Saturday, March 31, 2018

Medieval Forensics: Investigating the Death of a Byzantine Emperor


Mosaic of John II Komnenos in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. 

John II Komnenos (1087-1143) was an accomplished and successful medieval ruler whose death has long been the subject of scholarly discussion. While out hunting, John was allegedly poisoned by an arrow – but was this really the cause of the emperor’s death? Mosaic of John II Komnenos in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

A new article by the research team of Konstantinos Markatos (Biomedical Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens), Anastasia Papaioannou (Kapandriti Medical Center, Oropos, Athens), Marianna Karamanou (History of Medicine Department, Medical School, University of Crete), and Georgios Androutsos (Biomedical Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens) uses primary sources and modern medicine to take a fresh look at this medieval cold case.

The article, ‘The death of the Byzantine Emperor John II Komnenos (1087–1143)’, begins by taking a brief look at the life and reign of John II. The eldest son of the emperor Alexios I Komnenos, at the time of his ascension John had to overcome an attempted coup by his younger brother Isaac. Despite this uncertain beginning, over his twenty-five year reign John went on to become a strong military and political ruler of the Byzantine Empire.

In 1142, John launched a military expedition to Syria in an effort to reconquer the city of Antioch, currently held by Raymond of Poitiers. While out hunting boar in the spring of 1143, as the army was getting ready to leave its winter quarters, John received a superficial injury from a poisoned arrow he carried. Just over a week later, the emperor was dead.

According to the authors, ‘The events surrounding the death of John Komnenos are mainly derived from the accounts of the historians of the twelfth century Byzantine Empire John Cinnamos and Niketas Choniates‘, and, ‘Both historians attribute the death of the emperor to the effects of the poison that the arrow carried‘.

Critically, however, in their efforts to investigate these accounts, the authors are quick to acknowledge the risks of retrospective diagnosis: ‘First of all, one should point out that every search concerning the cause or type of disease in ancient periods is always hypothetical and controversial, and therefore should be addressed with utmost care.’

John II hunting boar in a 14th century French manuscipt (BnF, Francais 22495)

A close analysis of poisons, especially serpent venom, used in such situations and their common effects leads to the conclusion that the immediate symptoms did not present themselves in John II’s case. ‘On the contrary, the long period of time before the presentation of symptoms should be attributed to their being caused by an infection.’ The long delay between the emperor’s supposed poisoning and his death, the authors hypothesise, point toward septicaemia. Foul play is further ruled out, due to the fact that John II’s heir, his son Immanuel, was already the preferred choice of the Byzantine nobility.

Still, as with all cases of medieval medical mystery, the fact remains that ‘it must be stressed out that this conclusion is strictly based on historical testimonies of the era; hard scientific evidence in the contemporary sense to support such a conclusion is missing and it is highly unlikely to be obtained in the future.’

 ‘The death of the Byzantine Emperor John II Komnenos (1087–1143)’ appears in the journal Acta Chirurgica Belgica, published online 01 February 2018.


Friday, March 30, 2018

1,000-Year-Old Norman Cathedral Ruins Unearthed Beneath Church in England

Ancient Origins

The foundations of a Norman cathedral have been found under just 3ft (90cm) of soil during excavations at St Albans Abbey, the oldest place of continuous Christian worship in England. They are dated to 1077AD, making it one of the earliest Norman cathedrals in the country.

 The BBC reports that the exciting discovery was made during excavation work being carried out by the Canterbury Archaeological Trust to prepare the site for the construction of a new visitor center.

"We've only gone about a metre down but everything's happened there - there's 1,000 years of history in a metre of earth," site director Ross Lane told the BBC.

During excavations, archaeologists found the remains of two massive apse-ended chapels, which are intrinsic to the Norman cathedral design. The apse is a large semi-circular recess, usually at one or both ends of a church, with an arched or domed roof.

St Albans Abbey – A Site of Martyrdom
St Albans Abbey, which is now officially a cathedral, is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. It sits on the site where Alban was buried and made into a martyr after he was tortured and beheaded sometime during the 3rd or 4th century by Romans for sheltering a Christian priest at a time when Christians were facing heavy persecution.

St Albans Cathedral viewed from the west in Hertfordshire, England (CC by SA 3.0)

It is believed that the cathedral was built on the site of his execution, and a well at the bottom of the hill, Holywell Hill, is said to be the place where Alban’s head landed after rolling downhill.

The martyrdom of St Alban, from a 13th-century manuscript, now in the Trinity College Library, Dublin. Note the executioner's eyes falling out of his head. (public domain)

Symbols of Power: The Norman Cathedrals of England
The newly discovered cathedral beneath St Albans Abbey is one of only fifteen cathedrals built across Britain, and is one of the oldest, its construction completed just 11 years after the Normans invaded England in 1066 AD. After William the Conqueror began stamping his authority across his newly conquered kingdom, the ecclesiastical soon followed suit, eager to establish the superiority of Norman French culture and sophistication.

“Norman England was soon experiencing a building boom never before seen across the land,” writes Almost History. “Construction commenced on at least fifteen great cathedrals and all but two survive to this day.”

The cathedrals were built in the Romanesque style developed by the Normans in the 11th century, characterized by massive proportions, rounded arches over windows and doorways, a raised nave and a western façade completed by two towers.

The nave of Durham Cathedral (CC by SA 3.0)

Ancient Burials
The archaeological dig also yielded 20 burials, some of which were substantial tombs, dating to the 11th and 12th centuries. The graves would have belonged to some of the original inhabitants and benefactors of the Abbey. Research is now being conducted to try to identify who they were.

 Top image: Remains of the original apse built in 1077 was unearthed during excavation work at St Albans Cathedral. Credit: St Albans Cathedral

By April Holloway

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Not Just at The End of Rainbows: 15th Century Pot of Gold Found in a Drain Pipe in the Netherlands

Ancient Origins

It wasn’t just an ordinary day at work for employees of a water company in the Netherlands, who earlier this month stumbled upon an earthenware cooking pot containing around 500 gold and silver coins dating to the 15 th century while laying pipes at a building site.

Dutch News reports that the treasure was discovered during building work for a new town being developed between Vianen and Hagestein in the province of Utrecht, and may shed new light on what occurred in the medieval town of Hagestein after it was destroyed in 1405.

Dr Boer explained that during the time the coins were in circulation, the Netherlands was ruled by a French noble family, the ‘Dukes of Burgundy’, who had deep ties to France's royal family. However, there remain many gaps in the knowledge of this time period, particularly in the aftermath of the violent destruction of Hagestein, near where the coins were discovered.

“‘We now have a pot full of stories,” archaeologist Peter De Boer told NOS. "Every gentleman gave out his 'business card' by way of a coin, and therefore there is a lot to discover. Stories over power relations, religion and a lot of symbolism."

Hoe fen Haag, a new town being developed in Utrecht ( CC by SA 4.0 / Jan Diijkstra )

Pot of Gold
An analysis of the coins revealed that twelve of them were solid gold, while the rest are silver. The true value has not yet been determined, but the owners of the water company Oasen, the project developer, and the land owner where the treasure was found, are likely to do quite well.

“Some textiles were also found in the pot, indicating that the coins were packed in fabric bags or cloths,” reports NL Times . “Most of the coins seem to date from the 1470's and 1480's. Some of the coins show King Henri VI of England, Bishop of Utrecht David of Burgundy, and Pope Paul II.”

