Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Your 60-second guide to the Black Death

History Extra


Death strangling victim of Black Death, 1376. (Artist Werner Forman, image Alamy)

Q: What was the Black Death?
 A: In the Middle Ages the Black Death, or ‘pestilencia’, as contemporaries called various epidemic diseases, was the worst catastrophe in recorded history. Some dubbed it ‘magna mortalitas’ (great mortality), emphasising the death rate.

 It destroyed a higher proportion of the population than any other single known event. One observer noted ‘the living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead.’ No one could be sure what caused it.

 Q: When did the Black Death break out?
 A: The disease arrived in western Europe in 1347 and in England in 1348. It faded away in the early 1350s.

 Q: Where did it originate, and what areas did it affect?
 A: Breaking out in ‘the east’, as medieval people put it, it came north and west after striking the eastern Mediterranean and Italy, Spain and France.

 It then came to Britain, where it struck Dorset and Hampshire along the south coast of England simultaneously. It then spread north and east, then on to Scandinavia and Russia.

 Q: How did it spread?
 A: The disease spread from animal populations to humans through the agency of fleas from dying rats. Plague bacteria stifled the vital organs of those infected.

 Its lethality arose from the onslaught of three types: bubonic, pneumonic and, occasionally, septicaemic plague.

 Q: Who was affected?
 A: Old and young, men and women: all of society – royalty, peasants, archbishops, monks, nuns and parish clergy.

 Both artisan and artistic skills were lost or severely affected, from cathedral building in Italy to pottery production in England. Artists such as the Lorinzetti brothers of Siena were victims, and the English royal masons, the Ramseys, died.

 There were shortages of people to till the land and tend cattle and sheep.

 Q: What were the symptoms?
 A: Symptoms included swellings – most commonly in the groin, armpits and neck; dark patches, and the coughing up of blood.

Medieval observers – and their modern counterparts in 19th-century China and 20th-century Vietnam, observing more recent outbreaks – noted that different strains of the disease took from five days to as little as half a day to cause death.

 Q: How many people were killed?
 A: In Europe in three or four years, 50 million people died. The population was reduced from some 80 million to 30 million. It killed at least 60 per cent of the population in rural and urban areas.

 Some communities such as Quob in Hampshire were wiped out; many rural communities went into decline and were in time deserted. We know that some populations survived, but medieval people had no such knowledge – all they knew was that everyone would certainly die.

 Q: Was it a one-off occurrence?
 A: No. There have been three identified so-called ‘pandemics’. First, there was a significant international epidemic in the sixth century AD. Second, starting with The Black Death – its deadliest attack - plague later returned to Britain in 1361 (when it affected especially younger and elderly people); 1374, and regularly until it disappeared shortly after the Great Plague of 1665. Third, the disease broke out once more in Asia in the 1890s, and established new foci, where it is still found in animal populations today.

Q: What remedies were used?
 A: Medieval people believed that the disease came from God, and so responded with prayers and processions. Some contemporaries realised that the only remedy for plague was to run away from it – Boccaccio’s Decameron is a series of tales told among a group of young people taking refuge from the Black Death outside Florence.

 There was no known remedy, but people wanted medicines: Chaucer commented that the Doctor of Physic made much ‘gold’ out of the pestilence. The plague bacteria were identified in Asia in the 1890s, and the connection with animals and fleas established.

 Modern antibiotics can combat plague, but these are under threat from mutating diseases and immunity to antibiotics’ effects.

Q: Will it return?
 A: In fact, the disease has never gone away. An outbreak in Surat in India in the early 1990s caused panic across the world. The death of a herdsman in Kyrgyzstan in 2013 from bubonic plague was wildly exaggerated in the media. With our better understanding of historic plague, other diseases among animals such as bird-flu and swine-flu are carefully monitored today in case they develop into person-to-person infections resulting in high mortality as witnessed in the Black Death.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

8 Viking myths busted

History Extra


An image of Viking sailors making the voyage across the Atlantic between Europe and America. One sailor is seen wearing a horned helmet. In reality, says Janina Ramirez, Viking helmets would have been simple skullcaps. Painting by NC Wyeth, c1350. (Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Viking Age stretched from the ninth to the 11th century. During this time Viking culture had a huge impact on great swathes of Europe, Asia, Africa and even America – many centuries before Columbus sailed the oceans. They could navigate the known world and commanded respect wherever they went. Yet the Vikings are surrounded by myths. Here are eight of them busted…

 Myth 1: They wore horned helmets
Let’s get this out of the way straight off. There is no evidence that the Vikings wore horned helmets, and nothing like this has ever been discovered in any archaeological dig. They certainly wore helmets but they would have been simple skullcaps, designed to protect the head from impact. Having a pair of horns on your head in battle would not have been helpful if warriors were striking at you with clubs, swords or axes.

 The helmet plaques from Sutton Hoo and Vendel suggest that god-like warriors donned helmets with protruding ‘horns’ (although these are actually hook-beaked birds), but the Viking raiders and traders did not.

 The modern idea of Vikings in horned helmets originated in the 19th century, but it was Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle [a cycle of four operas by the German composer based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas] that seared it into the modern imagination. Costume designer Carl Emil Doepler (1824–1905) created horned helmets in the 1870s for the Viking characters, and so the myth was born. Numerous cartoonists, filmmakers and artists have continued this fantasy right up to the present day.


