of the best documented events of the Viking Age. Medieval Icelanders were fascinated by genealogy, not only because, as emigrants, they wanted to know where their families came from, but because such knowledge was essential when it came to establishing property rights. To begin with, family traditions about the settlement period were passed down orally from one generation to the next, but in the early twelfth century they were committed to writing in the two earliest works of Icelandic history, Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, both of which were written in the Old Norse language. Íslendingabók (‘The Book of the Icelanders’), a short chronicle of Icelandic history from the discovery of Iceland to 1118, was written between 1122 and 1132 by Ari Thorgilsson, a priest from Snæfellsness.

A page from a skin manuscript of Landnámabók, a primary source on the settlement of Iceland.
A page from a skin manuscript of Landnámabók, a primary source on the settlement of Iceland. (Public Domain)
Ari relied on oral traditions and, for more recent events, on eyewitnesses, but he took care to establish the reliability of his informants, naming many of them, and avoiding Christian prejudice and supernatural explanations of events. Though not proven, it is generally thought that Ari was also the author of Landnámabók (‘The Book of the Settlements’), which gives details of the names, genealogies and land claims of hundreds of Iceland’s original Norse settlers.
Tapestry embroidery featuring Viking Floki Vilgerdarsson and crew.
Tapestry embroidery featuring Viking Floki Vilgerdarsson and crew. (Public Domain)
The first Viking to visit Iceland was Gardar the Swede, who in c. 860 set out on a voyage from Denmark, where he had made his home, to the Hebrides, to claim some land his wife had inherited. While passing through the Pentland Firth, the straits that separate the Orkney Islands from the Scottish mainland, Gardar’s ship was caught in a storm and blown far out into the Atlantic. Gardar eventually sighted the mountainous coast of an unknown land.
Modern-day portrait of Garðar Svavarsson, or Gardar the Swede.
Modern-day portrait of Garðar Svavarsson, or Gardar the Swede. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
What Gardar saw was not at all inviting, it was the rugged Eastern Horn on Iceland’s forbidding south-east coast, guarded by high cliffs and huge scree slopes tumbling into the sea. Undeterred, Gardar began to follow the coastline westwards, eventually circumnavigating Iceland and establishing that it was an island. Gardar spent nearly a year exploring his new-found land, wintering at Husavik on Iceland’s north coast. When he set sail in the spring, Gardar was forced to abandon a man called Nattfari, together with a male slave and a bondswoman, when the small boat they were in went adrift. These three survived, inadvertently becoming Iceland’s first permanent inhabitants. Naming his discovery Gardarsholm (Gardar’s island) after himself, Gardar sailed east to Norway, where he began to sing its praises.
Another accidental visitor to Iceland around this time was Naddod the Viking. He was sailing from Norway to the Faeroe Islands when he was blown off course and made landfall in Iceland’s Eastern Fjords.
Norsemen landing in Iceland.
Norsemen landing in Iceland. (Public Domain)
Naddod climbed a mountain to look for signs of habitation and, seeing none, left in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. Naddod too gave favourable reports of the island, which he decided to call Snæland (Snowland). Shortly after Naddod’s return, the Norwegian Floki Vilgerdarson set out from Rogaland with the intention of settling in Naddod’s Snæland. Floki had a reputation as a great Viking warrior but he was a hopeless settler. Floki spent his summer hunting seals at Vatnesfjörður on Breiðarfjörður in north-west Iceland but he neglected to make any hay, with the result that all the livestock he had brought with him starved to death over the winter. This doomed his attempt at settlement but pack ice in the fjord prevented him sailing for home. By the time the pack ice finally broke up it was too late in the year to risk trying to return to Norway, so Floki was forced to stay another winter, this time at Borgarfjörður further to the south. Thoroughly disillusioned by his experiences, Floki decided to rename Snæland ‘Iceland’. Floki’s name was the one that stuck even though his men gave more favourable reports of the island: the most enthusiastic of them, Thorolf, swore that butter dripped from every blade of grass. For this reason he was known ever afterwards as Thorolf Butter.
Thorolf must have been a born optimist. Iceland is a large volcanic island lying exactly on the mid-Atlantic ridge, where magma welling up from the mantle is gradually pushing Europe and America apart. Despite lying only just south of the Arctic Circle, the influence of the warm Gulf Stream current keeps the climate mild for the latitude. Glaciers and ice sheets on the mountains cover about 14 per cent of Iceland but the rest of the island is free of permafrost.
The beautiful but unforgiving landscape of Iceland
The beautiful but unforgiving landscape of Iceland (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Iceland’s combination of ice and fire must have reminded the settlers of the Viking creation myth, in which the world emerges in the void between the fire realm of Muspel and the frozen realm of Niflheim.
Icland landscapes remind of the frozen realm of Niflheim.
Icland landscapes remind of the frozen realm of Niflheim. (Olivier Toussaint/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Today, less than a quarter of Iceland is vegetated, the remainder of the unglaciated area being mainly barren lava fields and ash deserts. However, when it was discovered by the Vikings, around 40 per cent of Iceland was covered with low, scrubby, birch and willow woodland, so it would have looked considerably less bleak than it does today. Even so, Iceland turned out to be a distinctly marginal environment for European settlement and the settlers were very vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather and volcanic eruptions.
