Monday, September 23, 2013

Look who is starting Viking and Medieval Norse Studies and Medieval Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Friday, September 06, 2013

Doomsday Castle: When crazy people build a castle and we get to see it on TV

The National Geographic Channel has come up with a TV show that blends the medieval with the modern world by... having an American family build a castle to protect themselves against a worldwide catastrophe.

The family is headed by Brent, a former soldier who is worried that a zombie apocalypse electromagnet pulse will take the world back to the stone age (actually the nineteenth-century, which was obviously a time of chaos). To protect his family from the hordes of people who will come to pillage food and other essentials,  Brent is building a castle in the hills of Carolina.

A film crew has captured all their exploits for our viewing pleasure (jokes going to be on us when the EMP blast shuts down our TVs). We see them building a castle, having family fun, and preparing to defend it against people that are starving.

Here are some clips from the show:

I hope they realize that many castles were actually captured by mining underneath them. The show began airing last month and I guess they have several episodes. You can learn more from their website and Facebook page.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Learning about the Middle Ages can't get you a job (so says The National Post)

As universities welcome a new batch of students this month, the media has shifted its attention to what kind of programs they should be learning. According to Robyn Urback, writing in the Canadian newspaper The National Post, you shouldn't want to attend university to learn about the Middle Ages, or anything else in the arts and humanities.

In her article What do you mean I can’t get a job with my medieval feminist studies degree?, Urback explains those students will be sorry "when the realization sets in that that medieval feminist studies* degree is not as marketable as they had anticipated."

She calls on governments and universities to make it easier to get into skilled trades or nursing and at the same time scare high school students into avoiding programs like journalism, history and teaching by telling them about the high debt levels they will achieve and the dismal job prospects they will have after graduating.

Over the last several days several news pieces have come out pointing to problems with getting an education in the liberal arts. In the article Degrees of uncertainty: Is being a university graduate losing its value? from the Vancouver Providence those students "will find university impoverished them beyond anything they could have imagined. They will graduate with staggering debt loads and lurch between low-paying jobs as they fail to find work in their field. Finally, they’ll beat a retreat to college or a trade for more job-focused training. They will belatedly understand what they should have seen from the start: the treacherous disconnect between the job market’s needs and the output of degree-granting sausage ­factories."

Similar concerns are raised in US media - see Diploma Disaster - in Australia - see Wages do not reflect degrees - and in the UK - see Students are turning their back on arts and humanities courses for more 'profitable' vocational degrees

Meanwhile, Michael Gettings, associate professor of philosophy at Hollins University, writing in The Roanoke Times, suggests "Students headed to college this fall should consider that a liberal arts education may very well be their best option for future employment, not only in the short-term, but over the course of their careers." In his article, The value of liberal arts: an education, not just a degree, Gettings adds "Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is an oft-cited example of this connection between the liberal arts and innovation. In his commencement address to Stanford University, Jobs credited his study of calligraphy at Reed College as the inspiration for the industry-changing font design on the Macintosh computer. As American students worry about their post-college jobs, Asian universities hope that they will produce the next Jobs."

If you still want to learn about the Middle Ages, please check out our section on Medieval Studies programs around the world.

* No post-secondary institution in Canada (and probably in the world) offers a degree on medieval feminist studies. Not even a minor.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Technology fit for a King

From The View: Loughborough Universty Magazine (Spring/Summer 2013)

It is a discovery that has captivated the nation and been dubbed by some as the UK’s most important archaeological find ever. Had the remains of the last King of England to be slain in battle really been found buried under a council car park in the centre of Leicester?

Earlier this year the University of Leicester announced to the world’s media that the skeleton unearthed by its team of archaeologists was that of Richard III, whose final resting place had remained hidden for hundreds of years. In a unique project working with colleagues at Leicester, Loughborough University’s 3D printing experts are creating a replica of the King’s skeleton.

Although he only ruled for two years – from 1483 to 1485 –  Richard III stands out among his peers as one of the most famous, or infamous, Kings of England.

On 22 August 1485 he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, bringing to an end both the Plantagenet dynasty and the Wars of the Roses. His body, stripped and despoiled, was brought to Leicester where he was buried in the church of the Franciscan Friary, known as the Grey Friars. Over time the exact whereabouts of the Grey Friars became lost.

Click here to read the rest of the story from The View: Loughborough University

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Boat, oyster shells, coins and an Anglo-Saxon gravestone - what has been found from the Middle Ages

Some recent news on what medieval items people are finding in England and Wales...

Archaeologists working in Norfolk have discovered the remains of a boat which could be as much as 600 years old. The boat was found along the River Chet near Loddon, with some of its wooden timbers, iron and copper alloy nails. The vessel would originally have been about six metres long and would have had a sail.

This is the first time that a medieval vessel has been discovered in Norfolk, according to site archaeologist Heather Wallis. She explains, "We think it dates between 1400 and 1600 AD and is very well preserved. It might have been used for carrying lighter good on the river."

Click here to read reports from the BBC, Beccles and Bungay Journal and Eastern Daily Press.

A group of amateur archaeologists are working in Northampton, where they are doing digs to find remains of the town's medieval castle. John Duthie, one of the organizers of the dig, said in their last search, “We actually found a piece of the castle - a large piece of sandstone. We also found oyster shells and pieces of pottery which look to be medieval. They’re now being checked over by a professional archaeologist and we’re really delighted with the finds. For only a small dig, we found a great deal.”

The group of amateur archaeologists do digs of one-square metre around the site of the former castle, which was torn down in the 19th century so the land could be used for the town's railway station.

You can read more from the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.

The next two articles are a little odd. First, when Ifor Edwards dropped his keys somewhere on his farm near the Welsh village of Bronington, he called in spme metal-detecting experts from the Wrexham Heritage Society to help find them.

