Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scottish Independence...

...is a big topic these days. Today, in fact, Scotland is voting whether to stay in the United Kingdom or strike out on its own. If it did, it would be the 20th largest economy in the world, thanks especially to its top three imports. In order of their importance, they are oil, gas, and whiskey. Let's talk about the third one.

Lindores Whisky
Unlike wine, the fermented juice of grapes, whiskey is a distillation of fermented grain. Before the Common Era we find evidence of distillation in Babylon and Mesopotamia, originally for developing perfumes and medicines. We are not sure when and where the process was first adapted for drinking, but the Ancient Celts might have been using it to produce their version of the Latin aqua vitæ ["water of life"] for which their term was uisgebeatha or just uisge [pronounced "whiskey"].

Distillation of alcohol was done in 13th century Italy, using wine. Ramon Lull (1232 - 1315) even wrote about the process.

We think Christian monks brought the process to Ireland and Scotland between the 11th and 13th centuries, where the lack of grapes made it the best option for creating a strong alcoholic drink. The first recorded batch of Scotch whisky shows up in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494-95, granting eight measures of malt to Friar John Cor to make aqua vitæ. Friar John was a monk at Lindores Abbey in Fife. Irish whiskey was mentioned earlier: the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405 record the death of a chieftain from "a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas.

The Dissolution of Monasteries (1536 - 1541) in Scotland by Henry VIII forced many monks into private production. Sad, because by this time Scotland was the world leader in production of whisky. Keep in mind, however, that whiskey at that time was not aged, and so was a very different drink from what we expect today.

You may also have noticed that I have spelled the word two ways. "whiskey" is the word used in Ireland and the United States; "whisky" is the spelling used in Canada, Scotland, and the rest of the world. Some U.S. brands use the e-less spelling despite this convention. "Scotch whisky" is whiskey made in Scotland. There is discussion these days about whether some Scottish distilleries would even move to England after independence in order to keep the same export policies and fees in place. We should know soon whether this will be an issue.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Y1K Problem

One example of the "white mantle of churches"
So...the Venerable Bede suggests that time be reckoned since the year of Christ's birth. People start numbering years. They start to notice a disturbing trend: they are approaching a big even number: 1000. Ralph Glaber lived through this traumatic transition, and left us an account.

Born in 985 in Burgundy, at the age of 12 his monk uncle found him a place in the monastery of Saint-Léger-de-Champeaux for education and discipline, but he was expelled for bad conduct. He later joined the Benedictines at Cluny, becoming a monk of his own accord. He later lived at two other monasteries. He died in 1050. His life's work was a five-volume chronicle called Historiarum libri quinque ab anno incarnationis DCCCC usque ad annum MXLIV ["History in five books from 900 to 1044"]. His Latin was far from elegant, his grasp of historical facts was far from accurate, and yet the history he wrote provides us with insight to the mood of the time.

And that mood was dark and dire. Glaber saw corruption everywhere:
Warned by the prophecy of Holy Writ, we see clearer than daylight that in the process of the Last Days, as love waxed cold and iniquity abounded among mankind, perilous times were at hand for men's souls. For by many assertions of the ancient fathers we are warned that, as covetousness stalks abroad, the religious Rules or Orders of the past have caught decay and corruption from that which should have raised them to growth and progress.. . From this [covetousness] also proceed the constant tumult of quarrels at law, and frequent scandals arise, and the even tenor of the different Orders is rent by their transgressions. Thus also it comes to pass that, while irreligiousness stalks abroad among the clergy, froward* and incontinent appetites grow among the people, until lies and deceit and fraud and manslaughters, creeping abroad among them, draw almost all to perdition!
After the millennium was survived, however, he lets us know that the world changed for the better:
It was as if the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.
The phrase "white mantle of churches" has entered the lexicon of medieval imagery, and is remembered and used in print more than Glaber's darker imagery of the corruption leading up to the year 1000.

*FYI: "froward" is not a typo; it means "to lead away/astray"

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

When Being Pope is Not a Step Up

You would think that being named pope is the highest achievement for a man in that particular field, and that it comes with the power to accomplish many great and far-reaching things. And you would be right, for the most part. Consider, however, a man who was already considered great before he ascended to the Throne of Peter, and for whom the papacy took him away from the opportunities to do good.