Hearing the reports circulating about Iceland, two Norwegian foster-brothers, Ingolf and Hjorleif, made a reconnaissance trip to the Eastern Fjords in the late 860’s to assess the prospects for settlements. The foster-brothers had lost their estates paying compensation to jarl Atli of Gaular for killing his sons and they urgently needed a safe refuge. Liking what they saw the foster-brothers made preparations to emigrate. Ingolf had the resources to fund his expedition, but Hjorleif did not, so he set out on a víking trip to Ireland. Even the Viking settle-ment of an uninhabited land involved violence. In Ireland, Hjorleif plundered a hoard of treasure from a souterrain and captured ten Irish slaves to take with him to Iceland.
According to the Lándnámabók, Ingolf and Hjorleif set out for Iceland again in 874. Study of layers of volcanic ash called tephra confirm the date. One of these layers, known as the landnám layer, which is found over almost all of the island, has been dated to 871–872. Evidence of human impact on the environment is found above the layer but not below it. Ingolf sacrificed to the gods and gained favourable auguries. Hjorleif did not bother: he never sacrificed. The two sailed in company until they sighted land and then split up. Hjorleif settled at once on the south coast at Hjörleifshöfði (‘Horleif ’s Head’). Ingolf, seeking the guidance of the gods, cast the carved pillars of his high-seat overboard, vowing to settle wherever they were washed ashore. Finding the pillars would take Ingolf all of three years.
After spending the first winter at Hjörleifshöfði, Hjorleif wanted to sow crops. He had only brought one ox, so he made his slaves drag the plough. It wasn’t long before the slaves had had enough of this: they murdered Hjorleif and the other men in his party, and sailed off with his possessions and the women, to a group of islands off Iceland’s south-west coast. These became known after them as the Vestmannaeyjar (‘isles of the Irish’). Shortly after this, two of Ingolf ’s slaves, who were following the coast looking for his high-seat pillars, came to Hjörleifshöfði and found Hjorleif ’s body. Ingolf was saddened by the killing, ‘but so it goes,’ he said, ‘with those who are not prepared to offer up sacrifice.’ Ingolf guessed that the Irish had fled to the Vestmannaeyjar and went after them. Surprising the Irish while they were eating a meal, Ingolf slew some of them. The others died leaping off a cliff in their panic to escape.
After spending a third winter in Iceland, Ingolf finally found his high-seat pillars. Ingolf named the place Reykjavik, the ‘bay of smoke’, after the many steaming hot springs in the area. It is now Iceland’s capital.
Ingolf commands his high seat pillars to be erected.
Ingolf commands his high seat pillars to be erected. (Public Domain)
Ingolf took into possession the whole of the Reykjanes peninsula west of the River Öxará as his estate and settled his followers and slaves on it as his dependents. More settlers soon followed. The Landnámabók gives us the names of 400 leading settlers, and over 3,000 other (mainly male) settlers, who migrated to Iceland in the settlement period. As the named settlers brought wives, children, dependents and slaves with them, it is possible that around 20,000 people had migrated to Iceland by around 900. By the eleventh century the population had probably reached about 60,000, though there was little fresh immigration after c. 930, by which time all the best grazing land had been claimed.
Most of the named settlers came from western Norway but there were also a few Swedes and Danes, as well as a significant number who came from the Norse colonies in the Hebrides. Many of this last group were second-generation emigrants and several of them, such as the powerful matriarch Aud the Deep-Minded, were already Christian, while others, like Helgi the Lean, who worshipped both Christ and Thor, were partly so. However, the religion did not take root in Iceland and it died out with the first generation of settlers. Even Aud was given a pagan ship burial by her followers. Some of this group were the product of mixed Norse-Celtic marriages and two of the leading settlers, Dufthakr and Helgi the Lean, claimed descent from the Irish king Cerball mac Dúnlainge (r. 842–88). Many settlers, like Hjorleif, also took with them significant numbers of British and Irish slaves.
Recent analysis of the DNA of modern Icelanders has revealed just how significant the British and Irish contribution to the settlement of Iceland was. Analysis of the Y chromosomes of Icelandic men indicate that 75 per cent have Scandinavian origins, while 25 per cent have British or Irish origins. Strikingly, analysis of mitochondrial DNA of Icelandic women shows that the majority – 65 per cent – have British or Irish origins, with only 35 per cent having Scandinavian origins. The sexual imbalance suggests that, as in the Hebrides and the Faeroes, a majority of the Viking settlers were single men of relatively low social rank, who perhaps had been unable to marry at home because they had no access to land. Although only a bare majority of the settlers were Scandinavian, their social, political and cultural dominance was total. This is most clearly seen in the Icelandic language which, apart from some personal names, shows only insignificant Celtic influences. As a result of Iceland’s isolation and cultural conservatism, modern Icelandic remains close to the dönsk tunga (‘Danish Tongue’), the common Old Norse language spoken by all Scandinavians in the Viking Age.
King Haraldr hárfagri receives the kingdom out of his father's hands. From the 14th century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók.
King Haraldr hárfagri receives the kingdom out of his father's hands. From the 14th century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók. (Public Domain)
Excerpted with permission from Northmen: The Viking Saga 793-1241 AD by John Haywood, published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2016.
Top Image: Deriv; Statue of the Viking Ingólfr Arnarson in Rivedal, Norway (CC BY-SA 3.0) and Viking ship (CC BY-NC 2.0)
By John Haywood