Not only did they find the keys, but also 14 coins dating from the later Middle Ages. Mr. Edwards told the Shropshire Star, “It is a once in a lifetime thing. It is such a shock, you just can’t quite believe it. You realize those coins were there before they ever found America or anything. You just can’t believe you’re holding something that is 600 and something years old. We only bought the land three years ago and nothing like this has ever been found before.”

You can read more from the Shropshire Star.

An even bigger discovery was made in a garage in Surrey - an auctioneer clearing out a house stumbled across a ninth-century gravestone. The 1,100-year-old stone is carved with Christian symbols, including an early Christian Celtic-form cross enclosed by a halo, with a panel of geometric carving below.

Guy Schwinge from the auctioneering house Duke's of Dorchester, told the Daily Mail, "Our valuer spotted the grave marker at the back of the garage, partially obscured by cardboard boxes and garden tools. To the untrained eye the gravestone appears insignificant, but closer examination of the carved decoration and detailed research has enabled experts to identify the object as an Anglo-Saxon grave marker, which probably dates from the time of Alfred the Great."

The gravestone has been sold at auction for £4,300. Click here to read more from the Daily Mail.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Doctors can now figure out if you have the Black Death; and more medieval news

In a development that could have been very useful over six hundred years ago, scientists have discovered a simple and effective way of determining if someone has Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that is responsible for the Black Death. A team based out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany were able to create a sugar-protein that serves as biomarker when tested on the blood of individuals who carry the plague.

 The Black Death, which swept through the medieval world in the mid-14th century, could infect and kill people within hours. “Early identification of an infection is of paramount importance for survival,“ explains Chakkumkal Anish, Leader of the Glycobiology Research Group at the Max Planck Institute. “So our work may have direct and positive consequences on patient survival rates.“

 While the plague is not ravaging society as it once did, there have been sporadic outbreaks, including in India, China, Libya and New Mexico in recent years. The scientists also believe the process they used to develop this test will be useful with detecting other kinds of diseases.

 Click here to read the full details from the Max Planck Institute.

The Banu Sasan Criminal Network 

The Smithsonian Institute blog Past Imperfect has a very interesting article on Islam’s Medieval Underworld. It focuses on the Banu Sasan, a loosely organized criminal network that operated throughout many Muslim lands during the Middle Ages. They were thieves, burglars, murderers and con artists, and their activities often got mentioned in Arabic literature.

Their exploits would include the "so-called prince of camel thieves, for instance — one Shaiban bin Shihab — developed the novel technique of releasing a container filled with voracious camel ticks on the edges of an encampment. When the panicked beasts of burden scattered, he would seize his chance and steal as many as he could. To immobilize any watchdogs in the area, other members of the Banu Sasan would “feed them a sticky mixture of oil-dregs and hair clippings” — the contemporary writer Damiri notes — ”which clogs their teeth and jams up their jaws.”

Click here to read this article from Past Imperfect

More Medieval News

Archaeologists working in the imperial forum area of the city of Rome have uncovered the remains of an 8th-century workshop and a residential area dating to the 14th century. You can read more from ANSA.

In Birmingham, England, archaeologists are working outside of The Barley Mow pub. The pub owner believes they will find the remains of one of Richard III’s knights. However, a spokesman for the construction company behind the dig is less sure. “The archaeological investigation has found several 17th century post-medieval rubbish pits," he said.“There is no truth in the suggestion the team were looking for the remains of a follower of Richard III and nothing was found relating to the late medieval period.” You can read more from the Birmingham Mail.

A more promising find has occurred in Heslington, just outside of York. A Roman well, dating from the late fourth to early fifth centuries, has been uncovered, along with more than a 1000 pieces of Romano-British pottery, including two almost complete Huntcliff-type jars, and a similar number of animal bone fragments. Steve Roskams, Senior Lecturer at the University of York said, “It is striking that all of the material found in our well would have been familiar to those inhabiting this landscape. Its construction incorporates a finial which, we argue, probably came from the dismantling of a nearby, good-quality structure. The jars circulated here widely, the Huntcliff-type probably being connected directly to water usage. The other pottery and the animal bones also comprise well-understood 'mundane' elements that were available locally."

Click here to read the full article from the University of York

Finally, what is new on Youtube for medievalists? There is this video, entitled '5 Of The Most Gruesome Medieval Torture Devices' - please keep in mind that only one of the five torture devices mentioned here - the Rack - was actually used in the Middle Ages. Most of the others are first mentioned in the Early Modern period.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

'Vampires' in Poland, 'Medieval Mystery' site in England - what archaeologists are finding

Two recent archaeological stories are getting some media attention. First, in southern Poland a graveyard was discovered that contained four skeletons that had their heads buried between their legs. Radio Poland explains that "according to folk beliefs, this prevented a possible vampire from finding his or her way back to the land of the living. There was no trace at the burial ground of any earthly possessions, such as jewellery, belts or buckles."

The graves were discovered during the construction of a roadway near the Polish town of Gliwice. Tests will be carried out to determine when the skeletons were buried, but the archaeologists believe they date back to the early modern period. You can read the full article from Radio Poland.

Other discoveries of 'vampires' buried in graveyards include a woman found in Venice whose skull had been impaled through the mouth with a brick, over 100 skeletons found in Bulgaria that have had an iron rod piercing their chest, and in Ireland they have wedged large stones into the of mouths of skeletons to prevent them from rising from the dead.

Meanwhile, archaeologists working in Somerset, England, were surprised to discover a large site of medieval buildings. No records of this site exist, but the archaeologists believe it might have been connected with nearby Glastonbury Abbey. Roof slates, glazed ceramic roof tiles and decorated floor tiles suggest that these were substantial buildings of high status.

Bob Davis, Senior Buildings Archaeologist for Wessex Archaeology explains, “This is a significant find and therefore very exciting, particularly as there are no documentary records that such a site ever existed here. Preliminary dating of pottery sherds found at Longforth Farm suggest that the buildings were occupied between the 12th and 14th centuries. At some stage however, the buildings were abandoned, the useable building materials were robbed out and recycled and the site was forgotten.”

