Saturday, March 17, 2018

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

Ancient Origins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern-day celebrations of St Patrick’s Day

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

 By April Holloway

Friday, March 16, 2018

How Dice Changed in the Middle Ages


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The researchers found that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Beware the Ides of March! Julius Caesar's Fateful Day


by N.S. Gill Updated February 28, 2018

The Ides of March ("Eidus Martiae" in Latin) is a day on the traditional Roman calendar that corresponds to the date of March 15th on our current calendar. Today the date is commonly associated with bad luck, a reputation that it earned at the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar (100–43 BCE).

 A Warning
In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar's rule in Rome was in trouble. Caesar was a demagogue, a ruler who set his own rules, frequently bypassing the Senate to do what he liked, and finding supporters in the Roman proletariat and his soldiers.

The Senate made Caesar dictator for life in February of that year, but in truth, he had been the military dictator governing Rome from the field since 49. When he returned to Rome, he kept his stringent rules.

According to the Roman historian Suetonius (690–130 CE), the haruspex (seeress) Spurinna warned Caesar in mid-February 44, telling him that the next 30 days were to be fraught with peril, but the danger would end on the Ides of March. When they met on the Ides of March Caesar said "you are aware, surely, that the Ides of March have passed" and Spurinna responded, "surely you realize that they have not yet passed?"
CAESAR to SOOTHSAYER: The Ides of March are come.
SOOTHSAYER (softly): Ay, Caesar, but not gone.
—Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

What Are Ides, Anyway?
The Roman calendar did not number days of an individual month sequentially from first to last as is done today. Rather than sequential numbering, the Romans counted backwards from three specific points in the lunar month, depending on the length of the month.

 Those points were the Nones (which fell on the fifth in months with 30 days and the seventh day in 31-day months), the Ides (the thirteenth or the fifteenth), and the Kalends (the first of the following month). The Ides typically occurred near a month’s midpoint; specifically on the fifteenth in March. The length of the month was determined by the number of days in the moon's cycle: March's Ides date was determined by the full moon.

Why Caesar Had to Die
There were said to be several plots to kill Caesar and for a multitude of reasons. According to Suetonius, the Sybelline oracle had declared that Parthia could only be conquered by a Roman king, and the Roman consul Marcus Aurelius Cotta was planning to call for Caesar to be named king in mid-March.

The senators feared Caesar's power, and that he might overthrow the senate in favor of general tyranny. Brutus and Cassius, the main conspirators in the plot to kill Caesar, were magistrates of the Senate, and as they would not be allowed to either oppose the crowning of Caesar nor remain silent, they had to kill him.

A Historical Moment
Before Caesar went to the theater of Pompey to attend the Senate meeting, he had been given advice not to go, but he did not listen. Doctors had advised him not to go for medical reasons, and his wife, Calpurnia, also did not want him to go based off of troubling dreams that she had.

On the Ides of March, 44 BCE, Caesar was murdered, stabbed to death by the conspirators near the Theatre of Pompey where the Senate was meeting.

Caesar’s assassination transformed Roman history, as it was a central event in marking the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. His assassination resulted directly in the Liberator’s Civil War, which was waged to avenge his death.

With Caesar gone, the Roman Republic did not last long and was eventually replaced by the Roman Empire, which lasted approximately 500 years. The initial two centuries of the Roman Empire’s existence were known to be a time of supreme and unprecedented stability and prosperity. The time period came to be known as “Roman Peace.”

Anna Perenna Festival
Before it became notorious as the day of Caesar's death, the Ides of March was a day of religious observations on the Roman calendar, and it is possible that the conspirators chose the date because of that.

In ancient Rome, a festival for Anna Perenna (Annae festum geniale Pennae) was held on the Ides of March. Perenna was a Roman deity of the circle of the year. Her festival originally concluded the ceremonies of the new year, as March was the first month of the year on the original Roman calendar. Thus, Perenna’s festival was celebrated enthusiastically by the common people with picnics, eating, drinking, games, and general revelry.

The Anna Perenna festival was, like many Roman carnivals, a time when celebrants could subvert traditional power relations between social classes and gender roles when people were allowed to speak freely about sex and politics. Most importantly the conspirators could count on the absence of at least a part of the proletariat from the center of the city, while others would be watching the gladiator's games.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

Balsdon, J. P. V. D. "The Ides of March." Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 7.1 (1958): 80-94. Print.
Horsfall N. 1974. The Ides of March: Some New Problems. Greece & Rome 21(2):191-199.
Horsfall, Nicholas. "The Ides of March: Some New Problems." Greece & Rome 21.2 (1974): 191-99. Print.
Newlands, Carole. "Transgressive Acts: Ovid's Treatment of the Ides of March." Classical Philology 91.4 (1996): 320-38. Print.
Ramsey, John T. "'Beware the Ides of March!': An Astrological Prediction?" The Classical Quarterly 50.2 (2000): 440-54. Print.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

High-tech scans reveal secrets of medieval burial stones in Scotland


PhD student Megan Kasten with the rediscovered stone. Image courtesy Lynne Black.


