Sunday, January 31, 2010

Palaeography programme at King's College London faces elimination

The palaeography programme at King's College London is in jeopardy of being cancelled, as the university plans to make significant cutbacks to the School of Arts and Humanities. This would mean the elimination of the Chair of Palaeography position at King's College, which is the only chair in that subject in the English-speaking world.

The current chair, Professor David Ganz, told that he was informed on January 26th that "the Executive board of the School of Arts and Humanities had proposed that Palaeography would cease as a distinct activity by 31 August 2010."

Professor Ganz had only just returned to England after spending several months teaching and researching at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He says, "On the assumption that this means the end of the Chair of Palaeography I am having to fight for my subject, and I have been deeply moved by the level of support from friends many of whom I have never met."

King's College London is dealing with the aftermath of an announcement from the British Government that their financial support for Higher Education institutions across the country will be cut by £915 million over three years - a 12.5 per cent decline.

The Times reported that the King's College "is planning (very confidentially, so far) to lose up to 22 posts in Arts and Humanities by the end of the academic year." The article quotes from an internal university document, which states their plan "to create financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are at sub-critical level with no realistic prospect of extra investment". Byzantine Studies and several language programmes may also be eliminated.

A request for comment to the office of the Principal of King's College has not been returned.

The palaeography programme is part of the Department of English, Classics or History at King's College London. Francis Wormald was appointed first Professor of Palaeography in 1949, and was succeeded by Julian Brown in 1961. Those who have served in this position have produced many important research projects.

Professor Ganz adds that "in 1996 I was appointed in the School of Humanities, and having come from a Classics Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was appointed jointly in the Departments of English and Classics. Professors Wormald, Brown and de la Mare had only taught graduate courses across the University of London, I was asked to devise an undergraduate course in the Histroy of the Book, which has been a great joy to teach, not least because the Wellcome Library has always allowed me to bring undergraduates to see medieval manuscripts.

"I have been involved in the British Library digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, and in a Mellon foundation funded project at the University of California Los Angeles on the ninth century Plan of St Gall and the manuscripts of St Gall and the Reichenau, so I hope I may be a digital palaeographer as well as a traditional one."

Faculty, students and scholars are now making efforts to fight against the possibility of these cutbacks. A Facebook group Save Paleography At King's London has been started and has already gained more than 500 members. Professor Ganz adds, "I am amused that thanks to Facebook, the newest technology may save the oldest."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sweden celebrates the 800th birthday of Birger jarl

A jubilee celebration is being held for the 800th anniversary of the birth of Birger jarl, one of Sweden' most important medieval statesmen. Among the events planned for this year is the excavation of the tomb belonging to his son, King Magnus III.

The anniversary of the birth of Birger jarl will be inaugurated on 6 February at Bjälbo in Östergötland, where Birger Jarl was born 800 years ago. More than 130 specially invited guests and media representatives will be participating in vespers in the church, followed by dinner at Stadshotellet in Skänninge. The participants will include representatives of the three regions responsible for the Jubilee – Eastern Götaland, Western Götaland and Stockholm.

Later in the year, archaeologists and historians will open the tomb of Magnus III (also known as Magnus Ladulås) in the Riddarholm Church in Stockholm for scientific investigation. An application was submitted last year in connection with plans for the celebration in 2010 of the 800th anniversary of Birger Jarl’s birth. This decision has been taken by the Office of the Marshal of the Realm, in consultation with the County Administrative Board and the National Property Board. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Academy of Letters, History and Architecture, the Church of Sweden and the National Heritage Board have also approved opening of the tomb.

The object of the investigation is to analyse the remains of the seven persons buried in the tomb in the period 1290-1360. Modern technology will make it possible to determine the relationship between Birger Jarl and other members of the Bjälbo dynasty.

Planning for the anniversary commenced in connection with the opening of Birger jarl’s grave at Varnhem in 2002, when it was established that Birger Jarl was born in about 1210, and not in 1200 as was previously believed.

Birger jarl, born Birger Magnusson (c. 1210 – 21 October 1266), was a Swedish statesman and a member of the House of Bjelbo. He played a pivotal role in the consolidation of Sweden while a jarl (earl) from 1248 until his death. It is believed that he played an important role in the establishment of the city of Stockholm during the 13th century.

"His name was Birger Magnusson," says Anja Praesto, Project Leader of the Museum Västra Götaland, "but he is always referred to as Birger jarl, thanks to his title jarl, which would be similar to earl. While his son, king Waldemar, was too young to be a regent (12 years) it was actually Birger who ruled the kingdom in the middle of the 13th century. Birger was apparently a well educated man with the right connections to the royal families, the noble families and the church. This made him a powerful man who was strategically using his power in many fields; he was successful in battles, in forming law and orders as well as in establishing important business deals. He was most likely a slug and a bit of cruel leader not always polished as a politician."

 Click here to listen to a report about Birger jarl from Sweden's Public Radio.

Anja Praesto adds that Sweden's interest in history, including its medieval history, has been growing: "Both archaeology and history from this period has a growing importance for the so called experience economy, involving both academics and tourism business. The excavations in oldest part of Varnhem in Västra Götaland for the last three years were open for public on a dayly basis which attracted thousands of people. The 13th century city Visby on the island of Gotland arrange the “Medieval week” for the in August and also smaller cities everywhere in Sweden arrange annual medieval markets and tournaments. The Swedish Channel 4 will provide the largest tv-series on history ever, 15 programmes with start in spring 2010. At least three of them will cover the viking and medieval eras."

Click here to go to the Facebook Group for Vi diggar Birger Jarl (in Swedish)

Click here to go to

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Assembly Project awarded £850,000 to study Vikings and Early Medieval Europe

Over £850,000 has been made by medieval scholars from the Universities of Durham, Oslo and Vienna and the University of the Highlands and Islands, Centre for Nordic Studies, Orkney, by the Humanities in Europe Research Awards Scheme. This will fund a three-year, international effort, known as The Assembly Project, is designed to explore the role of assemblies or things in the creation, consolidation and maintenance of collective identities, emergent polities and kingdoms in early medieval Northern Europe.

Orkney and Shetland are to be research sites for a major project looking at the way the Viking communities governed themselves and strengthened their groups.

Around £118,000 has been awarded to the Centre for Nordic Studies for research on administrative organisation and Norse “thing”, meaning governing assembly, sites in areas of Viking settlement and colonisation.

The centre – supported by UHI, the prospective University of the Highlands and Islands – is involved in a three-year project with Oslo, Vienna and Durham universities.

Dr Alexandra Sanmark at the Centre for Nordic Studies, one of four principal investigators, won a bid for a total £850,000 from the Humanities in Europe Research Awards. The Assembly Project was ranked third out of 168 applications from across Europe.