You can read more from Wessex Archaeology.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Jay-Z goes medieval?

American rap star JAY-Z has released a new album this month entitled Magna Carta Holy Grail. To promote the album, they have placed artwork of the album's cover next to one of the earliest copies of the Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral.

Dean of Salisbury the Very Reverend June Osborne told the Salisbury Journal, “We are delighted that Jay Z has chosen Salisbury Cathedral, home to the finest of the four surviving Magna Carta, as the location for the global premiere of his artwork. We know how important the Magna Carta, and all it represents, is to people across the globe. The ideals it embodies are still relevant today.

“Jay Z, through his album, is creating a huge awareness of this historic document and its modern significance to a huge audience in the run up to its 800th anniversary in 2015. We hope to welcome many of his fans here this summer to see the artwork in the Chapter House alongside our Magna Carta.”

Jay-Z was impressed with the ideals of justice and responsibility as written in the Magna Carta, and one song even includes the line "To no one will We Sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice."

Another song, Holy Grail, features Justin Timberlake. You can listen to it below:

Friday, June 28, 2013

Crusader Feces, Bat Feces, Latin swear words, and building a village - medieval news roundup

Here are some news stories from the medievalverse, and a few from beyond it...

Crusader Feces

An article in the International Journal of Paleopathology shows that many Crusaders would have been suffering from worms or other diseases. Test done by two researchers from the University of Cambridge at Saranda Kolones castle in Cyrpus showed that two species of parasite, the roundworm and the whipworm, were prevalent among the crusaders. The castle was built after the Third Crusade and abandoned in 1222.

Evilena Anastasiou and Piers D. Mitchell write that "the discovery of these parasites highlights how medieval crusaders may have been at risk of malnutrition at times of siege and famine, as these worms competed with them for nutrients."

You can read more about this story from Reuters.

The article 'Human intestinal parasites from a latrine in the 12th century Frankish castle of Saranda Kolones in Cyprus' is available here.

One stone at a time

While we have reported on groups in France and Arkansas that are building medieval castles, we now have a team of 25 workers in Germany who have just started constructing a replica of a ninth century monastic settlement and town. Bert Geuten is leading the effort to build the medieval site near the southern German town of Meßkirch in Baden-Württemberg. Because they are using authentic historical tools and techniques, it will take over 40 years before the project is complete, which will include a 2,000 seat cathedral.

They began last weekend by starting construction on a small church. “In the ninth century the monks would have built a small church first – they didn't want to wait until the cathedral was ready to be able to pray. So we're doing the same,” Geuten explained.

Click here to read the full article from The Local.

Bat Feces

Churches in England are again facing danger, but not from thieves stealing their metal or declining attendance. Instead, bats are the new threat, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph. An environmental directive from the European Union prohibits building owners from killing bats or destroying their roosts, and this is apparently leading to church interiors being contaminated with bat droppings.

Tony Baldry, a Member of Parliament who officially speaks for the Church of England, said, "the church of St Peter ad Vincula at South Newington in my own constituency has some very fine, almost unique, medieval wall paintings which seem to have been spared Thomas Cromwell's men. But having survived the ravages of the Reformation they are now threatened by bat urine. And these are irreplaceable parts of our natural heritage."

Click here to read the article from Daily Telegraph

How to Swear like a Roman

One of my daily reads The Atlantic magazine occasionally has articles related to history. Last month, they looked at ancient cursing with Futuo! How the Romans Swore. It focuses on the new book, Holy Sh*t! A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr, and explains the meaning behind Latin words such as futuo, landica, cinaedus, mingo, cacare and verecundum. You can read that article here.

What it takes to run the IMC

The International Medieval Congress is taking place at the University of Leeds from June 30th to July 4th. Over 2000 people will be attending (I wish I was there too). Anthony Lowe, event manager for MeetInLeeds is in charge of making sure everything goes smoothly “This has been three years in the planning as it is the largest conference we have hosted on the campus,” he explains to ConferenceNews. “It’s been great working with all the different departments to create a medieval campus, with special exhibitions in the university art gallery, library and academic meeting rooms, as well as themed menus and medieval street food."

He adds, “It’s going to be incredibly busy but we’re extremely well-prepared for it and will be working hard to ensure that everyone has a fabulous experience and remembers their medieval experience for many years to come. Leeds is a very attractive campus and we are looking forward to showing it at its very best.”

Click here to read the full article from ConferenceNews

Social Networking in the 1600s

Tom Standage is the author of the forthcoming book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. In this article from the New York Times, he writes about how the coffeehouse was the social-networking site of the 17th century. He explains:

People went to coffeehouses not just to drink coffee, but to read and discuss the latest pamphlets and news-sheets and to catch up on rumor and gossip. Coffeehouses were also used as post offices. Patrons would visit their favorite coffeehouses several times a day to check for new mail, catch up on the news and talk to other coffee drinkers, both friends and strangers. Some coffeehouses specialized in discussion of particular topics, like science, politics, literature or shipping. As customers moved from one to the other, information circulated with them.

You can read the article here.

The Rise of the Novel

Staying in Early Modern England, Penn State News has an interesting profile of Leah Orr, a specialist in 18th-century literature. She just completed her PhD on Did the Novel Rise? Fiction and Print Culture in England, 1690-1730, which "rebuts the longstanding notion that the novel as we now know it became a recognized form and rose to prominence during that time period. That conception of early fiction, she argues, is based on close readings of a few famous texts by major authors, such as Daniel Defoe and Aphra Behn, and neglects the broader literary context in which those texts were written and first read."

Click here to read more from Penn State.

Other news bits:

Medieval herb garden unveiled at Northumberland Park

Medieval Polish Treasures Revealed at Down Museum Exhibition

Rachel Koopmans wins Margaret Wade Labarge Prize for Books in Medieval Studies

Video: Students studying Archaeology at Queen's University take part in an excavation which discovers a Medieval Lime Kiln, which may have been used during the construction of Dundrum Castle.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Gutenberg, Executions, Medicis, Vikings, Hobbits and more - medieval news roundup

A medieval news roundup for the weekend...

