Monday, July 31, 2023

Ordinance of the Jewry

When Richard I of England was kidnapped coming back from the Third Crusade, the ransom was going to be enormous: 100,000 pounds of silver. This was 2-3 times the annual income to the English crown from taxation. Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, worked hard to raise the money. Churches were taxed for one-quarter of the value of their property. William Longchamp, Richard's chancellor, raised 5000 marks from the Jewish community of England alone, which was more than three times what the City of London was required to offer.

When Richard got back to England, he looked at an anti-semitic massacre that happened in York, and decided to do something about it. That situation seemed to have been started deliberately by Christians who owed money to Jews and chose to start a pogrom to avoid having to settle their debts properly.

To be fair, Richard saw such situations as financial losses for himself. Lost revenue of a citizen meant being able to tax that citizen less. Richard decided that all transactions with Jews needed to be recorded by the Exchequer. His Ordinance of the Jewry in 1194 led to a new division of the Royal Exchequer called the Exchequer of the Jews.

This Exchequer required each transaction to be documented with a chirograph (literally "hand-written"). One part would be kept by the creditor, one part would be kept at the Exchequer. The benefit to the Jewish creditor was that a record of the debt was stored in a safe place and the person to whom the money was leant could not get out of repayment. There was a benefit for the Crown, as well. All transactions were liable to taxation. Moreover, Richard mandated to receive 10% of all debts collected with the aid of his courts. Curiously, with the king acting as "silent partner" to Jewish moneylenders, they had an advantage over Christian moneylenders whose accounts were not protected by the Exchequer. 

The Exchequer expanded beyond just debts, which we can look at tomorrow.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

William Longchamp

William Longchamp (or "de Longchamp") achieved success the old-fashioned way: he paid lots of money for it. That's not fair; best to start at the beginning.

Little is known of his background, except that his family came from Longchamp in Normandy. A rival of his, Hugh Nonant, Bishop of Coventry, claimed William's grandfather was a peasant. This seems unlikely, since William's father Hugh held a knight's tenancy in Normandy, also land in England. (Nonant was Longchamp's opposite on many issues, such as the Becket affair and loyalty to Henry II's children.)

Near the end of Henry II's reign, Longchamp entered royal service for Henry's son Geoffrey (not Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke of Brittany, who would join the rebellion against their father; the illegitimate one, who became Archbishop of York under Richard). That did not last long. Soon he was working in Henry's chancery, writing up documents, and later was working for Richard I, who made Longchamp Chancellor of Aquitaine, of which Richard was then the Duke. During a dispute between Richard and Henry's envoy, William Marshall, Longchamp was sent to Paris to represent Richard at the court of King Philip II.

When Richard became king, it might have seemed inevitable that he made the trusted and competent Longchamp Chancellor for England—once Longchamp paid £3000 for the privilege, that is. Longchamp would manage England's business while Richard ruled. One of those bits of business was the use of the Great Seal to authenticate documents, whose control and use was now in Longchamp's hands. Stamping a chancery document with the Great Seal incurred a fee, paid to the keeper of the Seal. The price of the Seal's use was raised at this time, perhaps to help Longchamp recoup the £3000 pounds.

Longchamp was also made Bishop of Ely, as well as Justiciar, able to act in the king's name in certain matters. He clashed with a co-justiciar, Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham (who paid £1000 for that office), and so Richard split the country, giving Hugh authority over everything north of the Humber. (Hugh was a bit of a problem, exercising too much authority because the position of Archbishop of York had not been filed for awhile; once Richard placed his brother there, Hugh had a higher authority to whom he was forced to submit.)

One of Longchamp's first challenges after Richard left England was the Massacre at York, when about 150 Jews died after seeking refuge in Clifford's Tower. Richard had made it clear after the anti-semitic riot at his coronation that Jews were to be left in peace. Angry at the insult to the king's command, Longchamp marched to York and imposed heavy fine on 52 of its citizens. He banished Richard de Malbis and members of other families who had been leaders of the riot and massacre. Evidence showed that these individuals owed debts to the Jews, giving them motivation for their crimes.

There are some who blame Longchamp for harassment of the Jews, and yes, there was financial inequity because of Richard's kidnapping, but ultimately that led to Richard creating a system that he intended would stop the attempt to eliminate debt by eliminating the Jew to whom one owed the debt. In fact, Richard's plan gave Jewish moneylenders a slight advantage over Christian moneylenders. We'll go into all this next time.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

When the King's Away

Anti-semitic riots at the coronation of Richard I cannot really be seen as an anomalous event: anti-semitism—even when not overtly practiced as a matter of policy—was always lying just under the surface, waiting to erupt at a moment's notice.

So even though Richard might have preferred that Jews be left alone, and made a formal statement of this, he was not always present in England to make sure his word was adhered to. It wasn't long after his coronation (3 September 1189) that he left England: not only was his heart never in England, having been raised largely in France, but also he had "taken up the Cross," and the Third Crusade was calling. (For Richard, England was mostly a place he could tax to support his military plans.)