Detail of a Viking helmet from grave one at Vendel, Uppland, Sweden, 7th century. In the Swedish History Museum’s collection in Stockholm. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 Myth 2: They were a defined group – ‘The Vikings’
The term ‘Viking’ comes from Old Icelandic ‘Viking-r, a creek-dweller’. The Viken was the primary mercantile region of Norway, so it is possible that this apparently homogenous group of people got their name from the extensive trading they undertook out of their busy ports. The word ‘Viking’ later becomes synonymous with ‘naval raids/naval expeditions’ and begins to function more as a verb. Individuals or groups would go ‘a-Viking’, which would mean they would leave their native lands during the warmer summer months, travelling in longboats to regions where they could trade and raid.

 Contemporary writers don’t use the term ‘Viking’ to speak of a group of people. Instead they referred to Norse Men, people from the North, or simply pagans (remember, those recording events were usually Christian scribes). What’s more misleading still is that ‘Viking’ has been used to denote the entire Scandinavian region, including Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Each of these regions was governed by different leaders and they would have seen themselves as distinct from one another. 

These were also very varied landscapes. The more northern regions, particularly the mountainous areas of Norway, were difficult to farm because of hostile weather, while southern parts, in the plains of Denmark, were more fertile. There were occasions when Scandinavian rulers combined their forces for greater military might, but the term ‘Viking’ is like describing all ‘Northern Europeans’ as the same.

 Myth 3: They were extremely violent
The Vikings earned a place in history due to their protracted raids on often vulnerable monastic sites. Populated by literate scribes, these were the worst places to attack if you wanted a good record in Christian historical documents. Alcuin of York wrote to Bishop Higbald, declaring: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. . . .The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”

 There is certainly evidence of the violent means Vikings used to suppress people, particularly in Britain. Many skeletons have been found with the instruments of their death still wedged in their bones. A skeleton in the North Hertfordshire Museum has a Viking spear head stuck in its neck. However, while some Vikings clearly deserved their reputation as ‘wolves of war’, others lived peaceful existences – farming, trading and integrating across the four continents that they settled. 

What’s more, these were violent times, and the Vikings’ aggression was matched or exceeded by other groups during this period. One of the most famous names of the early medieval period, Emperor Charlemagne, carried out a form of genocide on people in Saxony. In the ‘Massacre of Verden’ in AD 782 his army murdered more than 4,500 Saxons who had been given to him by an ally. This was violence at its most stark. And yet, because Charlemagne had a Christian biographer writing a favorable account of his life, was killing pagans and was seen as ‘father of the church’, his place in history was secure.



11th-century stained glass representing Emperor Charlemagne c800 in Saint-Saulge, France. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images)

 Myth 4: They took what they wanted and sailed away
 Finds from Scandinavia do indicate that many Vikings pillaged the places they reached, bringing back coins from across the known world to be buried in hoards back in their homelands. However, many chose to remain in the lands they encountered, establishing lasting and important settlements. 

One of the earliest and most extensive Viking settlements was Dublin, established by AD 841. Dublin grew into an industrially strong city with a thriving port and a mint where the first Irish coins were made. It wasn’t just Dublin that changed and developed under the Vikings. In York, the Anglo-Saxon city was relocated further towards the mouth of the river and settled by Vikings as a new and vibrant town – Jorvik. Iceland owes its settlement almost entirely to Vikings, under Ing√≥lfr Arnanson in AD 874.

 Normandy is another example of how Viking settlement could grow from violence into peaceful settlement. The Normans got their name from being ‘north-men’, yet they were given land in the north of France by king Charles III (aka Charles the Simple, 879–929) in an attempt to keep further Viking attacks at bay. Charles even gave his daughter to the Norwegian chieftain Rollo [who gained Normandy from Charles the Simple] in marriage, and the Viking settlers soon embraced French language and culture to develop into a new breed of conquerors.


Decorative Viking hoard cup made from gold and decorated with animals and foliate patterns. Found buried in England. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

 Myth 5: They were godless pagans
They say history is written by the victors, but in the case of the Vikings, history is written by Christians. This meant that while few accounts of Viking religion survive, there are many documents written by Christian scribes that describe them as pagan and godless. This is not supported by the information we can glean from archaeology and later Scandinavian texts.

 Viking religion was structured, hierarchical and based on a number of established narratives. It was not a religion of the book, and the mythology was transmitted orally. The Vikings didn’t practise their religion in temples but rather, like the ancient Celts, held places like groves and rivers sacred. It seems that priests were involved in religious ceremonies, and these were drawn from the heads of families. Priestly office was one of the honours bestowed on kings. The priest would perform sacrifices, either of objects, animals or people.

 Viking cosmology differentiated between life on Earth – Midgard – and other spiritual realms. The gods were thought to inhabit Asgard, while the sacred tree Ysgadrill stretched its roots to the lands of the gods, giants and the dead. There were at least six realms, with a special place reserved for warriors – Valhalla.

 Myth 6: They were ignorant and illiterate barbarians
The Vikings were not the ignorant and illiterate barbarians that Christian writers of the time believed them to be. While they didn’t write long texts like the Sagas until later in the Viking Age, they had developed a complex script – runes – that was loaded with symbolism. Each letter in the runic alphabet was also connected with a word; the ‘f’ rune was called ‘feoh’, which meant ‘wealth’ or ‘cattle’ – this makes sense within a barter society, as cattle hides were a way of measuring wealth. 

Runes could carry spiritual meaning too, and texts record how certain runes were connected with specific gods or goddesses. Rune stones included lengthy dedications and personal names. Smaller inscriptions survive on personal items like combs and weapons.