If you are a fan of Marshall McLuhan or have an interest in the history of printing, this interview from the Columbia Journalism Review might interest you. In this post, entitled The future is medieval, they talk with Thomas Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg from the University of Southern Denmark about their “Gutenberg Parenthesis” idea. It deals with how digital media will be tipping the scales between oral and print communication, the first change we have seen since Gutenberg started his printing machine. It includes some talk about the medieval period, such as:

The Middle Ages was not strong on membership of communities. They were not obsessive about inside versus outside. They didn’t emphasize, “I’m a denizen of this town, I’m a citizen of this country, I belong in this nation, behind these frontiers.” They saw themselves rather like Hobbits (Tolkien was a medievalist). Hobbits knew their relatives to the seventh degree: second cousins three times removed, and so on. In the Middle Ages people saw themselves as part of a network of connections. They knew their family trees. They knew with whom they were related. They identified themselves as a node in a network and they saw pathways, connections to other people in their extended family. They also saw themselves in terms depending on their profession. If they were in the Church, they saw themselves in the Church hierarchy as being a priest here, subject to the archdeacon here, subject to the bishop there, and the archbishop and the pope. You could have status by being the servant to a servant to someone important.

You can also listen to this talk they were part of from MIT:

Slate magazine offers this fascinating excerpt from The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, by Joel F. Harrington. It details how 16th century executioners performed their task. For example:

During his own 45-year career and 187 recorded executions with the sword, Meister Frantz required a second stroke only four times (an impressive success rate of 98 percent), yet he dutifully acknowledges each mistake in his journal with the simple annotation botched

The New York Times has a short article about how nine children from the wealthy and poweful Medici family have been found to have rickets, a disease caused by a lack of Vitamin D and usually associated with the poor. In this case, "the researchers said the children were probably deprived of sunlight, which spurs the body to make vitamin D. Wealthy children of that time were often tightly swaddled and kept inside, with suntans discouraged as signs of low standing."

Sticking with the Medici's, Three Pipe Problem (a great blog) has an interview with Edward Goldberg, who does extensive research on that family and on the Jewish community in Renaissance Italy.

ScienceNordic reports that a 1200 year old Carolingian coin has been discovered in Norway. Jon Anders Risvaag, from NTNU University Museum, explains “Two factors make this find stand out. Firstly, this coin is older than the Carolingian coinage reform, and so far the oldest coin from Charlemagne’s reign found in Norway. Secondly, this coin was not found in a grave, in contrast to almost all other coins from Charlemagne and his successors that have been found in Norway.”

If you are interested in the Vikings, go over to Medieval Histories, where Karen Schousboe has written several posts about the Norsemen, including an indepth review of an exhibition Vikings 2013 at the National Museum in Copenhagen.

Finally, the CBC (our public broadcaster here in Canada), has this article Film, TV tourism spikes with Game of Thrones, The Hobbit. Fans seem to be heading to Northern Ireland, Dubrovnik and New Zealand to check out the beautiful backdrops to their favourite shows/movies. New Zealand tourism is cashing on in the Hobbit (like they did with Lord of the Rings movies) with their "100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand" campaign.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The first ever comic book?

Damien Kempf on Tumblr writes about this image from a 12th century manuscript known as the Bible of Stephen Harding. This work contains many images, including this page that details the story of King David. Just like a modern day comic book, you are supposed to go through this page from left to write and top to bottom, and read the caption for each box. 

The manuscript - Dijon BM MS.14 - has been scanned and is available on the French government website

You can also follow Damien Kempf on Twitter at @DamienKempf

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Three medieval archaeological discoveries: Newfoundland, Egypt and Cambodia

Here are three reports of medieval discoveries from around the world...


We know that the Vikings tried to create a settlement at L'anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland around the year 1000. A report by Owen Jarus at LiveScience adds that these Norsemen also visited the Notre Dame Bay region of that island as well.

Kevin Smith, deputy director and chief curator of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, explained at a recent conference that two jasper artifacts had been discovered on the site of L'anse aux Meadows, and when they underwent chemical tests it revealed they had most likely come from around Notre Dame Bay, which lies about 230 km southeast of the Viking settlement.

The report also suggests that this might also be the area where the Vikings encountered the Beothuk or other native peoples. Jarus writes, "Ever since the discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows nearly 50 years ago, archaeologists and historians have been trying to uncover the story of Norse exploration in the New World. Previous research has revealed the presence of butternut seeds at L'Anse aux Meadows, indicating the Norse made a trip to the Gulf of St. Lawrence or possibly even a bit beyond. Additionally, Norse artifacts (and possibly a structure) have been discovered in the Canadian Arctic, indicating a trading relationship with the indigenous people there that might have lasted for centuries."

Click here to read the full article


The Atlantic reports on the underwater archaeology that has discovered the remains of the Egyptian port of Heracleion/Thonis. They write that "sometime around the 8th century AD, Thonis sank into the sea. Most scientists believe that a combination of factors contributed to the cataclysm: a rise in sea level, coupled with a sudden collapse of the sediment-heavy earth on which the city was built. Whatever the causes, though, the results were clear: Heracleion -- Thonis -- essentially collapsed into itself. The city built upon the water plunged into it."

In the year 2000, a team led by Franck Goddio found and explored the ruins. Here is their video of what remains of the ancient port:

Click here to read the full article.


Archaeologists from the University of Sydney have discovered the lost city of Mahendraparvata. The Sydney Morning Herald tells the story of how the archaeologists used airborne laser technology to scan the area, which lies in northern Cambodia. Damian Evans, director of the University of Sydney's archaeological research centre in Cambodia, explains "with this instrument - bang - all of a sudden we saw an immediate picture of an entire city that no one knew existed which is just remarkable."