The joint owners of the coins have temporarily let go of the coins so they can be studied, and they will then decide what they wish to do with them.

It’s not the first time a pot of treasure has been discovered by some lucky finder. In 1993, two amateur treasure hunters found a collection of over 4,000 Roman coins in a pot in Lincolnshire, England, and in 2015, two clay pots were found by forestry workers in Poland , containing a hoard of more than 6,000 coins. There may not be golden treasures at the end of every rainbow, but pots of gold are still to be found!

Top image: 15th century gold and silver coins found in the Netherlands. Credit: Oasen

By April Holloway

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Underwater Archaeologists Discover Submerged Ruins off the Coast of Naples

Ancient Origins

Back in September 2017, underwater archaeologists met a decade-long goal in discovering the submerged ruins of the port of Neapolis. Now, they have identified the location of the port which preceded it, Palepolis, a site the Greeks wrested from the Etruscans some 3000 years ago. Today, Palepolis is known as Naples.

ANSA reports researchers have identified the submerged ruins of Palepolis near the Castel dell'Ovo in Naples. To date, underwater archaeologists have discovered four tunnels, a defense trench probably used by soldiers, and a street still marked by the carts which passed over it so long ago. The Local says exploration will continue under the waves until May 2018.

One of the submerged tunnels. (Elisa Manacorda/Reptv)

 Mario Negri of the International University of Languages and Media (IULM) in Milan, the organization which funded the research, says “It's a discovery that opens up a new scenario for reconstructing the ancient structure of Palepolis.”

 However, Negri seems somewhat hesitant in declaring too much too soon, because he has also said that the ruins, “could – I stress, could – be the archeological traces of Naples' first port, which means we are right at the founding moment of this extraordinary city.”

Others are looking to future possibilities, such as Luciano Garella, who directs Naples’ institution in charge of archaeological heritage, who sees an exciting option on the horizon, “We'll have to explore a different type of tourism – underwater tourism,” he said.

But what made Palepolis special? What’s its history? states that the earliest settlements in the area date back some 3000 years, “when “Anatolian and Achaean merchants and travellers arrived in the gulf on their way to the mineral lands of the high Tyrrhene.” They founded Parthenope, a small harbor which gradually expanded through business, but was consistently in the midst of battles between the Etruscans and Greeks.

Etruscan warrior, found near Viterbo, Italy, dated c. 500 BC. (CC BY SA 3.0)

 The Greeks eventually conquered the port and renamed it Palepolis in about 474 BC. Soon after, Palepolis was outshined by a new city, Neapolis, which was built by the Greeks to the south.

 As Archaeology points out, patrician villas became the main focus of Palepolis by the time the Romans took control. The town had been transformed into something of a suburb for Neapolis; a location where residents had some peace and quiet without setting themselves too far from the bustling city.

 The submerged ruins of Neapolis were only discovered in September 2017.The underwater component of the city stretches over 20 hectares (almost 50 acres). As some of Neapolis’ ruins remain aboveground, underwater archaeologists had been searching the region for the last seven years in hope of finding the submerged counterpart. Neapolis was partially submerged by a tsunami on July 21 in 365 AD, a natural disaster that also damaged Alexandria in Egypt and Greece’s island of Crete.

Underwater archaeologists have discovered monuments, streets, and about 100 tanks that were used in the production of a fermented fish condiment known as garum at Neapolis. Mounir Fantar, the head of a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission said: “This discovery has allowed us to establish with certainty that Neapolis was a major center for the manufacture of garum and salt fish, probably the largest center in the Roman world. Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum.”

Today, visitors interested in the earliest days of Palepolis, and pre-Palepolis times, can find remnants of a necropolis dating back to when the settlement was known as Parthenope and a few indications left of a Roman villa built by a nobleman named Lucullo. For the most part, says Palepolis has been overtaken by later building projects, such as “Castel dell'Ovo on the isle of Megaride, and by luxury housing, hotels and shops.”

Castel dell'Ovo, Naples. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Ruins of the ancient submerged port of Palepolis off the coast of Naples. Source: Elisa Manacorda/Reptv

By Alicia McDermott

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Cabman’s Shelters: A Place for Cold London Cabbies and Maybe Jack the Ripper

Ancient Origins

A Cabman’s shelter was a special place in London, England during the second half of the 19th century. These types of shelters were intended to be places where a cabman could obtain hot food and drink whilst working and though few have remained, they have an iconic status even today.

 Although these shelters proved to be very popular in the past, they have been in decline. Today, only a small number of these historic buildings remain. Nevertheless, they are currently Grade II listed buildings, which means that they are protected by law due to their status as heritage assets.

Obelisk, Cabmen's Shelter and Telephone Boxes, Market Place, Ripon. (Tim Green/CC BY 2.0)

A Philanthropic Act
The cabmen shelter was an idea conceived in 1875. The story goes that in January of that year, George Armstrong, the editor of London newspaper The Globe, needed a cab to take him to work. Unfortunately, his servant was unable to find one, and Armstrong was informed that due to the blizzard, all the available cab drivers (who, during that period of time, drove hansom cabs) were taking shelter in a nearby pub.

According to one source, the cabmen were drunk as well, as they were indulging in alcohol whilst waiting for the blizzard to pass and were therefore unable to work. As a result of this incident, Armstrong brought together a group of philanthropists, and established a charity known as the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund.

A cabman. From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thompson and Adolphe Smith. (Public Domain)

The purpose of this charity was to offer cab drivers a place where they could have food and drink, take a break, and seek shelter from bad weather during their working hours.

A cabman’s shelter is easily recognized, as it is small and painted green, Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green, to be precise. The Metropolitan police specified that the size of each shed may be no larger than a horse and a cart, as that they were placed on the public highway. The cost required to build a cabman’s shelter was £200 each, and many of these were paid for by local philanthropists. The first cabman’s shelter was established on Acacia Avenue, St John's Wood (close to George Armstrong’s home), in 1875. Between then and 1914, 61 cabmen’s shelters were established

The green shelter belonging to the Cabmen's Shelter Fund in Russel Square, Bloomsbury London Borough of Camden. (Ethan_Doyle_White/CC BY SA 4.0)

Features of a Cabman’s Shelter
Within each shelter was a working kitchen, in which an attendant could prepare meals and hot drinks for the cabmen who came to the shelters. Alcohol, by the way, is strictly forbidden in the cabmen’s shelters. The sheds are also equipped with tables and benches, and, in spite of its small size, have enough space within them to accommodate up to 10 customers at a time. Although the cabmen’s shelters had a certain level of standardization, it may be added that their quality depended on the area they are located in.

Over the decades, the cabmen’s shelters served not only cab drivers, but also various notable characters. For instance, during the 1890s, bohemian poets such as Ernest Dowson frequented these shelters. According to one writer, these poets would visit such sheds at four o’clock in the morning and would order bacon and eggs. It was not because they wanted this dish at that time, but merely because the bourgeoisie were not doing that.

Portrait of Ernest Dowson. (Public Domain)

The most enigmatic figure known to have been a customer of a cabmen’s shelter is a certain doctor by the name of J. Duncan, who claimed that he was responsible for the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. As he seemed drunk, however, the attendant at the shelter, as well as the other patrons there, did not pay attention to him. Having had his meal, Duncan left the shelter, and was never heard of again.