The Centre for Nordic Studies research will involve archaeological fieldwork on outdoor parliament and court sites in Orkney and Shetland, as well as an Orkney workshop and an exhibition planned for 2011. Findings will be compared and contrasted to the situation in the Viking homelands.

Centre director Dr Donna Heddle said: “The development and strengthening of early historic European collectives lie at the centre of our current understanding of Europe. This project will fit in well with the centre's research agenda. I am absolutely delighted that our strategic significance has been recognised.”

Research will involve archaeological fieldwork on outdoor parliament and court sites in Orkney and Shetland, as well as an Orkney workshop and an exhibition planned for 2011, Dr Heddle explained. Findings will then be compared and contrasted to the situation in the Viking homelands, she added.

Bill Ross, principal of Orkney College UHI welcomed what now amounts to two successful project proposals relating to things. He added: “Orkney College, through our archaeology department, is a partner in another major project funded by the Northern Peripheries Programme (NPP) of the EU and focusing on linking and developing thing sites with partners in Shetland, Norway, Iceland, the Highlands of Scotland and the Isle of Man.

“We are currently looking closely at how the projects will complement each other with a view to making the total impact greater than the sum of the two parts”

The NPP things project is being led by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, who presented an acclaimed paper on thing sites at the Orkney-based Viking conference, Maritime Societies, in 2008, and is now co-editing the conference proceedings with Dr James Barrett of Cambridge University.

Dr Gibbon is hoping to undertake fieldwork this summer on the Orkney assembly sites.

For the NPP project, a two-islands event, hosted jointly with Shetland Amenity Trust, is planned for mid April, with details to be advertised later.

“It is exactly this kind of high quality, international knowledge exchange that raises our profile, brings visitors and makes archaeology work for the community in Orkney” stated Julie Gibson, Orkney’s county archaeologist, whose background is also in medieval archaeology.

Dr Jane Downes, head of archaeology in Orkney College, UHI stated. “We are now partners in two out of the three significant projects studying the subject across Britain and Europe — this is good news.”

Another £115,000 from the grant will come to Durham University to fund research on assemblies and assembly places and the creation of national identities in Britain and Europe.

See also the article: Places of Assembly: New Discoveries in Sweden and England

British Library Launches New Virtual History Timeline

Comparing the Peasants' Revolt with the Punk Revolution or medieval astrology with the Apollo moon landings might appear unconnected at first, but the British Library's new interactive website Timelines: Sources from History will allow students to get a sense of change, continuity and chronology when studying historical events. Bringing together material from the Library's vast collections and using cutting-edge technology, users will now be able to discover historical connections and create links in an exciting multimedia experience.

Developed by the Library's Learning team with historians and writers, the timeline includes some of the Library's key collection items from medieval times to the present day such as records of political events, glimpses of everyday life and writings and speeches from some our best known historical and literary figures. Scanning through centuries of images, audio-visual and printed material, users will be able to explore various themed timelines: 'everyday life', 'music and literature' and 'politics, power and rebellion' on one screen.

Highlights of collection items featured include:

  • Records of major events - from the Black Death and the Great Fire to the French Revolution and the abolition of the slave trade.
  • Printed matter - the first English printed book, the first cookery manuscript, the first English bible and the first postage stamp.
  • Public Life - posters, advertisements and illustrations documenting everything from public executions and magic shows to plague cures and séances.
  • Campaigns - pamphlets and writings from activists such as Abolitionists, Chartists, Communists and CND marchers.
  • Manuscripts - written by great figures in history including Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Captain Cook, Beethoven, Wordsworth, Abolitionists, Florence Nightingale and Dickens.
  • Maps - cities, military campaigns and imagined lands.
  • Patents - including those for the Spinning Jenny, the bicycle and the machine gun.

As well as the more well-known collections items, the timeline will also include some of the Library's more unusual sources, opening up a new world of education and learning. Items such as a medieval Valentine's letter (1477); a 15th century recipe for custard (1440); a Renaissance anatomy book (1543); a royal proclamation announcing England's first national lottery (1567); a 17th century dictionary of criminal slang (1674); a newspaper reporting the Great Fire of London (1666); an 18th century guidebook to London prostitutes (1788); a Victorian 'freakshow' poster advertising a 'living mermaid' (1886); and a Make Do and Mend' ration tips pamphlet (1943); these will allow everyone to become an expert as they explore and find fascinating links dating back to 1215.

Roger Walshe, the British Library's Head of Learning, said: "Finding innovative ways of engaging with the past is increasingly crucial for students and teachers alike. This timeline demonstrates how we can mesh traditional historical sources with new technologies to support future teaching methods, allowing users to engagingly pursue their own research.

Students will be able to trace a variety of stories in one space. For example, an early advert for curry powder from the 18th century reflects the changing tastes of East India Company Workers and reveals tales about the politics, trade, culinary and cultural exchange of that time - a unique insight into life during that period can be gained from one everyday item."

Through the use of innovative Flash programming, users will be able to dig deep into collection items, download information and images, view transcripts, add items to favourites and switch timelines and key events at a click of a button. This will allow for interesting and unique comparisons to be made between various aspects of social, political and cultural life. Users will be able to focus on specific subjects such as political campaigns or technological change or alternatively compare themes within one specific time period - for instance, popular cultural ephemera with items recording political events. Timelines is an ongoing initiative for the British Library and new sources and themes will be added regularly.

Dan Lyndon, Advanced Skills Teacher (History), at Fortismere School, said, "The new Timelines: Sources from History resource from the British Library is a must for all teachers wanting access to their vast archive in a quick and accessible way. The pinwheel navigation allows the user to spin through time at a pace that is manageable making the search for resources straightforward as well as eye-catching. The Library has collected together an array of important and interesting gobbets, neatly combining text and images, and the ability to overlap a variety of themes helps to extend the depth and value of the website."

The British Library's Learning team is a world-leader in providing access to collection items and resources for students and teachers. Using it's award-winning website that attracts 1.2 million visitors every year, the Learning team has consistently developed ways of giving users the chance to explore the Library's collections in a new light. Future developments include major resources to support English Language and Literature study.

Click here to go to Timelines: Lessons from History

Medieval Gatehouse for sale in England

Eastgate, one of the two remaining portions of the medieval wall of Warwick, England, will be sold at auction in April.

The Grade-II listed property has a guideprice of £125,000, but the new owner would also be responsible to undertake the cost of repairs, which have been estimated at around £250,000.

Warwick Society chairman James Mackay said "It is a most extraordinary building. But it has not been very well repaired and it is difficult to see what use would allow somebody to spend that much money on it.

"Ideally it will be bought by someone who will have full access to grants to do the work such as a charitable trust."

The property was sold to its current owners for around £90,000 five years ago and provided a regular income when it was rented out to the school.

