Monday, August 21, 2017

10 dangers of the medieval period


History Extra


1) Plague
 The plague was one of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages – it had a devastating effect on the population of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Also known as the Black Death, the plague (caused by the bacterium called Yersinia pestis) was carried by fleas most often found on rats. It had arrived in Europe by 1348, and thousands died in places ranging from Italy, France and Germany to Scandinavia, England, Wales, Spain and Russia.

 The deadly bubonic plague caused oozing swellings (buboes) all over the body. With the septicaemic plague, victims suffered from skin that was darkly discoloured (turning black) as a result of toxins in the bloodstream (one reason why the plague has subsequently been called the ‘Black Death’). The extremely contagious pneumonic plague could be contracted by merely sneezing or spitting, and caused victims’ lungs to fill up.

 The Black Death killed between a third and half of the population of Europe. Contemporaries did not know, of course, what caused the plague or how to avoid catching it. They sought explanations for the crisis in God’s anger, human sin, and outsider/marginal groups, especially Jews. If you were infected with the bubonic plague, you had a 70–80 per cent chance of dying within the next week. In England, out of every hundred people, perhaps 35–40 could expect to die from the plague.

 As a result of the plague, life expectancy in late 14th-century Florence was just under 20 years – half of what it had been in 1300. From the mid-14th-century onwards, thousands of people from all across Europe – from London and Paris to Ghent, Mainz and Siena – died. A large number of those were children, who were the most vulnerable to the disease.

 2) Travel
 People in the medieval period faced a host of potential dangers when travelling.

 A safe, clean place to sleep upon demand was difficult to find. Travellers often had to sleep out in the open – when travelling during the winter, they ran the risk of freezing to death. And while travelling in groups provided some safety, one still might be robbed or killed by strangers – or even one’s fellow travellers.

 Nor were food and drink provided unless the traveller had found an inn, monastery, or other lodging. Food poisoning was a risk even then, and if you ran out of food, you had to forage, steal, or go hungry.

 Medieval travellers could also be caught up in local or regional disputes or warfare, and be injured or thrown into prison. Lack of knowledge of foreign tongues could also lead to problems of interpretation.

 Illness and disease could also be dangerous, and even fatal. If one became unwell on the road, there was no guarantee that decent – or indeed any – medical treatment could be received.

 Travellers might also fall victim to accident. For example, there was a risk of drowning when crossing rivers – even the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick I, drowned in 1190 when crossing the Saleph river during the Third Crusade. Accidents might also happen upon arrival: in Rome during the 1450 jubilee, disaster struck when some 200 people in the huge crowd crossing the great bridge of Sant’ Angelo tumbled over the edge and drowned.



While it was faster to travel by sea than land, stepping onto a boat presented substantial risks: a storm could spell disaster, or navigation could go awry, and the medieval wooden ships used were not always equal to the challenges of the sea. However, by the later Middle Ages, sea travel was becoming faster and safer than ever before. An average traveller in the medieval period could expect to cover 15–25 miles a day on foot or 20–30 on a horse, while sailing ships might make 75–125 miles a day.

 3) Famine
 Famine was a very real danger for medieval men and women. Faced with dwindling food supplies due to bad weather and poor harvests, people starved or barely survived on meagre rations like bark, berries and inferior corn and wheat damaged by mildew.

 Those eating so little suffered malnutrition, and were therefore very vulnerable to disease. If they didn’t starve to death, they often died as a result of the epidemics that followed famine. Illnesses like tuberculosis, sweating sickness, smallpox, dysentery, typhoid, influenza, mumps and gastrointestinal infections could and did kill.

 The Great Famine of the early 14th century was particularly bad: climate change led to much colder than average temperatures in Europe from c1300 – the ‘Little Ice Age’. In the seven years between 1315 and 1322, western Europe witnessed incredibly heavy rainfall, for up to 150 days at a time.

 Farmers struggled to plant, grow and harvest crops. What meagre crops did grow were often mildewed, and/or terribly expensive. The main food staple, bread, was in peril as a result. This also came at the same time as brutally cold winter weather.

 At least 10 per cent – perhaps close to 15 per cent – of people in England died during this period.

 4) Childbirth
 Today, with the benefits of ultrasound scans, epidurals and fetal monitoring, the risk for mother and baby during pregnancy and childbirth is at an all-time low. However, during the medieval period, giving birth was incredibly perilous.

 Breech presentations of the baby during labour often proved fatal for both mother and child. Labour could go on for several days, and some women eventually died of exhaustion. While Caesarean sections were known, they were unusual other than when the mother of the baby was already dead or dying, and they were not necessarily successful.

 Midwives, rather than trained doctors, usually attended pregnant women. They helped the mother-to-be during labour and, if needed, were able to perform emergency baptisms on babies in danger of dying. Most had received no formal training, but relied on practical experience gleaned from years of delivering babies.

 New mothers might survive the labour, but could die from various postnatal infections and complications. Equipment was very basic, and manual intervention was common. Status was no barrier to these problems – even Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, died soon after giving birth to the future Edward VI in 1537.




5) Infancy and childhood
 Infancy was particularly dangerous during the Middle Ages – mortality was terribly high. Based on surviving written records alone, scholars have estimated that 20–30 per cent of children under seven died, but the actual figure is almost certainly higher.

 Infants and children under seven were particularly vulnerable to the effects of malnutrition, diseases, and various infections. They might die due to smallpox, whooping cough, accidents, measles, tuberculosis, influenza, bowel or stomach infections, and much more. The majority of those struck down by the plague were also children. Nor, with chronic malnutrition, did the breast milk of medieval mothers carry the same immunity and other benefits of breast milk today.

 Being born into a family of wealth or status did not guarantee a long life either. We know that in ducal families in England between 1330 and 1479, for example, one third of children died before the age of five.

 6) Bad weather
 The vast majority of the medieval population was rural rather than urban, and the weather was of the utmost importance for those who worked or otherwise depended on the land. But as well as jeopardising livelihoods, bad weather could kill.