Dauferius, the younger son of Prince Landulf V of Benevento, was born c.1026. At his father's death in 1047, Dauferius ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage, was dragged back, and ran off again. He ran to the monastery of San Sophia and started calling himself Desiderius. He changed monasteries a few times, seeking a more austere life each time. His reputation for discipline and piety brought him to the attention of Pope Leo IX. It is thought that the pope asked Desiderius to negotiate peace between the Normans and a combined Italian-Lombard-Swabian army. Since the Normans defeated the army that included Desiderius' own countrymen, he would have been glad to help.

Desiderius became a member of the court of Pope Victor II, who influenced him greatly. More than that, however: at Victor's court Desiderius met two monk of Monte Cassino, and followed them there in 1055, where he was steeped in the details of Benedictine rule. Two years later, during a visit from the previous abbot of Monte Cassino, now Pope Stephen IX (though he had never relinquished the title of abbot), the monks were told to elect a new about to replace the pope. The monks picked Desiderius.

As abbot his real work began. He rebuilt Monte Cassino and beefed up the scriptorium, his reputation bringing more monks (there were 200 in his day) and gifts to the monastery. He had been appointed by the pope to reform whatever monasteries he thought needed it, and to appoint bishops from Benedictines if he felt it necessary. His reputation as a wise man and negotiator meant that even factions that were at war with the pope were cordial to Monte Cassino. For almost 30 years he worked to improve his world.

When Pope Gregory VII lay dying, he named Desiderius as one of his possible successors (even though they did not see eye-to-eye on the subject of reforms). When Desiderius learned that a lot of people wanted to see him become pope, he went back to Monte Cassino and tried to avoid the privilege. Pressure was great, however, and he acquiesced, being named Pope Victor III on 24 May 1086. Unfortunately, the antipope Clement III in Rome prevented him from being consecrated and actually moving into the Vatican until 9 May 1087. Much of his time as pope was spent replacing Clement and undoing some of the damage from his papacy.

And then he died, on 16 September; total time actually in office: 130 days.

He should have just stayed in Monte Cassino.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Charles the (Not) Simple

Charles the Simple
Charles III, called "the Simple" (from Latin Carolus Simplex) was a King of Francia (what we think of today as France) and Lotharingia (what we think of today as the Rhineland, western Switzerland, and the Low Countries).

He was born 17 September 879, the third son of Louis the Stammerer (son of Charles the Bald) and Adelaide of Paris. His father died before Charles was born, and Charles might have succeeded him as king, but his cousin Charles the Fat was put on the throne by the nobility. When Charles the Fat was deposed in 887—he was increasingly seen as spineless after paying off the Vikings and showing little inclination to military solutions—the nobility again skipped over Charles in favor of Odo of Paris. Eventually, however, a faction within Francia decided that Charles the Simple should be made the rightful ruler; he was crowned king in 893, but only assumed the throne once Odo died in 898.

Charles negotiated with the Vikings whom Charles the Fat had paid off. In exchange for peace, he granted them lands on the continent. Their leader, Rollo, was baptized and married Charles' daughter, Gisela. Their heirs became the Dukes of Normandy, leading eventually to William the Conqueror.

Charles himself married (for the second time) to Eadgifu, a daughter of the English King Edward the Elder. Their son was the future King Louis IV of France.

The initial opposition to Charles was not due to the nickname. Although we translate Carolus Simplex as "Charles the Simple," the adjective has become...umm..."simplified" over time. When attached to Charles, it did not mean he was unintelligent; rather, that he was straightforward and direct, acting without subterfuge or guile.

But this quality did not endear him to everyone. Not everyone appreciated giving territory to the Vikings, or some of his other decisions. Odo's brother Robert became the fiscal point for revolt in 922, and Charles had to flee. Returning with a Norman army, he was defeated on 15 June 923, captured and imprisoned, where he died on 7 October 929. Eadgifu fled to England when the revolt took place, but her son Louis would return to become king of France in 936.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Knitting, Part 2

The Virgin Mary sits a-knitting in this
14th-century painting in Siena by Lorenzetti
Naalbinding, a pre-knitting method of linking thread/yarn over on itself to make clothing, was discussed here. What we call knitting may not have been created independently, but was likely developed from naalbinding when someone realized there had to be a more efficient way of linking or looping the threads that passing the end and whole remaining length of it through the previously made links.*

Like with naalbinding, our earliest examples of knitting come from Egypt, where the dry climate and soil helped to preserve archeological finds. They were a product of Muslim culture, whose artistic patterns follow such traditions that we can date items by their style of decoration. (Early knitting used cotton and wool. Both could be dyed, resulting in multiple colors and elaborate patterns.) In Egypt, we have pieces of true knitting that date to as early as the 8th century CE.