The latest digital photography techniques applied to the ancient burial stones at Inchinnan Parish Church in western Scotland have revealed that one of the stones, thought to be medieval in date, was originally carved much earlier and probably commemorated an important person within the Kingdom of Strathclyde.

As a part of the ‘St Conval to All Hallows’ community archaeology project, Clara Molina Sanchez (Spectrum Heritage) has been using a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on the burial stones to bring out the worn detail which is no longer visible to the naked eye. Megan Kasten (a PhD student from the University of Glasgow) has been studying the many carved stones at Govan Old church and wanted to compare these with the stones at Inchinnan. Earlier this month she examined the 3D models from Inchinnan closely and to her surprise noticed that one stone had a cross on the top third of the stone and faint panels of interlace.

The stones came originally from the site of All Hallows, Inchinnan, a small hill next to the Black Cart Water. The church there was demolished in the 1960s to make way for Glasgow Airport. The church site was traditionally the burial place of St Conval, possibly an early Christian saint who may have been buried at Inchinnan in the 6th century AD. This discovery adds to the existing three large carved stones decorated with crosses, carved animals and interlace that are characteristic of a group of sculpture that is typically referred to as the ‘Govan School’ of carving. These stones date to the 9th to 12th century when All Hallows, along with Govan and Dumbarton Rock, were places of burial for the elite of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. A medieval church was later built on the site and was the property of the Knights Templar and later the knights of St John. A new church was built on the site in 1828 and this was significantly enlarged in 1904 by Lord Blythswood.

All the stones have decorations and/or inscriptions, which are generally not visible to the naked eye. To make these carvings visible, two different digital documentation techniques were used. Firstly, photogrammetry was used to accurately capture the shape of the stones. In this case, the colour of the biological growth makes it harder to see the details on the surface, but, by ‘deactivating’ it, the different carvings of swords, crosses and inscriptions can now be seen.

The second technique, RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging) is a multi-image technique that provides very detailed information on the surface of a material. RTI files allow the user to explore the surface of the material virtually with different lighting conditions. In this case, a Virtual RTI was created from the photogrammetric models. And to do that, a digital dome made up of 93 lights was placed over the 3D models, thus creating an image for every light. These images were processed, which in turn produced an RTI file for each one of the stones. This made it possible to obtain information about the stones’ decorations that can also complement the photogrammetry itself. The combination of both techniques has been proven to be a very valuable tool to unveil details of the surface invisible otherwise to the naked eye.

Megan Kasten revealed her discovery at the final round-up meeting at Inchinnan on Saturday the 18th November. She said “this new addition is really exciting! We have few historical records for this time period, so each new discovery increases our understanding of the connections between important early medieval sites in the local area, like Inchinnan and Govan”

 Dr Sally Foster, Lecturer in Heritage and Conservation at the University of Stirling and Chair of the National Committee on Carved Stones in Scotland says, ‘The discovery of a previously unrecognised example of the ‘Govan School’ of early medieval sculpture is a wonderful example of the untapped potential of Scotland’s carved stone resource. It shows the power of interdisciplinary research, including the latest scientific techniques, to shed light on the long, complex and unexpected biographies of carved stones. It’s exactly the sort of research project that the National Committee on Carved Stones in Scotland’s ‘Listen to the Stones’ online booklet seeks to promote as part of Future Thinking on Carved Stones in Scotland.’

Inchinnan Historical Interest Group members. Image courtesy Lynne Black.

Dr Heather James (Calluna Archaeology) says ‘It has been great seeing the community and professionals working together to discover so much more about our fascinating heritage through this project’.

This re-discovery comes at the end of a season of archaeological work in 2017 at All Hallows developed and led by the Inchinnan Historical Interest Group and Dr Heather James of Calluna Archaeology. This project has involved geophysics, excavation, historical research, model making, film making, graveyard recording and has enabled several local schools and numerous volunteers to get a taste of archaeology.