 Consistently poor weather could lead to problems sowing and growing crops, and ultimately the failure of the harvest. If summers were wet and cold, the grain crop could be destroyed. This was a major problem, as cereal grains were the main food source for most of the population.

 With less of this on hand, various problems would occur, including grain shortages, people eating inferior grain, and inflation, which resulted in hunger, starvation, disease, and higher death rates.

 This was especially the case from the 14th through to the 16th centuries, when the ice pack grew. By 1550, there had been an expansion of glaciers worldwide. This meant people faced the devastating effects of weather that was both colder and wetter.

 Medieval men and women were therefore eager to ensure that weather conditions stayed favourable. In Europe, there were rituals for ploughing, sowing seeds, and the harvesting of crops, as well as special prayers, charms, services, and processions to ensure good weather and the fertility of the fields. Certain saints were thought to protect against the frost (St Servais), have power over the wind (St Clement) or the rain and droughts (St Elias/Elijah) and generally the power of the saints and the Virgin Mary were believed to protect against storms and lightning.

 People also believed the weather was not merely a natural occurrence. Bad weather could be caused by the behaviour of wicked people, like murder, sin, incest, or family quarrels. It could also be linked to witches and sorcerers, who were thought to control the weather and destroy crops. They could, according to one infamous treatise on witches – the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486 – fly in the air and conjure storms (including hailstorms and tempests), raise winds and cause lightning that could kill people and animals.

 7) Violence
 Whether as witnesses, victims or perpetrators, people from the highest ranks of society to the lowest experienced violence as an omnipresent danger in daily life.

 Medieval violence took many forms. Street violence and brawls in taverns were not uncommon. Vassals might also revolt against their lords. Likewise, urban unrest also led to uprisings – for example, the lengthy rebellion of peasants in Flanders of 1323–28, or the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England.

 Medieval records demonstrate the presence of other types of violence also: rape, assault and murder were not uncommon, nor was accidental homicide. One example is the case of Maud Fras, who was hit on the head and killed by a large stone accidentally dropped on her head at Montgomery Castle in Wales in 1288.

 Blood feuds between families that extended over generations were very much evident. So was what we know today as domestic violence. Local or regional disputes over land, money or other issues could also lead to bloodshed, as could the exercise of justice. Innocence or guilt in trials were at times decided by combat ordeals (duels to the death). In medieval Wales, political or dynastic rivals might be blinded, killed or castrated by Welsh noblemen to consolidate their positions.

 Killing and other acts of violence in warfare were also omnipresent, from smaller regional wars to larger-scale crusades from the end of the 11th century, fought by many countries at once. Death tolls in battle could be high: the deadliest clash of the Wars of the Roses, the battle of Towton (1461), claimed between 9,000 and 30,000 lives, according to contemporary reports.

 8) Heresy
 It could also be dangerous to disagree. People who held theological or religious opinions that were believed to go against the teachings of the Christian church were seen as heretics in medieval Christian Europe. These groups included Jews, Muslims and medieval Christians whose beliefs were considered to be unorthodox, like the Cathars.

 Kings, missionaries, crusaders, merchants and others – especially from the late 11th century – sought to ensure the victory of Christendom in the Mediterranean world. The First Crusade (1096–99) aimed to capture Jerusalem – and finally did so in 1099. Yet the city was soon lost, and further crusades had to be launched in a bid to regain it.

 Jews and Muslims also suffered persecution, expulsion and death in Christian Europe. In England, anti-Semitism resulted in massacres of Jews in York and London in the late 12th century, and Edward I banished all Jews from England in 1290 – they were only permitted to return in the mid-1600s.

 From the eighth century, efforts were also made to retake Iberia from Muslim rule, but it was not until 1492 that the entire peninsula was recaptured. This was part of an attempt in Spain to establish a united, single Christian faith and suppress heresy, which involved setting up the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. As a result, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and Muslims were only allowed to stay if they converted to Christianity.

 Holy wars were also waged on Christians who were widely considered to be heretics. The Albigensian Crusade was directed at the Cathars (based chiefly in southern France) from 1209–29 – and massacres and more inquisitions and executions followed in the later 13th and 14th centuries.


9) Hunting
 Hunting was an important pastime for medieval royalty and the aristocracy, and skill in the sport was greatly admired. The emperor Charlemagne was recorded as greatly enjoying hunting in the early ninth century, and in England William the Conqueror sought to establish royal forests where he could indulge in his love of the hunt. But hunting was not without risks.

 Hunters could easily be injured or killed by accidents. They might fall from their horse, be pierced by an arrow, be mauled by the horns of stags or tusks of boars, or attacked by bears.

 Status certainly did not guarantee safety. Many examples exist of kings and nobles who met tragic ends as a result of hunting. The Byzantine emperor Basil I died in 886 after apparently having his belt impaled on the horns of a stag and being dragged more than 15 miles before being freed.

 In 1100, King William II (William Rufus) was famously killed by an arrow in a supposed hunting accident in the New Forest. Likewise, in 1143, King Fulk of Jerusalem died in a hunting accident at Acre, when his horse stumbled and his head was crushed by his saddle.

 10) Early or sudden death Sudden or premature death was common in the medieval period. Most people died young, but death rates could vary based on factors like status, wealth, location (higher death rates are seen in urban settlements), and possibly gender. Adults died from various causes, including plague, tuberculosis, malnutrition, famine, warfare, sweating sickness and infections. 

Wealth did not guarantee a long life. Surprisingly, well-fed monks did not necessarily live as long as some peasants. Peasants in the English manor of Halesowen might hope to reach the age of 50, but by contrast poor tenants in same manor could hope to live only about 40 years. Those of even lower status (cottagers) could live a mere 30 years.

 By the second half of the 14th century, peasants there were living five to seven years longer than in the previous 50 years. However, the average life expectancy for ducal families in England between 1330 and 1479 generally was only 24 years for men and 33 for women. In Florence, laypeople in the late 1420s could expect to live only 28.5 years (men) and 29.5 years (women).