In Western Europe, the earliest examples of knitting come from Spain. A set of 13th-century bishop's gloves and two cushion covers knitted in silk are found in the Monastery of Las Huelgas.

The earliest examples of knitting also show a "jog" in the pattern which suggests to experts (knitting experts, not archaeologists) that early knitting like early naalbinding was done in the round. Because of this, knitting was best used for smaller items that curved, such as gloves or mittens, socks, hats, and small bags or purses. Examples of back-and-forth knitting don't show up (at least, none have survived) earlier than about 1600. That is when we start seeing larger items of clothing, like knitted jackets, made from flat pieces that result from a two-needle back-and-forth knitting technique. We know, however, that knitting was regularly producing garments before 1600: a British Parliamentary Act of 1552 that limited the selling of wool mentions knitted shirts.

The artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti, whose art happens to provide examples of everyday living (as in this post on the hourglass), shows the Virgin Mary knitting in a 1345 painting.

*This is all different from crocheting, which did not show up until the 19th century.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Knitting, Part 1

Naalbinding technique [link]
Technically, today's post is not about knitting, but about an earlier technique with a similar result known as naalbinding. Naalbinding, or nålebinding, is Danish for "needle-binding." In English it is sometimes referred to as "knotless knitting."

Some archeological finds have been designated as early knitting when they were really naalbinding. Knitting as we know it today appears near the end of the first millennium CE, whereas threads woven by naalbinding can be found dating to centuries earlier.

The difference is that, while knitting involves a continuous row of loops linked together by the use of two needles, naalbinding uses a needle to pass the whole length of the thread/yarn through each loop, and the loops must be bound together during the creation process (see the illustration above). In knitting, simply turning the piece around once all the links have been transferred to one needle means that the next row will be automatically linked to the row on the needle. Naalbinding uses shorter pieces of yarn, not one long continuous piece.

Despite the Danish label, naalbinding's earliest examples are found around the world, in socks used by Coptic Christians of the 4th century and hats and shawls of the inhabitants of what is now Peru dating to 300 BCE. The pair of wool socks shown here, meant to be worn with sandals, is in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. They were excavated in Egypt and date to between 300 and 500 CE.

For those wishing to know more, a how-to for the process is explained and illustrated here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Two Men and a Car

Redvers Coat of Arms
William de Redvers, 5th Earl of Devon, died 10 September 1217; he was born sometime before 1146, (the year his mother died). His coat of arms was a lion rampant (facing left). At Richard Lionheart's coronation, four earls supported the canopy under which he walked in the procession. William was one of the canopy bearers. Prior to Richard's accession, William was loyal to King John.

Falkes de Breauté, with no particular aristocratic standing (he is rumored to have been illegitimate), died in 1226. His coat of arms was a griffin. He, too, had been loyal to King John. Falkes rose to prominence during the First Barons War when John faced a revolt from his barons. Falkes was prominent in many military engagements on behalf of John.

With their loyalty to King John (at a time when he needed men faithful to him), these two men probably crossed paths more than once. At least one of those times, however, was not in a good way.

William had a son, Baldwin, who would become the 6th Earl of Devon after William's death. Baldwin married Margaret Fitzgerald, the daughter of King John's chamberlain. Baldwin and Margaret had a son, also named Baldwin. Sadly, the elder Baldwin died on 1 September 1216.

Evolution of Vauxhall griffin
Falkes, with no title or fortune to his name, took it upon himself to improve his standing by kidnapping the widowed Margaret and forcing a marriage. William objected, but John approved, choosing to reward Falkes for exemplary service. Falkes received not only Margaret's dowry from her father, but also, when William died in 1217, the estates connected to the Devon title, since he was now regent for the younger Baldwin, who became the 6th Earl of Devon.