The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, Robert Barr Charitable Trust, Hugh Fraser Foundation, AMW Charitable Trust, Foundation Scotland – Dickon Trust Fund, Peter Coats Trust, Peter Brough Bequest Fund and the Glasgow Airport Authority Flightpath fund.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

What Vikings really put in their pillows


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


 Not too many people are able to identify birds by examining a single feather. But a number of folks need to know that sort of thing, and it can actually save lives.

Your pillows – if they’re not synthetic – are almost certainly filled with domestic goose or duck feathers. These are the most common types of fill used for this purpose today. But our ancestors weren’t always as discerning.

“Eagle-owls,” says Jørgen Rosvold, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum.

Rosvold is among a handful of individuals in Norway who can identify birds based solely on their feathers. He examined a pillow from a Viking grave and found feathers from Europe’s largest owl in it, along with feather residues from a variety of other species.

“This shows that the Vikings valued feathers as an important resource,”

 Rosvold says. Rosvold is part of an NTNU down project (Dunprosjektet), where one of the goals is to develop methods to identify small bits of feather residue. It’s not always easy to tell what species a feather comes from, especially if only small fragments of feathers remain.

“Sometimes all you can say for sure is that a feather comes from a duck,” says Rosvold.

But not always what kind of duck. Some feathers are just too similar to be certain what species it comes from. You might be able to say whether a feather comes from a game bird or a sparrow, but not always much beyond that.

“It depends on how well preserved the feather is, the kind of feather and whether the species has close relatives,” he says.

Large collection helpful
Rosvold can identify some feathers down to the specific species. The NTNU University Museum has a large collection, and if he’s able to first determine which family the bird belongs to, he can compare it with specimens from the collection.

As a rule, the underneath, most downy parts of feathers have distinctive features that make it possible to identify the former owner. The smallest branches of a feather, called barbules, are the most useful. Their shape and distribution of different growths, tiny irregularities and the colour can provide clues.

A well-preserved feather fragment found in a grave from the Viking era, about one centimetre long. Even after many hundreds of years you can see the colours and that this is a feather from a crow. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum

“You can see the pigmentation really well, even after a long time,” says Rosvold. For example, you can see pigmentation in feathers from early Viking times, around 800 CE. Game birds are recognizable by the rings around their barbules. Duck feathers have distinctive triangular growths.

“In some cases, if we’re unable to identify a feather beyond the family level with microscopes, we can make more headway using DNA analyses. The analyses are easier when we’ve narrowed down the range of possible birds,” says Rosvold.

But this is clearly an art for specialists. Conservator Leena Aulikki Airola at the NTNU University Museum is skilled at detecting the impression of feathers in metal, among other things. This can happen when a sword is laid on a feather pillow in a Viking grave, for example. Over the years, the sword corrodes and the feathers in the pillow become covered with the rusty metal.

Cooperation between birds and people
As part of the project, researchers are studying Swedish and Norwegian grave discoveries from the Nordic Iron Age, including the Oseberg grave, to find out which birds the feathers come from.

Feather residues in corroded iron from a Viking sword. Perhaps the sword was laid on a pillow? Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum

One of the main goals for the down project is to find out when people established eider farming on the Helgeland coast and in central Norway. These are areas along the coast where people provide nesting shelters for eider ducks to return to year after year.

Eider farmers build nesting boxes and protect the ducks, which in turn leave large amounts of down behind. But we don’t yet know how long this cooperation between birds and people has existed.

“The cooperation goes way back in time. We’ve found a few eider feathers, but also a lot of assorted feathers,” says Rosvold.

For a long time people simply took what they had available to stuff their pillows. The researchers have found feather samples that date as far back as the late Germanic Iron (or Merovingian) Age, from around 570 and through the Viking era. No earlier use of feathers in Norway has been discovered, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t take place. The Romans used a lot of feathers in their pillows, for example.

 Useful for others, too
Archaeologists and biologists aren’t the only ones who may be interested in these results. Identifying birds by their feathers may be important in other fields as well.

Any of us might be curious to find out just what kind of feather we found on our woods walk the other day.

Biologists find it useful to identify feathers from scat and pellets, which are undigested parts of food that are regurgitated by birds, to determine what they’ve been eating. Feathers from bird houses can tell us who lived there.

But knowing your feathers can also potentially solve crimes or save lives, such as for investigators who need to collect evidence. One specialist in the United States works primarily with feathers from birds that have collided with airplanes. Finding out what kind of bird crashed into the plane might enable you to take action to reduce the risks. Those microscopic details could end up being really important.