 Dying a ‘good’ death was very important to medieval people, and was the subject of many books. People often worried about ‘sudden death’ (whether in battle, from natural causes, by execution, or an accident) and what would happen to those who died without time to prepare and receive the last rites. Written charms, for example, were thought to provide protection against sudden death – whether against death in battle, poison, lightning, fire, water, fever or other dangers.

 Dr Katharine Olson is a lecturer in medieval and early modern history at Bangor University. She specialises in the religious, cultural, social, political and intellectual history of medieval and early modern Britain, Ireland, Europe and the Atlantic world, c1100–1750.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Easter treats: what are Biddenden cakes?

History Extra


Every Easter Monday, in the village of Biddenden in Kent, a charity doles out tea, cheese and loaves of bread to local pensioners, and distributes hard-baked biscuits, known as Biddenden cakes, to villagers and visitors alike.

 Stamped on each cake is a representation of the ‘Biddenden maids’, conjoined twins from the 12th century who supposedly left money in their wills to found the charity. Joined at hip and shoulder, the twins, usually named as Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst, are said to have lived to their thirties and died within six hours of one another in 1134.

 There is little evidence, though, that the Chulkhursts actually existed and the earliest account of what is probably a legend was only published in 1770.

 Answered by: Nick Rennison

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Big Ben to be Silenced – But the Iconic Bell Will Chime Again!

Ancient Origins




Big Ben to be Silenced – But the Iconic Bell Will Chime Again!

 The Victorian-era treasure known as Big Ben will be taking a four-year break from its hourly song starting at noon on Monday August 21. The bells making up the clock at the most photographed building in Britain will be silenced for scheduled conservation work which will include dismantling the mechanisms piece by piece for cleaning and repair.

The official name for the iconic tower is actually currently the Elizabeth Tower (for Queen Elizabeth II); Big Ben is just the largest of the five bells inside it. Nonetheless, the famous site is often referred to as Big Ben. The Great Bell (Big Ben) weighs a massive 13.7 tons and strikes on the hour to the note of E natural. It has been performing this task practically non-stop (apart from some short spells for maintenance) for 157 years.




There is a lot of history that has happened at the historical site over the years. The Palace of Westminster (which houses the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben), has been a location of royal and governmental power, ambition, intrigue, protest, and terror since about the 11th century.

 Cnut, a Danish king who also ruled England from 1016-1035, may have been the first ruler to build a palace there.


Canute (Cnut) the Great illustrated in an Initial of a medieval manuscript. (Public Domain)

 King Henry III (1207-1272) transformed the palace in the 13th century into a site of grandeur for the government and royalty. According to Living Heritage “From as early as 1259, the state openings of parliamentary occasions were held in the King's private apartment at Westminster, the Painted Chamber.” By 1512 the palace was Parliament’s permanent home.



Parliament and Westminster Bridge. (Graeme Maclean/CC BY 2.0)

In 1605, Westminster was the backdrop for the infamous gunpowder plot - Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the old Houses of Lords and was executed in Old Palace Yard. Most of the medieval palace was eventually destroyed by fire in 1834; only Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the Chapel of St Mary's Undercroft, and the Cloisters and Chapter House of St Stephen's Chapel survived.


‘The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators’, 1605, by unknown artist. (Public Domain)

The first attempts at chiming ‘Big Ben’ resulted in fractures on the bell and some reworking, but the grand bell started keeping time in 1859.


Engraving of the second 'Big Ben', taken from ‘The Illustrated News of the World’ December 4, 1858. (Public Domain)

 It’s not surprising that British newspaper columnist Quentin Letts told CBS News the idea of stopping Big Ben is like stopping London’s heartbeat. “This is the marrow in our bones, this old clock. The thought of it not being there, or one hand flying off, or heaven forbid, the thing going digital, is just too gruesome to consider.”

Letts should rest somewhat easier knowing that traditional methods and materials will be used as much as possible. However, some new amenities such as an elevator, washroom, and a kitchen will be added. A collection of 28 energy efficient LED lightbulbs that can change color will also be added to each clock face so the tower can be tinted for special events. This also means that the clock faces will be temporarily covered during some phases of the works.


Clock face on Elizabeth Tower. (CC BY SA 4.0)

Steve Jaggs, keeper of the Great Clock, said “The tower is not unstable. But unless we do something now it's going to get a lot worse […] We need to do the work pretty soon to keep this for future generations to enjoy.”

Although Big Ben won’t be chiming on the hour, it is still planned to sound on Remembrance Day and on New Year’s Eve. The clock will be powered by an electric motor during the conservation work, so it will continue to run. The BBC reports that BBC Radio 4, which has been broadcasting the chimes live, will be using a recording of the sounds while the bells are silent.


Locals have been asked to come out and mark the event of Big Ben’s final bongs until 2021 at noon on August 21.

 Top Image: The Elizabeth Tower houses Big Ben. Source: Public Domain

 By Alicia McDermott

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Viking Serpent: Serpent Worship, Sacred Geometry, and Secrets of the Celtic Church in Norway

Ancient Origins


Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, inspired by Henry Lincoln and his two co-authors’ The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The Norwegian researcher Harald Boehlke was inspired by the same book. Lincoln’s tantalizing bait was religion and sacred geometry—specially the sacred pentagram.

In the opening scene of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown featured a dying man who had inscribed a pentagram onto his stomach with his own blood. Religion, Sacred geometry, and suspense were the ingredients that kept audiences spellbound. But, it was mainly fiction


A pentagram image was found on the body. (Public Domain)

What Harald found, however, is not fiction. In researching Norway’s Viking history, and Norway’s conversion to Christianity, he was led to profound discoveries. These surpassed by far even the astonishing geometry discovered on the blood-soaked soil of the Languedoc area of southern France, where the gnostic Cathars had been killed by the thousands by The Catholic Church and The Templars had many of their strongholds.

