Thursday, August 31, 2017

Even in Viking Times Norway was Famous for its ‘White Gold’… a ‘Gold’ You can Eat!

Ancient Origins

New research using DNA from the fish bone remains of Viking-era meals reveals that north Norwegians have been transporting – and possibly trading – Arctic cod into mainland Europe for a millennium.

Norway is famed for its cod. Catches from the Arctic stock that spawn each year off its northern coast are exported across Europe for staple dishes from British fish and chips to Spanish bacalao stew.

Now, a new study published today in the journal PNAS suggests that some form of this pan-European trade in Norwegian cod may have been taking place for 1,000 years.

Norwegian cod – Norway’s ‘White Gold’. (Seafood from Norway)

Latest research from the universities of Cambridge and Oslo, and the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig, used ancient DNA extracted from the remnants of Viking-age fish suppers.

The study analysed five cod bones dating from between 800 and 1066 AD found in the mud of the former wharves of Haithabu, an early medieval trading port on the Baltic. Haithabu is now a heritage site in modern Germany, but at the time was ruled by the King of the Danes.

 The DNA from these cod bones contained genetic signatures seen in the Arctic stock that swim off the coast of Lofoten: the northern archipelago still a centre for Norway’s fishing industry.

Fish from Rügen’ (1882) by Hans Gude. (Public Domain)

 Researchers say the findings show that supplies of ‘stockfish’ – an ancient dried cod dish popular to this day – were transported over a thousand miles from northern Norway to the Baltic Sea during the Viking era.

Prior to the latest study, there was no archaeological or historical proof of a European stockfish trade before the 12th century.

While future work will look at further fish remains, the small size of the current study prevents researchers from determining whether the cod was transported for trade or simply used as sustenance for the voyage from Norway.

However, they say that the Haithabu bones provide the earliest evidence of fish caught in northern Norway being consumed on mainland Europe – suggesting a European fish trade involving significant distances has been in operation for a millennium.

One of the ancient Viking cod bones from Haithabu used in the study. (James Barrett)

“Traded fish was one of the first commodities to begin to knit the European continent together economically,” says Dr James Barrett, senior author of the study from the University of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. “Haithabu was an important trading centre during the early medieval period. A place where north met south, pagan met Christian, and those who used coin met those who used silver by weight.” “By extracting and sequencing DNA from the leftover fish bones of ancient cargoes at Haithabu, we have been able to trace the source of their food right the way back to the cod populations that inhabit the Barents Sea, but come to spawn off Norway’s Lofoten coast every winter.

Reconstructed Viking Age longhouses at Haithabu. (CC BY SA 3.0)

“This Arctic stock of cod is still highly prized – caught and exported across Europe today. Our findings suggest that distant requirements for this Arctic protein had already begun to influence the economy and ecology of Europe in the Viking age.”

Stockfish is white fish preserved by the unique climate of north Norway, where winter temperature hovers around freezing. Cod is traditionally hung out on wooden frames to allow the chill air to dry the fish. Some medieval accounts suggest stockfish was still edible as much as ten years after preservation.

 The research team argue that the new findings offer some corroboration to the unique 9th century account of the voyages of Ohthere of Hålogaland: a Viking chieftain whose visit to the court of King Alfred in England resulted in some of his exploits being recorded.

 “In the accounts inserted by Alfred’s scribes into the translation of an earlier 5th century text, Ohthere describes sailing from Hålogaland to Haithabu,” says Barrett. Hålogaland was the northernmost province of Norway. “While no cargo of dried fish is mentioned, this may be because it was simply too mundane a detail,” says Barrett. “The fish-bone DNA evidence is consistent with the Ohthere text, showing that such voyages between northern Norway and mainland Europe were occurring.”

‘Vikings Heading for Land’ (1873) by Frank Dicksee. (Public Domain)

 “The Viking world was complex and interconnected. This is a world where a chieftain from north Norway may have shared stockfish with Alfred the Great while a late-antique Latin text was being translated in the background. A world where the town dwellers of a cosmopolitan port in a Baltic fjord may have been provisioned from an Arctic sea hundreds of miles away.”

 The sequencing of the ancient cod genomes was done at the University of Oslo, where researchers are studying the genetic makeup of Atlantic cod in an effort to unpick the anthropogenic impacts on these long-exploited fish populations.

“Fishing, particularly of cod, has been of central importance for the settlement of Norway for thousands of years. By combining fishing in winter with farming in summer, whole areas of northern Norway could be settled in a more reliable manner,” says the University of Oslo’s Bastiaan Star, first author of the new study.

Stamps Showing Everyday Life in the Viking Age Stamps showing ‘Everyday Life in the Viking Age.’ (Public Domain)

Star points to the design of Norway’s new banknotes that prominently feature an image of cod, along with a Viking ship, as an example of the cultural importance still placed on the fish species in this part of Europe.

“We want to know what impact the intensive exploitation history covering millennia has inflicted on Atlantic cod, and we use ancient DNA methods to investigate this,” he says.

The study was funded by the Research Council of Norway and the Leverhulme Trust.