Monday, March 12, 2018

7 Devious Ways to Defeat a Medieval Army


A scene of Byzantine warfare from the Madrid Skylitzes

 Could you defeat a medieval army without resorting to a clash of arms? A 10th century Byzantine military manual offers several tricks that could be used to devastate your enemy.

 The Sylloge Tacticorum is one of several Byzantine handbooks on military tactics that has survived to the present-day. Its purpose was to guide a commander during a campaign, offering advice on a wide range of scenarios and plans.

 Besides noting the standard ways of attacking and defending, the author of this manual also includes several methods to cunningly strike at an enemy, although he does not personally approve of them. He writes:

 We compiled this book judging that these stratagems and others of the kind should be recorded not in order to be used by us against the enemy (for I believe that they are unworthy even to be mentioned in a Christian context), but so that our generals may be able to guard against them by knowing exactly the cunning plans of the enemy concerning food and drink, especially when they encamp in enemy territory.

 However, it should also be noted that the author usually does not give any defence against these schemes, which might indicate that he added them in so they could be used by the Byzantine generals – and that his moral concerns might have been exaggerated. Readers will note that these methods can be considered a form of chemical warfare, which would be targeted at the enemy when they were not expecting it.

 1) Putting the plague into bread loaves
 The first scheme mentioned by the Sylloge Tacticorum involves a somewhat complex way of infecting the enemy with plague. The first step is place a tree-frog or a toad into a vessel with a viper. The vessel is sealed up airtight until both animals are dead. Their bodies are then ground up and boiled in water. This water is then used for making loaves of bread.

The commander now has to make the enemy soldiers eat this bread. One way is to feed it to prisoners, then allow them to escape. Those soldiers will likely return to the enemy camp, and soon enough they will not only become ill with the plague but will also spread it to their comrades “just by living alongside them.” The one drawback to this plan, according to this manual, is that those who prepare the loaves of bread will also fall victim to the plague.

2) Poisoning the wine
The Sylloge Tacticorum offers two methods for poisoning wine. The first technique involves adding monkshood, boxwood or hemlock to your own supplies of wine, and then have your troops take flight and abandon them. The enemy then comes up, finds the wine “and drink their fill and thereby endanger themselves.”

The author then gives this recipe that will cause the enemy soldiers to sleep for days:

When somebody thoroughly grinds and smooths two litra of Theban poppy juice, myrrh, one part of lettuce seed, one part of henbane juice and two parts of mandrake juice, then pours them into wine, he will make those who drink it sleepy for two or three days. On the other hand, when somebody puts vinegar in their noses, he will cause them to recover.

3) Sabotaging the water supply
Attacking the water supply of an enemy army seems to be a useful technique, and this military manual notes a few powerful poisons that could be added to water, including ground-up pufferfishes, myrtle spurge, fish lard or manure.

4) Destroying the land
The Sylloge Tacticorum notes that one tactic that could be used is to make land unusable for agriculture, for at least the length of a season, which would prevent an enemy army from harvesting its crops. This can be done by ploughing into the soil hellebore or salt.

5) Withering the trees
Similarly, the text notes a way to kill off trees:
Every kind of tree, apart from the apple-tree, becomes desiccated if somebody inserts the sting of a stingray into its roots. Some say that the rind of beans placed into the tree roots also dries them up.

6) Attacking the horses with chemicals
Various chemical weapons can also be used against the enemy’s horses according to the Sylloge Tacticorum. It advises that your infantry carry with them hand-pipes holding spurge juice, which can then be sprayed into the horses nostrils as they charge against you. The animals when then turn to flight. Other potions are apparently powerful enough to kill horses, such as the bile of a sea-turtle. The effects of this poison can be counteracted by adding saffron and wine to the horse’s nostrils and mouth. The text even offers this strange method:

When the ankle of the right forefoot of a wolf is cast in front of a four-horse chariot, it stops the horses. Well, if it stops four horses, it would work much better on those that are in formation. We will give these ankles then to a few slingers, in order to shoot them into the enemy formation. Each ankle will not harm only one horse, but all those which happen to run over it.

7) Burning weapons without fire
Finally, the Sylloge Tacticorum offers this interesting set of instructions on how to burn the enemy’s weapons without fire:

Put equal portions of of native sulphur, rock salt, ashes, cedar-tree, and pyrite stone in a black mortar, when the sun is at its peak. Mix together with black mulberry sap and free-flowing Zakynthian liquid asphalt, each in equal portions. You should grind it until it becomes sooty coloured. Then you should add the smallest amount of quicklime to the asphalt. However, as the sun is at its peak, you ought to pound it with diligence and to protect your face entirely. Then, it should be sealed in a copper vessel, so as for it never to see the rays of the sun. The wagons of the enemy should coated while it is still night. All will be suddenly burned, when the sun shines on the moderately.