Inside the gatehouse there is a large room with a clock tower above it. Mr Mackay said the building's access will make it difficult to use the property as a public space.

He said: "It is only accessible by a single staircase and has no space for disabled access so it couldn't be for public use such as a tourist information office and it is not suitable as a classroom or office space. It is a lot of building for not very much useable space."

Auctioneer James Hawkesford said the building would make spectacular 'arty' offices, possibly for architects or designers. He added, "It could also make the most exclusive apartment in the town, all of course subject to the necessary permissions." .

Eastgate, one of the only two remaining gates in Warwick, has seen many changes since it was first part of the defensive system of the town in the twelfth century. The small chapel of St. Peter's perched on top of East Gate, dated to the mid 15th century, but was ruinous by 1571.

It survived, in a deteriorating state, despite many alterations, until the late 18th century, when it was decided to rebuild it. The present building was opened in 1788.

The property will be sold at auction on Wednesday April 14 at 6pm at the Warwick Arms Hotel in High Street.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Viking Remains Discovered in Dublin

Archaeological excavations in Dublin, Ireland have revealed the well-defined remains of a Viking House which is thought to date to the 11th century. The finding is one that will generate great interest for historians, archaeologists and the public alike.

Prior to the excavation at this site, evidence for Viking occupation on the north side of the river was very scant, although the existence of Oxmantown (Ostmanstown) was well attested in the records, especially those relating to the seizure of Dublin by the Anglo-Normans.

The findings at Hammond Lane/Church Street now suggest that a well-established settlement existed in this location during the 11th century with houses, laid out in long east-west properties, similar to those excavated by Dr. Pat Wallace for the National Museum thirty years ago along the Fishamble Street side of Wood Quay.

This house, measuring about 6.80m long by 5.80m wide, is a rather large one of its kind, which suggests not just that the area was settled and organised, but might have been relatively wealthy.

The house is aligned east west and is fronting onto the western side of Church Street. During the Viking period the original foreshore of the river Liffey was very much wider and shallower at the time and its shore lat just to the north of Hammond Lane.

Church Street was the original medieval route that led directly to bridge at Dublin, and it linked the defended dún on the southern banks of the Liffey (the known enclosed Viking town as first revealed during the National Museum's excavations at Wood Quay/Fishamble Street, Winetavern Street, Christchruch and High Street) to the northern settlement known as Oxmantown.

What is also important is that there is evidence to suggest that there were other houses on either side in a row of organized properties along Church Street that may have fronted onto a roadway or street. This is a particulary important piece of the evidence, as it suggest that at this particular time in Dublin’s development, two centuries after the first Viking established their first base, Church Street was possibly as developed as Fishamble Street at this date. But then, this should not be surprising as it is located along the northern main route into what was a thriving port at the time.

These Viking-era houses are rectangular, made with timber walls of post-and-wattle and the interior was divided into three aisles. The hearth was in the centre aisle and this was flanked on either side by bed/benches, which were used as seating during the day and bedding at night. The corners were divided off into small little rooms or compartments, sometime used for storing water and other items. The roof, usually of sod and/or thatch was supported by four large internal within the house and by the substantial door jambs at each of the opposed entrances to the central aisle. The houses are generally positioned within property plots, bounded by post-and-wattle fences and there were sometimes latrines and smaller buildings in the rear of the plots.

Excavation director Colm Moriarty added, “It’s possible they were involved in working with antlers, making combs and that sort of thing. We have found pieces of chopped and worked antlers. They could then maybe have sold them out on the street at the front of the house.”

Excavations are ongoing and are being funded by, and conducted on behalf of, the Office of Public Works, prior to development at the site. Colm Moriarty is the Excavation Director and works for Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd.

Sir Bevois and Ascupart story to be made into short film

A university film project will be bringing the English legend of Sir Bevois and Ascupart to the big screen.

The short film – funded by Solent University - will tell the story of the Southampton’s legendary founder, Sir Bevois, who spent the most important years of his life in the Middle East, finding love, fighting lions and triumphing in many battles.

Audition dates for the short film - that will be entered into this year’s Cannes Festival short film competition – are scheduled to take place on Saturday, January 30.

Solent University Lecturer and project leader, Gela Jenssen, is looking for talented professional, student or amateur actors with a playing age of 19-29 years to portray Christian and Muslim characters.

Gela says: “It would be fantastic to be able to use local talent to resurrect a largely forgotten legend that has the potential to highlight the historical culture of the city.

Gela will also use the finished film – being developed with the help of a team of the University’s lecturers and film experts, and well-known local historian, Genevieve Bailey – to pitch the idea for a feature film to industry professionals at this year’s Cannes Festival.

The film will tell the story of a young Sir Bevois, the son of Sir Guy, Earl of Hampton who was sold to slave merchants by his mother and ended up in the court of Ermyn, King of Armenia.

The chronicles tell of his adventures and heroic deeds accompanied by his giant page and squire, Ascupart, armed with a magic sword, Mortglay, and a magical horse, Hirondelle.

As with many epic medieval tales, the story has a 'Romeo and Juliet' style romantic element as he fell in love with a Muslim princess - Josian - and fought lions to defend her.

Returning to England to reclaim his father's land, Sir Bevois is said to have founded the city of Southampton. Some versions of the story has him dying on Arundel Tower, part of Southampton's medieval castle, which is still standing today.

Whether the legend is fact or fiction lies in the murky depths of history. The story has been embellished and translated by minstrels and storytellers over the centuries. Southampton has several place names associated with the legend, such as Bevois Valley, Josian Walk and Ascupart Street.

The two stone lions at the city's Bargate represent the two lions he is reputed to have killed while defending the beautiful Princess Josian.

Gela Jenssen has been painstakingly investigating the legend, pouring over old-English documents to piece the story together: "I've done tons of research - it's so fascinating. There is a lot of intrigue - did he actually live?"

Because the story is set just before the Crusader wars between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, the film project is being given a contemporary spin.

Jenssen added: "The Bevois tale is truly epic and very dark, a filmmaker's dream, at the same time so relevant given the current post 9/11 climate and the insight the film can offer into the perception and representation of Muslim/Christian relations, back then and now."

The film will be shot around some of Southampton's medieval buildings including the underground vaults and God's House Tower, home of the city's archaelogy museum.

For further information about the audition process and to view the trailer for the film visit or contact Gela Jenssen on 07939 441268.

Conference to announce true location of Bosworth Battlefield

A conference to announce the true location of England’s most famous lost battlefield will be held on Saturday 20th February 2010 at County Hall, near Leicester.

A panel of leading experts in battlefield archaeology and military history, introduced by Professor Richard Holmes, will discuss the results of the major new archaeological evidence that proves where the battle was fought.