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Days of Destiny: 5 key moments of the Battle of Britain

History Extra

 Heinkel He-111 bomber pictured above London's India Docks on 7 September 1940. (Credit: AKG Images/Imperial War Museum)
Following the collapse of France, the Luftwaffe had spent most of the latter half of June and early July 1940 preparing for the coming battle with the British. As Churchill electrified the nation with his soaring oratory, strengthened the resolve of the embattled British people and gave them hope, a small band of fighter pilots – just over 700 in total – would indeed act as that thin blue line of defence.
Tentative plans had been made for an invasion of England, codenamed Operation Seelöwe (Sea Lion), but Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, believed that his air force alone could bring Britain to her knees. Göring, however, failed to recognise that the campaigns in the Low Countries and France had taken their brutal toll, and the Luftwaffe could now only muster 1,380 bombers and 428 dive-bombers, nowhere near the 5,000 he liked to boast of in his propaganda.
Supplemented by 1,100 fighters, the Luftwaffe still enjoyed a numerical superiority of almost five to one over the British defenders. But Göring’s bomber pilots should have taken little comfort in this. They were simply ‘potential kills’ for Spitfire and Hurricanes, incapable of attacking the British fighters effectively themselves. If the British pilots were deployed correctly, then the dice would not be as heavily stacked against Fighter Command as is commonly believed. It all came down to how the imminent battle would be fought.

10 July 1940 - Official start of the battle of Britain

The battle began with the Kanalkampf, or Channel Battles phase, when the Germans launched sustained attacks against British shipping to prevent much-needed supplies from reaching the beleaguered British Isles. Such attacks had been taking place since late June but early July saw a marked increase in the frequency and ferocity.
The tenth of the month was the date later chosen by the RAF as the official start date for the battle proper and this day certainly saw the largest dogfight fought over the Channel up to that point. By sundown the RAF had lost seven planes against the Luftwaffe’s 13. This was an astonishing rate of success for the outnumbered British fighter pilots. German losses should have sent alarm bells ringing within the Luftwaffe high command but instead they chose to believe their own inaccurate intelligence reports that claimed 35 British ‘kills’. It was a portent of things to come.