 Far from illiterate barbarians, the Vikings were some of the greatest naval engineers and travellers the world had seen. Prehistoric carvings and stone ships testify to the importance of boats within prehistoric Scandinavian society and religion. By the ninth century they had developed advanced ships that could traverse the hostile Northern Atlantic Ocean. They travelled further than any single race before the modern age, and took huge risks whenever they set out on a voyage.


Viking runestone. (Photo By DEA/G DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

 Myth 7: They treated their women badly
Viking society was mainly governed by ‘jarls’, the most important of whom could become kings. It was a largely military society, in which strength at arms was prized, yet wise and learned men and women could also wield power.

 Women played an important role in Viking society. They were guardians of the keys to both property and wealth, particularly when their menfolk were abroad. There is evidence that some were trained to be military leaders too, with shield-maidens described throughout the mythology. Women were held in high esteem, with two buried within the famous Oseberg ship.

 One of the most venerated characters in the Germanic pantheon was Freyja, goddess of sex, beauty, gold and death. She rides a chariot pulled by two cats and is accompanied by the boar Hildisvini.

 Women did seem to have spiritual roles within Viking society, with wands discovered in many female graves. Furthermore, they had significantly better legal rights than their Christian counterparts and could divorce their husbands if they were violent or disrespectful towards them.

 Myth 8: They were beardy and unkempt
Far from unkempt barbarians, Viking men and women were quite vain. Many finds like tweezers, combs and razors have been discovered, and it seems they went to great pains over their appearance. 

They didn’t live in dark, dirty huts, but often in large and luxurious halls, like the magnificent ‘Heorot’ recorded in the epic poem Beowulf, which was the setting for lavish feasts, gifts of gold and display of skills at arms.


Viking period bone and deer antler comb and case from the Viking settlement at York, which is in the Yorkshire Museum, York. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 The Vikings also had a good diet, which included a lot of fish – unsurprising given that most settlements were near to the coast. Evidence of Viking latrines shows they feasted on elk, bear, puffin, salmon and trout.

 Dr Janina Ramirez is a British art and cultural historian and television presenter. She presented a BBC documentary on Icelandic literature, The Viking Sagas, and is author of The Private Lives of the Saints: Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England. To find out more, visit www.janinaramirez.co.uk

Monday, March 27, 2017

Sam’s historical recipe corner: Anzac biscuits

History Extra


These nutritious and long-lasting biscuits are often associated with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. (Credit: Sam Nott)

Tasty, nutritious and easy to make, it’s not surprising that Anzac biscuits are still a popular snack in Australia and New Zealand, particularly on Anzac Day (25 April), which marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

 Ingredients
85g porridge oats
 85g desiccated coconut
 100g plain flour
 100g caster sugar
 100g butter, plus extra for greasing
 1 tbsp golden syrup
 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

 Method
Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Put the oats, coconut, flour and sugar in a bowl. Melt the butter in a small pan and stir in the golden syrup. Add the bicarbonate of soda to 2 tbsp boiling water, then stir into the golden syrup and butter mixture.

 Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the butter and golden syrup mixture. Stir gently to incorporate the dry ingredients.

 Put dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to buttered baking sheets – about 2.5cm/1in apart to allow room for spreading. Bake in batches for 8-10 mins until golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

 My verdict
I’ve often read that Anzac biscuits were sent out to New Zealand and Australian troops serving in Gallipoli during the First World War. According to the National Army Museum, though, this is a myth and most of these deliciously chewy biscuits were in fact sold at fetes and galas at home, often as part of fundraising efforts. You can imagine, though, that they would have been an ideal biscuit for soldiers: hearty, nutritious and long-lasting.

 On a Monday morning, the BBC History Magazine team tucked into a few that had been left in the office all weekend: they still tasted just as good!

 Difficulty: 2/10
 Time: 20 minutes

 Recipe courtesy of BBC Good Food.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Celts: unpicking the mystery

History Extra


Boudicca was considered to be a personification of the goddess Andrasta, says Martin Wall. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia made a voyage of exploration to Britain over 300 years before Christ, he called the native peoples Pretanike or ‘the people of the designs’ because of the crazy patterns that warriors painted on their skin. Pretanike or Pretani morphed into ‘Britannia’ or Britain.

 These early Britons and their neighbours in Ireland all spoke some form of Celtic language by the fifth century BC. Their religious beliefs, their gods and goddesses, laws and military methods, technology and art were common to all Celtic peoples, whose settlements extended from Galatia in modern Turkey, through central and Western Europe and the British Isles, all the way to Celt-Iberia constituting Spain and Portugal. But the Celts were intensely independent and tribal. Even within Britain, a host of separate and distinct tribes zealously guarded their ancestral territories, ruled by kings whose ultimate legitimacy was based on divine descent. The priest-magicians who guided these kings and their tribal peoples, the Druids, were described by Julius Caesar as having originated in Britain.

 Not all Britons lived in ‘Britain’, however. Britons occupied territories in an arc from central Scotland all the way to the Loire Valley in France. As a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasions in the fifth century AD, many Britons were forced to emigrate, some to Armorica (modern Brittany), which is still named after them; others went to Britonia in north-west Spain.

 What made a Celt?
The matter of how each wave of Celts was united and divided by both language and religion is one of lively debate.