 Top Image: Vikings. Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000. Source: Public Domain

The article, originally titled ‘DNA from Viking cod bones suggests 1,000 years of European fish trade’ was originally published on University of Cambridge and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Laser Tech Reveals 1,000-Year-Old Viking Ring Fortress in Denmark

Ancient Origins

With the help of laser technology, archaeologists have managed to discover a perfectly circular ring fortress in Borgring, Denmark. It dates back to 975-980 AD, and experts suggest that it was constructed during the reign of King Harald Bluetooth.

Borgring Fortress First to be Discovered in Denmark
Since 1953 IBTimes UK reports that the impressive Borgring fortress is the first to be discovered in Denmark since 1953. What has amazed experts the most about this massive fortress is how it appears to be in a very precise circular shape, measuring almost 150 meters in diameter. The building is one of the Trelleborg-type fortresses that have a characteristic circular shape and internal design. The earthworks, houses and other structures are carefully positioned within the fortress and four gates are positioned around the perimeter at cardinal points.

“The Borgring fortress had been tentatively identified in the 1970s, but the technology was lacking then to verify whether it really was a Trelleborg-type fortress,” study author Søren Michael Sindbæk of Aarhus University, told IBTimes UK. And continued, “That is the most beautiful aspect of our results – the suspicion that this could have been a fortress was raised by a very beautiful map made in 1970 that was the best survey method you had in those days. But it was impossible to prove it in those days."

The Trelleborg ring fortress (CC by SA 3.0)

Airborne Laser Scanning Helps Archaeologists to Examine the Fortress
 With the help of advanced modern technology such as LiDAR – airborne laser scanning – Sindbæk and his colleagues managed to estimate significant differences at ground-level indicating the presence of the ring fortress as IBTimes UK reports. Before its demolition, the Borgring fortress was created from wood with earth-and-turf ramparts. The fortress contained two streets with that intersected each other to form a cross shape. The streets were most likely paved with timber, with four vast wooden structures within the fortress.

The importance of the discovery consists of the fact that there have only been five confirmed Trelleborg fortresses discovered in Denmark until now. They were all constructed in a short period of time between 975 and 980 AD, during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, a 10th century king who Christianized both Denmark and Norway.

Architectural Achievements of the Vikings
In 2014, archaeologists identified another impressive fortress through laser scan, which had been initially discovered in 1875 – a ring-shaped Viking fortress on the Danish island of Zealand – which historians suggested could have been used to train warriors before launching an invasion of England. As previously reported in an Ancient Origins article, even though the Vikings carry a reputation as brutish invaders, the latest finding shows that they were also accomplished builders. Coincidentally, the research team that made that discovery in 2014, suggested that the fortress dated back to the reign of Harald Bluetooth as well.

Reconstruction of a Viking ring fortress. Unknown artist

Massive, Circular Constructions
The obvious similarity between all these buildings that were constructed during Harald Bluetooth’s reign is that they are all massive and circular constructions typically between 140 to 250 meters in diameter. "They posed a real enigma about the Viking Age when they were first discovered. The Vikings were perceived to be a society of local petty kings competing over power," Sindbæk tells IBTimes UK. And adds, "They are related to a period of exceptional expression of kingship. The question is whether that means we need a complete reassessment of Viking society, or whether we should just be revisiting evidence from this particular period," Sindbæk says, wondering how such vast and costly constructions appeared in Denmark all of a sudden around the year 975.

 Enemies Led to the Construction of the Buildings
 The fact that these large fortresses were constructed within just five years makes Sindbæk speculate that the Vikings were facing dangerous external enemies coming from the German and Slavic lands. “If we look at the 970s and 980s, it's exactly a time where every authority bordering on this empire is in a high state of emergency. There is a military power which is unprecedented and isn't repeated again for several generations," Sindbæk told IBTimes UK.

 Interestingly, after the German emperor died in the 980s, the construction of massive and expensive buildings in Denmark stopped suddenly, a fact that appears to justify Sindbæk’s speculations, who closes his mini-interview by pointing out the historical value and importance of these fortresses by stating to IBTimes UK, "We have barely any other similar fortresses in Norway or Sweden, and in Denmark there are no other very large fortresses of any kind. So they are very special. Because of the dates it seems that they coincide with a very unique military situation."

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

3 Kinds of Ancient Roman Shields

Made from History


Umbo from Roman shield. Credit: MatthiasKabel (Wikimedia Commons)

 The use of shields in battle originates in pre-history and is present in the earliest known human civilisations. A logical evolution in armed combat, shields were used to block attacks from hand-held weapons like swords as well as projectile weapons such as arrows. Early shields were typically constructed of wood and animal hide and later reinforced with metal.

 Shields of Ancient Rome
Roman soldiers or legionaires were well protected by leather and iron armour, helmets and shields, called scuta. The shapes and styles of Roman shields differed according to use and timeframe. Many shields were based on Greek aspis or hoplon, which were round and deeply concave like a dish.

 Aspides were wooden and sometimes plated with bronze. Some Roman shields were strengthened by plating their edges with a copper alloy, though this was eventually abandoned in favour of using stitched rawhide, which bound the shields more effectively.

 Roman shields also featured a boss or umbo, a thick, round, wooden or metal protrusion that deflected blows and served as a place to mount the grip.

 1. Legionaire Scutum
The most famous of the Roman shields, great scuta were large and either rectangular or oval. Early oval scuta evolved into the rectangular, semi-cylindrical versions, which were used by the foot soldiers of the early Empire to great effect. Their concave nature offered substantial protection, but made the use of weapons somewhat difficult as it restricted arm movement.