This city was built by the Khmer people in the 5th century AD and included dozens of temples. In 802 AD the famous city of Angkor Wat was founded 40 kilometres to the south. Mahendraparvata was abandoned and gradually became covered over with jungle.

Click here to read the full article.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Reading, Insulting, Taxing, Finding and Stealing - medieval news roundup

What did people read in the Middle Ages?

A new book is looking at how people in late-medieval London read. Arthur Bahr, a professor of literature at MIT, found that many people maintained eclectic reading habits.

In his latest work, Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations in Medieval London, shows the ways people in the Middle Ages would create books that included a wide variety of different texts, including chronicles, letters, literature and religious texts. For example, Andrew Horn, the chamberlain for the city of London in the 1320s, bound together various texts, including legal treatises, French-language poetry, and descriptions of London.

Arthur Bahr comments, “Horn actually uses the construction of his books to create literary puzzles for his reader. One poem just doesn’t make sense, but if you read the poem in juxtaposition with the legal treatise that comes after, then the two pieces make sense. He’s suggesting that the law and literature are sort of the yin and the yang, you need both. And that is kind of amazing, really.”

Click here to read more from MIT News.

Top Five Insults from Medieval Flanders

Jan Dumolyn and Jelle Haemers, who did research on Flemish rebels in the later Middle Ages, found that these men could hurl insults with the best of them. The top five were:

  1.  ‘A bad chicken was brooding’ 
  2.  ‘Son of a bitch’ 
  3.  ‘I shit on you’ 
  4.  ‘Liver eater’ 
  5.  ‘Kill! Kill!’

Some of these insults are rather obvious, others take a bit of understanding. Check out the article The five most common insults and slogans of medieval rebels from Oxford University Press to learn more.

Taxes between Wales and England

Nia M.W. Powell of Bangor University writes about at taxation records from England and Wales between the 13th and 17th centuries. While it seems in the Middle Ages it could be quite difficult for the crown to get consent for tax subsidies from the commons, efforts were made to make a more uniform tax regime during the 16th century.

Powell adds, "Early modern Wales has been presented so frequently as “poor little Wales”, a land of backward impoverishment lagging behind its prosperous and “progressive” English counterpart, a country lacking towns and even rejecting urban civility, a country struggling against the odds.

"This is not the picture drawn by early modern taxation records, particularly with regard to urban life. Port towns in north and south Wales reveal an enviable prosperity among its inhabitants that equalled and surpassed most urban centres in south-west England."

You can read Powell's article Welsh History Month: Tax records throw light on the story of Wales from Wales Online.

Other news bits:

Archaeologists in Estonia have discovered the skeletal remains of a man in Tartu Catherdral. Martin Malve, of the University of Tartu, says, “We can currently say that the skeleton originates from the 13-15th century, when tombs were actively used for burials. The skeleton belonged to a man aged 40-50. Initial examination shows that the teeth were relatively unworn; there were a few teeth missing from when he was alive, as well as plaque and dental cavities. The right elbow [...] had a healed bone fracture that could have resulted from trying to stop a fall,” Read more from Estonia Public Broadcasting

Archaeologist with the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust have discovered a Roman construction camp and early medieval cemetery in Wales. Check out this article from the BBC or read the full archaeological report.

In Ireland thieves stole an entire window from a medieval church.

Finally, did you know that Byzantine art from 1174 influenced this year's fashion trends? No...neither did I. So says The Guardian in this article 12 great years for fashion.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why Pope Celestine V wasn't murdered and why Stephen le Clerk probably wished he had been

Turning to medieval violence, we have two items to share:

Medieval Hermit Pope Not Murdered, as Believed reports that Italian researchers have debunked the theory that Pope Celestine V was killed by a nail to the head. They explain that a half-inch hole that can be seen in the remains of his skull was made long after he died, probably during one of his reburials.

Pope Celestine was a hermit monk who accepted the papacy in 1294 at age 85, but then months later resigned. It was believed that his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him murdered.

Tor Vergata of the University of Rome explained, “We can’t establish the real cause of death. A previous research carried test for heavy metal poisoning with negative results.”

The researchers have also reconstruct Celestine’s face in the form of a silver mask. Click here to read the article from

See also The Five Worst Popes of the Middle Ages

Husband Castrates Wife's Lover, Then Sues (Medieval Style!)

Katherine O'Meara, writing in The Prodigal Ex Pat, tells us about a court case from Ireland in the year 1307. She came across the court case while her writing her thesis - it involves John Don (Dunne) of Youghal, Cork, his wife Basilia, and her lover Stephen le Clerk. I won't give it away, for it is a good read, but now I know what 'abciderunt ejus testiculos' means and that I should never trust a taverner!

You can read the post here.

What's new about the Vikings

Several articles have recently appeared online that talk about the Vikings:

Unearthing Viking jewellery

Jane Kershaw from University College London has recently published her book on Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England. In a post on the Oxford University Press blog, she writes about how over 500 examples of Viking jewellery have been discovered in England. These brooches and pendants worn by women are contributing much to our understanding of the Norse presence in Anglo-Saxon England.

Kershaw writes, "Although Anglo-Saxon women also wore brooches, they were of a very different style to those favoured by Scandinavian women, so it’s clear that the new jewellery finds represent a distinctly ‘foreign’ dress element. The jewellery being unearthed in England is strikingly similar to that found in Scandinavia, particularly its southern regions: there are disc, trefoil, lozenge, oval, and bird shaped brooches decorated with animals and plants from the Scandinavian art styles of Borre, Jellinge, Mammen and Urnes. Encountering women on a walk around tenth-century Norfolk, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in Denmark."

Click here to read her blog post

Viking hoard discovered in Denmark

Karen Schousboe details in Medieval Histories how 162 coins dating from the late tenth century have been discovered in northern Denmark. One of the most interesting finds in this hoard is over fifty coins minted by King Harold Bluetooth (958 – 987).