A completely different story regarding Norway’s conversion was revealed, rather than the hitherto accepted one. Harald discovered what is now called The Norwegian Pentagram, and other enormous geometric patterns with symbolic measurements, constructed with the help of cities built during the conversion years (ca.900-1130) to act as markers. And lo and behold, it was seen that Norway had not been converted by the Roman Catholics as had always been the accepted story.

Astonishing Discovery of Sacred Geometry and Ancient Symbols
The pentagram is for many a mysterious, foreboding, fateful and intimidating symbol. The Catholic Church must take credit for turning the pentagram from a symbol of the sacred feminine to a symbol of the devil. But the pentacle's demonic interpretation is historically inaccurate.

It has had many meanings in many cultures, tracing back in time many thousand years. The use of 1.618, called the Golden Section, or Golden Mean in sacred architecture is prevalent throughout Europe.

Pythagoreans considered the pentagram an emblem of perfection or the symbol of the human being. In a way, you might say it is the fingerprint of God. The pentagram incorporates the Golden Section 1.168. It is constructed using this number, and this number only. It can be said the pentagram is the visualization of the Golden Section 1.618.


The REAL Da Vinci Code: Vitruvian Man. The proportional relationship of the parts reflects universal design. (Public Domain)

This number is a large part of Holy Geometry. It permeates creation; It defines the spirals of a Nautilus shell, snowflakes, the galaxies, honeycombs. It is in many ways the number of creation as it is also mirrored in the proportions of the human body.

After Harald’s discovery of the ‘Norwegian Pentagram’ – enormous geometric patterns with symbolic measurements, and ancient spiritual sites in Norway creating a pentagram across the landscape— a larger mystery now confronted him: who had placed this sacred geometry across the whole of southern Norway?



Norwegian Pentagram (From The Viking Serpent by Harald S Boehlke)


Who may have created a symbolic pentagram in Norway? (From The Viking Serpent by Harald S Boehlke)

The sacred geometry was not limited to the pentagram. Studying the Sagas and other historical works led him to discover more geometry. Strange myths and fables that he had dismissed earlier suddenly seemed to make sense, leading to one exciting discovery after the other. The books The Norwegian Pentagram and its English translation The Viking Serpent came into being.

Startling History: Celts brought Christianity to Norway?
The research showed that the Celts brought Christianity to Norway, a fact that at best has been played down in our time of ‘enlightenment’. The important part the Celts played in the unification and christening of Norway has been hidden behind a veil pulled down by the Roman Catholic Church as they maneuvered into position within Norway, as in the rest of Europe.

 In the year 1000 CE, Norway was still a ‘heathen’ country, and contrary to popular belief, it was not the Roman Catholic Church that had struggled to convert the feared Vikings to Christianity. Abundant evidence was found that suggested certain groupings within the Celtic Church had converted the Vikings to Christendom instead. These were Gnostics from the Celtic Church, influenced by the serpent worshipping Ophites from Egypt and Syria who used the serpent as a symbol of Christ.

After Emperor Constantine in 325CE sanctioned the Christian faith which believed Jesus being the son of god, the Gnostics, Arians, Ophites and other sects were persecuted and dispersed. The persecution of the Gnostics was mainly the work of the influential group that later evolved into what we today call the Roman Catholic Church.


The Serpent on the Cross - The Crucified Serpent, after an illustration in the notebook of Nicolas Flamel (CC BY-SA 4.0)

From the Middle East, the ideas and beliefs of the Gnostic Arians and Ophites disseminated towards the ‘outskirts’ of Europe. The Arians went as far north as the Iberian Peninsula, while the Ophites apparently found their way to the British Isles where, according to legend, St. Patrick was sent to Ireland to ‘guide’ the Celts back to the ‘true faith’. While there, he took time to banish all “serpents” from Ireland some time during the fifth century, apparently without too much success. It is interesting to note that there have never been serpents in Ireland. Patrick’s feat is therefore all the more interesting. The ‘serpents’ he attempted to banish were probably bipedal – those of the Celtic Church who revered the ‘serpent’ Jesus.


Stained glass window featuring St Patrick (CC BY-SA 4.0)


The ‘snakes’ that St Patrick drove out of Ireland were the Druidic priests who had serpents tattooed on their forearms. Serpent altars from Cornwall England and from Senhouse Museum, Maryport, Cumbria, England. (Source: Harald Boehlke)

Secret Arrangements, Religion and Kingmaking
From the ninth century, Norwegian Vikings had settled in the Celtic fringe of the British Isles. From the Orkneys in the north down through Northumberland, Cumbria and Wales as well as areas in Ireland, they made new lives for themselves, mainly as farmers and artisans (a fact that did not exclude the occasional ‘Viking raid’).

The heathen Norwegians came into contact with the Gnostic Celtic Church, who from 935-1015 CE, made secret arrangements and engaged in a joint venture with no fewer than three Vikings of royal descent intent upon ascending the Norwegian throne. The Viking kings-to-be made plans to unite Norway as one kingdom, with themselves on the throne. In return for Celtic monetary and administrative aid the Viking kings gave them ‘permission’ to pursue their own ambitions: to convert the Asatru pagans (ancient Norse religion) to Celtic Christianity. The Celtic Church was intent on using Christian magic to consecrate and conquer the land and its people, inaugurating one king and one religion. They traded their knowledge of how to pacify a rebellious population by introducing religion, piousness, and ecclesiastical laws enabling their Viking mentors to ascend the throne, and keep it.

The Celts first made contact with the son of the Norwegian Viking-king Harald ‘Fairhair’, the young Haakon. During the first half of the 10th Century, Haakon was brought up at the court of the Wessex king Athelstan.



Haakon ‘The Good’, son of Harald Fairhair (Public Domain)

Monks from the monastery at Glastonbury had given Haakon his education, and upon the death of his father, Haakon returned to Norway with his Celtic helpers, conquered the throne, and began an enormous secret undertaking which was not to be revealed for a thousand years.