Things have changed for the cabmen’s shelters since Armstrong’s days. For a start, there are only 13 of these sheds remaining. These include the ones on Kensington Park Road, Russell Square, and Grosvenor Gardens. These shelters, incidentally, are still managed by the Cabmen’s Shelters Fund, and are today Grade II listed buildings.

Although the shelters initially served cab drivers only, today, they may be patronized by the general public as well. Nevertheless, the ‘cabbies only’ rule is still enforced, and therefore only cab drivers are allowed to go inside these shelters. The general public, on the other hand are only allowed takeaways.

Top Image: Cabmans Shelter, Russell Square. Source: N Chadwick/CC BY SA 2.0

By Wu Mingren

Monday, March 26, 2018

Weapons Control in Ancient Greece: When an Accident was Deadly

Ancient Origins

Weapons control is a hot topic in the United States. With the recent shooting in Florida in February 2018, discussions of gun control are at an all-time high. Yet this discussion is not limited to the US; with the age of media, there has been an influx of reporting on violence as well, and the debate regarding weapons control has spread worldwide. Gun control is the primary topic of interest, and because of this, one might wonder whether previous cultures ever experienced a need for rules regarding weapon holding. Of particular interest is whether the idealized culture of ancient Greece met with this same debate.

 In ancient Greece, (and of course its close Egyptian, Hittite, and later Roman neighbors), weapons were a prominent aspect of life. War was a consistent threat—whether from an exterior source or from within. Weapons were often kept nearby, or on one’s person, and leaders were always—even now—protected by some form of guard. Weapons are not a new topic of conversation.

 Interestingly enough, conversations on weapons control are not new either.

Paintings of Ancient Macedonian soldiers, arms, and armaments, from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki in Greece, 4th century BC. (Public Domain)

Weapons Weren’t for Everyone
The ancient Greeks, to whom the United States has often turned for guidance in various affairs, are one of the earliest known examples of enforcing weapon control. Once again, due to the constantly changing nature of pre-democratic Greece, and the various wars in which the Greeks played a prominent role (the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Pyrrhic Wars, etc.), weapons were intricately tied into Greek culture. However even the Greeks saw a limit to the necessity for weapons within a civilized state.

Weapons were bought and owned by the rich; for one to participate in most Greek armies (as they were individualized by city-state) a soldier needed to possess enough money to buy their own swords, shields, spears, etc. In essence, weapons could be considered synonymous with wealth. Men could sport weapons freely in wartime, and could have an unlimited (as far as research can tell) number of weapons in their homes; there is no record of a limit to the number or types of standard weapons. However, the Greeks did set a limit on the prominence of weapon exposure in ancient Greece.

Knelt warrior with de-cladded sword – possibly Achilles waiting for Troilus. Tondo of an Attic black-figure kylix, ca. 560 BC. (Public Domain)

Greek warriors had to obtain their own weapons. Greeks Argued Against Mixing Arms and Politics Evidenced in literature from the Archaic period forward (800 BC–480 BC), men could not enter the agora, or marketplace, with a knife strapped to their waists; men could not walk into any form of religious space with a sword, other than a ceremonial one (usually carried by the presiding priest).

Further, men could also not enter any form of political space with a weapon. In fact, this point has long been punctuated by the story of an ancient Greek man called Charondas, the same man who demanded that a law be put into place banning the carrying of weapons within the Assembly (political body) of the Greek colony of Catania in Sicily.

Charondas, as the story goes, insisted that all those who entered the Assembly must leave their weapons outside the political center of the city; in most city-states, this Assembly was located in or near the agora. However accidents happen; with weapons, accidents often lead to death. Unfortunately for him, even Charondas was not exempt from this fate.

Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. (Public Domain)

Returning to the Assembly after spending some time out of the city, Charondas forgot to swing by his home and leave his own weapon (which he was carrying for protection during his travels) there. Upon entering the Assembly, his mistake was realized by his associates, and he was ridiculed for forgetting his own law. To prove his dedication to the law, he rectified his error by removing his dagger from his person and committing suicide.

Keeping the Community Safe?
Charondas’ dedication to the protection of the members of the Assembly is undeniable. The importance of maintaining a community free of threatening articles is also undeniable.

There are various pros and cons to adopting and adapting ideas from the social and political world of ancient Greece. As weapons are currently a hot topic, perhaps there might be some interest in opening a discussion regarding the control of weapon possession and use in the ancient world. After all, many modern democracies drew initial inspiration from the ancient Greek δημοκρατία; now might be an important time to revisit those earlier values.

A lithograph plate showing ancient Greek warriors with a variety of different weapons and armor. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Ancient Greek warriors with armor and weapons. Source: Public Domain

By Riley Winters

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Can Oceanic Archaeologist Finally Zero in on Elusive Lost Viking Colony?

Ancient Origins

An archaeologist believes she is one step closer to finding a “lost Viking settlement” in North America, which would be one of the most significant discoveries this century, so far.

Birgitta Wallace is a senior archaeologist emerita with Parks Canada who has extensively researched the movements of Vikings in North America, and in a recent essay in Canada's History magazine she talked of her lifelong search for “Hóp,” a Viking settlement mentioned in ancient Norse sagas. Centuries old sea-tales offer natural and geographic clues to Hóp’s whereabouts, and it was said to have had “wild grapes, abundant salmon and inhabitants who made canoes out of animal hides.”

Drawing of a Sadlermiut man on inflated walrus skins bringing two dried salmon and a flint-headed arrow as a peace offering to newcomers. (1824) By Captain George Francis Lyon. ( Public Domain )

The only other positively known Viking settlement in North America is situated at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland, but Wallace believes Hóp “likely resides in northeastern New Brunswick.” Wallace is essentially looking at an old problem in a new way and she told reporters at Live Science that she “believes Hóp was likely used as a summer camp, and any tents or buildings constructed there would have been used only for a few months at most, making them difficult for archaeologists to find.”

For several decades scholars have proposed a number of possible locations including “Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick (on the east coast of Canada), Nova Scotia, Maine, New England and New York,” according to the In Live Science article. Wallace made her "northeastern New Brunswick" location assertion based on “the description of the settlement from sagas” which she married with archaeological observations made at L'Anse aux Meadows and Native American sites.

Graphical description of the different sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland (Newfoundland), Helluland (Baffin Island) and Markland (Labrador) travelled by different characters in the Icelandic Sagas, mainly the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. Modern English versions of the Norse names. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Wallace is convinced the lost settlement is “in the Miramichi-Chaleur bay area” and while she has pin-pointed a geographic area, she told reporters at Live Science that the oral nature of Viking tales, before they were written down, may have confused the meaning of Hóp. She said “Hóp may not be the name of just one settlement, but rather an area where the Vikings may have created multiple short-term settlements whose precise locations varied from year to year.”

Guests from Overseas, Nikolaj Roerich, 1901. ( Public Domain )

Zeroing in on Hóp
According to Wallace, because northeastern New Brunswick contains “wild grapes and salmon, barrier sandbars and a native population that used animal-hide canoes,” it perfectly fits the descriptions in the sagas. What’s more, Wallace noticed that "New Brunswick is the northern limit of grapes, which are not native either to Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia or Maine. Additionally, "barrier sandbars” are particularly dominant along the New Brunswick east coast, and “Wild salmon was abundant in eastern New Brunswick at the time.” Wallace also pointed out that “hide canoes” were used by the Mi'kmaq people in the Miramichi-Chaleur bay area, and that they used the salmon as a totem animal.