Schousboe writes, "The coins are believed to reflect the conversion of the king in 963 as it is witnessed on the Great Jelling Stone, according to which the king claims to have “ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.” Obviously the coins were meant as part of the king’s effort to market his new religion."

Click here to read the full article from Medieval Histories

The Vengeance of Ivarr the Boneless

The Smithsonian blog Past Imperfect reminds us that besides being traders and settlers, the Vikings also enjoyed "gory ritual killings". They detail the several recorded instances of the blood eagle ritual, which is described this way:

First the intended victim would be restrained, face down; next, the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings would be cut into his back. After that, his ribs would be hacked from his spine with an ax, one by one, and the bones and skin on both sides pulled outward to create a pair of “wings” from the man’s back. The victim, it is said, would still be alive at this point to experience the agony of what Turner terms “saline stimulant” — having salt rubbed, quite literally, into his vast wound. After that, his exposed lungs would be pulled out of his body and spread over his “wings,” offering witnesses the sight of a final bird-like “fluttering” as he died.

Click here to read the full article from the Smithsonian

Meanwhile, author Marcus Sedgwick believes that school children don't get to learn enough about the Vikings and Norse mythology. He tells The Big Issue, "“As alluring at the Greek Myths are, I’ve always argued that we ought to pay as much if not more attention to another set of myths, those of the Vikings, since they are much more directly our heritage. Yes, we take the names of our days from the Norse Gods, and most people can tell you a little about Thor, but that’s probably about it.”

Click here to read the full article from The Big Issue

Finally, check out Searching for the Vikings on the Isle of Man on

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Why the soldiers of the First World War should have looked more like medieval knights

Michael Vlahos offers a fascinating article in The Atlantic about how "hundreds of thousands of lives" in World War I could have been saved if soldiers wore helmets and body armor just as medieval knights did hundreds of years earlier.

He writes, "medieval armorers and men-at-arms knew a secret that would have spared perhaps 30 percent of those who died in battle. We have the evidence right at the Metropolitan Museum itself."

For example, when helmets were introduced (two years into the war) the British and French made them in a way that wasn't very effective at protecting the head and neck. Meanwhile, the Germans based their design on the medieval Salade (or Sallet) helmet, which was much better preventing injuries or deaths.

Bashford Dean, an expert on medieval armor at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, even designed a battle harness that would offered strong protection against shrapnel from exploded bombs and even bullets from pistols, but the American army never made use of it when they entered the First World War.

You can read more at Could Body Armor Have Saved Millions in World War I?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the story of King Arthur in Oxford, historian finds

The story of King Arthur and the Round Table became a national myth thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittaniae – the History of the Kings of Britain. New research has unveiled that this work was written in Oxford.

Helen Fulton, professor of medieval literature at York University has found evidence that Geoffrey was in the English city from between 1129 and 1151, the period when he wrote the legendary account. She tells The Oxford Times, "Geoffrey can certainly be traced to Oxford between 1129 and 1151 because his name appears as a witness on a number of charters – grants of land normally awarded by the king to a particular priory.

“One was the foundation charter for Osney Priory and he had a close connection with the canons of St George in Oxford. His life of Merlin was dedicated to one of the canons of St George.”

Sarah Peverley, senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, added “Scholars were already aware that Geoffrey spent a great deal of time at Oxford, studying and teaching there, but the new attention given to documentary evidence linking him to the city is fantastic; it will help us to re-evaluate his social milieu and the cultural influences at work on him as he was composing the Historia.

“Though the British fascination with Arthur dates back much further than Geoffrey’s Latin chronicle, Geoffrey is ultimately responsible for the enduring popularity of King Arthur’s story today. He took stories of Arthur’s deeds and achievements from oral culture and brief references to him in earlier works, such as the Historia Brittonum, and invented a golden Arthurian age in the British past.

“His narrative presents history as it should have been, not as it really was. The chronicle’s influence was far-reaching in the Middle Ages, and the Arthurian tales that Geoffrey inspired went onto influence Arthuriana in every subsequent age.

“King Arthur’s appeal is timeless because he’s a touchstone for greatness: he answers society’s desire for strong and just leadership."

Click here to read the article about the discovery from The Oxford Times

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Minaret of Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque destroyed

The minaret of Aleppo's historic Umayyad mosque has been destroyed, with video showing the famous structure in ruins. The Syrian government and opposition forces are blaming each other for the destruction. In a video released by opposition forces, one man claims that "tanks began firing in the direction of the minaret until it was destroyed."

The minaret was originally built in the eighth century, and rebuilt in the 13th century. The Umayyad mosque has been the scene of heavy fighting between Syrian government soldiers and opposition fighters over recent months, which has left the mosque damaged and looted.

Friday, April 19, 2013

What The Onion can teach us about the Middle Ages

They bill themselves as 'America's Finest News Source' and after seeing the competition, its hard to disagree. The Onion is well worth reading, as is the site Literally Unbelievable, which shares peoples reactions to their stories.

It seems someone at The Onion has a soft spot for the Middle Ages. Here is their latest article to feature our era of history:

If I Could Live In Any Decade, It Would Definitely Be The 960s

Jonathan Soifer is nostalgic for the time of Edgar the Peaceful, Reginold of Eichstätt and Heriger of Lobbes! At least when the Byzantines and Bulgarians weren't fighting each other.

The best lines: "God, what I wouldn’t give to have been a vassal. Or even a peasant. Wouldn’t matter—everyone was cool back then. Primogeniture wasn’t even the law of the land yet, so a king’s death just signaled a free-for-all among his family and neighboring lords."

That is not the only article to be featured. Check out these other journalistic gems from The Onion:

I Would Have Been Considered Very Attractive In The Middle Ages 

Lyle Hume thinks he "would've turned more than a few wenches' heads back in 1350." Judging by his picture I think he would he is being overly optimistic.

The best lines "Of course, at 27, I would've been getting on in years, but I don't think the maidens would have held it against me. They might have been greatly attracted to someone roughly their fathers' age who had managed to hold onto most of his teeth and remain leprosy-free. Plus, I have gout. The disease of kings!"