Britsh shipping comes under attack from German bombers off the south coast of England on 20 July. (Credit: Popperfoto/ Getty Images)

13 August 1940 - Eagle Day

With the outcome of the Kanalkampf phase of the battle inconclusive, Göring made plans for an all-out assault against Fighter Command on the British mainland. Codenamed Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), it was due to commence on 13 August. Yet the weather was to throw German plans into disarray. Grey skies and mist forced the Luftwaffe high command to order a postponement, and when several bombers – unaware of the change in plans – arrived over England unprotected by their fighter escort, they were badly mauled. The Luftwaffe regrouped in the afternoon and, flying in better weather conditions, launched a determined assault.
Throughout August the airfields would come under virtually unremitting attack, causing devastating losses to fighters caught on the ground as well as support crew. But the Luftwaffe continued to rely on faulty intelligence, frequently attacking bases that were not operational fighter stations. A total of 87 RAF aircraft were destroyed on the ground on 13 August but only one of these was from Fighter Command. Three British pilots were killed, while the Luftwaffe lost almost 90.
Fighter Command could take heart from its performance. The tactic of deploying in small numbers to prevent all available fighters being caught refuelling on the ground was paying dividends. However this policy required nerves of steel from the heavily outnumbered British pilots.

18 August 1940 - The Hardest Day

Believing their attacks were decimating the much smaller force of Fighter Command, the Luftwaffe planned a series of ambitious assaults on key British airfields including Kenley, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and North Weald. With the British pilots putting up a desperate defence, the attacks were soon reaping a grim harvest. In fact, 18 August saw both sides suffering their greatest number of losses so far: 69 German aircraft versus Fighter Command’s 29. It had been a terrible day but just one in an ongoing battle of attrition.
It is little wonder then that many pilots on the frontline of Britain’s defence were beginning to show the strain, as Spitfire pilot Alan Deere recalled: “You were either at readiness or you were in the air. It was pretty tiring. I was bloody tired, I can tell you; very tired. My squadron, 54, I think we were down to five of the original pilots so were operating on a bit of a shoestring.”

German pilots are given their objectives before taking to the skies, 18 August 1940. (Credit: Corbis)

7 September 1940 - Target: London

Dismayed by the failure to destroy Fighter Command and incensed by a British bombing raid on Berlin, Göring turned his attention to London. Now the citizens of the British capital would feel the full wrath of the Luftwaffe, and in the process either the RAF would be destroyed or the British government would be forced to the negotiating table.
British radar screens lit up as wave after wave of German bombers streamed towards London. It was an astonishing and terrifying sight, 350 Luftwaffe bombers accompanied by 617 German fighter aircraft.
Within an hour, every squadron in a 70-mile radius of the capital was either airborne or waiting to be scrambled. Fighter Command realised too late that the raid’s intended target was not its own airfields – and soon, bomb after bomb began to rain down on the docks, factories and houses below. The British were caught unprepared and lost 28 aircraft and 448 lives in the attacks. But once again there was no definitive result. Another test was required.
London burns behind Tower Bridge on 7 September 1940, the day of the first mass air raid on the capital. Some 448 Britons were killed in the raid. (Credit: Getty Images)

15 September 1940 - Battle of Britain Day

A spell of bad weather had meant a delay in hostilities on Eagle Day. But 15 September dawned clear and bright. As the first German bombers began to appear one after the other, the British scrambled their fighter squadrons.
Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, commander of No 11 Group, responsible for the defence of London, famously ordered all his aircraft into the air to defend the capital, abandoning his own policy of deliberate, smaller attacks by individual squadrons.
Drawing on reserves from No 12 Group to the north, the British fighters swarmed around the massed German formations, peeling the fighter escorts off into individual dogfights. It was a tactic that left the bombers unprotected – and they were soon falling in devastating numbers.
An armed guard stands over a portion of a Dornier bomber which has crashed on a London roof, 15 September 1940. (Credit: Hulton/Getty Images)
Park’s decision was absolutely critical. If the Germans had launched a second mass raid immediately after the first, British fighters would have been caught on the ground refuelling. But Park had banked on the Luftwaffe having no reserves, as was the case with Fighter Command. He took a huge gamble, but battles are not won by the timid. For months the Luftwaffe had believed that Fighter Command was on its last legs and all that was required was a final knock-out blow. As the Germans tallied up their devastating losses, it was clear that they had failed.