Archaeologists really are up against the odds, in that not only has any organic Viking matter rotted away, but the “Miramichi-Chaleur bay area has changed, and any Viking site (or sites) could be paved over,” said Wallace.

Mi’kmaq tribe painting. Anonymous 19 th century. ( The National Gallery of Canada /Public Domain)

Wallace is not the first archaeologist to associate New Brunswick with Norse explorers. In a 1959, Frederic J. Pohl’s identified seventeen “parallel details” between the legendary Scottish sea captain Henry Sinclair of Roslin, and a semi-mythological giant creator god of indigenous mythologies named Glooscap. Pohl’s suggestion that Henry Sinclair sailed to a Viking settlement in New Brunswick in 1398 has recently been hijacked by story writers at History Channel who hold Sinclair as their #1 suspect for having created the illustrious “money pit” on Oak Island, in Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia. And, what will no doubt be presented very soon is… Oak Island and its “money pit” are but a stone’s throw from the south coast of New Brunswick, where Wallace believes Hóp will be found.

The trouble with even entertaining the idea that Henry Sinclair sailed to the New World in 1398, is that with “him” comes a murky bag of myths about treasures taken from the Holy Land being hidden beneath Rosslyn chapel in Scotland, and in 1398, that treasure being taken by a flotilla of Knights Templar to the Money Pit on Oak Island. Having recently published a book entitled Secret Viking Sea Chart, on the subject of Rosslyn Chapel and Viking navigation , I personally find that although Vikings were in North America over 1000 years ago, the idea that Henry Sinclair made the voyage in 1398 is seeing ducks in clouds, as not a shred of tangible evidence backs up the claim. It is all speculative. As for the theory of Wallace, it remains to be tested by finding some physical evidence, but perhaps this research will give archaeologists a better idea of where they might dig in the spade.

Top image: Viking or Norse settlers image at L'Anse aux Meadows. ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )

By Ashley Cowie

Saturday, March 24, 2018

‘Vikings’ creator Michael Hirst on the real history behind the hit drama

History Extra

Lagertha, portrayed by Katheryn Winnick, in season 4 of ‘Vikings’. (Credit: Jonathan Hession/History)

 Given the popularity of the history drama Vikings – now filming its sixth season – it might seem strange that when screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst first came to the topic, he was cautioned by some that he couldn’t possibly write a successful show about the Scandinavian warriors.

 “They were the ‘other’,” he explains, “because they were the people who came and broke into your house at night and raped and pillaged.”

“Many years ago,” Hirst continues, “I was writing a film script about Alfred the Great, who fought against the Vikings. I was fascinated to discover that a lot of what I thought I knew about the Vikings was wrong. I knew nothing about their attitude towards women, which was much more progressive than most other societies.”

Hirst found Viking society surprisingly democratic, “and their engineering and boat-building skills were phenomenal,” he says.

“We were all brought up on clichés about the Vikings that they are brutal, mindless savages. They were certainly brutal when they needed to be, but they weren’t savages.”

Inspired by the sagas
It’s important to Hirst, who’s also behind the Oscar-winning film Elizabeth (1998) and historical television drama The Tudors (2007-2010), that the show’s characters and stories are grounded in real history. One of the initial sources for Hirst and his historical advisor, Justin Pollard, were the Norse sagas, a collection of tales largely written in the 13th century, telling the histories and semi-mythical voyages of Viking heroes from around 930 to 1030.

‘Vikings’ creator and producer Michael Hirst considers Viking artefacts for ‘The Real Vikings’. The new documentary considers the real history that inspired the drama, including the roles of women and the pagan beliefs and warrior culture in Viking society. (The Real Vikings/History UK)

When Hirst came across the figure of Ragnar Lothbrok in the historical record, he knew that he’d found his protagonist. According to Norse legend, poetry and sagas, Ragnar Lothbrok was a fearsome raider and warrior who was famously recorded as the leader of the Viking Siege of Paris in 845 (an event which the show explores in season three).

“There’s still some controversy about whether Ragnar was real or not,” Hirst says, though Lothbrok is also said to have fathered many famous Viking figures including Ubbe, Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless. Two of these figures – Ubbe and Ivar – were part of the coalition Norse Army that invaded the British Isles in 865.

While the extent to which Ragnar was a historic figure or legendary character remains unclear, Hirst explains that, on balance, he concluded that Ragnar did exist. “His name does occur in several accounts, which would have been written by Christian monks in France and Ireland and England. His name crops up, often in different places at the same time, so there is substantial evidence.”

 “In any case, even if he didn’t exist it was necessary that he did for the story, for my saga that I was going to tell.”

Fact vs fiction
Though there are some elements included in the show which could be considered to give the drama a fantastical tone – such as Viking gods appearing to characters in premonitions and hallucinations – Hirst is clear on the boundaries of fantasy within his show.

“I allowed myself the opportunity of showing the god Odin briefly on the battlefield in the very first episode of the show, because I knew that’s what the Vikings believed. After a battle, they believed that Odin would walk around the battlefield choosing people to go to Valhalla [the place in Norse mythology where warriors travel after their death]. To me, that wasn’t fantasy because that’s what they believed.

“Also, Vikings believed that their gods were capable of shape-shifting, so they could appear in the shape of a raven, or an owl, or a wolf. The Vikings thought of their landscape as a living organism, filled with god-like presences. I thought it was legitimate to occasionally show ghosts or spirits, or things do with the Vikings’ spiritual world, which I find fascinating. But I would never have a dragon in a show of mine.”

A still from ‘Vikings’ series 3, episode 1. (VIKINGS © 2016 TM Productions Limited / T5 Vikings IV Productions Inc. All Rights Reserved. An Ireland-Canada Co-Production.)

The Vikings and women
 Since the earliest seasons of the show, Hirst says, he has experienced some criticism regarding the character of Lagertha, a shield maiden and Ragnar Lothbrok’s first wife (played by Katheryn Winnick). Some have found fault with the idea that women would have been warriors or fighters during the Viking age.

However, in September 2017 it was widely reported that the archaeological find known as the ‘Birka warrior’ could be a woman.

Found in a 10th-century chamber in Birka, Sweden, in the 1880s, the remains have been long presumed to be those of a male due to its burial with weapons and other status symbols, which suggested the grave of a professional warrior. However, a team of researchers at Uppsala University and Stockholm University reappraised the find in 2016 and found, through genomic testing, that the bones lacked a Y chromosome.

While some historians, including Judith Jesch, an expert in Vikings and Norse history, have pointed out the gaps in the theory – Jesch writes in a blog that “the emotional lure of the woman warrior, especially in the Viking Age, is too strong for reasoned argument” – the new research challenged the assumptions that were made when the remains were first unearthed in the 19th century, and rejuvenated interest in gender roles in the Viking period.

“Having fought for the idea of a female warrior,” says Hirst, “I suppose I felt very vindicated. I don’t look at social media on the whole, but people draw my attention to it occasionally and there were still people posting things such as ‘you’re still wrong, women aren’t strong enough to fight’. The misogyny that still exists is incredible.”

The full interview with Michael Hirst, in which he discusses Vikings, The Real Vikings and also his next project The Caesars with Martin Scorsese, will feature on the History Extra podcast later this week.