The only known surviving example of a semicylindrical scutum. Credit: Yale University Art Gallery

 The use of rectangular scuta ended by the 3rd century AD, but scuta in general survived into the Byzantine Empire.

 Testudo Formation
 A battle formation that made excellent use of the great scuta was the testudo or tortoise formation, in which soldiers would gather close and align their shields both in front and on top. This protected the group from frontal attacks and projectiles launched from above.

Re-enactment of Roman testudo formation using rectangular scuta.Credit: Neil Carey (Wikimedia Commons)

 2. Parma
For reasons of movement and balance, soldiers on horseback used smaller round shields, called parma. A typical Parma measured a maximum of 36” across and had a strong iron frame, though these were eventually abandoned for lighter oval shields of wood and leather.

 During the early Republican period, foot soldiers also used a kind of parma, but this was replaced by the longer scuta, which offered more protection.

 3. Clipeus
The clipeus was the Roman version of the Greek aspis. Although the clipeus was used alongside the rectangular legionaire or great scutum, after the 3rd century the oval or round clipeus became the standard shield of the Roman soldier.

 Based on examples discovered at archaeological sites, the clipeus was constructed of vertical glued planks, covered with painted leather and bound on the edges with stitched rawhide.

A sculpture of a clipeus from the 1st century AD, featuring Jupiter-Amon, an amalgamation of Roman and Egyptian gods. Credit: National Archeological Museum of Tarragona

 Gladiator Shields
The entertainment aspect of gladiatorial fighting leant itself to variety. Contestants were therefore outfitted with different types of shields, whether of Greek or Roman origin or from a foreign, conquered land. It wasn’t unusual to see a hexagonal Germanic shield in the gladiators’ ring, while an elaborately decorated scutum, parma or clipeus served to heighten the spectacle.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Year of the 6 Emperors

Made from History

Maximinus Thrax (image public domain)

During the late 2nd century and early 3rd century AD, Rome was rife with political instability, including the assassinations of several Emperors. This was a marked contrast to the era of Pax Romana, the period of prosperity and political stability that had defined the previous circa 200 years. 

By the 3rd century, the Roman Empire had already experienced chaotic periods of leadership. The Year of the 4 Emperors in 69 AD, following the death of Nero by suicide, was but a taste of what was to come, and the instability that came after the assassination of the brutal and feckless Commodus meant the 192 AD saw a total of 5 Emperors rule Rome.

 Maximinus Thrax Kicks off the Crisis
 In 238 AD the office of Emperor would be its most unstable in history. Known as the Year of the 6 Emperors, it began during the short reign of Maximinus Thrax, who had ruled since 235. Thrax’s reign is considered by many scholars to be the start of the Crisis of the 3rd Century (235–84 AD), during which the Empire was beset by invasions, plague, civil wars and economic difficulties.

 From low-born Thracian peasant stock, Maximinus was not a favourite of the Patrician Senate, which plotted against him from the start. The hatred was mutual, and the Emperor harshly punished any conspirators, largely supporters of his predecessor, Severus Alexander, who was killed by his own mutinous soldiers.

 Gordian and Gordian II’s Brief and Imprudent Reign
An uprising against corrupt tax officials in the province of Africa spurred local landowners to proclaim the elderly provincial governor and his son as co-emperors. The Senate supported the claim, causing Maximinus Thrax to march on Rome. Meanwhile, the forces of the governor of Numidia entered Carthage in support of Maximinus, easily defeating the Gordians. The younger was killed in battle and the older committed suicide by hanging.

 Pupienus, Balbinus and Gordian III Try to Tidy Up year of the six emperors

Coin made during Balbinus’ 99-day reign. Reverse shows Balbinus and Pupienus’ hands shaking.

 Fearing the wrath of Maximinus upon his return to Rome, the Senate could nonetheless not go back on its rebellion. It elected two of its own members to the throne: Pupienus and Balbinus. The plebeian inhabitants of Rome, who preferred one of their own to rule rather than a pair of upper class patricians, showed their displeasure by rioting and casting sticks and stones at the new emperors.

 In order to appease the displeased masses, Pupienus and Balbinus declared the 13-year-old grandson of the elder Gordian, Marcus Antonius Gordianus Pius, as Caesar.

 Maximus’ march on Rome did not go as planned. His soldiers suffered from famine and disease during the siege and then eventually turned on him, killing him along with his chief ministers and son Maximus, who had been made deputy emperor. Soldiers carried the father and son’s severed heads into Rome, signifying their support for Pupienus and Balbinus as co-emperors, for which they were pardoned.

 When Pupienius and Balbinus returned to Rome, they found the city again in chaos. They managed to calm it, albeit temporarily. Not long after, while arguing over who to attack in an enormous planned military campaign, the Emperors were seized by Praetorian Guard, stripped, dragged through the streets, tortured and killed.

 On that day Marcus Antonius Gordianus Pius, or Gordian III, was proclaimed sole Emperor. He ruled from 239 – 244, largely as a figurehead controlled by his advisors, particularly the head of the Praetorian Guard, Timesitheus, who was also his father in law. Gordian III died of unknown causes while campaigning in the Middle East.