Part of Margaret's dowry was an area in London dominated by a manor which, because of her new husband, became known as Falkes' Hall. The name morphed through the years once the original reason for the name faded into history, first becoming "Foxhall" and later "Vauxhall." In 1857, a Scottish engineer founded a company in Vauxhall which later became the Vauxhall Iron Works and then, in 1907, the Vauxhall Motor Company. This company used, as its logo, the griffin of Falkes de Breauté.

So...if Falkes had not kidnapped William's daughter-in-law, the area in London known as Vauxhall would not have been given that name; moreover, whatever name it did get, the logo of an automobile company coated there might have been a lion rampant, which might have caused problems for the French Peugeot line of automobiles.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Legendary Olaf

Statue of Olaf in Trondheim
King Olaf Tryggvason is the subject of far more stories than we have facts to support them. (He was implicated in the destruction of London Bridge and therefore the subsequent nursery rhyme.) He was King of Norway for only 5 years (995 - 1000), but there are no contemporary records of his actions. The earliest record we have is an English chronicle about 70 years after Olaf's death, and in that he is only mentioned briefly. We have to wait about 200 years after his death to get stories written down about him, and the veracity of those cannot be trusted.

There is agreement that he was either born in the Orkney Islands (which were part of Norway at the time, despite their proximity to Great Britain), or carried there at three years of age by his mother, in order to escape the killers of his father. He wound up (after being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, then discovered years later by a countryman and bought) in Kievan Rus.

As an adult, he was shipwrecked in Wendland, an area of Germany inhabited by Slavs. It was ruled at the time by Queen Geira, whom Olaf courted and wed. When she died, he was distraught and left Wendland, plundering on the seas. On the Scilly Isles off the southwestern tip of Great Britain, he met a seer, who told him he would become a great king and convert many people to Christianity. She predicted that when he returned to his ship he would face a mutiny, and be wounded in battle, but recover after seven days and then he would be baptized a Christian. After he left the seer, her prediction came true, so he let himself by baptized upon his recovery by St. Elphege of Canterbury (later made a bishop under Pope John XVIII).

As King of Norway,* he promoted Christianity heavily. He baptized Leif Erikson, known for discovering America. Not everyone wanted to be baptized, and anecdotes of forced conversion abound:

  • Raud the Strong refused conversion after Olaf defeated him in a sea battle, even though Olaf promised that he could keep his lands if he converted. Olaf had Raud tied to a beam, face up, forced a drinking horn into his mouth, and goaded a snake by means of a hot poker to go through the horn into Raud.
  • Eyvind Kinnrifi was punished with hot coals on his stomach.
  • Queen Sigrid of Sweden was courted by Olaf, but she refused to convert; supposedly, he slapped her with his glove. This motivated her to gather his enemies. He was attacked on the sea by an alliance of Danish, Swedish, and Wendish forces. The naval Battle of Svolder took place on 9 September 1000 (or perhaps 999). Seeing that he was losing, Olaf jumped overboard. The body was never found.

This led to Elvis-like sightings in later years. He was reportedly seen in Rome, Jerusalem, and around Europe and the Mediterranean. There was a sighting as late as 1046, and Æthelred the Unready supposedly received gifts from a visiting Olaf years after 1000.

*How he got back there is a convoluted tale that we will leave for another day.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Statute of Kalisz

Artwork depicting the Statute of Kalisz
Bolesław V the Pious (1224 - 1279) was (at different and overlapping times)  Duke of Greater Poland, Duke of Kalisz, Duke of Gniezno, and duke or regent or leader of other regions, all starting in 1239 when his father died.

Not sure how he got the nickname "Pious" (Pobożny in Polish), but in 1264 he did something truly pious: he enacted the Statute of Kalisz. Kalisz, one of the oldest cities in Poland, was then on the border with Germany. It had a Jewish population, probably driven there from the Rhineland by the Crusades (which were not always about freeing the Holy Land).

In 1264, Bolesław enacted the Statute that gave rights to the Jews of Kalisz and western Poland.