Meanwhile, new documentary The Real Vikings continues exclusively on History UK on Tuesday evenings from 10pm, as experts reveal the archaeology and history that inspired the show. The documentary follows Vikings season 4 episodes, currently airing on the channel. The second half of season 5 will be available for viewers on Amazon later in 2018.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Tools of Medieval Wisdom Unearthed Beneath England’s Ancient Academic Hub

Ancient Origins

Archaeologists in England have unearthed in excess of 10,000 medieval artifacts in central Oxford and every single one of them is providing a clearer picture of day to day life at Oxford University, as it was seven centuries ago.

 Oxford University has become England’s academic pulsing heart, but it began as part of a friary established by Franciscan friars in 1224, known as Greyfriars. The massive archaeological dig is being directed by archaeologist, Ben Ford of the heritage consultancy, Oxford Archaeology, who told reporters at The Independent, among the smaller finds were “writing equipment, refectory cutlery and even ceramic beer mugs used by students and teachers back in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.” They also recovered “Ultra-rare octagonal oak columns, possibly from the friary’s 13th century timber church,” and a “beautiful mediaeval tiled pavement from the friary… discovered very near the new Westgate shopping center in central Oxford, archaeologists told reporters.”

Tile floor was found at the site (Image:© Oxford Archaeology)

According to the archeological report the dig has unearthed the iron knives and spoons, for consuming potage and broth. The recent finds tell archaeologists that Oxford’s medieval scholars ate a very wide range of terrestrial sourced foods including “meat, eggs, cereals, mutton, lamb, pork, beef, chicken and geese.” Sea fish included cod, whiting, haddock, herring, eel, gurnard, conger, grey mullet, thornback ray, salmon and sea trout, and archaeologists reported that among the freshwater fish eaten were roach and dace. A microscopic examination of all the food remains and radiocarbon dating will begin shortly.

Oxford university had already existed for a few decades, teaching “practical vocationally oriented courses like letter writing, Latin grammar, classical speech making, basic maths and practical law,” but the Franciscan monks “transformed the institution – focusing on intellectually much more rigorous and challenging subject matter in the curriculum,” according to the The Independent report.

The Franciscans, with their Dominican colleagues and rivals, focused on theology using the Bible as a portal into subjects such as “advanced philosophy, physics, natural history, geology and even optics.” What’s more, the ancient tools used in these “advanced studies” have been found, including “well-preserved quills, styluses, oil lamps for aiding reading, a pure lead rare medieval pencil, bronze book marks, special scissors to cut vellum, and a very rare brass clasp from a large 13th century book.”
Writing implements such as quills and styluses were found at the Oxford University site. (Image:© Oxford Archaeology )

Archeologists also found hard evidence of alchemical practices in that “the excavation has even yielded a small ceramic container that had held Spanish-originating mercury which the friars may well have used for alchemical experiments, mercury-assisted metal gilding – or even for trying to treat leprosy and possibly syphilis” said archaeologist Ben Ford.

And as far as “who” might have actually used these tools, many famous scholars were associated with Greyfriars, for example: Robert Grosseteste was among medieval Europe’s first great mathematicians and physicists and he is matched in intellect by another student, Roger Bacon, the famous philosopher, and pioneer of empirical science.

“Our excavation has allowed us to more fully understand the lives of some of Oxford’s earliest students,” said Ben Ford, and “The hundreds of everyday objects we found are revealing, in remarkable detail, how they and their teachers lived.” A number of medical artifacts have been unearthed including “glass urine sample bottles… a beautifully preserved small wooden bowl, made of plum or apple tree wood, which may well have been used to collect blood during bloodletting, a practice which monks believed was good for their health!

Among the religious artifacts found in the friary were a “pilgrim badge from a trip to Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury,” which was discovered with a “pendant displaying the crucifixion.” And finally, when the studies were over, recreation began, evident in that archaeologists were delighted “to find a wooden ball,” confirming an old medieval account of Oxford students entertaining themselves with sporty distractions.

Top image: Scholarly tools from left: quills, styluses and book clasps. Credit: © Oxford Archaeology

By Ashley Cowie

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Avian Detectives Discover Vikings Dreamed on the Feathers of Giant Eagle Owls

Ancient Origins

Those legendary sea warriors who dominated the oceanic territories of the northern hemisphere between the 8th and 12th century, the Viking’s, rested their sea-weary heads on luxury pillows stuffed with “Eagle-owl feathers” says Jørgen Rosvold, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum.

 According to an article in, Rosvold has a rare skill set that makes him one of only “a few experts in Norway” who can identify birds only by making observations of feathers. After examining a “pillow that was found in a Viking grave” he isolated a tiny fragment of a feather from Europe's largest owl and finally confirmed what many archaeologists have suspected, that “Vikings valued feathers as an important resource."

Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) in San Francisco Zoo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although Rosvold’s team nailed it this time, there are endless variables in their relatively diverse scientific discipline: “Some feathers are just too similar to be certain what species it comes from. You might be able to say whether a feather comes from a game bird or a sparrow, but not always much beyond that,” Rosvold told reporters. To increase the probability of successfully identifying bird species from feather samples, the NTNU University Museum Down Project (Dunprosjektet) has built up a large collection of feather matter, and if researchers can first determine which family a feather belonged to, it can then be compared with samples in the Down Project collection.

Among the pointers, or signatures, feather analysts look for when attempting to identify bird species are found in the “down,” at the smallest branches of a feather, known as “barbules.” It was the “size, shape and colour” of the barbules that provided the clue which enabled Rosvold to identify the “Eagle-owl feathers,” according to the report. Rosvold also said that “pigmentation in feathers from early Viking times, around 800 AD… indicates game birds,” recognizable by the “rings around their barbules” while duck feathers have distinctive “triangular growths.”

Miniscule barbules, the smallest branches of a feather, are examined under a microscope to identify the kind of bird. Here are two different birds. At bottom left is a rock ptarmigan, a type of game bird with rings around its barbules. At bottom right is a mallard with triangular growths at the ends of its barbules. Credit: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum

 Rosvold told reporters that the second phase of this project is going to study, “Norwegian grave discoveries from the Nordic Iron Age, including the Oseberg grave, to find out which birds the feathers come from” and also to find out when eider farmers first built nesting boxes to gather duck down. According to Rosvold the relationship between man and duck “goes way back in time” and his researchers have found feather samples that date as far back as the late Germanic Iron (or Merovingian) Age, from around 570 and through the Viking era.

An approximately one centimeter long well-preserved fragment of a bird feather found in a grave dating back to the Viking Age. Even after many hundreds of years, it is possible to see the colors and that this is a crow feather. (Image: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU Unversity Museum, Trondheim)

Rosvold’s Viking pillow feather discovery is the next link in a chain of high end archaeological discoveries in this field. Early in 2016 another ancient feather set the paleontological world on fire. Discovered in Myanmar and dating back to the Middle Cretaceous, about 99 million years ago, a piece of amber contained “a part of a small and feathery tail,” according to an article in The Guardian. Based on a number of observations, including “several features of the feathers,” the scientists argued that this “tail did not belong to an ancient bird, but rather to a dinosaur known as a coelurosaur. This amber entombed feather was the first “official” piece of a dinosaur ever to have been found trapped in amber, the first unofficial one reaching pop cultural fame in the Jurassic Park franchise.