The popular boy-emperor Gordian III, credit: Ancienne collection Borghèse ; acquisition, 1807 / Borghese Collection; purchase, 1807

 By Graham Land

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Fit for a queen: 3 medieval recipes enjoyed at English and Scottish royal courts

History Extra

Rys Lumbard Stondyne
Period: England, 14th century
Description: Sweet Rice and Egg Pudding

 Original recipe And for to make rys lumbard stondyne, take raw yolkes of eyren, and bete hom, and put hom to the rys beforesaid, and qwen hit is sothen take hit off the fyre, and make thenne a dragée of the yolkes of harde eyren broken, and sugre and gynger mynced, and clowes, and maces; and qwen hit is put in dyshes, strawe the dragée theron, and serve hit forth.

 Modern recipe
 • 1 cup rice
 • 2 cups beef, chicken, or other broth
• 4 raw egg yolks
• 2 tsp sugar, or to taste
• 1/8 tsp saffron
• Salt to taste

 • 2 hard-boiled egg yolks
 • 1 tsp sugar, or to taste
• 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
• 1/8 tsp each cloves and mace

 1) In a heavy saucepan or pot combine rice, broth and salt. Over medium heat, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes, or until all liquid has been absorbed.
 2) When rice is done, stir in raw egg yolks, sugar and saffron, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture gets very thick. Dish into a lightly oiled mould or bowl, cool, and turn out for serving.
 3) To make the dragées, in a bowl combine hard-boiled egg yolks, grated fresh ginger, sugar and spices, and blend into a paste. Roll this paste into little balls about half an inch across, and decorate the moulded Rys Lumbard with them.

 Great Pie

 • 1 kg mixed game (venison, pheasant, rabbit and boar)
• 2 large onions, peeled and diced
 • 1 garlic clove
 • 120 grams of brown mushrooms, sliced
• 120 grams smoked back bacon, diced
 • 25 grams plain flour
 • Juice and zest of 1 orange
 • 300 ml chicken stock
 • 70 ml of Merlot wine
• Salt and pepper Modern recipe (serves eight to 12)

 1) Preheat oven to 180°C.
 2) In a frying pan, brown the game.
 3) Soften the onions and then add the garlic, mushrooms and bacon and fry for a few minutes. Add the stock and orange juice and zest. Raise it to a boil then simmer for an hour until the meat is tender. 4) Let the mixture cool and add it to your short crust pastry case. Add a pastry lid and press it onto the lip of the base then trim it. Cut a steam hole or two and brush with a beaten egg all over.
 5) Put the pie in the oven and bake for one hour. Cool before serving.

Malaches of Pork
Period: England, 14th century
Description: Pork Quiche

 Original recipe
 Hewe pork al to pecys and medle it with ayren & chese igrated. Do therto powdour fort, safroun & pynes with salt. Make a crust in a trap; bake it wel therinne, and serue it forth.

 Modern recipe
(Serves eight to 12)
 • Pastry dough for 1 nine-inch pie crust
• 1 pound lean pork, cubed
 • 4 eggs
 • 1 cup grated, hard cheese
 • 1/4 cup pine nuts
 • 1/4 tsp salt
• Pinch of each, cloves, mace, black pepper

 1) Preheat oven to 230°C.
 2) Line a nine-inch pie pan with the pastry dough, and bake it for five to 10 minutes to harden it. Remove it, and reduce oven temperature to 175°C.
 3) In a frying pan, over medium heat, brown the cubed pork until it is tender.
 4) In a bowl, beat the eggs and spices together.
 5) Line the bottom of the pie crust with the browned pork, grated cheese, and pine nuts. Pour the egg and spice mixture over them. 6) Put the pie in the oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick draws out clean. Cool before serving

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Ancient Journeys: What was Travel Like for the Romans?

Ancient Origins

It was not uncommon for the ancient Romans to travel long distances all across Europe. Actually during the Roman Empire, Rome had an incredible road network which extended from northern England all the way to southern Egypt. At its peak, the Empire's stone paved road network reached 53,000 miles (85,000 kilometers)! Roman roads were very reliable, they were the most relied on roads in Europe for many centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It could be argued that they were more reliable than our roads today considering how long they could last and how little maintenance they required.

A Roman street in Pompeii. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

 Travel by road
Unlike today, travel by road was quite slow and... exhausting! For example, going from Rome to Naples would take over six days in Roman times according to ORBIS, the Google Maps for the ancient world developed by Stanford University. By comparison, it takes about two hours and 20 minutes to drive from Rome to Naples today.

Funeral relief (2nd century ) depicting an Ancient Roman carriage. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Romans would travel in a raeda, a carriage with four noisy iron-shod wheels, many wooden benches inside for the passengers, a clothed top (or no top at all) and drawn by up to four horses or mules. The raeda was the equivalent of the bus today and Roman law limited the amount of luggage it could carry to 1,000 libra (or approximately 300 kilograms).

Rich Romans traveled in the carpentum which was the limousine of wealthy Romans. The carpentum was pulled by many horses, it had four wheels, a wooden arched rooftop, comfortable cushy seats, and even some form a suspension to make the ride more comfortable. Romans also had what would be the equivalent of our trucks today: the plaustrum. The plaustrum could carry heavy loads, it had a wooden board with four thick wheels and was drawn by two oxen. It was very slow and could travel only about 10-15 miles (approximately 15 to 25 kilometers) per day.