One of the rights it granted was the Jews' ability to have complete legal jurisdiction over matters that were solely involving Jews, and it set up a special court to deal with Jewish-Christian disputes. Among other statutes:
  • Jeering at a synagogue required paying a fine.
  • Throwing stones at a synagogue was punishable by a payment of two pounds of pepper to the local court.
  • Christians were not allowed to accuse Jews of blood libel.*
  • Jews were not to be harassed when traveling, or be forced to pay additional road tolls.
  • Christian neighbors who failed to help a Jew who calls for help in the night would be fined 30 szelags.
The Statute (with 46 chapters of new rights) was so accommodating in the legal status given to Jews that it helped create a "nation within a nation." King Casimir III would extend it to all of Poland 70 years later.

*The kidnapping sand murder of children to use their blood in rituals—this was a common accusation for centuries.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Larder

In the Book of Proverbs, we find "Like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time is a trustworthy messenger to the one who sends him; he refreshes the spirit of his master." [25:13, New International Version] It is believed that the tribes, like the Greeks and Romans, used snow to cool drinks.

Packed in straw and buried deep, snow from the mountains could be preserved for a time. References in the Classical Era to cooled drinks are not matched, however, by references to cooled foods. The scale required to refrigerate food was too large, even if they had thought of it. (Actually, the Persians did think of it, digging pits filled with ice and placing food there. This method did not seem to spread elsewhere.)

The Middle Ages found different ways to work with food over time. The Middle English word larder denoted a place to store meat (and is related to the word "lard"). It would of course be in the coolest part of the house, on the side facing away from the sun and in the lowest part of the house. It also should be close to where the food was going to be prepared and cooked. (An underground root cellar was for long-term storage, different from a larder.) The larder in a large household might be run by a larderer, responsible for maintaining the meat and fish used by the kitchen.

The room might also contain a thrawl, a stone slab on which meat would be laid to keep it cooler than it would be on another surface. (This word was used in Yorkshire and Derbyshire, England.)

There were other ways to preserve food, rather than cold. Brining, hanging to dry, smoking, curing into sausage and bacon, etc. The notion that the spice trade was so important to medieval Europe because they had to cover the taste of rotten meat is silly. Preserving meat for use later does not require it to be fresh-looking and plastic-wrapped as our modern society prefers.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mamluks & Mongols

[source]
The Mongols were expanding westward. Under Genghis Khan they had taken a huge chunk out of Asia, from what is now the Koreas, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan and the areas south of it, all the way to the Caspian Sea. Twenty years later, under Ögedei and Güyük and Möngke, they held most of what is now China in the east, and had extended into Ukraine and Belarus in the west and south to the Persian Gulf. Through conquering Turkey, they had control of the northeastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Mongol hordes were ruthless when taking over a new territory. Iran's resistance required such force to subdue that much of the country's agrarian infrastructure was destroyed, causing famine and serious population loss in the years following the wars.

The Mongol Empire had benefits, however, to others as well as itself: an enforced peace throughout this realm made travel and trade safe for foreigners as well as residents. Given time, they might have conquered—and therefore united—North Africa and Europe as well. For the first time in their history, however, they were stopped, defeated when they encountered the Mamluks.

Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis and brother to Kublai and Möngke, managed the southwestern front of the Mongol Empire, moving from Persia toward Egypt. He took down the Assassins, and conquered Baghdad by defeating the Abbasid Caliphate. He then sent a message to Qutuz in Cairo, advising him to submit to Mongol rule. Qutuz killed the messengers and stuck their heads on one of Cairo's gates.

Then word came that Möngke Khan had died, and Hulagu took much of his army back home to lobby for the throne. When Qutuz learned that a much smaller military force had been left behind in the Middle East, he gathered his Mamluk army and marched out of Cairo. Two armies of about 20,000 men each met on 3 September 1260 at Ain Jalut ["Spring of Goliath"] in Galilee.

The Mongol army did not know the territory as well as the Mamluks did (Qutuz had allied himself with a Mamluk leader from the region who knew it well and planned their strategy). The Mamluks played a "hit-and-run" game, then pretended to retreat, luring the Mongol army to follow them into the highlands where the largest part of the army was hidden, its archers waiting to ambush the Mongols. Although the Mongols rallied somewhat, they were unable to gain the upper hand. For the first time, their forward advance to expand their territory was stopped, placing a western border in the face of Genghis Khan's dream of a worldwide Mongol empire.