The battlefield was discovered following a four-year survey commissioned by Leicestershire County Council, largely funded by The Heritage Lottery Fund, and led by Dr. Glenn Foard of the Battlefields Trust.

Important archaeological finds from the battlefield will be on public display for the first time at the conference, including the largest collection of artillery round shot from any medieval battlefield in Europe. Other major finds from the battlefield, not previously announced, will also be on display.

Experts who will be speaking at the conference include Professor Richard Holmes, President of The Battlefield’s Trust, Professor Anne Curry, expert in 15th Century English warfare, Professor Mathew Strickland, expert in the history of medieval warfare in Britain, Professor Steve Walton, specialist in early artillery and Dr Derek Allsop, expert in ballistics. Professor Richard Morris will Chair the conference, with Robert Hardy CBE as the discussant.

Dr. Glenn Foard will explain the methods used to locate the battlefield, what the evidence tells us about where and how the battle was fought, and the implications of this for future study of medieval warfare.

Dr Foard, Director of the Bosworth Survey adds: "The success at Bosworth is a vindication of the evolving techniques of battlefield archaeology and shows its potential to resolve important long standing problems in military history."

David Sprason, County Council Cabinet Lead Member for Communities and Wellbeing said: "Bosworth is one of the most important battles in our country’s history, so the Council is incredibly proud to have pursued funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to discover new evidence about how and where the battle took place. The conference announcements will add a new chapter to the history books of tomorrow and we look forward to interpreting the new results at the award-winning heritage centre."

Des Gallagher, acting Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East Midlands, said: "Through the use of cutting edge archaeological techniques, Glenn Foard’s team have been able to locate the scene of one of England’s most famous battles. At the Heritage Lottery Fund we want to support innovative projects that can help more people learn about our history. The discovery of Bosworth Battlefield, and the huge interest it has created, will provide inspiration for new generations to get involved in exploring their heritage and history."

Tickets are on sale now for the conference and can be purchased from Bosworth Battlefield on 01455 290 429. Advanced tickets (bought up to January 31st) cost £40.00, including buffet lunch, refreshments and parking.

More information on the latest archaeology and on the February Conference can be found at

Click here to see our earlier article: Site of the Battle of Bosworth Discovered.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rosslyn Chapel scanned in 3D

The famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland has been photographed in intricate detail using cutting edge digital technology.

The project to capture details of the 15th Century building was developed by Historic Scotland and Digital Design Studio at the Glasgow School of Art. Their aim is to survey and interpret heritage structures, creating the definitive 3D record of the architecture down to the millimetre.

Terrestrial laser scanning, in combination with other digital technologies, is an extremely effective method of precisely documenting an object, building or landscape.

Over a three day period, a combined team from Historic Scotland and the Digital Design Studio at the Glasgow School of Art thoroughly laser scanned and digitally photographed the interior and exterior of the Chapel. Three highly advanced 3D terrestrial laser scanners were used on the project, each scanner capable of capturing 50,000 plus dimension points a second.

Within three days over 4.5 billion points were acquired. The information not only provides an accurate record of the Chapel’s current condition, but has also provided critical dimensional information in the ongoing restoration process. This process would normally take a surveyor over a year to complete.

Fiona Hyslop, Scotland's Minister for Cultural and External Affairs said: “This leading edge technology will help digitally preserve Scotland’s heritage for generations to come.

“The amount of detail in the digital images of Rosslyn Chapel is truly astonishing. This technology has already been used to give us exceptionally accurate 3D visual documentation and is currently being used at Stirling Castle. The technology provides a lasting, digital record of the country’s most important buildings. It also offers a new method for researching and conserving Scotland’s built environment.’

Colin Glynn Percy, Director of Rosslyn Chapel said: ‘This has been a fascinating exercise for us which has real practical benefits in being able to record minute details for posterity as well as assist the conservation of Rosslyn Chapel for future generations to enjoy.”

Historic Scotland and Digital Design Studio at the Glasgow School of Art announced a partnership in July to digitally document the country’s five World Heritage Sites, and five international heritage sites – the first being Mount Rushmore – creating what will be known as the Scottish 10.

Professor Seona Reid, Director of the Glasgow School of Art said: “The work The Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design Studio and Historic Scotland are doing is truly world-leading and clearly shows how developing new technologies can help us better understand and appreciate great works of the past. This is just the beginning of a partnership that is set to leave a digital legacy for us all to enjoy.”

Making Ireland Roman: Irish Neo-Latin Writers and the Republic of Letters

A ground-breaking new study of Irish Renaissance Latin was launched by members of the Centre for Neo-Latin Studies, University College Cork, last week.

Foregrounding the research of scholars attached to the Centre for Neo-Latin Studies in UCC, the collection of articles edited by Jason Harris and Keith Sidwell, Making Ireland Roman: Irish Neo-Latin Writers and the Republic of Letters (Cork University Press, 2009), examines for the first time a lost continent of Irish intellectual life from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

Around 1,000 printed books in Latin were written by Irish authors between 1490 and 1750, and a vast manuscript corpus of Latin writing by Irishmen also survives from this period. Although modern scholars have tended to study English and Irish lanugage sources for the culture of Ireland at this time, much of the intellectual output aimed at an international scholarly community was composed in Latin. UCC's Centre for Neo-Latin Studies has pioneered new work in this area, and Making Ireland Roman is the first book to draw together the research of the Centre's scholars. Topics analysed include the earliest traces of the Renaissance in Ireland, the importance of style in writing Renaissance Latin, debates about political and national identities, and the efforts of prominent Irish scholars to record the history of their own country and intellectual traditions.

At a well-attended reception in the University College Cork, the newly-appointed Vice-Head of the College of Arts, Celtic Studies, and Social Sciences Professor Graham Allen of the School of English launched Making Ireland Roman. He commented on the continuing importance of Latin-language training for modern universities and remarked upon the vitality of the Centre for Neo-Latin Studies in UCC. After the launch, Professor Keith Sidwell of the University of Calgary, the former director of the Centre, gave a research paper on the 'lost literature' of early-modern Ireland, focusing upon Irish Latin poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Under its current director, Dr Jason Harris, the Centre for Neo-Latin Studies, School of History, UCC has secured funding from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences to study the earliest stages of the transmission of Renaissance ideas into Ireland. Dr Harris and Professor Sidwell are also collaborating on a large-scale survey of Irish writing in Latin c.1450-1750 which is due to be completed next year. The Centre's Neo-Latin Seminar continues to meet weekly to analyse Irish Latin texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Over 5000 medieval historical novels, scholar finds

An extensive research project into historical fiction has turned up 5092 medieval historical novels in the English language, dwarfing previous estimates in this genre. The findings were presented by Shuan Tyas, in his article, "Historical Novels and Medieval Lives," which was published in Recording Medieval Lives: Proceedings of the 2005 Harlaxton Symposium

Tyas, who runs an independent publishing house, writes "My project began with a personal interest in the early medieval period, and collecting interest in the historiography of Anglo-Saxon England. It became apparent from this collecting that that the sheer number of historical novels indicates that they have an important role in the popular reception of history, and even an influence on scholarly studies, not the least because all historians have read some."