After the death of Haakon (ca. 961 CE), the Celtic clergy cooperated with the famed Viking king-to-be, Olav Tryggvason and later with Olav the Holy. These three constitute the most renowned of the Norwegian Viking rulers.

Sacred Symbols, 666, and the Golden Ratio
When the Celts arrived in Norway, they founded cities and monasteries as sacred markers. They and their Viking collaborators removed old cities that did not fit into the sacred pattern—a pattern that resulted in a gigantic pentagram stretching across southern Norway.




The drawing of a man's body in a pentagram suggests relationships to the golden ratio. By Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, circa 1510. (Public Domain)

It was invisible unless one knew how to utilize the holy mathematical formulae of ‘The Golden Ratio’. Only the initiated knew it was there, and only the initiated could trace it using the monasteries and the five medieval cities of Norway: Nidaros, Tunsberg, Bergen, Stavanger and Hamar.

In The Viking Serpent, Harald demonstrates how they were all laid down according to the ‘Golden Ratio’.

Norway’s two round churches mark the two extremities of the main geometric marker line. The resulting pentagram is inscribed in a circle measuring 666 miles in circumference - the number of the Beast symbolizing Christ as the serpent, as shown in the Gnostic Nag Hammadi texts found in the Egyptian desert in 1945.



The Apocalypse of Peter: Gnostic Nag Hammadi text, circa 100 and circa 200 AD (Public Domain)

These texts describe Jesus as the one “called the Beast” (From the Nag Hammadi Library: The interpretation of “the beast” is “the instructor.” For it was found to be the “wisest of all beings.”) Thus, the Celts introduced their Christianity to Norway, leaving behind a trail of serpent imagery. The Celtic clergy’s use of the ‘Number of the Beast’ reflects their occult use of ‘magic’ and their reverence of the serpent.

 Serpents Abound
The saga writer Snorre Sturluson noted that king Olav (the third ally of the Celtic Church), on his return to Norway from the British Isles in 1015 CE, used the serpent as a symbol on his helmet and banner. In an old saga of which only fragments remain, the burial of St. Olav also reflects the number 666. The stave churches, unique to Norway, were built during these times.


Borgund Stave Church, Laerdal, Sogn og Fjordane County, Western Norway (CC BY-SA 3.0)

These churches were decorated with serpent imagery in abundance: woodcarvings of writhing coiling snakes climbing the portals, and from all gables one can witness – even today – serpents raising their heads with playing tongues.

Borgund Stave Church with wooden serpent architecture (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Additionally, the roofs and walls of these churches are covered with wooden ‘scales’ that seem to mimic serpent-skin.


Serpent carvings adorning the church portal (Kind permission from Norwegian Directorate of Cultural Heritage)

Folklore Reveals Ancient Connections
 Interesting too is the story of a Celtic princess, Sunniva, escaping barbaric ‘suitors’ by setting to sea in a frail Celtic wicker-and-hide craft. According to lore, she landed with her entourage on a small island on the fiercest part of the Norwegian coast and became Norway’s very first saint.



Medieval statue (dated c. 1200) Found in Urnes stave church, Luster, Western Norway, which may be St Sunniva. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 On this same tiny inhospitable island on the fiercest stretch of the Norwegian coast, Norway’s first bishopric was erected in 1068 CE. In 997CE, the Celtic clergy and their second ally the Viking King Olav Tryggvason, founded the city of Nidaros, which was the capital of Norway for hundreds of years. It is interesting to note that Nidaros can be translated into the Gaelic language as meaning “old serpent wisdom”, ‘Neidr’ being serpent, and ‘ros’ being old knowledge.

The sacred geometry of Norway does not limit itself to the enormous pentagram: According to old legends, a certain Norwegian island called Sandøy, or ‘Sandy Island’ is connected to Scotland under the sea. It just so happens that the northwestern upper point of the enormous pentagram falls upon a small island called Sandsøy, or ‘Sandy Island’. On this island, facing the sea, we find the Dollstein cave, which has an intriguing history. Myths tell of treasures hidden in the cave, sought by the Orkney earl Ragnvald in 1127. Even myths about King Arthur are weaved into the island’s lore!

The sacred geometry in the landscape of Norway is so ingeniously contrived, it is difficult for us to understand how it was done. Certainly, the builders’ skills of surveying far surpassed anything historians have been willing to give them credit for. The Norwegian Pentagram and the Viking Serpent will undoubtedly prove to be important additions to our understanding of our forefathers’ skills and beliefs, as well as lifting the veil that the Christian church, historians and archaeologists have lowered over our eyes.

Harald S. Boehlke was born into a Norwegian diplomat family in Oslo, Norway in 1946, and has lived in five different countries. His main interests lie in archaeology, history and art—and shining a bright light on hidden mysteries. Harald is author of The Viking Serpent. | Visit TheVikingSerpent.com --

Top Image: Borgund Stave Church (Eduardo/CC BY-SA 2.0), pentagram, Vitruvian man, and serpent (Public Domain); Deriv.

By Harald Boehlke

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Trajan's Column: An Unyielding Pillar of Imperial Strength


Ancient Origins


A pillar of Emperor Trajan's military victories, the Column of Trajan is as much a benchmark of Rome's strength as an empire as it is a monument to Trajan's success as a leader. Situated at the northern end of the Forum of Trajan, the Column is where all eyes are immediately drawn upon entering the complex. Even today surrounded by the ruins of Trajan's Market, the Ulpia Library and various other crumbling structures, Trajan's Column stands as resolute as Trajan's forces in the war against Dacia.


The column as it stands in the Forum of Trajan (public domain)

Trajan’s Victories
Trajan was a special emperor, as loved by his people as he was feared by his enemies (a trait not as common as one would have hoped for in Rome). Therefore, depicted on his Column is Trajan's most successful military victory: his defeat of Dacia, an "uncivilized" culture on the fringe of the Roman Empire (a region which coincides with modern day Romania and a portion of Serbia). Twining around the tower from base to peak is Trajan's two victories over the Dacians: the first achieved in 102AD; the second, a few years later in 106AD. The Column was begun soon after his successes, under the architect of the Apollodorus of Damascus, and was completed around 113 AD, four years before Trajan's death.