Kate Moore is the author of The Battle of Britain (2010), which was published by Osprey in association with the Imperial War Museum.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The truth about Viking berserkers

History Extra

Viking Berserker figures. The one on the left is wearing a helmet with horns. His companion wears the mask of a wolf or bear. Sweden, 6th century. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

There were few established military institutions in Scandinavia at the start of the Viking Age, circa 800, but a number of such organisations gradually developed as society came increasingly under the rule of a single king. The foremost institution was the retinue, a brotherhood of warriors serving a common master. It developed to become the main source of power for the medieval kings and evolved into a noble elite in the Middle Ages.
But there was a more sinister brotherhood of warriors in Scandinavia that could not find any place in the post-heathen world of Christianity. Instead it only survived in the realm of the sagas, the art and the folklore, often becoming shield-biting demons of war and symbols of evildoing. But behind the myth and the shroud of history, the sources reveal the existence of men thriving on the border between life and death, fuelled by war and distinguished by their ecstatic battle fury.
The description of ‘berserkers’ and ‘wolfskins’ in the sources is on the boundary between fantasy and reality, and it is difficult for us today to imagine that such people can have ever existed, possessed of incontrollable destructive power. But they did. The berserkers and the wolfskins (also known as ‘heathen wolves’) were a special group of very skilled and dangerous warriors associated with the god Odin.


Coveted warriors

If there were elite troops such as berserkers and wolfskins available on the battlefield, they were put in the front of the phalanx [a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry] to resist the main weight of an attack, or at the front when launching an attack. But berserker troops could be a double-edged sword, as they were difficult to control in a battle and were often ill-suited to formation warfare. Instead, they seem to prefer to operate in smaller groups, attacking independently. Olav Haraldsson (St Olav) put the berserkers in front of his own phalanx at the battle of Stiklestad in the year 1030, but instead of holding the line they attacked and thereby contributed to the king’s downfall.

This marginal illumination from the Saga of Saint Olaf shows his death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Viking warriors looked to the god Odin to give them aggression and courage in battle, but the berserkers took this a step further. According to the sources they could rout an outnumbering force, and when they attacked they howled like mad dogs or wolves. It was said that neither iron nor fire could injure them, and they didn’t know pain. After a battle they were as weak as infants, totally spent both physically and psychologically.
It is difficult to find any clear difference between a berserker and a wolfskin. Sometimes they appear to be the same, under the general description of berserker, and at other times they are portrayed as two different types of warrior. In some contexts, the wolfskins are even more closely connected with the Odin cult than the berserkers seem to be.


Brotherhood of war

Originally berserkers developed their own brotherhood of professional warriors who travelled round and took service with different chiefs. What distinguished them was that they had bears and wolves as totem animals, and clad themselves in their skins. Irrespective of whether it was a bear or a wolf, the warriors believed they were endowed with the spirit of the animal. Designs showing warriors clad in what could be bearskins occur, among other places, on the Torslund plates from Öland, thought to date from the seventh century.
In the Fornalder sagas (‘Sagas of Earlier Times’) and in several other sagas, the king’s or the chieftain’s guard is described as made up of berserkers, usually 12 in number. The berserkers often comprised an elite troop in addition to the guard or the army in general. In sea battles they were usually stationed at the prow, to take the leading point of an attack. In the battle of Hafrsfjord, c872, they appear as shock troops for Harald Hårfagre (Finehair), in groups of 12.
The berserkers are spoken of as fearsome enemies to meet. They were often said to be so intoxicated by battle-lust that they bit their shields, attacked boulders and trees and even killed each other while they were waiting for battles to begin. A set of chessmen from the 12th century found on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides includes a chess piece of a warrior biting his shield.
The title of berserker is thought sometimes to have been inherited from father to son, and there are known examples of entire families of berserkers. One such family known from the sagas is Egil Skallagrimson. Egil’s father, Skallagrim (‘ugly skull’), and his grandfather Kveldulv  (‘nightwolf’) were also berserkers.
The concept of ‘berserk’ also turns up independently of ‘berserker’. The idea of ‘going berserk’ could apply to more than just the members of a warrior brotherhood. Harald Hardråde (Hardruler) “went berserk” at the 1066 battle of Stamford Bridge, for example. The expression is also used in relation to warriors who are not thought to have been wearing any distinctive uniform of animal skins. Olav Haraldsson’s berserkers, who wrecked the battle of Stiklestad for him, are an example of this.
King Harold II, the Saxon king of Britain, beholds the body of his rebellious brother Tostig, whom he has just defeated at the battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