Tyas' article develops a definition of medieval historical novels, and analyses his database by date and sub-genre. The earliest medieval historical novel he has uncovered is Amours of Edward IV: An Historical Novel,which was published as early as 1700. This more than a century earlier than the works of Walter Scott, who has traditionally been ascribed to be the first writer to publish historical novels. Tyas found several other early examples of medieval historical novels, including Elizabeth Helme's St. Clair of the Isles (1804), set in the fifteenth-century Hebrides, and The Scottish Chiefs (1810), by Jane Porter, which is set in Scotland around 1300, involving William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

Tyas finds that the production of medieval historical novels have gone through three different phases. "The first might be called the classical period," Tyas write, "before 1850, when few were published, virtually all of them for adults, but most enjoyed widespread readership and cultural influence."

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a "golden age" for this genre, as children's books gained in popularity, becoming more numerous than adult books. The First World War saw the beginning of a decline for medieval historical novels, but by the 1950s interest in this literature returned, and has grown markedly.

Of the 5092 novels in Shuan Tyas' database, 68% are aimed at adults and 32% children. More often, novels are set in the later Middle Ages, with the most popular being the fifteenth-century, which had just over 23% of the novels. Several key figures from the Middle Ages often found themselves in these historical novels, including Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror and Robin Hood.

Tyas also sets out various categories for these medieval historical novels, including:

Science Fiction - novels that involve time travel, or similar sci-fi element. For example, The High Crusade, by Poul Anderson, has an alien spacecraft landing in the Lincolnshire village of Ansby in 1345.

Fantasy Novels - while most fantasy literature does not have a real historical setting, Tyas finds over 600 books which do qualify, including The Court of the Midnight King, by Freda Warrington, which is about Richard III.

Detective Novels - According to Tyas, this "is a huge body of historical literature...and they are growing so quickly they threaten to dominate the twenty-first century historical novel." The earliest medieval whodunnit is The Murders of Crossby, by Edward Frankland, which is set in the tenth-century Lake District. Others include The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and the Brother Cadlfael series, which Ellis Peters started with A Morbid Taste for Bones in 1977.

Women's Romantic Fiction - a somewhat vague genre, it is also quite popular in recent years. Tyas lists among his examples, Proxy Wedding, by Belinda Grey, where the heroine attends the coronation of Richard III. Tyas remarks, "I laughed out loud when the heroine visits the Tower of London as a tourist and she has to queue for a ticket."

Macbeth: A True Story, by Fiona Watson

A new book about an infamous Scottish king is trying to give a more accurate portrayal of his life and legend. Macbeth: A True Story, by Fiona Watson, examines the 11th century monarch who is most well known from the play by Shakespeare.

In an interview with The Scotsman, Watson explains, "Now, I believe that Macbeth's moment has come," adding that the real king, who ruled Scotland for 17 years from 1040, may have been demonised in death, but in life, like Shakespeare's king, he "bought golden opinions from all sorts of people".

He may have murdered his way to the throne, killing the king, Duncan – who, Watson says, was definitely not the gentle old man portrayed by Shakespeare – but Macbeth brought peace to Scotland in violent times. He was an effective and popular ruler and the first Scottish monarch known to have made a pilgrimage to Rome.

"As with the portrayal of the Scottish hero, William Wallace, in the 1996 film Braveheart, the factual basis of Shakespeare's story gives added authority to the universal truths with which the play deals," says Watson.

The criticism of Macbeth actually started immediately after his death in 1057, with medieval chroniclers attacking his character and reputation.

Watson adds, "The true story of Macbeth opens a window on the so-called Dark Ages. It was a complex time in European history, which has been largely misunderstood, and I hope my book also opens a window on Scotland, which for too long has been seen as a poor benighted historical subject."

As for Lady Macbeth, who was actually called Gruoch, Watson says she, "has perhaps been wronged by history even more terribly than Macbeth himself. Medieval women may be more or less silent to us, but I believe this doubly royal woman played an active role in both in her marriage and in public life generally.

"Remember, she made a political match with Macbeth: what she and her son needed was a strong protector. In the circumstances, Macbeth fitted the bill perfectly."

Watson was senior lecturer in Scottish history and director of the Centre for Environmental History at Stirling University until she gave up academia to write and broadcast full-time. She presents History File on BBC Radio Scotland and fronted BBC2's 2001 ten-part series In Search of Scotland.

Her love of history began at an early age: "Even when I was quite wee I loved reading. There was something wonderful about escaping into other times and other worlds."

"I've never been quite sure why the past has such an exotic appeal for me. Obviously, I grew up with Robert the Bruce, above the abbey in Dunfermline, but then not everyone who grows up there is similarly moved!"

Monday, January 25, 2010

'The Bread Book’ and the Court and Household of Mary de Guise

New research has revealed the cosmopolitan character of the Renaissance Scottish court, including what may be the first clear record of Africans at the royal palace in Stirling.

Freelance historian, John Harrison, has been investigating original documents as part of Historic Scotland’s £12 million project to return the royal palace within the walls of Stirling Castle to how it may have looked in the mid-16th century.

Among Mr Harrison’s sources is The Bread Book, an account of who received loaves from the royal kitchens throughout 1549 when the palace was the main residence of Scotland’s queen mother, and future regent, Mary de Guise.

His research has been published as a paper entitled ‘The Bread Book’ and the Court and Household of Mary de Guise, in the current edition of Scottish Archives, the journal of the Scottish Records Association.

The bread being allocated would have been white rolls called pain de bouche, which was for the upper echelons who at ‘at the queen’s board’ and which would have been made daily by a dedicated baker. Then there was pain commun for other folk, which was probably light brown, wheaten loaves.

The range of people provided with bread by the court was wide. It could include lords and ladies, military officers, either Scottish or mercenaries from overseas, servants, muleteers and even the man ‘who dichts the place’ – the palace cleaner.

On most days a loaf was granted to the Morys – or Moors – who Mr Harrison believes were probably either black Africans or Arabs originating from North Africa.

“This is a fascinating glimpse of the diversity of the royal court at Stirling in the mid-16th century. It was quite cosmopolitan at the time, with the French Mary de Guise at its head, and surrounded not just by Scots but by people from Spain, the Rhineland and what is now Belgium.

“There were a few English, but they were mostly prisoners. Just who the Moors were, and what they were doing, is difficult to say. They were quite low in the court hierarchy, but were part of the household and getting bread at royal expense.”