Statue of Roman Emperor Trajan at Tower Hill, London (CC by SA 3.0)

A Column of Triumph
The narrative band winds around the Column twenty-three times, the width of the band and depth of the carvings increasing gradually as the scenes twined further up the colossal structure of Carrara marble (see an interactive display of the carvings here). After the defeat of the Dacians, Trajan declared 123 days of celebration, so one must wonder whether there is a correlation between the number of bands and the festivities. As a monument of the emperor's victory, and the Roman penchant for symbolism, it would not be unreasonable to presume as much. Though Trajan's Column is an impressive feat, it was not the first of its kind in the ancient world. Victory columns were erected long before the Romans came along, variations of the practice seen thousands of years before Rome existed in the ancient Near East. It has been postulated that Roman victory columns were even modelled after the Egyptian obelisks, four-sided pillars erected from a single stone, decorated with hieroglyphics that narrate religious beliefs, and occasionally uprooted from their Egyptian homes and supplanted in the Empire as a sign of conquest. The erection of triumphal columns narrating military successes therefore seems a rather natural transition from usurping monuments (the presence of which indicate conquest) to creating distinctly Roman adaptations.




The intricate carvings depict the battle victories of Emperor Trajan (Mary Harrsch / flickr)

 Roman Propaganda
Because of the nature of the monument, the story carved into the pillar is singular—that is, it is not broken down into individual scenes, but rather is one continuous narration of Trajan's military campaigns in Dacia. Yet the coiling imagery emphasizes not Trajan's slaughter of Dacian forces and enslavement of Dacian women and children, but rather the good Roman's duty to father and fatherland (i.e., religion and country). The purpose of such a depiction is not to illustrate Trajan's ruthless military strategies that brought Dacia under Roman control; rather the Column illustrates the ways in which Trajan contributed wealth, land and able-bodied slaves to his empire. This message is only furthered when Trajan later used some of the loot from his Dacian victory to set into motion an extensive public building program that would benefit those within the city of Rome. (And of course, spread his reputation as a giving leader.)


A scene from Trajan’s column: Building a fortress (CC by SA 3.0)

Trajan, the Merciful Conqueror?
While scholars debate the exact purposes of the images chosen for Trajan's Column, this author postulates that the decision might have been a simple matter of ensuring the public understood Trajan's goals were for them, rather than for protecting his position of power or filling his pockets with gold. The images on the Column center on Trajan's armies dutifully presenting offering to the Roman gods and building bridges and houses in Dacian territory: essentially, Trajan emphasized the same public building strategies on the Column he was using for Rome contemporaneously. Further, the minimal number of battle scenes on the Column depicts Trajan as a merciful conqueror, and reiterating his already defined image as an honorable leader. If Trajan had chosen to solely illustrate the gruesome slaughters of Dacian forces, and the enslavement of the Dacians women and children, the message of Trajan's strength would have been clear, but ruthless. As Trajan is still remembered as one of the best Roman leaders, the images carved were a brilliant propagandistic decision.

 Ancient Viewing of Column Scenes
According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, the Column was once flanked by the Biblioteca Ulpia,—or the Ulpian Library—a library housing Greek and Latin literature in separate collections (and the greatest ancient library following the fall of the Library of Alexandria). The library rose with the Column, and were intentionally designed to include various viewing platforms to allow those who moved through the collections to view the highest parts of the Column. Unlike the later Column of Marcus Aurelius (in which the upper bands of the column are deeply carved to allow viewing from the ground), the images of Trajan's Column only minutely increased in depth because of the aid the libraries provided two thousand years ago.


The scenes on Trajan’s column focus more on offerings and construction rather than battle (public domain)

Not Just an Art Piece But Also a Tomb for the Emperor
The base of the Column was used to further exemplify Trajan's victories against the Dacians, a helpful addition should the Column ever suffer the same fate as that of Antoninus Pius in which only the base survives. Within the base once laid the remains of Emperor Trajan and his wife, a decision the Roman Senate voted for following his death in 117 AD and subsequent deification. The golden urns of Trajan and his wife Plotina have since been stolen, but the inclusion of the great emperor in his titular Forum would have spoken volumes to his people and their descendants of his military prestige.

A Lasting Legacy
Trajan's Column stands not only as a monument to Trajan's success against the Dacian forces, but also as a symbol of his success in ending struggle spanning years of Dacian threats on the Roman borders. Julius Caesar had attempted to squash the "barbarians" around 44 BC; Augustus' armies fought them again when the Dacians attempted to support Mark Antony during the political upheaval toward the end of the reign of the Second Triumvirate. A hundred years later, Emperor Domitian began a war against the Dacians in 87 AD, believed to be over aggression and gold; ironically, one of the reasons it is believed Domitian was unsuccessful was because the Dacians were phenomenal metal workers (because of the abundance of precious metals in the area) capable of quickly supplementing their weaponry with every loss. By the time Trajan took power in 98AD, it was evident that the Dacians had to be squelched once and for all. Thus, the Column stands not only for Trajan's triumph over the ‘barbarians’ but also as a symbol that his military prowess far-surpassed his predecessors.

 Top image: A section of Trajan’s column (Jake&Brady / flickr)

By Ryan Stone

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Parallel Worlds – Events in Game of Thrones Based on Real Historical Events


Ancient Origins



The television series, Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire, has been praised for its gritty realism and epic storyline. G.R.R. Martin has been referred to as the “American Tolkien.” Game of Thrones, however, was not made up from scratch and some events do have parallels in real world history, which makes sense, being that the author of the original books wanted it to be realistic and explore themes pertinent to the real world including politics, gender, religion, and identity. Most of the real world historical events and personalities which served or may have served as inspiration for events and characters in Game of Thrones and the book series A Song of Ice and Fire are events that took place during the Middle Ages, though a few of them took place in classical antiquity.