Byzantine Empire Will Fall To Turks, Historian Warns

This article, from 1997, was eerily accurate! Best line: "Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI could not be reached for comment."

Society For Creative Anachronism Seizes Control Of Russia

I guess we were all so concerned about the Byzantine Empire that we did not see this other major geo-political event. Best line: "I can't believe how easy it was to claim Kiev for the Kingdom Of Ealdormere," said Royal Peer Gawain Falconsfyre, a 44-year-old tech-support assistant from a suburb of Toronto. "It was a piece of cake. Haven't any of these Russians ever heard of a moving-shield-wall offense?"

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Found in China, what to find in Iceland, and why we may never find the secret of the Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript has confounded scholars ever since it was revealed by a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich in the early part of the 20th century. There have been several theories of when this odd manuscript, which contains bizarre images and indecipherable writing, was created, with some believing it dates back to the Middle Ages.

In his article Cracking the Voynich Code, Batya Ungar-Sargon takes a look at the history of the manuscript. Radiocarbon dating finds that the manuscript was made between 1404 and 1438, although we do not know when the ink was written on it. Still, some believe the manuscript is really just a hoax, perhaps created in the 17th or even the 20th century.  You can read the article on Tablet Magazine.

Icelanders are seeing the potential value of its medieval archaeological sites as tourist attractions, according to an article in the Iceland Review Online. Ólöf Ýrr Atladóttir, director general of the Icelandic Tourist Board, explains that “Nature still has the most attraction but culture, in a broad sense, is gaining popularity. Tourists are constantly seeking new experiences and not least the interplay between daily life and nature through centuries. Strategic development of tourism related to cultural values like archaeological remains plays a big part in that context.”

However, she also warns that the her country needs to do a better job protecting archaeological sites from environmental degradation. Click here to read this article from Iceland Review Online.

Meanwhile, Chinese archaeologists report that they might have discovered the tomb of Emperor Yang Guang, who was the last ruler of the Sui Dynasty. The small tomb contains a gravestone that identifies the emperor and relates events about the year he died, 618. However, Shu Jiaping, head of Yangzhou's Institute of Archaeology, warns "we're still not sure whether it was the emperor's final resting place, as historical records said his tomb had been relocated several times."

Emperor Yang Shang had a very active rule, ordering major building projects including a Grand Canal and rebuilding large parts of the Great Wall. But his construction work and military campaigns bankrupted the state, eventually leading to a coup in which he was murdered. Click here to read the full article from the China Daily.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Newly discovered Anglo-Saxon grave may be evidence of 7th-century monastery

Archaeological work being done at St.Hilda's Church in Hartlepool has turned up an Anglo-Saxon grave. Other burials from the Early Modern period were also found, as the church is digging up a section of its floor to install a new heating system.

The discovery might be evidence that an Anglo-Saxon monastery existed on this site. Bede records that a nun named Heiu founded a monastery in the area named Heruteu in the 640s.

Dr Steve Sherlock, of Tees Archaeology, said: “It’s an exciting thing. We hope to do more work to understand it. It’s always presumed that there was a church here in Norman times in 1066. We note that the church is sited in the area of St Hilda’s Anglo-Saxon monastery, about 60ft north of the present church. 

“It’s always been presumed that this church was the site of St Hilda’s Anglo-Saxon monastery. We haven’t found any trace of that, but this one burial may be one of the clues pointing towards that.”

Click here to read the full article from the Hartlepool Mail

Click here to read more about an Anglo-Saxon Monastery at Hartlepool from Teeside Archaeology

Monday, April 15, 2013

The 101 Nights - new book of Arabic tales discovered

A historian in Germany has come across a new collection of medieval Arabic stories - a kind of precursor to the famous book known as One Thousand and One Nights. Claudia Ott, a professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, discovered The Book with the Story of the 101 Nights in a 13th century Andalusia manuscript.

The 101 Nights contains 17 stories, two of which can also be found in the 1001 Nights, with most set in India. Ott adds, “It is certainly not by chance that this backdrop has something Oriental about it when seen from an Arabic perspective. It is an image of an Orient that is far away, unfamiliar and exotic — for this reason, particularly attractive."

Ott first saw the manuscript on display at a museum in Berlin, and when she had the chance to look at, soon discovered its importance. She has translated the work into German.

You can read more about this discovery from the Egypt Independent

Friday, April 12, 2013

What to do if you have 10,000 hours of free time?

Andy Wilkinson has recreated a miniature version of the Bayeux Tapestry - the eleventh-century embroidery that depicts William the Conqueror's invasion of England and victory at the Battle of Hastings.  It took him 18 years to sew the 40 foot-long replica and he estimates that he spent about 10,000 hours to complete it.

In an article in the Daily Mail, Mr. Wilkinson explains, "I work a lot of night shifts and used to come home and find myself with not a lot to do for a few hours. I had seen a copied section of the tapestry at a medieval fair and thought that if they can do that so can I.

"Having never done a tapestry before, I came home and found a picture and just started to draw and sew. I had no formal training in sewing or drawing. I just drew the outlines of figures and animals like the horses onto a piece of calico material and then just stitched it."

This version of the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the portion of the Battle of Hastings. It will be going on display at Battle Abbey, the site of the battle that was fought in 1066.

Click here to visit the Battle Abbey website

Click here to learn more about the Bayeux Tapestry

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Black Death, Northampton Castle find, and history-related crowd-funding projects

BoingBoing has just posted an article Shedding light on the Black Death, which offers a good overview of recent research on the plague that struck the medieval world in the 14th century. It includes an interview with Sharon DeWitte of the University of South Carolina, who is one of the leading researchers in the field. She raises some of the important questions still being asked about the Black Death, such as why it was destructive. “The Black Death killed between 30 and 50 percent of the affected population,” she notes. “Modern plague, at most, kills between 2 and 3 percent, and that’s even in areas without access to modern medicine.”