Hints have survived that there may have been Africans in Scotland even earlier. There is a poetic reference by Dunbar to a woman who has been assumed to be – ‘the Lady with the Meikle Lips’.

Such references are mostly rather uncertain, and may have other explanations, and the importance of The Bread Book is its clarity at a time when record-keeping was still relatively thin.

Just as fascinating is what The Bread Book adds to our understanding of the way the court was run, and who had access to the queen. The evidence suggests that rather than acting like many of the Tudor dynasty in England and taking her main meals in private, deep within the network of royal apartments, Mary de Guise would dine in the Queen’s Outer Hall.

“Quite a wide range of people had access to her, not ordinary farmers but lots of people who were fairly well-to-do, which is important as she was working hard to build and protect the interests of her young daughter – Mary, Queen of Scots.

“Mary de Guise was an intelligent, decisive woman and a smart operator. In modern terms she was networking, building contacts, hearing news, being seen and generating support.

“Just as important is that this tells us that she was part of a tradition that allowed a queen to work in this way.”

The years around 1549 were of enormous importance in Scottish history. Government was controlled by the Earl of Arran, who was regent, and the young Mary, Queen of Scots had been sent to France for her own safety as Scotland was facing repeated military aggression from England.

Mary de Guise, as widow of James V and with an important influence on access to French money and troops, was hard at work building her political strength. This is reflected in the lists of people she entertained such as Arran, the Argylls, the Gordons of Huntly and the Kennedys of Cassillis.

The records studied by Mr Harrison also show that Mary de Guise would lay on the very best cuisine for honoured guests. Some were even treated to sweets such as gateaux, which were a great luxury at a time when sugar was an expensive rarity.

According to Mr Harrison there were also specific practical advantages in following the French style and eating in the outer hall of the palace.

“It had the easiest access to the kitchens and was also the largest space. And once everyone had finished eating the tables could be cleared away to make space for dancing and entertainment.”

The research has been commissioned by Historic Scotland which is gathering as much information as possible about court life in the mid 16th-century to tell this story to visitors. The palace will reopen to the public in 2011 as a major new Scottish visitor experience.

Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland head of cultural resources, said: “When the palace opens to the public in 2011 there will be costumed interpreters to tell them about the people and events in each of the rooms.

“Research like this allows us to recapture exactly what was going on and give them a sense of life in the 1540s. It helps us make sure that visitors will have an experience that is authentic, informative and a great deal of fun.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Medieval Professor sues Norweigian government over firing

A Norweigian court heard five days of testimony earlier this month over a case where a medieval professor is suing the national government to be reinstated in his position or receive compensation over being fired last February.

In this highly publicized case, University of Oslo Professor Arnved Nedkvitne states that he was fired for speaking out against budget cutbacks to the medieval section at the university's Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History. The university claims that he was dismissed after a decade-long email campaign which included personal attacks on other historians in the department and claims of nepotism.

University officials added that Professor Nedkvitne has grossly violated his duties for several years, despite written warnings and reprimands.

Nedkvitne defended his emails and comments, saying that he had to right to protect the research being done by medievalists at the university. "It is almost impossible for us professors to put forward our views," he said. "I am used to academic professors being able to compromise with one another. Today things are more authoritarian, it is individuals who are taking the decisions."

He is now suing the Norwegian government, which funds and oversees all universities in the country. Nedkvitne is being supported by the Union of Norwegian Researchers as well as many other academics who believe his firing is a threat to academic freedom.

The court heard testimony from former rectors, deans, colleagues, doctoral candidates and students. Many defended Nedkvitne's rights to freedom of speech as a basic principle in academia.

The most bizarre piece of information was presented by a previous pro-rector, Professor Haakon Breien Benestad, who had himself been involved in mediation. Benestad then received a letter from his superior, the rector, stating that if he did not keep out of the conflict, he would risk losing his own position.

"Does that mean he would have had you sacked?" the defence lawyer asked. "Yes", was the answer.

A judgement is expected in mid-February.

Arnved Nedkvitne has beena history professor at the University of Oslo since 1993, and was also a professor at the University of Trondheim. He is now registered as a student at the university so as to continue to have access to library services and computer facilities. His research focuses on medieval trade relations as well as literacy and beliefs in medieval Scandinavia.

Paleontologist discovers 3-D secrets of Middle Age designs of Kells' 'angels'

The Book of Kells and similarly illustrated manuscripts of seventh- and eighth-century England and Ireland are known for their entrancingly intricate artwork -- geometric designs so precise that in some places they contain lines less than half a millimeter apart and nearly perfectly reproduced in repeating patterns -- leading a later scholar to call them "works not of men, but of angels."

But behind the artwork's precision is a mystery: How did illustrators refine the details, which rival the precision of engravings on a modern dollar bill, centuries before microscope lenses were invented?

The answer, says Cornell University paleontologist John Cisne, may be in the eyes of the creators. The Celtic monks evidently trained their eyes to cross above the plane of the manuscript so they could visually superimpose side-by-side elements of a replicated pattern, and thereby create 3-D images that magnified differences between the patterns up to 30 times.

The monks could then refine any disparities by minimizing the apparent vertical depth of the images -- ultimately replicating the design element to submillimeter precision. Cisne proposed the idea in the journal Perception (Vol. 38, No. 7).

The paper suggests that the technique, called free-fusion stereocomparison, which takes advantage of the brain's ability to perceive depth by integrating the slightly different views from each eye, was known nearly a thousand years before it was articulated by stereoscope inventor Sir George Wheatstone in the 19th century.

Cisne analyzed the most detailed illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, created between 670 and 800 A.D., including the Book of Kells (circa 800 A.D.). Some have as many as 30 lines per centimeter.

The artists stayed mum about their techniques, possibly because their talent gave their Celtic church an edge over the Roman church in the competition for disciples. "If you're in the middle of a propaganda war, [it helps] if the angels are clearly on your side," Cisne said.

But they left a few clues, he said, including the high degree of symmetry and repetition among many of the most intricate patterns and the elements' spacing, which is usually at about the distance between an average person's pupils.

"It turns out that if you can draw accurately enough, you can easily get a magnification of the lateral [horizontal] distance something like 10, 20 or 30 times -- about the magnification you could get under a dissecting microscope," Cisne said.

The monks likely created a highly accurate template for the design elements by drawing the same element repeatedly, comparing versions and modifying to create a standardized model. From there, they could replicate it into complex designs, using free-fusion stereoscopic comparison and minimizing errors along the way.

Many of the design elements contain minute imperfections that are consistent throughout rows or columns, supporting the idea that the monks worked from templates. And depictions of scribes from the era often show the monks holding pen in one hand and erasing knife in the other -- another clue that they made modifications along the way.