Carpentum replica at the Cologne Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The fastest way to travel from Rome to Naples was by horse relay or the cursus publicus, which was like a state-run postal service and a service used to transport officials (such as magistrates or people from the military). A certificate issued by the emperor was required in order for the service to be used. A series of stations with fresh and rapid horses were built at short regular intervals (approximately eight miles or 12 kilometers) along the major road systems. Estimates of how fast one could travel using the cursus publicus vary. A study by A.M. Ramsey in "The speed of the Roman Imperial Post" (Journal of Roman Studies) estimates that a typical trip was made at a rate of 41 to 64 miles per day (66 - 103 kilometers per day). Therefore, the trip from Rome to Naples would take approximately two days using this service.

 Because of their iron-shod wheels, Roman carriages made of a lot of noise. That's why they were forbidden from big Roman cities and their vicinity during the day. They were also quite uncomfortable due to their lack of suspension, making the ride from Rome to Naples quite bumpy. Fortunately, Roman roads had way stations called mansiones (meaning "staying places" in Latin) where ancient Romans could rest. Mansiones were the equivalent of our highway rest areas today. They sometimes had restaurants and pensions where Romans could drink, eat and sleep. They were built by the government at regular intervals usually 15 to 20 miles apart (around 25 to 30 kilometers). These mansiones were often badly frequented, with prostitutes and thieves roaming around. Major Roman roads also had tolls just like our modern highways. These tolls were often situated at bridges (just like today) or at city gates.

Travel by sea and river

Man sailing a corbita, a small coastal vessel with two masts. (Public Domain)

There were no passenger ships or cruise ships in ancient Rome. But there were tourists. It was actually not uncommon for well-to-do Romans to travel just for the sake of traveling and visiting new places and friends. Romans had to board a merchant ship. They first had to find a ship, then get the captain's approval and negotiate a price with him. There were a large number of merchant ships traveling regular routes in the Mediterranean. Finding a ship traveling to a specific destination, for example in Greece or Egypt, at a specific time and date wasn't that difficult.

Ancient Roman river vessel carrying barrels, assumed to be wine, and people. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Romans would stay on the deck of the ship and sometimes there would be hundreds of people on the deck. They would bring their own supplies aboard including food, games, blankets, mattresses, or even tents to sleep in. Some merchant ships had cabins at the stern that could accommodate only the wealthiest Romans. It is worth noting that very wealthy Romans could own their own ships, just like very wealthy people own big yachts today. Interestingly, a Roman law forbade senators from owning ships able to carry more than 300 amphorae jars as these ships could also be used to trade goods.

How clay amphorae vessels may have been stacked on a galley. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

 Traveling by ship wasn't very slow, even compared to modern day standards. For example, going from Brindisium in Italy to Patrae in Greece would take over three days, versus about one day today. Romans could also travel from Italy to Egypt in just a few days. Commercial navigation was suspended during the four winter months in the Mediterranean. This was called the mare clausum. The sea was too rough and too dangerous for commercial ships to sail. Therefore, traveling by sea was close to impossible during the winter and Romans could only travel by road. There were also many navigable rivers that were used to transport merchandise and passengers, even during the winter months.

Traveling during the time of the ancient Romans was definitely not as comfortable as today. However, it was quite easy to travel thanks to Rome's developed road network with its system of way stations and regular ship lines in the Mediterranean. And Romans did travel quite a lot!

Featured image: An ancient Roman road at Leptis Magna, Libya.(CC BY-SA 3.0)

 By: Victor Labate

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Weird Wolds of Yorkshire: Inside the Mysterious Wold Newton Triangle

Ancient Origins

‘Fold upon fold of the encircling hills, piled rich and golden,’ is how the writer (best known for her posthumous 1936 novel South Riding) Winifred Holtby, described England’s Yorkshire Wolds.

 Eighty years on, here’s how a couple of tourist guides currently describe the area: “With hidden valleys, chalk streams and peaceful villages, the Yorkshire Wolds make a refreshing change from city life or a seaside break. It’s a fabulous place to unwind and enjoy the English countryside at its best.”

But, there is also a much darker side to this mysterious countryside.

It is a place where kings built hospices to protect weary travelers from wolves – and werewolves; a place where cloistered monks chronicled the predations of zombies, vampires and aliens; a place dotted with henges, barrows, tumuli and ancient burial mounds that superstitious locals once avoided for fear of encountering the fairy folk who dwelt there.

 It was here, in prehistoric times, that the first settlers in this countryside worshipped before stone monoliths, while wearing masks fashioned from the skulls of animals, and where in later times, the county’s squirearchy had their masques disturbed by the screams of an unquiet skull.

 Unmatched by anywhere else in England, the Wold’s many myths and legends also include green-skinned fairy folk, headless ghosts, ancient warlords, miracle-working priests, a disappearing river, an avaricious Queen, a black skeleton, a Parkin-eating dragon, sea serpents, turkeys galore, England’s oldest buildings, shape shifters, enchanted wells, giant monoliths and a grid of ley lines.

The Wolds have a reputation for otherworldly spirits and fairy folk. S.T./Flickr

Even more strangely, it is also a place associated with some of the greatest heroes and villains of recent pulp, crime and science fiction according to the literary concept devised by science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009).