The Mamluks had another advantage: explosives, specifically hand cannons. Hand cannons were metal cylinders packed with gunpowder and set off with a flame. They were not good for aiming projectiles with any kind of accuracy, but in the Battle of Ain Jalut they were used to startle the opposing cavalry mounts and create confusion.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Who Were the Mamluks?

Mamluk going to war, from a 14th century History of the Tatars
The short answer to the question posed in the title is "slaves." The name mamluk (plural mamalik) means "property" or "owned" (as in, "owned by the king"). The Mamluks were a warrior caste composed of slaves that grew so important and powerful that they lasted as part of the culture for a millennium; some Mamluks even became sultans.

When they began exactly is still up for debate. Certainly the Abbasids in Baghdad had a military caste, believed to have been bought as slaves from foreign tribes. They became the largest part of the military by the end of the 9th century. By "owning" the military, a ruler was free from the fear that a powerful political family might have control of the military and therefore threaten the throne. (Western Europe often relied on mercenaries for the same reason, as in the case of John Hawkwood.)

Saladin had dealings with Mamluks. While trying to consolidate his rule against the encroaching Crusaders, he encountered a Mamluk leader named Surhak who had taken control of the strategic town of Harim. He offered Surhak a different city in exchange for Harim. Surhak held out for more, angering his own followers, who cast him out and into Saladin's hands. Later, Saladin rewarded a Mamluk who had helped Saladin escape assassination, by giving the Mamluk the town of Aleppo.

After Saladin's death, his sons fought reach other over his territory. Saladin's brother Al-Adil fought his nephews and brothers, adding each defeated leader's Mamluk armies to his own. His successors did the same. When the 7th Crusade came through Egypt in 1249, they found the Mamluk army there too powerful: King Louis IX of France was captured and ransomed. Around this time, Egypt was ruled by the last sultan's widow, Shajar al-Durr; political pressure to have a male ruler resulted in Shajar al-Durr marrying a Mamluk. After his death, the political struggle the ensued resulted in the Mamluk Qutuz taking over; the Mamluk Sultanate was begun, which was to rule Egypt (and Syria) from 1250 until 1517 when it was overthrown by the Ottoman Empire.

Mamluks, taken from their families and raised under strict military and religious discipline, were extremely loyal to their owner and supportive of their comrades. The lifestyle and privileges they enjoyed were such that some Egyptians would get themselves sold into slavery to be trained as Mamluks, ensuring a steady career.

Although very few people today know about the Mamluks, we owe them a debt for saving the West from the grandson of Genghis Khan...but that's a story for tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Death of a Medievalist

Tolkien in his study
Time to break one of my rules and discuss a 20th century event.

Today is the 41st anniversary of the death of J.R.R.Tolkien. Born 3 January 1892, he learned to read and write by the time he was four, even learning a little Latin from his mother. Among his literary preferences were the fairy stories of Andrew Lang and the fantasy of George MacDonald. In his teens he added the Anglo-Saxon language to his Latin studies. He and his cousins played with inventing languages of their own, a pursuit that would help him lend artistic verisimilitude to his literary masterpiece The Lord of the Rings.

A career in World War I brought him home as an invalid, after coming down with trench fever. In 1920 he became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds, on the strength of his linguistic knowledge. His first academic publication was a Middle English Vocabulary in 1922. A few years later, this was followed by an edition/translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that is still in print.

Although his focus was more on language than literature, he produced two scholarly works in the 1930s that bridged (what some would call) the gap between the two. His 1934 article "Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve's Tale" showed that Chaucer was well aware of dialects and deliberately gave some of his characters a different dialect to make their status plain to the audience

Then, in 1937, he published a lecture (given the year before) called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In it, he argued successfully that the poem Beowulf had value not just as a repository of Anglo-Saxon language and northern European history that could be used to cross-reference other references to history It was also a poem of literary merit. This essay continues to be fundamental to any modern study of the poem. His own translation of the poem was published a few months ago.

Current culture equates his name with a series of blockbuster adventure movies, but long after those have fallen out of favor, his academic work will still be fundamental to future scholarly endeavors.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Getting Titles, Taking Wives

This is the story of a man who got everything he wanted...and possibly more than he deserved.