This text has recently been translated by Georgios Chatzelis and Jonathan Harris in A Tenth-Century Byzantine Military Manual: The Sylloge Tacticorum, published by Routledge. Click here to buy it on

Sunday, March 11, 2018

How to Get Away with Murder in the Middle Ages


15th century depiction of murder – New York Public Library

By Danièle Cybulskie

 The other day, I came across the story of a grisly thirteenth-century murder which took place in London’s Ironmonger Lane, now a clean and bright, bricked side-street a stone’s throw from the Guildhall. The murder was recorded in London’s detailed coroners’ rolls, and the killer was never brought to justice, despite everyone knowing who it was. The circumstances of the case show just how easy it could be to get away with murder in the Middle Ages

A tavern keeper named Simon of Winchester had employed a servant named Roger of Westminster for almost two weeks when, in early December 1276, the two of them were embroiled in an unspecified “dispute” which lasted at least two days. The trouble with having a dispute with a servant – especially one with whom you shared a room – was that there were times in which you could be extremely vulnerable. The coroner’s records indicate that, one night,

 as soon as this Roger saw that the said Simon was asleep, he seized a knife and cut Simon’s throat so that the head was entirely severed from the body. After this, he dragged the body out and put it in a certain secret spot, a dark and narrow place between two walls in the same house, where coals were usually kept.

The next day, Roger went to work in the tavern, as usual, telling the neighbours that Simon “had gone to Westminster, to recover some debts,” and he did the same for the following two days.

At twilight, however, on the third day, he departed by the outer door, locking it with the key, and carrying off with him a silver cup, a robe, and some bedclothes which had belonged to the same Simon. Afterward he returned, and threw the key into the house of Hamon Cook, a near neighbor, telling him that he was going to seek the said Simon, his master, and asking him to give him the key if he came back.

A few weeks later, Hamon gave the key to a man to whom Simon had owed some money, as it seemed neither Simon nor Roger was going to return. The man took his due from the tavern and left. Months later, at Easter, the landlord allowed a new tenant into the building, and it was the new tenant who discovered Simon’s headless body in the coal storage area. His head, incidentally, was never found, nor was Roger of Winchester.

The circumstances would indicate that Roger was the culprit, and although this cannot be proved without a reasonable doubt, the wording of the records indicates that this is definitely what happened – the description of the murder reads like the testimony of a witness despite the fact that there were none. In the thirteenth century, people were much more comfortable with accepting circumstantial evidence as fact.

There are no more forensic details recorded, so it is impossible to know if Simon was actually killed in his sleep or on his feet, although obvious signs of a struggle, such as other knife wounds, would very likely have been noted if the body hadn’t been so badly decomposed. This is probably why the coroner concluded Simon was asleep. However, bedclothes could be valuable, and it is noteworthy that Roger took them from the house along with a silver cup and a robe (also easy to sell for quick cash) on the day he left. Because no DNA or blood type could be gleaned from bloody bedclothes, and Roger didn’t attempt to dispose of the body more permanently, he most likely took the bedclothes to sell – not to hide evidence – in which case, it’s unlikely that they were covered in blood (and therefore, Simon was probably not in them when he was murdered).

Some other elements of this case give us interesting clues into medieval life and murder. The fact that the neighbours immediately noticed Simon’s disappearance shows the closeness of medieval communities, and how in some ways it would have been difficult to commit such a crime and get away with it. People knew each other’s business and noticed deviations. At the same time, with journeys routinely taking a long time, a lie such as Roger’s wouldn’t immediately arouse suspicion – in this case, giving him three days to put together an escape plan. The fact that Roger was a relative stranger was the key to his getting away with the crime: because he had not been in Ironmonger Lane long enough to establish friends or habits, the usual network of neighbours and friends could not be used to trace him.

The coroner’s investigation into the murder of Simon of Winchester also demonstrates routine detective work that we may not often give medieval people credit for. The investigators recorded details, such as where the body was found and the cause of death; they noted times, places, and important details, such as the ongoing argument between the two men directly before the murder; and they asked questions just like detectives do today: who had access to the building? Who was seen around this time? Any suspicious noises or activity? Sadly, despite their diligence, Roger’s transience made him untraceable in the end.

You can find Simon of Winchester’s murder, and other untimely deaths, in Emilie Amt and Katherine Allen Smith’s Medieval England, 500 – 1500: A Reader, along with a whole bunch of other snippets of interesting primary sources.