And all this was before the peace of the Yorkshire Wolds was disturbed by the crash of a giant meteorite falling from the sky into the center of what I have called the Wold Newton Triangle.

Where is the Wold Newton Triangle?
The western side of the Wold Newton Triangle broadly follows the path of the B1249 road across N E England’s Yorkshire Wolds from Driffield in the south, then down Staxton Hill and on into the Vale of Pickering.

The eastern side of the Triangle is bordered by the North Sea, running the length of the A165 coast road from Gristhorpe and Filey Brigg along to Flamborough Head and Bridlington Bay. The southern and final side of the Triangle runs parallel to the old Woldgate Roman road, which heads out from Bridlington and across what used to be called the East Riding of Yorkshire towards Stamford Bridge and York.

But why should such a place, and a relatively remote and sparsely populated place at that, throughout all its long history, be the location for so much weirdness? Is it merely coincidence or are there other factors at play to make this part of the Yorkshire Wolds a nexus or focus for the arcane, the unusual and the just plain uncanny?

When it comes to possible explanations, two candidates stand out from all the rest: the Ley Lines and the Gypsey Race River.

The Ley Lines
 If we accept that ley lines really exist then Rudston, at the heart of the Wolds, is one of the most mystical and magical locations in the country as it is the end point (or primary node) for not one but five ley lines, including one of the country’s three “Basic Alignments.” This is the Rudston to Wardstone Barrow in Dorset ley, which intersects the other two Basic Alignments (the Lands End to Hopton and the Isle of Wight to Isle of Man leys) at the Beckhampton ‘Adam’ Longstone (standing stone) near Avebury.

Junction of the Yorkshire Wolds Way with the Chalkland Way. Dr Patty McAlpin/Wikimedia Commons

Also radiating out from the monolith is the Rudston to Helvellyn ley, the Rudston to Scilly Isles ley, the Rudston to Prescelly (or Preseli Mountains – the source of the giant bluestones used to construct the inner circle of Stonhenge) in Pembroke ley, and the Rudston to Harwich ley. (Harwich is also on a ley line that runs across to Prescelly and intersects the Rudston to Wardstone ley at the King Stone monolith, part of the Rollright standing stones complex in Oxfordshire. Taken together, these last three ley lines also form the three sides of a triangle with Rudston at the apex which, if you accept the mystical significance of leys, just adds to the aura and power focused on the Rudston monolith.

Rudston Monolith, East Riding of Yorkshire, England. The stone stands almost 26 feet high next to Rudston Parish Church of all Saints. Made form Moor Grit Conglomerate from the Late Neolithic Period. This stone can be found in the Cleveland Hills inland from Whitby. This view to its wide face looking NE. Wikimedia Commons

But there might be another explanation.

The Waters of Woe
Over the centuries the legend has grown up that the Gypsey Race River is a harbinger of evil, only flowing before a major calamity or tumultuous event strikes the land – or “battle, plague or famine” as one old folk saying puts it – earning the stream the reputation of being “the Waters of Woe.”

 The Gypsey Race apparently flowed in the years before the famines that accompanied “the Anarchy” of the 12th century civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, the Black Death, the start of the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles the First, the Restoration of King Charles II, the Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London, the landing of Prince William of Orange and the start of the Glorious Revolution, the year of bad harvests in 1861, the Great North Sea Storm of 1888, in the years before the start of both World War One and World War Two, as well as the exceptionally harsh winters of 1947 and 1962, when many Wolds villages were cut off for several days by 12 foot (3.6 meter) deep snowdrifts.

The tumultuous history of the region included the Great Fire of London, 1666. Public Domain

And, the Gypsey’s appearance in 1795, is said to have been almost simultaneously followed by the Wold Newton meteor crashing to Earth.

Wold Cottage meteorite. A chondrite which fell near Wold Cottage Farm, near Wold Newton in 1795. On display in the Natural History Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons

To download a map of The Wold Newton Triangle please click here:

For more details of the myths, legends and facts of the Wold Newton Triangle visit

Featured image: The hauntingly beautiful landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds. What strange history and mysteries lie within? Paul Moon/Flickr

By Charles Christian

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Pagan Gods and the naming of the days

Ancient Origins

We speak the names of the gods on a daily basis and most people do not even realise it. Every day of the week, religious and non-religious people alike follow the old pagan tradition of giving thanks to the gods of old.

 In ancient Mesopotamia, astrologers assigned each day of the week the name of a god. In a culture where days were consumed by religion, it is unsurprising that the days of the week were made in homage to the gods believed to rule the lives of mortals.

 Many centuries later, the Romans, upon beginning to use the seven day week, adopted the names of the week to fit their own gods. These were then adopted by Germanic people who also adjusted the names according to their gods. It is predominantly these Germanic and Norse gods that have lived on today in the days of the week, which are outlined below.

Sunday, as you may be able to guess, is the “Sun’s Day” – the name of a pagan Roman holiday. In many folklore traditions, Sunday was believed to be a lucky day for babies born. Many societies have worshiped the sun and sun-gods. Perhaps the most famous is the Egyptian Sun-god Ra, who was the lord of time.

Monday comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘monandaeg’ which is the “Moon’s Day”. On this day people gave homage to the goddess of the moon. It was believed by ancients that there were three Mondays during the year that were considered to be unlucky: first Monday in April, second in August and last in December.