"The idea is that these guys did it just the same way I do when I use a drawing tube and a microscope -- lay down a reference grid, fill in the details, and then compare the details with your template," Cisne said.

Their knowledge of stereoscopic imagery likely died with the monasteries, which were later decimated by the Vikings, Cisne said. The original manuscripts are in Dublin and London; Cisne worked from high-quality reproductions in Cornell's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in Kroch Library. They're a reminder, Cisne said, that ingenuity can sometimes trump technology.

"Most people don't appreciate what a fine instrument they have in their eyes," he said, "and how their visual system can be used in other than the obvious ways."

Cao Cao's tomb to become tourist destination

Cao Cao, a politician and general from the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280), couldn't have been more wrong in his thinking that as long as his tomb was built with austerity, tomb raiders would leave it alone and he could enjoy peace in his final resting place.

Despite its austerity, with burial sacrifices consisting mainly of stone carvings and his personal daily utensils, the tomb had been plundered many times by the time it attracted the attention of archaeologists. A protective excavation began in December 2008.

Now completely excavated more than one year later, the tomb won't go back to the serenity Cao had hoped for, because local authorities plan to build a cultural relic park around the tomb. Authorities plan for it to become a popular tourist destination, that contributes much to local economy.

Zhang Jianguo, director of Anyang Tourism Bureau, confirmed the plan on Tuesday.

"The tomb has the potential to become another hot tourist destination of Anyang," said the director.

On the same day, Yang Limeng, a cultural official from Anyang, told the press that "many tour agencies from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, even from foreign countries like Japan and South Korea, have shown great interest in the newly discovered Cao's tomb".

On-site changes are even more tangible. The announcement of the tomb's discovery on Dec 27 has put the quiet village of Xigaoxue in the spotlight ever since. About 1,000 to 2,000 visitors flooded into the village after reading reports about the tomb.

Some villagers living near the site have already built temporary stands hawking souvenirs from photo services to calligraphy of Cao's poetry. Others are charging an entrance fee of five yuan for visitors stand in their grain fields so they can see the tomb's excavation, which is still restricted to visitors.

"There is no dispute that an archaeological discovery helps bring economic benefits to the local community," said Su Yang, a researcher in the field of social development from the Development Research Center of State Council (DRC). "Archaeological discovery has never been done for the mere purpose of academic discovery, but also for knowledge popularization. And tourism has been proved to be an effective means for that purpose."

In a recent online poll conducted by China's major news portal, 49.5 percent of the 25,126 participants voted to restore the tomb back to its original shape to show respect to the deceased. Only about 33.3 percent supports the commercial development of the site.

See also: Tomb of Cao Cao, famous Chinese ruler, discovered

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hull History Centre opens its doors

After years of planning and months of moving, the state-of-the-art Hull History Centre opens on Monday, providing historians and researchers with a brand new archive.

The centre will bring together the vast collections held by the Hull City Archives, the Local Studies Library and the University of Hull archives. That's 28,000 boxes of material, plus books and volumes, document bundles, pamphlets, photographs, paintings and maps - enough to cross the Humber Bridge four times if put end to end.

It's all part of a ground-breaking partnership between Hull City Council and the University of Hull, made possible by a generous grant of £7.7m from the Heritage Lottery Fund - the largest that Hull has ever received, or indeed any archive project in the United Kingdom. The total cost of the building was £9.83m.

Preparing for the move has been a huge undertaking for staff with the past six months devoted to stock taking, labelling, packing and cataloguing.

Leading relocation specialist Harrow Green has been contracted to transfer the many unique and historical documents and equipment in what will be a carbon-neutral move. The company has worked on major move programmes for the likes of the BBC, Tate Britain and the National Railway Museum, to name but a few.

The collections will be housed in an atmospherically controlled storage area with 13km of high-spec shelving. Humidity, unsuitable temperatures, light, air-bourne pollutants and acidity all contribute to the deterioration of archival materials, so the temperature is set at a constant of 17°C and 50 to 55 per cent humidity.

Judy Burg, University of Hull archivist, said: "After such a huge amount of planning and preparation, we are delighted to be moving the precious archive collections held by the University into the Hull History Centre. It has taken a lot of hard work and commitment from staff and volunteers, including some of our students, but to see the building finished and our material being moved in is very exciting.

"Now we are all looking forward to the most thrilling moment of all - opening our doors and allowing the public to access the archives from 25 January onwards."

Among the University of Hull students who helped pack and catalogue the precious archives was Zoe Brown, who studied BA (Hons) History and is now studying for an MA in Medieval History. She said the new History Centre will be a great attraction to anyone thinking of studying at Hull.

“Even those students whose subjects may not seem associated with History would greatly benefit as the University archives have a wide range of collections that could enhance many areas of research. The centre itself will be an attraction to potential students as it shows the city is worth investing in and constantly improving. My only regret is that it was not around when I began my degree as it would have greatly aided my studies and encouraged the use of local documents in my work.”

Martin Taylor, city archivist for Hull City Council added: "It was nearly 10 years ago that we first sat down with the university to discuss the possibility of a purpose-built new History Centre, so we are delighted to reach this latest milestone.

"I cannot praise the staff enough for their tireless work and endless enthusiasm over the past year and we are all very excited to see the archives being moved into their new home and watch the building come to life. This building has been designed to help preserve the precious and irreplaceable documents inside it for generations to come. We can't wait to welcome the public in January and thank people for their patience while our archive services have been closed."

Ian Studd, Harrow Green's director of UK business relocations said: "Our experience of previous heritage projects helped us win this important contract and get involved with this inspiring project. The archive material is unique, fragile and vulnerable to handling and changes in environment, so careful handling and careful planning of the entire operation has been crucial. We understand the level of care needed and all Harrow Green vehicles have air-ride suspension to provide maximum protection for goods in transit."

The centre will house important documents including the city's Royal Charter, which dates from 1299, as well as collections of local, regional and national importance relating to the city of Hull and the surrounding areas, Hull's maritime history, political figures and pressure groups, and prominent figures in literature and drama.

Reseach reveals new details about mercenaries in 14th century Italy

A new article about foreign mercenaries working in fourteenth-century Italy shows that they were not just rootless men just fighting for cash, but instead had a remarkable amount of loyalty to their home country and fellow countrymen.

The research comes from in the article, "Travel, Economy, and Identity in Fourteenth-Century Italy: An Alternate Interpretation of the Mercenary System," by William Caferro, which appears in the recently published book From Florence to the Mediterranean and Beyond: Essays in Honour of Anthony Molho. Caferro, who has written several books and articles examining warfare in medieval Italy, wanted to look at the issue of mercenaries serving in Italy, "from the vantage of the soldier."