 Celtic peoples throughout Europe and Asia Minor shared common cultural, technological, legal and spiritual characteristics, and their languages were broadly similar. But no ‘Briton’ thought of themselves as ‘Celtic’ or ‘British’. Their loyalty and kinship connections were to the clan, the tribe – so they were of the Iceni tribe, or the Cornovii or the Catuvellauni, first and foremost. In recent years, revisionist historians have sought to dismiss the traditional account of Celtic settlement, and indeed to ‘dis-invest’ the Celts as an authentic ethnicity with its own distinctive culture.

 Though I take note of current fashionable theories regarding each ‘wave’ of Celtic arrivals in Britain, I have not strayed very far from the traditional view, which was that three waves of Celtic immigrants from the continent arrived, commencing around 900 BC. The first wave, were called Goidels or Gaels. They pronounced the letter ‘Q’ as ‘qu’ or ‘cu’, whereas a secondary wave of Britons pronounced it as ‘p’ or ‘b’. This linguistic difference has long been cited by philologists as the best evidence for distinct waves of immigration, some centuries apart. Finally, about 50 years before the Roman invasions, a tribe called the Belgae or ‘boastful ones’ arrived, and established control over much of the south-east. They had been displaced in their turn by movements among Germanic tribes and by the onset of a much more dangerous threat: Rome.


A depiction of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 The Celts at war
The first, very formidable threat was Rome. The Roman seizure of the Carthaginian colonies in Celt-Iberia (modern day Spain and Portugal) and Caesar’s wars in Gaul, brought them to the threshold of Britain. Two brief but lively incursions by Caesar in 55 and 54 BC had forced the southern tribes to capitulate, but it was to be almost a century before a permanent Roman presence was established in 43 AD. The campaign to subdue and colonise Britain was savage and prolonged.

 The first great hero of the British Celts, Caratacus, fought an epic war for nine years between 43 and 52 AD against the full might of the empire. A few years later between 60 and 61 AD, Boudica, queen of the Iceni tribe, led a spectacular and brutal revolt which came within an ace of dislodging the Romans from Britain and wiping out the colony.

 The Romans gradually established control over what is now England and Wales, and pushed into the Scottish Highlands, but could never establish firm control even over the lowlands there. Even in northern Britain within the empire, there was a separate military administration based at York. Eventually, as the imperial system began to collapse, the unconquered Celtic tribes along with their Irish cousins, as well as Germanic pirates, burst in upon the undefended areas.

 The Anglo-Saxons established their own kingdoms in the eastern part of the island, and epic wars took place between the small Celtic kingdoms and Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. As these kingdoms constellated into England, desperate wars and political manoeuvring took place for centuries and Wales and Scotland emerged as nation states. These contests provided the material for the legend of King Arthur, ‘Old King Cole’ and many pseudo-historical or actual Celtic heroes. Viking raiding and settlement affected Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany in much the same way as in the rest of Europe. Finally, the most formidable threat of all, the nemesis of the British Celts, arrived in the shape of the Norman invasion of England. Once they had established firm control of England, their wars of expansion against the Celtic nations commenced.



Caratacus, the first great hero of the British Celts, depicted on an engraving c 1754. (Photo by Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

 ‘Barbarian’ peoples?
 Much of what we know about the Celts is derived from classical and especially Roman sources. While we should be naturally suspicious about accepting these portrayals, they were at least contemporary, or derived from eyewitness reports. The Romans had contempt for all ‘barbarian’ peoples, of which the Celts were one.

 People who lived in the great forests of central Europe and Britain were considered ‘savages’, from the Latin silva (‘a wood’). All that was dark, shadowy and sinister was projected onto these ‘primitive’ peoples, and prurient, lurid stories propagated about their inhuman practices. The classical world of ancient Greece and Rome had been shocked to their core when Celtic hordes had sacked Delphi and then Rome itself. Greek philosopher Strabo said that “the whole race is madly fond of war, high-spirited and quick for battle”, and there is no reason to discount this opinion, especially in light of the abundant evidence of subsequent history.

 In fact, the Celts were exuberant and extremist in all matters – their passion for war was no different from their passion for feasting, religious devotions, poetry and art. The Celts liked to show-off their wealth and status, and war gave the opportunity to display their fine horses, chariots, swords, golden torques and similar accoutrements. If they were not actually at war with external enemies or among themselves, then they would be composing bardic poetry about it, celebrating the ancestral heroes of the tribe. It may be true to say that there is a traditional martial eagerness in the Celtic temperament, but ultimately their military traditions were founded upon necessity. They had to either fight or be overwhelmed or exterminated.

 The ‘island of the mighty’
While it is true that few peoples have become so romanticised and mythologised as the British Celts, I believe that the attempt to denigrate and marginalise their history is in danger of doing great violence to a body of knowledge which consists of far more than mere history or archaeology: the mythical lore which has become known as ‘the matter of Britain’.

 The sovereignty of the British race within the ‘island of the mighty’ was exemplified by leaders whose chief attribute was their alleged descent from gods, or their personification of gods or goddesses. The Christianisation of this ancient mythical lore was the template for ‘the Quest for the Holy Grail’ and the Arthurian romances. These themes, reworked for the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, and encrusted around the Tudor dynasty which was of Welsh origins, became the legitimising propaganda for ‘the British Empire’.

 Caratacus ‘the beloved one’ is perhaps the first of these, but Boudicca too was considered to be a personification of the goddess Andrasta. Arthur, the supreme hero of the British Celts, distils much of this into complex myth, which may or may not be based on an actual historical personage. Whether he existed or not, the fact of his existence in the imagination cannot be denied, but there are plenty of real-life Celtic heroes to make up for that: Urien of Rheged and his son, Owain; ‘King’ Cole or Coel; Maelgwn of Gwynedd; Cadwallon who almost reconquered the ‘Lost Lands’; Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and many more. The extraordinary, sad and glorious stories of the last years of Celtic resistance are reserved for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales and also called ‘the last’; Scotland’s hero, William Wallace (who had other Celtic connections); and ‘the son of prophesy’ himself, Owain Glyndwr.