Tuesday is the first to be named after a Germanic god – Tiu (or Twia) – a god of war and the sky and associated with the Norse god Tyr, who was a defender god in Viking mythology. Tiu is associated with Mars. He is usually shown with only one hand. In the most famous myth about Týr he placed his hand between the jaws of the wolf Fenrir as a mark of good faith while the other gods, pretending to play, bound the wolf. When Fenrir realised he had been tricked he bit off Tyr's hand.

Wednesday means “Woden’s Day” (in Norse, ‘Odin’), the Old Norse’s equivalent to Mercury, who was the messenger to the gods and the Roman god of commerce, travel and science. He was considered the chief god and leader of the wild hunt in Anglo-Saxon mythology, but the name directly translated means “violently insane headship” – not exactly the name of a loving and kind god! Woden was the ruler of Asgard, the hoe of the gods, and is able to shift and change into different forms.

Thursday was “Thor’s Day”, named after the Norse god of thunder and lightning and is the Old Norse equivalent to Jupiter. Thor is often depicted holding a giant hammer and during the 10 th and 11 th centuries when Christians tried to convert the Scandinavians, many wore emblems of Thor’s hammer as a symbol of defiance against the new religion.

Friday is associated with Freya, the wife of Woden and the Norse goddess of love, marriage and fertility, who is equivalent to Venus, the Roman goddess of love.

Lastly, Saturday derives from “Saturn’s Day”, a Roman god associated with wealth, plenty and time. It is the only English week-day still associated with a Roman god, Saturn. The Hebrews called Saturday the "Sabbath", meaning, day of rest. The Bible identifies Saturday as the last day of the week.

The seven-day week originates with in ancient Babylon prior to 600 BC, when time was marked with the lunar cycle, which experienced different seven-day cycles. A millennium later, Emperor Constantine converted Rome to Christianity and standardised the seven-day week across the Empire. Rome may initially have acquired the seven-day week from the mystical beliefs of Babylonian astrologers. But it was the biblical story of creation, God making the Heavens and Earth and resting on the seventh day that will have led the first Christian emperor of Rome to make sure it endured to this day.

By April Holloway

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Finding Beowulf: Is Some of the Famous Anglo-Saxon Heroic Epic Based on Truth?

Ancient Origins

Beowulf is possibly the most famous example of Anglo-Saxon literature. The heroic epic was created between the 8th-11th century and is set in Scandinavia. In the tale, Beowulf helps the king of the Danes, Hroðgar, by defeating a monstrous being called Grendel. Until Beowulf showed up, Grendel had been wreaking havoc on the mead hall and the rest of the kingdom. Just a piece of fiction? Maybe not. The 6th century dining hall at the center of this epic has been found in Denmark.

 In the Beowulf story, Hroðgar had a ‘great and splendid hall’ created to share the gifts of God. The legend says craftsmen came from distant lands to build the hall and their skilled hands completed the construction quickly. This hall was called Heorot and it was the site of grand feasts, the gifting of gold rings, and the sounds of songs and poetry around a harp. But all the merrymaking annoyed Grendel, who snuck into the hall while Hroðgar and his warriors were resting…he devoured many of them.

Hroðgar receives wine from the Queen. (Public Domain)

Heorot has now been named a real location. It was discovered in the old royal capital of Denmark, Lejre, 23 miles (37 km) west of modern Copenhagen by Tom Christensen and his team. The archaeologists found, excavated, and dated the building to the late 5th or early 6th century. They also managed to name the foods that were probably consumed at the grand feasts held in Lejre’s first royal hall.

A representation of Heorot. (An Historian Goes to the Movies)

By analyzing the bones of hundreds of animals discovered at the site, the researchers showed that suckling pig, beef, mutton, goat meat, venison, goose, duck, chicken, and fish were all feasted on. They also found fragments of glass drinking vessels, pottery from England and Rhineland, and 40 pieces of bronze, gold, and silver jewelry.

 Reflecting on the discovery, project director Dr. Christensen, curator of Denmark’s Roskilde Museum, said, “For the first time, archaeology has given us a glimpse of life in the key royal Danish site associated with the Beowulf legend.”

Beowulf fighting Grendel’s mother beside Grendel’s body. (ndhill/Deviant Art)

The find raises the question as to how much of the Beowulf story is legend and what may be truth. Historical records also state that the grand hall was abandoned due to Grendel’s attacks. If Grendel (literarily ‘the destroyer’) existed as a malevolent spirit causing disease and death, or was a fierce human enemy, is still unknown.

Another depiction of what Grendel may have looked like. (Public Domain)

Top image: Beowulf against the dragon. Source: Andimayer/Deviant Art

By April Holloway

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Buckingham Palace’s balcony: a focal point for national celebration

History Extra

On the weekend of 10–12 June, members of the British public, the media and the royal family will partake in a series of spectacular events to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. The grandest celebrations will be enacted in the ceremonial spaces in the heart of central London. For more than 150 years these places have functioned as the sites where crown and people have come together to dramatise a vision of British national life resplendent and historic in character. The official programme for this year’s celebrations includes a special service of thanksgiving in honour of the queen at St Paul’s Cathedral, the annual trooping the colour on Horse Guards Parade, and a street party for 10,000 guests on the Mall – the ceremonial road linking Buckingham Palace to that other arena of Britishness, Trafalgar Square.