Game of Thrones Draws from The War of the Roses
For example, the entire Game of Thrones storyline itself is partly inspired by a real-world conflict, the War of the Roses (1455-1487). In the show, Game of Thrones, two rival houses compete for control of the Iron Throne. The two houses are the northern House of Stark known for being poor but, relatively, virtuous and the southern House of Lannister which is extremely rich and very devious.

 In the same way, the War of the Roses was a conflict between two branches of the royal house of England, the Plantagenets. The two rival branches were the northern House of York and the southern House of Lancaster. The Yorkists and Lancastrians had reputations parallel to the Starks and the Lannisters respectively.



War of the Roses - the Houses of Lancaster and York ( AGZYM)

One of the causes of the War of the Roses was when King Henry VI who was forced out in favor of Edward IV because King Henry VI was considered unfit to rule because of mental health issues. This is similar to how the War of the Usurper started with the overthrow of the insane, tyrannical King Aerys II Targaryen by Robert Baratheon.

 The Game of Thrones Weapon of Mass Destruction Existed in Greece
Another example, on a smaller scale, would be the naval Battle of Blackwater. In the battle, Tyrian Lannister orders the use of magical fire called “wildfire” to destroy the enemy fleet commanded by Stannis Baratheon. The magical green fire appears to light water on fire and destroys many of the enemy ships. This is very similar to the real world second Arab Siege of Constantinople (717-718 AD) where the Byzantine secret weapon, Greek fire, was used by the Byzantines against the Arab fleet.



A Byzantine ship uses Greek fire against a ship of the rebel, Thomas the Slav, 821. 12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes (Public Domain)

Greek fire was of unknown composition, but it was probably some sort of chemical that was flammable and lighter than water. Thus, a layer of the substance floating over a body of water could be lit on fire, giving the appearance that the water itself was burning, similar to the way that gasoline can be ignited while in water since it is lighter than the water and thus does not mix. The main difference between Greek fire and “wildfire” of course is that the former was (probably) made through science whereas the latter was made through magic.

Game of Thrones Assassinations
One particularly dramatic assassination scene in the Game of Thrones is when King Joffrey I Baratheon keels over and dies during his wedding after drinking wine that was poisoned. Although there were many kings and nobles who were poisoned in history, a particularly close parallel would be the Medieval prince Eustace of Boulogne who is said to have died mysteriously in a feast in 1153. He was apparently considered to be an evil man who caused a lot of suffering for many people. It is thus not unbelievable that he was poisoned just like Joffrey.

Another underhand murder plot unfolds at the ‘Red Wedding’ where Rob Stark, several of his family members, and many of his soldiers are slaughtered at a wedding feast by disgruntled allies of the House of Lannister. What may be either reassuring or disturbing depending on how you look at it is that the Red Wedding may have been inspired by real events.


The Black Dinner (Den of Geek)

One such event, called the Black Dinner, is where the king of Scotland invited a sworn enemy, the Earl of Douglas, to a feast. He promised that the Earl would not be harmed. Part way through the feast, however, the Earl was served a black boar’s head, an omen of death. Shortly afterwards, the unfortunate least favorite of the king was hauled to courtyard and put to death. In another account, known as the Glencoe Massacre, a clan called Campbell invited its rival clan, MacDonald, to spend the night. During the night, however, the Campbells killed all the MacDonald men in their sleep.

Replacement Limbs Happened
 Over the course of the series, Jaime Lannister has his hand cut off and replaced with a golden hand. This is comparable to the real-world Gottfried von Berlichingen, a German knight whose severed hand was replaced with an iron hand after his fleshly one was blown off with a cannon.



The prosthetic metal hand of Gottfried von Berlichingen (Public Domain)

An Ancient Game of Thrones Comparison
In addition to Medieval history, there may also be references to classical history. In the books, though not the Game of Thrones series, Lyanna Stark, the sister of Eddard Stark, is kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen. This is one of the events that triggers the War of the Usurper or Robert’s Rebellion. The story depicted is similar to the story of Lucretia. Lucretia was a Roman woman who was raped by the son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, the last Etruscan king of Rome. This crime outraged the Romans who subsequently overthrew King Tarquin. This was quickly followed by the establishment of the Roman republic, at least so the story goes.


The Rape of Lucretia (by Felice Ficherelli, 17th century) (Public Domain)

Religious Conflicts
Another example of a parallel between Game of Thrones and real-world history might be the order of the Sparrows, a religious movement within the Faith of Seven, the major religion of Westeros. The Sparrows believe the religious establishment of Westeros to be corrupt and decadent, advocating humility and poverty. This mirrors the Protestant Reformation during which the former monk, Martin Luther, denounced the Medieval Catholic Church and accused it, among many other things of a more theological nature, of having become corrupt and more concerned about money and power than spiritual renewal.

The Wider Game of Thrones World
In addition to depicting European cultures and events from European history, there are also ethnic groups featured in the show which appear to be derived from non-European cultures. An example of this would be the Dothraki, a dangerous group of nomads who dwell on the continent of Essos. In the world of the Game of Thrones, the Dothraki pillaged the Kingdom of Sarnor and the Qaathi cities several centuries before the books or the television series start. This is comparable to the Mongol threat which came to bear on European and Asian civilizations in the 13th century. It can also be compared to the invasion of Attila the Hun in the 5th century AD which rocked the late Roman Empire.


Detail of Attila the Hun from ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’ (1847) by Eugène Delacroix. (Public Domain)

 Family Matters in Game of Thrones
Incest is something that, in the past, was more common in royalty than in the general population mainly for dynastic reasons. Ruling dynasties wanted to keep the throne in the family, so they would ensure that their children married into the family even if that meant marrying their siblings.

A Game of Thrones depiction of this tendency among royals towards incest in the series is Cersei Lannister who engages in an incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime. There is actually a close real-world parallel in the form of a rumor about Ann Boleyn, one of the wives of King Henry VIII. One of the reasons that she was executed by the king may have been related to an accusation that she had slept with her brother.