They also note that the recent find of a possible Black Death cemetery in London might be very helpful in this area of research.

The Northampton Chronicle and Echo reports that archaeologists have discovered one of the buildings that was part of Northampton Castle in the 12th century. One archaeologist comments that "we’ve had an awful lot of animal bones, including a dog’s jaw, which could have been a hunting dog from the castle, or maybe a domestic animal.”

Here is a video about the dig:

For those looking to donate some money to worthy history-related causes, please check out a couple of items on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Tania Picard-Braun emailed us to let us know about her fundraising drive Help Me Go To Graduate School. She is hoping to raise $1000 to help her go to the University of Manchester where she will study for  a Master's degree in Medieval Studies. Tania wrote "I've known I've wanted to be a historian since I was a little kid and that the Middle Ages was my favorite historical period since I was in High School.  While still an Undergraduate, I presented my first academic paper at Plymouth St. University's Medieval and Renaissance Forum titled “The Middle Ages in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Images and Symbols".

Meanwhile, at Kickstarter you can find Ian Crowe looking to raise $9000 to create an art book featuring the 100+ stories of Ovid's masterpiece, Metamorphoses. He writes, "The fact is, despite being so pivotal, Metamorphoses is not as widely read as you'd think. Not anymore, anyway. Maybe it's the length of the book that turns people off. Maybe it's the lack of pretty pictures. Either way, I intend to do something about it."

Speaking of worthy causes, we could always use your support too! :)

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Which medieval king will they find next?

With the media sensation caused by the recent discovery of Richard III, and the resulting boom in interest at  it is not surprising that that some communities are desperate eager to find another lost monarch in their midst. In recent weeks a couple of stories have come out about searches being done in England.

King Stephen
At Queen Eliz­abeth School in Faversham, Kent, the building of a school auditorium is allowing archaeologists to explore an area where King Stephen was laid to rest back in 1154. Back in the twelfth-century, this site was home to Faversham Abbey, and the English monarch was buried there along with his wife and son. In the sixteenth-century, this Abbey was destroyed, leaving unknown the whereabouts of Stephen.

Laurence Young, the Manager of Faversham Enterprise Partnership, commented “It’s time to get to the truth about King Stephen and his burial place. The worldwide interest in Richard III has been colossal and, while Stephen doesn’t have his profile as a leading historic figure, he is one of very few English kings whose fate is not known certainly. From a national perspective it is something that ought to be investigated and settled one way or the other.”

Click here to read this article from Kent Online

Meanwhile in Winchester they have already found a body, and are now working to see if they are the remains of the famous Anglo-Saxon ruler Alfred the Great. In March, the skeletal remains discovered in an unmarked grave at the church of St Bartholomew in Wincester were exhumed. Some scholars and archaeologists believe that these might belong to Alfred, who died in 899. Archaeologist Katie Tucker who is leading the search says that while it would be difficult to prove they belong to Anglo-Saxon monarch, "if the bones are from around the 10th century then that is proof they are Alfred and his family, because Hyde Abbey was not built until the 12th Century, and there is no reason for any other bones from the 10th Century to be there."

Click here to read this article from The Guardian

St.Bartholomew's Church in Winchester

According to The Independent, searches are also underway for both King Arthur (good luck on that one) and Boudicca, who fought the Romans in the first century AD. The enthusiasm for finding lost kings has also spread to Scotland, where local politicians and history-lovers are calling for a search to be made for the grave of King James I, who was murdered on February 21, 1437.

Murdo Fraser, the Member of Scottish Parliament for Perth, told The Herald "Leicester will no doubt benefit from the worldwide attention brought by the exhumation of Richard III. A similar project in Perth would have the potential to attract similar global acclaim – which can do no harm in promoting the city. The story behind the assassination of King James I is well known and historians are almost certain that he lies buried underneath Hospital Street in Perth."

Click here to read this article from The Herald

Finally, it looks like the people at the University of Leicester are not done with looking for kings themselves.  Yesterday, they announced the search was on...for Richard IV.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

New Books on the Middle Ages: March

Every month we will try to post a list of books about the Middle Ages that caught my eye in the bookstore.

The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century 

By Paul Collins
ISBN: 978-1610390132

The tenth-century tends to be a somewhat overlooked period in medieval history, so I am intrigued by this lengthy (496 pages) account of what was going on in continental Europe, which includes some of strangest popes in history and the emergence of states from the Carolingian Empire.

Click here to read an excerpt from the Publisher's site

Deadly Sisterhood

By Leonie Frieda
Non Basic Stock Line
ISBN: 978-0297852087

Covers some of the famous women of the Italian Renaissnace: Lucrezia Turnabuoni, Clarice Orsini, Beatrice d'Este, Caterina Sforza, Isabella d'Este, Giulia Farnese, Isabella d'Aragona and Lucrezia Borgia. It looks like the character list of the show Borgias.

Before Galileo: The Advancement of Modern Science in Medieval Europe

By John Freely
Overlook Press
ISBN: 978-1-59020-607-2

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

By Lesley Hazelton
ISBN: 978-1594487286

From the publisher: Hazleton follows the arc of Muhammad’s rise from powerlessness to power, from anonymity to renown, from insignificance to lasting significance. How did a child shunted to the margins end up revolutionizing his world? How did a merchant come to challenge the established order with a new vision of social justice? How did the pariah hounded out of Mecca turn exile into a new and victorious beginning? How did the outsider become the ultimate insider?

Click here to visit the First Muslim website

See also this video:

The History, by Michael Attaleiates

Translated by Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis
Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Harvard University Press)
ISBN: 978-0-674-05799-9

I quite enjoy reading through primary sources - the stories written by the the eyewitnesses of the Middle Ages - so I picked up this edition and translation of a Byzantine chronicle that covers the years 1034 to 1079, including the Battle of Manzikert (1071).  I hope to post a review of the book on in a few weeks.