These contests between the Celtic kingdoms provided the material for the legend of King Arthur, says Martin Wall. (Photo by Leemage/Getty Images)

 A legacy of this long battle for Celtic Britain was that it preserved a tradition, a pseudo-history or reinterpretation of history, which alleged continuity with ancient Rome, and legendary connections to ‘Brutus the Trojan’, the supposed first king of the Britons. These traditions, bowdlerised from the Brythonic originals, became a corpus of literature called ‘Bruts’ which encapsulated not only history and legend, but also, crucially, prophesy.

 The so-called ‘matter of Britain’ was not conventional history, but magical. At first, the pure forms of these legends were confined to the Celts themselves, and inspired them to defend their lands, or rebel against foreign occupation. The ‘prophesies of Merlin’ promised that one day the Britons would be restored to the sovereignty of Britain. It was this desperate hope which kept alive a fanatical resistance for so many centuries. That struggle was ultimately doomed, but by an incredible twist of fate, the matter of Britain was taken up by the Tudor monarchs, to be reinvented as the British Empire.

 The consequences of that were to be world-changing, but for the British Celts themselves, the irony was that they were the first victims of this ‘empire’.

 Martin Wall is the author of Warriors and Kings: The 1,500-Year Battle for Celtic Britain (Amberley Publishing, 2017)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

5 things you (probably) didn't know about the crusades

History Extra


Siege of a town led by Godefroy de Bouillon (c1060-1100), one of the leaders of the First Crusade (1095-1099), showing Saracens firing arrows at crusaders as they attempt to scale the walls. From the manuscript of Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images) 

Here, Dr Aysu Dincer Hadjianastasis from the University of Warwick brings you five lesser-known facts about the crusades...

 1) When caught in the crossfire, women didn't hesitate to don arms and armour
Whether women took active part in battle during the crusader period is a much-contested issue. While there is some evidence that corpses of Latin women wearing armour were spotted among the dead on the battlefield, historians have queried whether precious war gear would be ‘wasted’ on women who were unlikely to receive military training.

 However, in desperate situations, whether the women had an interest in fighting or not, they simply had to find ways to defend and protect themselves. Thomas of Beverley's poem on the deeds of his sister Margaret offers a fascinating insight to a female pilgrim's fight for survival in a dangerous place. Margaret had travelled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage and was in Jerusalem when it was besieged by Saladin in 1187. The poem tells us that she was able to avail herself of a breastplate but in the absence of a helmet she simply improvised with a cauldron!

 On the Muslim side, Usamah talks about an instance when a castle owned by his family was attacked and conquered by the Ismailis. The Ismaili leader tells Usamah's cousin Shahib that he will turn a blind eye if he goes back home, gathers his belongings and leaves the castle. As Shahib goes back home to collect his valuables he is startled by a figure who enters the house wearing a mail hauberk and a helmet, a sword and shield. The figure throws off the helmet, and lo and behold, it's Shahib's aging aunt. She berates Shahib for his cowardice and for letting down the family honour by considering running away and leaving all the women behind.

 It is interesting that both sources were written by men, who praise women for their ingenuity without the slightest trepidation – despite the fact that these women's actions dealt a sound blow to accepted medieval gender roles!

 2) During the crusader period medical knowledge was highly valued and constituted one of the crucial points of contact between eastern and western cultures
The memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh (1095–1188), The Book of Contemplation, are a goldmine of information about daily life in the Holy Land and include many anecdotes (some serious, some less so) on various forms of cultural exchange between the Latin crusaders and the natives of the Holy Land.

 It would be fair to describe Usamah as a person who was ‘born’ to the crusades. Born on 4 July 1095, he spent his long and adventurous life living side-by-side with the residents of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. In one anecdote, Usamah talks about an artisan from Shayzar named Abu al-Fath, whose son was suffering from scrofula [a tuberculosis infection of the lymph nodes in the neck]. While Abu al-Fath was in Antioch on a business trip with his son, a Frankish man noticed the sores on the boy's neck and offered them a remedy (“burn some uncrushed leaves of glasswort, soak the ashes in olive oil and strong vinegar”).

 While the anonymous Frankish man seemed to be genuinely motivated by his wish to cure the boy, he was also keen to keep the ‘copyright’: Abu al-Fath had to swear by his religion that he wouldn't make money out of anyone that he cured using the recipe.

 It appears that the remedy was indeed new to the Muslims, and as it cured Abu al-Fath's son its success ensured further circulation. The remedy was passed on to Usamah, who tells us that he himself used it on a number of sufferers. Through his memoirs, the remedy found its way to future generations.


c1275, a knight of the crusades in chain mail is kneeling in homage, his helmet being held above his head. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 3) Some crusader medical advice included remedies that were hardly palatable
For instance, the 14th-century anatomist and royal physician Guido da Vigevano offered slug soup as antidote to aconite poisoning. In 1335 da Vigevano produced a text (Texaurus Regis Francie) urging the French king Philip VI to launch a new crusade. The text includes technical plans, drawings for siege engines and a wind-propelled chariot, as well as medical advice, including the above-mentioned solution to aconite poisoning – which despite sounding unpleasant, is actually very ingenious. 