And as if this wasn’t enough in the world of feathers for one year, in November 2016, reported that Chinese scientists discovered a near-complete fossil of “the oldest feathered bird-like dinosaur.” Although this discovery brought with it a wave of skeptics, dating established “that such feathered animals were present on Earth at least 150 million years ago.” According to Mark Norell, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, “these four-winged dinosaurs also had feathers on their feet and wing-like attachments on the arms and legs. But they could probably only glide, as their plumage was insufficient for powered flight.”

The holotype of Microraptor gui, the four-winged dinosaur.This shows the preserved feathers (white arrow) and the 'halo' around the specimen where they appear to be absent (black arrows). (CC BY 2.5)

Returning to the Norwegian discovery of the Eagle-owl feathers in the Viking’s pillow, to gain a greater understanding of how ancient Nordic cultures interacted with Eagles, archaeologists might consider studying The Tomb of the Eagles, a Neolithic chambered tomb located on a cliff edge at Isbister on South Ronaldsay in Orkney, Scotland. This unique ancient burial chamber contained over “16,000 human bones… as well as 725 bones from predominantly White-tailed Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla). These eagles died c. 2450–2050 BC, and although almost all organic matter has now rotted away, maybe Jørgen Rosvold and his team of feathery sleuths at (NTNU) University Museum could find fragments of ancient Sea-Eagle feathers buried deep beneath the meters of compacted bird excrement which has solidified like cement.

And remember, to archaeologists in Norway or Scotland, this compacted avian excreta is comparative to Chinese amber in the organic treasures it has been found to contain.

Top image: This microscopic image shows what bird feathers and bone fragments look like close up. Branching off the feathers are thin hairs. (CC BY 4.0)

By Ashley Cowie

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Self-portraits: How people took selfies in the past

History Extra

What’s the earliest known self-portrait?
 A stele (stone slab) carved in about 1365 BC and now in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin depicts Pharaoh Akhenaton’s chief sculptor, Bek, and his wife, Taheri. As it’s likely that Bek produced this high-quality work himself, it can claim to be the world’s earliest known self-portrait.

When did artists in western Europe start painting self-portraits?
 Many medieval artists inserted portraits of themselves in paintings they produced for others, often as figures in a crowd, but they were not the primary subjects of the work and these are perhaps best seen as pictorial signatures. One of the earliest true self-portraits may well be Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Turban, painted in 1433. One thing that would help the would-be self-portraitist at this time was the fact that mirrors were becoming much cheaper and easier to obtain.

Who was the first great European self-portraitist?
Nuremburg-born artist Albrecht Dürer was the first to make self-portraiture a significant part of his work. His Christ-like self-portrait in a fur-trimmed robe, painted in 1500 at the age of 28, is the best-known and most widely admired. Other notable exponents include Rembrandt, who produced dozens of pictures of himself, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Francisco Goya, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso.

Why paint self-portraits?
Motives could vary: introspection, self-promotion, practice, saving money. Vincent Van Gogh, who produced over 30 self-portraits between 1886 and 1889, saw it as a way of honing his skills at a time when he couldn’t afford to pay for a model. The development of photography has given anyone with a camera the opportunity to produce an image of themselves.

Who did it first?
Although some claim he needed help, it is believed to be Robert Cornelius from Philadelphia who took a daguerreotype photograph of himself in 1839. Unlike today’s instant imaging, the long exposure time meant that Cornelius would have to have stared, motionless, at the camera for a number of minutes.

Julian Humphrys is Development Officer for the Battlefields Trust. He is the author of Clash of Arms: Twelve English Battles (English Heritage, 2007) and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What are the historical origins of darts?

History Extra

Some darts enthusiasts claim the game originated with archers throwing shortened arrows at the bottom of a barrel, or a disc cut from a tree trunk. The tree section, with its growth rings and splits, mimics the shape of the modern dartboard.

 Plausible though it sounds, the evidence to support this theory is sparse. It’s worth remembering that throwing-darts were a well-established item in the medieval arsenal, particularly for training and jousting tournaments, where knights occasionally competed to hit a target, whether from a moving horse or on foot. So whenever working-class men first threw sharpened objects at a board, it wasn’t a completely original idea.

The most important innovation of the pub game was the division of the board into different sections offering different scores. Simply throwing at an archery-style bull’s-eye target would soon get tedious.

The modern game of darts didn’t emerge until the late 19th century, and there was a huge range of regional variations in rules and board design. A few of these still persist, eg the ‘London Fives’ board or the Manchester Log-End board.

Darts really took off after the First World War, when working men had more leisure time, and greater mobility made it possible for pubs and breweries to organise leagues and contests.

Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Medieval History of the Tower of London


The White Tower of The Tower of London. Photo by

By Toni Mount

540 years ago, on the 18th February 1478 the Duke of Clarence was, famously, drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. Did he jump or was he pushed? The question has never been answered, so this was an opportunity for the intrepid investigator Seb Foxley – to finally solve the mystery.

The latest instalment of popular writer and historian Toni Mount’s ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series, The Colour of Murder, explores the centuries old murder mystery of the death of George, Duke of Clarence, in the Tower of London.

The Tower of London
The Bowyer Tower at The Tower of London housed George, Duke of Clarence during his months of imprisonment in 1477-78 and where he died in the notorious butt of malmsey wine – maybe?

The Tower of London, officially Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, stands on the north bank of the River Thames, separated from the City of London by the open area of Tower Hill. It was founded towards the end of 1066 by William the Conqueror to remind the unruly citizens of London that they were now under Norman rule. To ensure they got the message, they were taxed to pay for and forced to provide the labourers to build it – no wonder the Tower was resented as a symbol of oppression. The castle was occasionally used as a prison but that wasn’t its main purpose. It was meant to be the monarch’s London residence. The Tower is actually a complex of buildings enclosed by two rings of defensive walls and a moat and the basic plan remains as it was in the late thirteenth century.

 Important to England’s history, the Tower of London was besieged several times and has served variously as an armoury and weapons’ factory, a royal treasury and the mint, a zoo, a record office and remains the place where the Crown Jewels are kept secure. From the early fourteenth century until the reign of Charles II, the monarch would process from the Tower to Westminster Abbey for their coronation. In the late fifteenth century, under the Tudors, the Tower was used less as a royal residence and more as a prison for disgraced nobles, such as Queen Anne Boleyn, her daughter Elizabeth before she became queen, Lady Jane Grey who was executed on 12th February 1554 and Sir Walter Raleigh. Despite acquiring a reputation for torture and death, only seven people were executed within the Tower before the twentieth century. Executions usually took place on Tower Hill and 112 unfortunates met their deaths there over a 400-year period.

The White Tower is the original castle keep, the strongest part of the castle where the king lodged in safety, and is still ‘the most complete eleventh-century palace in Europe’. The entrance was on the first floor, giving access to the accommodation for the Constable of the Tower as the king’s representative in charge of running the castle, his Lieutenant and other important officers. The upper floor had a great hall on the western side and a residential chamber to the east for the king’s use, both of which originally opened to the roof level, with St John’s Chapel in the south-eastern corner. The top floor was added in the fifteenth century.

The innermost ward is the area south of the White Tower that once went down to the edge of the river. By the 1170s, the king’s retinue had long outgrown the few rooms in the White Tower and new lodgings were built in the innermost ward, gradually being extended and made ever more sumptuous. Construction of the Wakefield and Lanthorn Towers at the corners of the wall along the river began c.1220 to provide apartments for the king and queen. Henry III had his queen’s chamber whitewashed and painted with flowers. A great hall was built between the two towers with a separate kitchen – for safety reasons.