Ralph de Stafford was born 24 September 1301, eldest son of the first Baron Stafford, Edmund. Edmund died in 1308, and Ralph went to live with his mother and her new husband, joining the retinue of his maternal grandfather (for whom he was named, Ralph, 2nd Lord Bassett.

Sometime around 1326 he had married Katherine Hastings, a knight's daughter. With her he had two daughters, both of whom lived long enough to get married to knights.

At the age of 26 (in 1327) he was made a knight banneret* and fought in the wars against Scotland. He later helped to free Edward III from the control of his regents, his mother and her lover Roger Mortimer. Earning Edward III's gratitude for this and for later distinguished military service, he was made Lord Stafford by 1336 and served in Parliament. He was later (1341) made Steward of the Royal Household, and even later (1345) Seneschal of Aquitaine. These honors are indicative of the king's favor later in his life, but far earlier he had earned the friendship of Edward. The proof of this is seen in episodes involving his second wife.

We do not know when Katherine died, but it must have been prior to July 1336, because he was remarried by that time—despite opposition from his second bride's parents. Margaret Audley, daughter of Hugh de Audley, the 1st Baron Audley, was born about 1318. She was abducted by Ralph for the purposes of marriage—or perhaps for the purposes of financial gain, since she was worth £2314 per year. Ralph's estates were worth less than one-tenth of his new wife's. Her parents brought their objections to the king, who forgave Stafford's actions, approved the marriage, and appeased Margaret's father by making him an earl, the 1st Earl of Gloucester.**

In 1350, Edward decided to grant several new titles to reward military service. He created an earldom for Ralph, making him the 1st Earl Stafford, and granted an annual payment to him of 1000 marks (a mark was 2/3 of a pound).

Because of his and his wife's wealth and titles, their children (two sons and four daughters) were prime candidates for marriage in the eyes of others. They all married well, none of them having to abduct their spouses. Ralph died 31 August 1372.

*A knight banneret was a knight who had the right to lead troops under his own banner; Ralph's inheritance gave him that right.
**Technically, there had been Earls of Gloucester before this, but the line had been extinguished.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais, by Rodin
The story of the Burghers of Calais is one of those that "everyone knows" and no one bothers to examine critically. Reported first by Jean le Bel (c.1290 - c.1370) and most famously by Jean Froissart (c.1333 - c.1400; he lived a short time at the court of Edward and Philippa and spoke highly of them both), it tells of the result of a siege in Calais during the early stages of the Hundred Years War.

Edward, right after the Battle of Crécy, laid siege to Calais. Philip VI of France could not help, and Calais had to capitulate to avoid starvation. Edward said he would refrain from punishing the city for holding out against him if six of their leaders would sacrifice themselves to him, appearing before him with nooses around their necks. The story gores that Edward was in his rights to hang them, and that no one could persuade him otherwise. No one, that is, until his wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, spoke to him. She entreated him to mercy, and he relented and set the six burghers free.

The legacy of this anecdote is that the six burghers (whose names are known; they were led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre) were strong and steadfast patriots, that Edward was within his rights to execute them, and that only his love and admiration for his wife's feelings turned his heart and inspired him to mercy.

Rather sweet, actually.

But likely a misinterpretation of the facts of the case, caused by propaganda created by the original chroniclers. Appearing with nooses already around their necks was a common form of public penance, and such a public ceremony took place once the outcome were already complete. Exchequer records of the time show that Eustache de Saint-Pierre received money from Edward, suggesting that there were behind-the-scenes negotiations designed to make everyone feel better about moving forward after this incident. In this regard, the burghers were not brave souls standing up to the King of England; they were beaten men who were agreeing in public that he had won and they were now promising to be subservient.*

History loves seeing brave and defiant underdogs, however, and the reputation of these "common men" standing up to Edward is not likely to be changed in any history books. In Calais now you can find a famous statue of the Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin, created in 1899, the commemorates the incident.

*For more, see Les Bourgeois de Calais: Essai sur un Mythe Historique ["The Burghers Of Calais: An Essay On A Historical Myth"], by Jean-Marie Moeglin of the Sorbonne. It is a very detailed analysis of the history and legacy of this story (I, personally, however, still want to believe that Philippa had some part in softening Edward's heart—even though her intervention was likely superfluous. I guess I'm a romantic.)

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