Aconite, commonly known as monkshood and still found in cottage gardens, is a highly poisonous plant and during the crusader period it was used by the Muslims against the crusaders. Why slugs, though? On noticing some slugs that were feeding on aconite leaves, da Vigevano seems to have experienced a light-bulb moment. He collected and boiled the slugs, concocting a soup out of them, which he first tested on animals. After achieving satisfactory results he took some aconite and tried the antidote himself.

 Da Vigevano proudly reported that while the first two doses made him vomit, by the third dose he was free of the poison. Sadly, he never found out whether it was worth going through this nasty trial, as Philip VI's crusade failed to materialise.

 4) When all was lost and they were taken hostages, negotiation skills were all that mattered to crusaders
These skills undeniably came to the fore during the Seventh Crusade (1248–54). Initiated, led and largely financed by King Louis IX of France, the Seventh Crusade was one of the most logistically sophisticated expeditions to the East. While it held great promise at the start, it ended in abject failure.

 Louis IX's acts during the crusade were documented by his close friend Jean de Joinville, who was privy to most of the negotiations and decision-making. Joinville provides us with one of the liveliest and interesting accounts in crusader history: he was obsessed with detail, blessed with a prodigious and photographic memory and had a passionate interest in clothing. To top it all, he had a barely concealed crush on Louis IX's wife, Queen Marguerite of Provence, who was also on crusade. Most chronicles of the crusades offer their audiences countless tales of individual bravery and sacrifice – Joinville does this too, but also gives us a king battling a bout of dysentery so severe that a hole has to be cut in his drawers.



Louis IX of France was captured in Egypt during the Seventh Crusade in April 1250. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 After a doomed expedition up the Nile to take the town of Mansurah, the crusaders try to retreat to Damietta but are forced to abandon the attempt. Joinville's party realise that they are running out of options and have to surrender. A crusader among the group clearly sees this as an act of cowardice and argues that rather than giving themselves up as hostages they should all let themselves be slain and go to paradise. Joinville bluntly reports: “but we none of us heeded his advice”.

 Instead, once he is taken hostage Joinville does everything he can think of so that his life will be spared: he strikes a kinship with a Muslim man, lies to his captors that he is the king's cousin, fabricates a relationship to Emperor Frederick II and quotes Saladin when it suits him (“never kill a man once you had shared your bread and salt with him”). In the end it's Queen Marguerite's powers of negotiation that save them: she hands Damietta over to the Mamluks in exchange for her husband’s life and Louis pays 400,000 pounds for his army to be released.

 5) The royal women of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem played crucial roles in political life, which sometimes meant that they had to endure successive marriages
Royal marriage was an important political tool in the survival of the kingdom. The prize for the highest number of marriages goes to Queen Isabella I of Jerusalem, who married four times. All her husbands, bar one, were eliminated from the picture quite dramatically. She was forced to divorce her first husband, Humphrey of Toron, who was not only extremely reluctant to step up to the throne but also perceived to be too young, too intellectual and somewhat effeminate by the nobility. The divorce meant a loss of face for Humphrey, but at least he remained alive.

Isabella's second husband, Conrad of Montferrat, was not so lucky: he was assassinated by the much-feared Assassins, an Ismaili sect. Isabella married her third husband, Henry of Champagne, while heavily pregnant with Conrad's child and just a week after his death. This marriage lasted for five years and ended when Henry died falling from a castle window. Isabella's final husband, Aimery of Lusignan, died of “a surfeit of white mullet”: quite a preventable death.

 How do we explain these serial marriages and what do we know about the woman who endured them? Was Isabella a helpless, romantic victim who was simply acting as a vessel in the transmission of legitimacy? Indeed, her life corresponds to the most turbulent period in the history of the crusader states: she witnessed the rise of Saladin and the fall of Jerusalem; she saw the Third Crusade come and go and Cyprus conquered, colonised and turned into a new kingdom.

 The man who married Isabella would be king, so he had to be an experienced political ruler and an exceptional military leader. The decision wasn't Isabella's to make, however, as the barons were the active kingmakers, but she appears to have accepted their choices. By the end of her reign the kingdom had found stability and her eldest daughter's right to rule was secure.

 Similar to Margaret of Beverley's cauldron-come-helmet in 1187, Isabella’s marriages can be seen as improvisations to protect the kingdom. The cauldron saved a pilgrim; Isabella's marriages ensured the survival of the kingdom at a perilous time.

 Dr Aysu Dincer Hadjianastasis is a teaching fellow in medieval and early modern history at the University of Warwick.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Charlemagne: creating the myth

History Extra


A 14th-century bust of Charlemagne, kept at Aachen Cathedral. (Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

When historical figures are able to captivate the imagination of later generations, resonating with contemporary ideals, values, concerns, or anxieties, they can acquire a mythical status. But what is it exactly that makes particular figures suitable material for later mythmaking? In the case of heavily mythologised figures, the relevance of historical ‘facts’ is often limited. Indeed, too much historical detail actually inhibits mythmaking: somewhat paradoxically, it is precisely the undefined, uncertain and unknown nature of individual figures that accounts for their powerful hold on the collective imagination. The very vagueness of the ideas attached to a particular historical figure allows them to be celebrated, reinvented and re-imagined. It can also see them appropriated for a wide variety of political, ideological, or propagandist purposes.