The inner ward had been created during the 1190s, during Richard the Lionheart’s reign, when a moat was dug to the west of the innermost ward, doubling the area of the castle but his nephew, Henry III, created the ward’s east and north walls as they are today. The main entrance to the inner ward was through a gatehouse by the Beauchamp Tower – one of thirteen towers along the curtain wall. Of these thirteenth-century towers, all of which provided accommodation, the Bell Tower also housed a belfry, its bell meant to raise the alarm in the event of an attack. The royal bow-maker, responsible for making longbows and other weapons, had a workshop in the Bowyer Tower. This was also the tower that housed George, Duke of Clarence during his months of imprisonment in 1477-78 and where he died in the notorious butt of malmsey wine – maybe? A turret at the top of Lanthorn Tower was used as a beacon by traffic approaching the Tower at night.

As a result of Henry III’s expansion, St Peter ad Vincula, a chapel which had previously stood outside the Tower, was incorporated into the castle. Henry added glazed windows to the chapel and stalls for himself and his queen. It was rebuilt by Edward I, costing over £300 and again by Henry VIII. Immediately west of Wakefield Tower, the Bloody Tower – known as the Garden Tower until Tudor times – was also built by Henry III as a water-gate to give access to the castle from the River Thames, protected by a portcullis and gate. The Bloody Tower acquired its name in the sixteenth century as it was believed to be the site of the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Between 1339 and 1341, another gatehouse was built between the Bell and Salt Towers.

Author Toni Mount 

A third, outer ward was created during Edward I’s time to completely surround the castle. The new complex consisted of an inner and outer gatehouse and a barbican which became known as the Lion Tower as it housed the animals in the Royal Menagerie since the 1330s but the The Lion Tower itself no longer survives. Edward extended the Tower of London onto land that had previously been submerged by the river, building St Thomas’s Tower; later known as Traitors’ Gate. He also moved the Royal Mint into the Tower.

During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the Tower was besieged with young King Richard II inside. When Richard rode out to meet with the rebel leader Wat Tyler, a mob broke in and looted the Jewel House. They also seized the Archbishop of Canterbury who was hated as Chancellor of England for imposing high taxes and beheaded him. In the second half of the fifteenth century, during the Wars of the Roses, fought between the royal houses of Lancaster and York, the Tower was besieged and damaged by artillery in 1460 by the Yorkists. Later, the defeated Lancastrian king, Henry VI was captured and imprisoned by the Yorkist king, Edward IV in the Wakefield Tower where he died in 1471, perhaps executed on Edward’s orders.

Shortly after the death of Edward IV in 1483, the king’s young sons were living in the Garden Tower. Their subsequent disappearance gave rise to the notorious story that they were murdered by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Although there is no evidence of such a crime, the incident of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ remains one of the most infamous events associated with the Tower of London. From the Tudor period, the Tower was seldom used as a royal residence but it needed its defences updated. Henry VIII spent £3,593 on repairs and renovations but the palace buildings were neglected. The Tower’s reputation for torture dates to the century between 1540 and 1640 but since the Privy Council had to sanction torture, it was rarely used. There are only forty-eight recorded cases and the most famous victim was Guy Fawkes. In November 1605, after being tortured on the rack, he was barely able to sign his confession, concerning the Gunpowder Treason.

The last monarch to traditionally process from the Tower to Westminster to be crowned was Charles II in 1660, although the accommodation was in such poor condition he didn’t stay the night. Between 1666 and 1676, the decayed palace buildings were demolished in the innermost ward and the space around the White Tower was cleared so that anyone approaching could be seen as they crossed the open ground. The Jewel House was also demolished and the Crown Jewels rehoused in the Martin Tower.

Today, the Tower of London is a popular tourist attraction. Under the ceremonial charge of the Constable of the Tower, it is cared for by the Historic Royal Palaces charity and protected not by longbows and cannons but as a World Heritage Site.

Toni Mount is a popular writer and historian; she is the author of Everyday Life in Medieval London and A Year in the Life of Medieval England (published by Amberley Publishing). Her successful ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval whodunits is published by and the latest book in this series, The Colour of Murder, is now available as a paperback or on Kindle.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Grand Gesture: Henry VIII and the Westminster Tournament


The Westminster Tournament Challenge, 1511, British Library, Harley 83 H I.

By Natalie Anderson

This Valentine’s Day, if you’re stuck for something to do, you might like to take inspiration from Henry VIII of England, who, in February 1511, hosted an extravagant tournament in honour of his (then) wife, Katherine of Aragon and their new-born son.

Henry celebrated the birth of his much-desired son with Katherine by hosting a grand tournament in Westminster. This might seem like the ultimate romantic gesture, but, in fact, the star of this show was Henry and no one else. Henry was the second son of the previous king, Henry VII, and was never meant to be king (that honour should have gone to his brother, Arthur). When Arthur died, the young Henry was dragged from his life of courtly leisure and into a role he hadn’t been prepared for. Henry brought with him his love of jousting – and all the extravagance, spectacle, and intense competition that came along with it. Unlike the popular modern image of the elderly, corpulent Henry, as a young man the king was slim and fit and bursting with energy.

The tournament was held over two days: 12-13 February. The cost for those two days came to over £4,000 – a hefty sum. The announcement for the event came in the form of an elaborate allegorical letter, which was said to be sent out by the queen of the land of Cuere Noble, who was sending her four champions to joust against any who wished to challenge them. These champions were to include, of course, Henry, jousting under the moniker Noble Cuere Loyall, and three other prominent knights of his court, each of whom also competed under assumed names – a romantic tradition common to the form of tournament known as a pas d’armes held in the prosperous court of Burgundy.

The Westminster tournament is so well known today, because it was immortalised in the Westminster Tournament Roll. Almost sixty feet long, the Roll was produced as, essentially, a piece of propaganda, and, although it was purportedly made in honour of Katherine and her new-born son, Henry is the undisputed central figure of the document. It was meant to record the magnificence of Henry and his court and to gain him recognition on the European stage as a powerful and prosperous monarch. After all, he had only come to the throne two years early, in 1509, and he was only eighteen when he did so.

Henry was canny enough to see the use of the tournament as a tool – similar to the aging Holy Roman Emperor and fellow jousting fanatic Maximilian I, whom Henry admired. He made tournaments a central part of Tudor court life and made an effort to project his prestige through displays of wealth and theatre. This was a very different tactic from his more reserved and fiscally conservative father, Henry VII. And the tournament in the sixteenth century was perfectly suited to serve as Henry’s political tool. It was moving further and further away from its original purpose as a form of military training and was evolving into a distinct sport that was a unique blend of theatre and athletic skill.

Henry VIII tilting in front of Katherine of Aragon, Westminster Tournament Roll, College of Arms

The Westminster Tournament Roll is divided into three scenes: the entry of the competitors into the lists, Henry jousting against an opponent, and the procession out of the lists. Although Henry is, unsurprisingly, central to each of these scenes, he really takes centre stage in the second, which is the only scene of actual tournament action in the Roll. In it, Henry can also be seen breaking his lance on his opponent’s helm. Now, this was the best possible stroke it was possible to score in a joust, so the viewer ought to be impressed by Henry’s prowess. However, the image is entirely fiction; in fact, Henry never actually scored this hit. The artist of the Roll embellished his success; he was the king, after all.