The earliest sources

The earliest written sources of what might be berserkers are found in Roman writings from the first century AD. In his book Germania, the historian Tacitus describes correspondingly fantastic elite warriors among the German tribes in northern Europe. In the sixth century, the East Roman historian Prokopios wrote of “the wild and lawless heruli” from the north, describing how they went almost naked into battle, clad only in loincloths – this was to show disdain for their wounds. They wore neither helmet nor coat of mail, and used only a light shield to protect themselves. The people who were described as ‘heruli’ probably had their origin on Sjæland or Fyn in today’s Denmark, but they can also be traced to other parts of Scandinavia, including Norway.
The heruli are said to have had a kingdom on Fyn. This may have survived until into the sixth century, but more of them had previously been driven out of Scandinavia by the Danes. The heruli often took service as warrior bands in the Roman army. They appeared in the same way as the berserkers, in small groups in the service of chieftains or kings, and there is a possibility that the origins of the berserkers may be found among the mysterious heruli.
The berserkers are often mentioned in sagas, skaldic poems [composed at the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking and Middle Ages] and other literature from the Middle Ages. In the sagas, which were written in a Christian context, the memory of these warriors has been extended to become a label for those who stand out from the norms of society: thugs and freebooters, pirates and so on. In the earliest Icelandic compendium of law, Grågås, it is said that a raging berserker can either be bound or condemned to exile.



The oldest known written source about berserkers is Haraldskvadet, a 9th-century skaldic poem honouring King Harald, attributed to the skaldic poet Torbjørn Hornklove. Writing about the battle of Hafrsfjord [date unknown], he writes: “Berserkers roared where the battle raged, wolf-heathens howled and iron weapons trembled”.
Battle of Hafrsfjord. (World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)
In Grette’s Saga it is said of the warriors in that same battle: “… such berserkers as were called wolf-heathens; they had wolf-coverings as mail… and iron didn’t bite them; one of them… started roaring and bit the edge of his shield… and growled viciously”.
In the Volsung Saga, describing events in the sixth century, it is said that the berserkers were in Odin’s lifeguard and that they “went without armour, were as mad as dogs and wolves, they bit their shields, were as strong as bears or oxen, they killed everybody, and neither fire nor iron bit them; this is called going berserk”.
The descriptions in the sagas of violent men and killers cannot all be linked to the berserkers, however. Distinctions are made, for example, between ‘berserkers’ and ‘warriors,’ and between ‘normal’ killers and men who fought duels. And the Old Norse saga texts never call the berserkers mad or insane. They regard the berserkers as something more than just socially problematic and unusually aggressive. The sagas distinguish them from other men by ascribing to them a particular ‘nature’ that made one both scornful and fearful of them at the same time.


The mushroom theory

In 1784 a priest named Ödmann started a theory that ‘going berserk’ was the result of eating fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria). That explanation gradually became more popular, and remains so today. Ödmann based his hypothesis on reports about Siberian shamans, but it is important to note that he had no personal observations of the effects of eating this type of mushroom.
White agaric has also been suggested as a cause of the berserk fury, but considering how poisonous this is, it is quite unthinkable that it would be eaten. Eating agaric mushrooms can lead to depression and can make the user apathetic, in addition to its hallucinogenic effects. Berserkers are certainly never described as apathetic!
Poisoning with the fungus Claviceps purpurea has also been suggested – it contains a compound used to synthesise the hallucinogen LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). However, if mushrooms had been so important for the berserkers, they would surely have been mentioned in the sagas, which they are not.
The most probable explanation for ‘going berserk’ comes from psychiatry. The theory is that the groups of warriors, through ritual processes carried out before a battle (such as biting the edges of their shields), went into a self-induced hypnotic trance. In this dissociative state they lost conscious control of their actions, which are then directed subconsciously. People in this state seem remote, have little awareness of their surroundings and have reduced awareness of pain and increased muscle strength. Critical thinking and normal social inhibitions weaken, but the people affected are not unconscious.
Fly Agaric mushroom. (Photo by Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)

Diminished responsibility

This condition of psychomotor automatism possibly resembles what in forensic psychiatry is described as ‘diminished responsibility’. The condition is followed by a major emotional catharsis in the form of tiredness and exhaustion, sometimes followed by sleep. Researchers think that the short-term aim of the trance may have been to achieve an abreaction of strong aggressive, destructive and sadistic impulses in a socially defined role.
The Old Norse social order and religion were able to accommodate this type of behaviour, and it is understandable that the phenomenon disappeared after the introduction of Christianity. A Christian society considered such rituals and actions as demonic and thought that they must have resulted from supernatural influences.