Men from England, Germany, France, Hungary and Catalonia came to Italy during the 14th century to serve the various city-states and principalities.  Among the most famous was the Englishman John Hawkwood, who commanded the White Company and became quite wealthy from the services he provided. Although the city of Florence honoured Hawkwood by burying him in their cathedral, Caferro writes, the mercenary's "most fundamental allegiance was to England."

Hawkwood served as ambassador to Richard II from the beginning of the king's reign in 1377 until his own death in 1394, and took part in several diplomatic missions for England, including working with Geoffrey Chaucer to negotiate a marriage alliance with the ruler of Milan. Caferro notes that Hawkwood was not unique in this aspect, as several other mercenary leaders did the same for their kings.

Caferro also found that Hawkwood's choice of Italian employers was sometimes the result of King Richard's foreign policy. For example, "his service in Naples on behalf of Pope Urban VI and Charles of Durazzo in 1383 makes sense only in terms of King Richard's policy, which favored Urban and Charles against the French antipope and his French Angevin allies. The region was hard hit by plague and famine, and both Urban and Charles had little money with which to pay their armies."

The article finds that Hawkwood and other English mercenary leaders always made sure that their contracts contained a clause "to which the men explicitly refused to fight against the interests of the king of England." Furthermore, these foreign mercenaries often used the money they earned in Italy to buy property and goods back in their home country. Hawkwood, for example, purchased the Leadenhall in London as well as numerous manors around southern England.

Caferro finds a sense of nationalism among the rank and file foreign mercenaries, which can be seen most readily when they got involved in brawls and fights with each other. Disputes between individuals often resulted in soldiers lining up beside their fellow countrymen. "The most spectacular and lasting feud was between English and German mercenaries in 1364-1365. It began within the Florentine army at the end of the Pisan war and burgeoned into a full-scale war, with Germans and English forming into separate companies, chasing each other throughout much of central Italy, while local states watched helplessly."

Their employers had to keep these ethnic tensions in mind when hiring mercenaries, and would usually arrange their armies to keep the various peoples with their fellow countryman. When the city of Pisa launched a campaign against Florentines in the summer of 1363, they had their English and German soldiers separated into two separate armies, which took different routes to march on Florence, only joining up when they reached the city's walls.

Caferro concludes "that the mercenary system, whatever its military demerits, was a site of cultural and economic exchange, and that the foreign mercenary was less rootless and inadequate and more an integral part of fourteenth-century Italian society he served."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pop Culture Reshapes Role of Crusades

“The motivations of the people actually involved in the Crusades are completely alien to us,” remarked Christopher Hill, visiting assistant professor of history, at the Hamilton College Humanities Forum, which was held last year. And perhaps that’s why the significance of a structured religious hierarchy – the guiding force of the Crusades – is frequently downplayed (or downright subverted) in current pop culture dramatizations. The Western attitudes toward religion and war have surely come a long way since the 13th century.

Hill’s lecture, titled “Taking the Cross out of the Crusades: Pop Culture’s Secular Transformation of High Medieval Piety,” was the first in the Hamilton College Humanities Forum. The series’ purpose is to create an intellectual arena “to critically examine secularism as an approach to understanding the world, past and present.”

Hill explained that the Crusades were not a series of grandiose missions to bring religion to other parts of the world. Rather, they were first and foremost an “armed pilgrimage” – that is, a military campaign carried out by Christian Europe with the specific intention of protecting pilgrims heading to the Holy Land. Furthermore, the Crusades (which occurred approximately between 1095 and 1250) were waged primarily against the Seljuks, a Muslim dynasty that had overtaken Asia Minor and had mostly blocked off European access to the Holy Land.

Nevertheless, there were several major reasons why one wouldn’t want to go on a Crusade – the first of them being that the opponents were absolutely fearsome. The Seljuks had just beaten the Byzantine Army, one of the greatest military factions of the known world at the time. Hill explained that the knights probably knew that they were going to die if they chose to fight; “personal gain was not really a benefit here.” The second reason was that participation in the Crusades was massively expensive: one would almost certainly have to mortgage his land and liquidate around three years of income to finance his involvement. And the third major reason was that the Crusades took “time away from life.” Combatants would part with their families and businesses only to see them years later upon their return – if they returned at all. So then, all things considering, why did they even go?

“In a word: religion,” Hill said. The structured practice of Catholicism was deemed the only true access point into heaven, something obviously worth fighting for. Furthermore, theological sophistication was increasing and people were beginning to become more interested in what it meant to be a Christian. Many knights grew concerned over the divine state of their souls: slaughter was their business, but it seemed hardly a profession that Jesus would have approved. Were their actions Christian? At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II tried to appease those worries by issuing indulgences to those who fought in the Crusades. His actions worked; rallied and inspired, the knights in his audience cried, “Deus vult!” (“It is God’s will!”)

“I don’t go to the movies to learn about history; that’s why I went to graduate school,” Hill joked, citing the frequent examples of a-historicity in the film medium. And the depictions of the Crusades are almost always off-the-mark. “I find it interesting that it’s always the same attitude concerning (the Crusaders’) motivation.” Discussing such examples as The Crusades (1935), The Seventh Seal (1957) and Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Hill explained that following World War II, there was an increasing pattern of secularization within Crusades movies. The characters often ended up either disillusioned with the fighting, faced with an existential crisis, or suddenly enlightened regarding the intrinsically evil nature of religion. Often it was a mixture of all three.

Of course, the motivations and personas of these cinematic characters existed as almost diametrically opposite to their real-life counterparts. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the eponymous character has a sense of spirituality, but it’s against the church rather than for it. The religious bishop is cunning and evil almost to the point of caricature. The grubby friar, who lauds the greatness of beer, even comes off as an appealingly bawdy character. Additionally, the movie seems to espouse ecumenicism, a very modern philosophy (regarding the inherent unity of all major religions) that would have seemed absolutely outlandish to someone in the 1200s.

Likewise, the film Kingdom of Heaven (2005) also exemplifies all of these earlier themes. The church is demonized right off the bat when, in the beginning of the film, the inhumanely callous priest instructs some gravediggers to chop off a dead woman’s head because she was a suicide. And at the end of the movie, one of the important Crusader characters declares dramatically: “God be with you. He’s no longer with me.”

“It’s our need to rationalize the war experience,” Hill said. “It’s our belief that war is wrong, and that we can learn from it.” Typically when one watches a movie ostensibly about the Crusades, they’re not watching a movie that’s actually about the Crusades. Rather, they’re watching an interpretation of current Western attitudes that happens to be dressed up in medieval clothing. Hill pointedly explained that if a movie stayed true to the real motivations of the Crusaders, it would most likely flop at the box office. Modern audiences, he reiterated, are simply too far removed from that school of thought.

See also our Feature on the film Kingdom of Heaven