If you want to see more images from the Westminster Tournament Roll, the John Blanke Project, ‘a contemporary Art and Archive project celebrating John Blanke, the Black trumpeter to the courts of Henry VII &; Henry VIII’ (that I first mentioned in my interview with Black Tudors author Miranda Kaufmann) has been tweeting images from the Roll, following along with the action as it unfolded. Of course, we know that Katherine was not to remain Henry’s wife (and their son was tragically short-lived). And, clearly, Henry made sure that the Westminster Tournament and the accompanying Roll was focused more on him than anyone else. So perhaps, after all, Henry VIII is not the person to look to for inspiration this Valentine’s Day…

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Day of St Patrick and the myth of snakes being cast out of Ireland

Ancient Origins

Today marks Saint Patrick’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Patrick, a cultural and religious holiday celebrated every year on 17th March in Ireland and by Irish communities around the world. The celebration marks the anniversary of Saint Patrick’s death in the fifth century and represents the arrival of Christianity in the country. The Irish have observed this day as a holiday for over 1,000 years, and while the festival began as a religious feast day for the patron saint of Ireland, today it has become an international celebration of Irish culture.

Over the centuries, the mythology surround the life of Saint Patrick has become ever more ingrained in the Irish culture. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is credited with expelling all the snakes from Ireland, and today, not a single snake can be found there. But the true meaning of the casting away of all snakes runs much deeper.

Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the 4th century AD, into a wealthy family. According to the Declaration, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders at the age of sixteen and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. There he spent six years working as a shepherd and during this time he “found God”. The Declaration says that God told Patrick to flee to the coast, where a ship would be waiting to take him home. After making his way home, Patrick went on to become a priest.

According to tradition, Patrick returned to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. The Declaration, a Latin letter which is generally accepted to have been written by St Patrick, says that he spent many years preaching in the northern half of Ireland and converted "thousands". Tradition holds that he died on 17 March and was buried at Downpatrick. Over the following centuries, many legends grew up around Patrick and he became Ireland's foremost saint. While his true name was Maewyn Succat, he later became known as St Patrick, named after his place of burial.

The symbol of the shamrock
On St Patrick's Day it is customary to wear shamrocks and green clothing. St Patrick is said to have used the shamrock, a three-leaf clover, to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish. This story first appears in writing in 1726, though it may be older. In pagan Ireland, three was a significant number and the Irish had many triple deities. The triple spiral symbol, or Triskelion, appears at many ancient megalithic and Neolithic sites in Ireland. It is carved into the rock of a stone lozenge near the main entrance of the prehistoric Newgrange monument in County Meath, Ireland. Newgrange, which was built around 3200 BC, predated the Celtic arrival in Ireland but has long since been incorporated into Celtic culture.

An Irish shamrock on the left, and the triple spiral symbol on the right.

 St Patrick banishes the snakes from Ireland
The absence of snakes in Ireland gave rise to the legend that they had all been banished by St. Patrick chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. However, all evidence suggests that post-glacial Ireland never had snakes. Water has surrounded Ireland since the end of the last glacial period, preventing snakes from slithering over; before that, it was blanketed in ice and too chilly for the cold-blooded creatures. Scholars believe the snake story is an allegory for St Patrick’s eradication of pagan ideology.

The snake was the symbol of the Celts and their spiritual elite, the Druids - who inhabited the island of Ireland long before the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century AD. When Patrick arrived, the only “pesky and dangerous creatures” that St Patrick wished to cast away were the native Celts.

Since snakes often represent evil in literature, "when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland [and] brought in a new age," said classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa.

An Image depicting St Patrick casting the snakes into the sea. Image source

St Patrick features in many stories in the Irish oral tradition and there are many customs connected with his feast day. Over the centuries, these traditions have been given new layers of meaning – the symbolic resonance of the St Patrick figure stretches from that of Christianity’s arrival in Ireland to an identity that encompasses everything Irish.

Today, St Patrick is a patriotic symbol along with the colour green and the shamrock. St. Patrick's Day celebrations include many traditions that are known to be relatively recent historically, but have endured through time because of their association either with religious or national identity.

Modern-day celebrations of St Patrick’s Day

Featured image: St Patrick banishes the snakes. Image source.

 By April Holloway

Friday, March 16, 2018

How Dice Changed in the Middle Ages


These are 14th century medieval dice from the Netherlands recovered during an excavation in the 1990s. Credit: Jelmer Eerkens, UC Davis

BY NATALIE ANDERSON Whether at a casino playing craps or engaging with family in a simple board game at home, rolling the dice introduces a bit of chance or “luck” into every game. We expect dice to be fair, where every number has equal probability of being rolled.

But a new study shows this was not always the case. In Roman times, many dice were visibly lopsided, unlike today’s perfect cubes. And in early medieval times, dice were often “unbalanced” in the arrangement of numbers, where 1 appears opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, and 5 opposite 6. It did not matter what the objects were made of (metal, clay, bone, antler and ivory), or whether they were precisely symmetrical or consistent in size or shape, because, like the weather, rolls were predetermined by gods or other supernatural elements.

Renaissance brings change
All that began to change around 1450, when dice makers and players seemingly figured out that form affected function, explained Jelmer Eerkens, University of California, Davis, professor of anthropology and the lead author of a recent study on dice. “

A new worldview was emerging — the Renaissance. People like Galileo and Blaise Pascal were developing ideas about chance and probability, and we know from written records in some cases they were actually consulting with gamblers,” he said. “We think users of dice also adopted new ideas about fairness, and chance or probability in games.”

Standardization comes into play “Standardizing the attributes of a die, like symmetry and the arrangement of numbers, may have been one method to decrease the likelihood that an unscrupulous player had manipulated the dice to change the odds of a particular roll,” Eerkens said.

Dice are not common finds in archaeological sites. They are typically found in garbage, domestic areas, or cemeteries, and frequently are recovered as lone objects in a site, Eerkens said. Many are not accurately dated.

After looking at hundreds of dice in dozens of museums and archaeological depots across the Netherlands, Eerkens and his co-author, Alex de Voogt, of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, were able to assemble and analyze a set of 110 carefully dated, cube-shaped dice. Their findings were published in the journal Acta Archaeologica in December.

Die, 9th-10th century, Iran. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 38.40.93.

The researchers found that:

 Dice made before 400, or in Roman times, are highly variable in shape, size, material and configuration of numbers.

Dice are very rare between 400 and 1100, corresponding to the Dark Ages.

When dice reappear around 1100 they are predominantly in the “primes” configuration, where opposite numbers tally to prime numbers (1-2; 3-4; 5-6), a numbering style that was also popular in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Early medieval dice also tend to be quite small relative to their Roman predecessors.

Around 1450 the numbering system quickly changed to “sevens” where opposite sides add up to seven (6-1; 5-2; 3-4). Dice also became highly standardized in shape, and also were made larger again. Standardization may be, in part, a byproduct of mass production.

Eerkens said he studied dice because they are a convenient item in which to isolate the function from the style, as opposed to other artifacts found in archaeological sites, such as arrowheads, a functional item used for hunting. “A lot of artifacts we study as archaeologists conflate the two… . We know for dice they are purely stylistic.”

The study also shows that dice, like many material objects, reflect a lot about people’s changing worldviews, Eerkens said.

“In this case, we believe it follows changing ideas about chance and fate.” The researchers conclude in their article, “Gamblers may have seen dice throws as no longer determined by fate, but instead as randomizing objects governed by chance.”