Dr Kim Hjardar is the co-author, with Vegard Vike, of Vikings at War, which will be published in hardback in October by Casemate Books.
Hjardar holds a MPhil in Nordic Viking and medieval culture from the University of Oslo and works as a lecturer in history at St Hallvard College. He is also archaeological conservator at the Museum of Cultural History, Oslo.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

First Ever Ancient Gold Coin to Be Found in Jerusalem Bears Image of Emperor Nero

Ancient Origins

The discovery of a rare gold coin bearing the image of the Roman Emperor Nero at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte's archaeological excavations on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, has just been announced by the archaeologists in charge of the project, Drs. Shimon Gibson, James Tabor, and Rafael Lewis

The coin is exceptional," said Gibson, "because this is the first time that a coin of this kind has turned up in Jerusalem in a scientific dig. Coins of this type are usually only found in private collections, where we don't have clear evidence as to place of origin."
The gold coin (aureus) bears the bare-headed portrait of the young Nero as Caesar. The lettering around the edge of the coin reads: NERO CAESAR AVG IMP. On the reverse of the coin is a depiction of an oak wreath containing the letters "EX S C," with the surrounding inscription "PONTIF MAX TR P III." Importantly, these inscriptions help to work out the date when the coin was struck as 56/57 AD. Identification of the coin was made by the historian and numismatist, Dr. David Jacobson from London.
The coin dates to a little more than a decade before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, and was found in rubble material outside the ruins of the 1st Century Jewish villas the team has been excavating. The team has hypothesized that the large houses may have belonged to wealthy members of the priestly caste, and it may have come from one of their stores of wealth.
Israel - Jerusalem - Mount Zion.
Israel - Jerusalem - Mount Zion. (CC BY 2.0)
"The coin probably came from one of the rich 2000-year old Jewish dwellings which the UNC Charlotte team have been uncovering at the site," said Gibson. "These belonged to the priestly and aristocratic quarter located in the Upper City of Jerusalem. Finds include the well-preserved rooms of a very large mansion, a Jewish ritual pool (mikveh) and a bathroom, both with their ceilings intact."
This mansion and other like it, were utterly destroyed by Titus and the Roman legions, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground. It is likely, owing to the intrinsic value of the gold coin, it was hidden away ahead of the destruction of the city, and was missed by the marauding and looting Roman soldiers.
"It's a valuable piece of personal property and wouldn't have been cast away like rubbish or casually dropped. It's conceivable that it ended up outside these structures in the chaos that happened as this area was destroyed."
The image of Nero is significant in that it shows the presence of the Roman occupation and provides a clear late date for the occupation of the residences. There is no historical evidence that Nero ever visited Jerusalem. Tabor pointed out that the coin is dated "to the same year of St. Paul's last visit to Jerusalem, which resulted in his arrest (on the charge of taking Gentiles into the Temple) and incarceration in Caesarea." Last of the Julio-Claudian line, Nero was Roman emperor for fourteen years (54-68 AD). He had the reputation for being a tyrant, and some believed he was responsible for the devastating fire of 64 AD, which resulted in the burning of much of Rome.
A plaster bust of Nero, Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
A plaster bust of Nero, Pushkin Museum, Moscow. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The archaeological project has brought to light many other significant finds during the 2016 summer season, and work at the site will be resumed next year.
Top image: A Roman gold coin depicting the Emperor Nero, dated to 56 CE was discovered in summer, 2016 at UNC Charlotte's archaeological excavation at Jerusalem's Mt. Zion. Credit: Shimon Gibson
The article ‘Rare Roman gold coin found in Jerusalem at Mt. Zion archaeological dig’ was originally published on Science Daily.
Source: University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Rare Roman gold coin found in Jerusalem at Mt. Zion archaeological dig." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 September 2016.