 Fascination with the figure of Charlemagne (c747–814) provides a striking example of this process of mythmaking. Rather than seeking to recover the historical ‘truth’ from beneath the legend later created around him, it is revealing to examine some little known but intriguing aspects of the mythology itself. Particularly intriguing is the surge of English interest in Charlemagne during the later Middle Ages, specifically at a time of intense Anglo-French conflict: the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453).


Charlemagne is crowned emperor by the pope, as depicted in a 14th-century manuscript. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

 Early mythologies

 Mythmaking around Charlemagne began during his own lifetime. His concerted effort to shape a new, Christian empire modelled on a Roman precedent was an abstract but extremely potent political vision. As ruler over a vast territory of what later came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne surrounded himself with numerous clerics, learned men, poets and courtiers from across his ethnically and culturally diverse empire. This ensured the steady production of widespread work celebrating Charlemagne’s vision of empire. This in turn fostered the emergence of a sense of cultural and political identity among Charlemagne’s vassals and subjects.

 The political setbacks experienced by his descendants and successors only reinforced the retrospective idealisation of Charlemagne himself as a figurehead of unity, pan-European Christian peace, stability, and victory over the infidel. Multiple versions of the mythical Charlemagne were conjured up over the following centuries. He was reimagined as a proto-crusader, a charismatic military leader, a new King David, a saintly king and benefactor of the Church and even an apocalyptic king, prophesied to return after death to defeat the forces of Antichrist.

 Reimagining Charlemagne during the Hundred Years’ War
 The figure of Charlemagne continued to inspire later generations of writers, poets, and historians throughout Europe. In England, 10 different Charlemagne romances were written in Middle English between around 1320 and 1500.

 Considering that Charlemagne was presented as a conspicuously French national hero in the many chansons de geste written in French since the 11th century, it is striking to find that English writers and readers showing such pronounced interest in him. This is all the more surprising given that nearly all of the English Charlemagne romances were produced and copied during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), a conflict often seen as playing a fundamental role in fostering two competing national identities: English versus French.

 There was no dearth of English heroes whose legendary feats were also celebrated in chivalric romances during the period: Guy of Warwick, Beves (or Bevis) of Hampton, and of course King Arthur (who, like Charlemagne, was prophesised to return as a ‘once and future king’— rex quondam rexque futurus). Nevertheless, there appears to have been considerable appetite for English romances about Charlemagne, peaking during the period in which England was at war with France.

 One reason for this otherwise puzzling surge of interest in Charlemagne could be the important differences of the English Charlemagne romances from their French or Anglo-Norman sources. Romances in Middle English tended to be simplified and abbreviated when compared with their French models, and the adaptations of Charlemagne stories are no exception. The emphasis was placed on narrative action, while descriptive passages were much reduced; these English poems addressed a less sophisticated, more popular audience and would often have been recited or performed in public. Precisely because they addressed a more inclusive audience, such poems afford us some insight into popular attitudes and mindsets, outside of elite circles usually associated with the production of ‘high’ literature.

 All of this may help to explain why the English Charlemagne romances emphasise questions of collective identity above anything else. Charlemagne’s forces are represented as a tightly unified, militant Christian force threatened by Saracen invaders. This is a striking change when compared with the earlier French versions of the legend, which include a much wider set of interests and narrative developments.


Charlemagne depicted on an illuminated page from the 12th-century Chronicles of Turpino. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

 The Ottoman threat
 By contrast, the English poems are dominated by an interest in crusading. This obsession with religious warfare has been interpreted as a response to contemporary anxieties about the Ottoman invasion of Europe. Indeed, the disastrous defeat of Christian forces at the botched ‘crusade’ of Nicopolis in 1396 appears to have increased pan-European anxiety about the political rise of the Ottoman empire. In this climate of insecurity, stories of an idealised Christian empire from the past could of course be used for multiple purposes, from mere wishful thinking or bolstering morale, to political propaganda in favour of a concerted, large-scale military effort against the Ottoman Turks. 

What is most striking about the English Charlemagne romances is their powerfully uniting rhetoric, and their binary depiction of identity. The romances are reliant on ideas of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, with a constant, highly emotional insistence on the identity of “oure cristene men”. Just as the fictional heroes are brought together by their military struggle against the Saracen forces, the readers too are invited to identify themselves with a single, tightly unified group.



Charlemagne's army depicted in a miniature from a medieval manuscript. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

 A divided Europe
 This almost obsessive emphasis on militant Christianity has also been read as a response to internal troubles within European society itself. At the time, Europe was divided by the papal schism between Rome and Avignon (c1378–1417). Known as the Great Western Schism, this dispute over papal candidates had produced a politically fractured Europe, threatening to undermine the very notion of a unified Christendom that medieval society took for granted. A divided Church raised troubling new questions about the relationship between political authority, ecclesiastical authority, personal belief, individual salvation, and the legitimacy of warfare within Christendom.

 In this context, stories of the triumphant military achievements of the exemplary Christian leader Charlemagne provided a fictional counter-narrative to a bleak reality of civil unrest, and wider social and spiritual anxiety. Indeed, numerous commentators evoked Charlemagne’s noble example specifically to condemn contemporary rulers for their inability to preserve Europe’s religious unity and political integrity.