 Those unable to line London’s streets will be able to join in the fanfare and festivities from their living rooms as the weekend’s events play out on television. One of the climactic scenes orchestrated as part of the schedule will be the queen’s balcony appearance – that theatrical set-piece where the monarch and the masses appear to greet one another – that has been inscribed on the nation’s imagination through the power of live broadcasting. But even before radio and television, Buckingham Palace’s East Front balcony functioned as a focal point for public displays of unity centred on the sovereign and the royal family. What has changed over time are the meanings associated with this platform, and the symbolic salutation between crown and people enacted from it. 

Historians have identified how the balcony was redesigned as part of a wider palace-backed campaign to remodel London’s ceremonial centre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an age dominated by imperial ambition and international competition, European nations vied to construct grandiose capital cities that symbolised their wealth and overseas power.

 David Cannadine was one of the first historians to argue that the European building projects of this period were also intended to convey to new urban publics the enduring power of the social elite. In London, these imperial and hierarchical messages were communicated through new commemorative statues, and through an architectural plan that encompassed the widening of the Mall, the building of Admiralty Arch, the construction of the Victoria Memorial, and the re-fronting of Buckingham Palace.

Admiralty Arch, c1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The building work was completed by 1913 to create London’s first triumphal, ceremonial route, the culminating point of which was Buckingham Palace’s East Front. Although royalty had appeared on the palace veranda since 1851 with the opening of the Great Exhibition [the first international exhibition of manufactured products], the new ‘public face’ of Buckingham Palace was much grander and enabled a greater number of people to assemble in front of the gates. So it was on the evening of 4 August 1914 when, having convened a special council to declare war on Germany, George V was called out onto the balcony three times by a crowd who wanted their sovereign to signal his approval of the impending conflict. The king, in turn, interpreted the cheers of the thousands who had gathered around the Victoria Memorial as vindication of his government’s decision to join the fray, recording in his diary that “now everyone is for war and for helping our friends”. Queen Mary, who had joined him on the balcony, similarly noted how “we have the feeling of being supported by the people which is the great & glorious thing”.

 The popularisation of the palace balcony as the altar where crown and people communed at times of national importance was secured with the Allied defeat of Germany and the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Night after night, crowds called the king and queen to the balcony to cheer and wave to them, elevating the monarchs as symbols of the nation’s victory. But now this was a ritual that members of the public outside of London could join in as well. Advances in film technologies meant that newsreel cameras captured the scenes of jubilation along the Mall and outside Buckingham Palace. And so, for the first time, Britain’s cinema audiences could partake in the moments when George V and his consort stepped out onto the balcony to acknowledge the crowds’ cheers.

11 November 1918: a jubilant crowd outside Buckingham Palace celebrates the end of the First World War. The royal family appears on the balcony. (Photo by Spencer Arnold/Getty Images)

This pattern continued through the interwar years with four of George V’s children marrying in a succession of spectacular royal weddings. In a period beset by social and political unrest, the royal marriages of 1922, 1923, 1934 and 1935 were staged by the monarchy and media as national events in order to generate unity and cohesion among the British public. With their emphasis on love and family, the interwar weddings also intensified the personal character of monarchy.

 Princess Mary and her husband became the first royal newlyweds to acknowledge the crowd’s cheers from Buckingham Palace’s balcony in 1922, and in 1934, Prince George, Duke of Kent, and his bride, Princess Marina of Greece, added a further personal touch when they became the first members of the royal family to wave from the balcony to those massed below. This new intimate form of communication contrasted with the bowing that royalty had traditionally used to signal appreciation of a crowd’s ovation, and it immediately took off: at George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, the nine-year-old Elizabeth II could be seen waving to the people gathered outside the palace gates, and she did so again alongside her younger sister, Princess Margaret Rose, at their father’s coronation in 1937.

George V and Queen Mary present their daughter, Princess Mary, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with her new husband, Viscount Lascelles, 28 February 1922. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

In the newsreel coverage of these events, special attention was devoted to the huge crowds that gathered to acclaim the royal family. The arrival of sound newsreels and BBC radio in the mid-1920s also enabled the media to convey the audial atmosphere that characterised these symbolic manifestations of national unity.

 Britain’s victory in the Second World War further enhanced the function of the palace balcony as a focal point for national celebration with the prime minister, Winston Churchill, famously joining the royal family there during the VE Day celebrations. The monarchy’s close association with the armed forces was similarly strengthened with the introduction of the RAF fly-past in these years. Initially popularised during the reigns of George V and George VI, it was as part of the televised balcony appearance following Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation that the fly-past was immortalised as a new ritual in the royal repertoire.

 Now, more than 60 years on, the royal balcony appearance remains an important moment that encapsulates the abiding connection between British people and the crown. The royal protagonists who have stood and greeted their well-wishers from this platform have aged and changed over time, but the continuation of the British dynasty through the Windsor line and the focus on the family group as they smile and wave from the palace balcony helps to remind us of the enduring centrality of monarchy to public life and to the nation’s recent history.

 Ed Owens is a historian and lecturer who is currently writing a new book on the relationship between the British monarchy, media and public in the 20th century.

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