Another example of a real-world parallel of a frowned upon relationship can be drawn between Talisa Stark and Elizabeth Woodville. Rob Stark seriously angers certain parties when he marries Talisa even though she is not wealthy and has no significant family connections. This is very similar to what happened to Edward IV when he married Elizabeth Woodville more out of her beauty than her status. This gained Edward IV enemies including a former ally, the Earl of Warwick, who aided Henry VI in overthrowing him in 1470, as a result. The reason for such a reaction was that a marriage based on romance rather than social or political considerations compromised the political and social ambitions of the nobility.


Elizabeth Woodville (1437–92), Queen Consort of Edward IV of England (Public Domain)

The best stories are those that contain some realism. These stories, since they are based on real-world events, have an air of credibility since something like them actually happened. This is probably also true of the most enduring myths. They endure so long because there probably is some truth to them. The story of Game of Thrones is fictional, but many of the themes and situations it discusses are realistic situations that actually happened to someone once. It may be partly for this reason that it is so appealing.

Top image: View of the Castle of Zafra, Campillo de Dueñas, Guadalajara, Spain. The castle was built in the late 12th or early 13th centuries (CC BY SA 4.0)

 By Caleb Strom

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Little Pompeii’ Unearthed in France is Most Exceptional Roman Site Found in Half a Century


Ancient Origins


In an extensive excavation of a complete Roman neighborhood found near the outskirts of the city of Vienne in the south-east of France, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of affluent houses and public buildings, including extravagant and beautiful mosaics. The huge site, which dates back to the 1st century AD, is exceptionally well preserved and has been described by Benjamin Clement, the lead archaeologist at the dig as, ‘undoubtedly the most exceptional excavation of a Roman site in 40 or 50 years’ reports The Guardian.

 The Pompeii Comparison
Vienne is situated on the Rhône River near Lyon, and is already well-known for its Roman history due to a Roman theater and temple in the city. The current excavations in the Sainte-Colombe area began in April and are opening up a huge Roman landscape of 7000 square meters (75,000 sq ft). The site is remarkable not only due to its size but both the diversity of finds and the excellent condition they have been found in. Despite the perhaps merciful lack of petrified corpses, there are similarities to the equally well preserved site in Pompeii, as the neighborhood was abandoned due to fires after 300 years of habitation. Although devastating to the citizens there, the fires will have aided its preservation.

One of the French archaeological team cleaning household artifacts at the site at Sainte-Colombe in Vienne, France (Credit: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP)

As Mr Clement commented according to the Telegraph, “It was the succession of fires that ended up helping to preserve the buildings and artifacts, although of course they drove the inhabitants out.” Although the devastation was not on the same scale or so rapid at that of Pompeii, the situation and site have similarities in that people deserted the place quickly leaving some of their belongings which were then preserved by ash from the fires. This is providing rich pickings for the archaeologists and hence justifying the moniker Clement attributes to the site of ‘a real little Pompeii in Vienne.’

Huge Area of Well Preserved Roman History
After around a century of contention with the Gallic inhabitants, the ancient city came under full rule of the Roman empire in about 47 BC under Julius Caesar and began to prosper. This neighborhood was diverse but has evidence of a great deal of wealth and included luxury homes, public buildings and communal spaces. One building believed to be the residence of a merchant has been dubbed by the team as ‘The House of Bacchanalia’ due to its floor mosaic scene of maenads (female followers of Bacchus, Roman god of wine) and satyrs. This building had marble tiling, its own water supply system and large gardens and despite being collapsed by the fire, the team believes it will be able to completely restore it, reports the Telegraph.


The site is extensive and covers a whole neighborhood. Image: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP

 Another interesting mosaic that is undergoing restoration in another abode is of Thalia, the patron of comedy, with a bare derrière and being abducted by Pan the god of the satyrs. According to the Guardian report, the team plans to painstakingly remove the mosaics and reassemble them so that they will be available for everyone to enjoy at Vienne’s museum of Gallo-Roman civilization by 2019.

 As well as mosaics and household items, a large building with a fountain decorated by a statue of Hercules was uncovered which had been constructed on the site of a former market.

The Vienne of Rome


The Temple of Auguste and Livie lit up at night, Vienne, France (CC BY 3.0)

The position Vienne held on the mighty Rhône river was part of the major transport route that connected Lyon, the soon to be capital of Gaul to the north, with Gallia Narbonensis, a Roman settlement in the south. The colonized city made all its inhabitants citizens of Rome and it prospered under successive Caesars, evidence of which exists until this day. Perhaps the most impressive of this evidence is the Temple of Auguste and Livie, which is remarkably well preserved having later been used as a church. There also still exists a theater, the ‘Garden of Cybele’ (Cybele being known by the Romans as Magna Mater or Great Mother) and a pyramid shaped monument that was part of the Roman ‘circus’ or hippodrome


‘Pyramide de Vienne’ Roman era monument (CC BY 3.0)

The position of Vienne in the empire was not accepted by all and there were calls for its destruction by the people of nearby rival town, Lyon. The city lived on despite these troubles, however it suffered due to competing claim of Lyon to be the leading city in the area and by the 3rd century it had declined drastically as Lyon took the lead role in the region. A new city wall was built that was less than a third of the length of the existing 7-kilometer (4.35 miles) wall.

Modern Revelations
Being on the edges of modern Vienne and dated in the first three centuries AD, the current excavation is revealing further the story of a period when the city was at its ancient height of prosperity. It will add a depth of knowledge concerning the daily life and society at the time when the famous monuments - which have been known an admired in the city for two millennia - were erected.


The archaeological site of the Garden of Cybele, Vienne (CC BY SA 3.0)

The excavation of the Sainte-Colombe site will be ongoing until December.

Top image: A well-preserved mosaic on the archaeological site of Sainte-Colombe, Vienne. (Image: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP)

By Gary Manners