 Charlemagne and English national identity
 Yet the English Charlemagne romances also appear to have resonated with more narrow, specifically English agendas and aspirations, determined by the country’s protracted involvement in the Hundred Years’ War. Remarkably, the English poems systematically remove nearly all traces of the specifically French identity of Charlemagne’s army: his peers and knights are no longer referred to as “franceis”, but simply “oure cristene men”. This is more than simple unifying rhetoric driven by a universalising religious fervour, and indeed points to a rather more sinister and divisive agenda. In the context of the prolonged conflict between the emerging nations of France and England, this deliberate removal of ‘Frenchness’ must be seen as part of a much wider effort to build English proto-national identity. Yet rather than pitching native English traditions against French ones, nation building often involved the appropriation of French culture, including the chansons de geste tradition and the figure of Charlemagne himself.


An illustration of Charlemagne from around 1450. (Imagno/Getty Images)

 Contemporaries would have recognised this move as an attack on French leadership within Christendom, and as a direct challenge to the kings of France and the way in which they portrayed themselves as mythical descendants of Charlemagne. Indeed Charles V, king of France from 1364 to 1380, styled himself as a new Charlemagne, and went as far as supplementing his personal royal sceptre with the figure of an enthroned Charlemagne. The appropriation of a French cultural icon like Charlemagne was a particularly striking statement given the nature of the dispute that had sparked the Hundred Years’ War in the first place: Edward III’s claim to the French crown.

 From the perspective of an English nation whose ruler presented himself as the sole legitimate heir to the French throne, Charlemagne was in many ways a perfectly natural ancestor to reclaim. The Anglicisation of Charlemagne seems intended to mark the end of French political and cultural supremacy in the west, and the transition of power to the British Isles. For a brief moment, with Henry V’s victories in France, it must have seemed as though the myth was actually becoming reality.

Yet myths are ultimately fictions, and history did not conform to this particular narrative. Charlemagne’s fluctuating, slippery status as a cultural icon in English texts provides a good indication of the profound and unsettling transformations experienced by English and European society during the period of the Hundred Years’ War. For late medieval English readers, Charlemagne was simultaneously an idealised, just, pious, and victorious military leader; a proto-crusader inspiring his descendants to overcome their internal differences and turn against the heathen; and a disputed national hero.

 Marco Nievergelt is a senior teaching fellow in the department of english and comparative literary studies at the University of Warwick. He specialises in medieval and early modern literature, and his research interests include chivalric literature and culture, and allegorical poetry.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

How Did an Enormous Statue of an Egyptian Pharaoh End Up Fragmented in a Mud Pit?

Ancient Origins


A team of archaeologists have unearthed fragments of a gigantic statue, possibly portraying Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, in a muddy pit at the ancient Heliopolis archaeological site in Cairo, as Egypt's antiquities ministry announced yesterday. Finds also included a limestone bust of Seti II.

A Pharaoh’s Colossal Statue Found in Pieces
 Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany announced yesterday that a team of Egyptian and German archaeologists uncovered two 19th dynasty royal statues from a muddy pit in a Cairo suburb. Cleft in pieces, the huge quartzite statue was discovered in the densely-populated Ain Shams and Matariya districts, where the ancient city of Heliopolis once flourished. The pieces of the statue were spotted near the temple of the King Ramses II in the temple precinct of ancient Heliopolis, also known as “Oun.”

 Dietrich Raue, a curator at the Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig and head of the German archaeological team that discovered the statue, told Live Science, “We found two big fragments so far, covering the head and the chest. As of yet, we do not have the base and the legs as well as the kilt."

Archaeologists have unearthed fragments of a colossal statue possibly depicting Pharaoh Ramesses II. Credit: Dietrich Raue Raue also added that, according to his early estimations, the statue is about 8 meters (26 ft.) tall. Additionally, Mahmoud Afifi, Head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities at the Ministry, told Ahram Online, “Although there are no engravings that could identify such a statue, its existence at the entrance of King Ramses II’ temple suggests that it could belong to him."


Nearby, the archaeologists also found part of a life-size statue of Pharaoh Seti II. This beautiful bust is about 80 centimeters (nearly 3 ft.) tall and is carved in limestone with detailed facial features.

Pharaoh Ramesses II’s Legacy
Ramesses II is arguably one of the most influential and remembered pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Ramesses II, the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, ascended the throne of Egypt during his late teens in 1279 BC following the death of his father, Seti I. He is known to have ruled ancient Egypt for a total of 66 years, outliving many of his sons in the process – although he is believed to have fathered more than 100 children. As a result of his long and prosperous reign, Ramesses II was able to undertake numerous military campaigns against neighboring regions, as well as building monuments to the gods, and of course, to himself.


A statue of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Source: BigStockPhoto

The Discovery of the Colossal Pharaoh Statute is Described as Particularly Significant
Aymen Ashmawy, head of the Egyptian team on the mission referred to the discovery as "very important" because it highlights how enormous and magnificently constructed the Oun temple was, with authoritative engravings, soaring colossi and obelisks. Unfortunately, as he stated, the temple suffered many damages during the Greco-Roman period, which saw most of its obelisks and colossi being conveyed to Alexandria and Europe. Furthermore, more severe damages took place in the temple during the Islamic era, as many of its blocks were used for the construction of Historic Cairo.

On a happier note, Raue reassured the media that his team will continue to explore the site in order to find more fragments. "We have not finished the excavation of the courtyard," he told Live Science, and added, "It is possible we will find the missing fragments, and — who knows — maybe other statues."

 If all the fragments are discovered and the immense statue is pieced together, it will be put on display at the entrance of the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2018.

Top Image: The statue of a pharaoh found in a Cairo mud pit. It is believed to depict Ramesses II. (Ministry of Antiquities) Insert: Ramses II, granite - British Museum. (Nina Aldin Thune/CC BY SA)

By Theodoros Karasavvas