Several incidents took place. At Bury St. Edmunds, 57 Jews were killed on 18 March 1190. There were attacks on Jews at Lincoln, Colchester, Thetford, and Ospringe.

A major incident took place in York on the 16th-17th of March, on the Shabbat before Passover. A contingent from York was preparing to join the Crusade, and with Crusading fever so high, sentiment against non-Christians rose to match it. Richard de Malbis owed a large sum of money to the Jew Aaron of Lincoln; he was slow in paying. He used an accidental house fire as an excuse to incite a crowd to attack the home of the recently deceased Benedict of York, an agent of Aaron of Lincoln. This prompted the leader of York's Jews, Josce of York, to ask the keeper of York Castle to provide safety.

Jewish families were allowed refuge in Clifford's Tower, but a mob surrounded it. The constable went out to speak to the mob, but the Jews inside feared to open the doors again and would not let him back in. The constable called for help from the sheriff, who brought his forces to the castle keep.

Rabbi Yom Tov Joigny, a French-born liturgical poet, advised the Jews inside with him to commit suicide rather than be forced to convert to Christianity. The fathers of the families would (and did) kill their wives and children, before handing the knife to Yom Tov, who stabbed them before killing himself. They also set the wooden keep on fire so their bodies could not be desecrated by the mob.

A handful of Jews who did not kill themselves surrendered at dawn the next day, on the promise that they would be unharmed. When they came out, however, they were killed. In all, about 150 died in the Clifford's Tower incident.

With Richard gone, the Chancellor of England, left to maintain order, had to deal with the aftermath. What was that like? Next we will meet William Longchamp.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Riot at the Coronation

During the coronation of Richard I, many citizens wanted to show their loyalty to the new king (and perhaps gain future favor) by giving him gifts. Not all citizens were welcome, however. Tradition meant not everyone was allowed to be part of or even witness the ceremony; for instance, women and non-Christians.

According to the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, Ralph of Diceto (c.1120 - c.1202), when some Jews arrived with gifts, they were stripped, flogged, and thrown from the building. To the people outside Westminster Abbey, the rumor spread that the new king disapproved of Jews and wanted them killed.

Riots began immediately. The Jewish population of London was attacked. Many of the homes in the area called Old Jewry were made of stone, and could withstand attacks by ordinary citizens, but the solution was to set them on fire, killing those within. (Some non-Jewish homes were destroyed by fire as well.) Some Jews were forced to convert to Christianity. Among those killed was Jacob of Orléans, a tosafist or author of commentaries on the Talmud, who had left France to teach in England. Some Jews escaped London, while some fled to the Tower of London to request sanctuary. Some were sheltered by Christian friends.

Richard was furious: no one wants the start of their reign to be marked by a massacre. His desire to punish the perpetrators was curtailed by the fact that there were so many and that some were prominent citizens. He chose to punish specifically the destruction of certain property. Roger of Hoveden describes it thusly:

On the day after the coronation, the king sent his servants, and caused those offenders to be arrested who had set fire to the city; not for the sake of the Jews, but on account of the houses and property of the Christians which they had burnt and plundered, and he ordered some of them to be hanged.

Although Richard seemed not to care about the destroyed Jewish homes, he did allow forcibly converted Jews to return to their chosen faith. He made a royal writ saying Jews should be left alone—he was concerned about what would happen when he left the country, since he had already pledged to go on Crusade.

When he went on Crusade shortly after, however, there were more examples of anti-semitism, which I will share tomorrow.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

The Coronation of Richard I

Richard I of England was not his father. Not only did he rebel against his father and reject support of his father's favorites, but he was far more known for his love of pageantry than Henry II. His coronation on 3 September 1189—incidentally the first coronation of an English king for which we have a detailed account—was considered lavish. We have an eyewitness to this event: Roger of Hoveden, who worked for Henry II and stayed with Richard, including going on the 3rd Crusade.

One of Richard's first moves upon becoming king was to release his mother from house arrest. Since the revolt of Henry's sons in 1173-74, Eleanor of Aquitaine had been kept imprisoned (though in style) for 15 years. Eleanor's hand was likely in the coronation agenda: Richard was her favorite of their sons, and she had waited for this day for three decades.

It started with a long procession through London, ending in Westminster Abbey, where all the great barons and lords of England gathered to see their new king. Nobles in the procession carried items made of gold: swords, cups, spurs, a royal scepter. Once in the Abbey, Richard knelt before the altar and the assembled bishops and abbots of England. A Bible and saints' relics were placed before him. Then, according to Roger of Hoveden:

…. [Richard] swore that he would all the days of his life observe peace, honor, and reverence towards God, the Holy Church, and its ordinances.  He also swore that he would exercise true justice and equity towards the people committed to his charge.  He also swore that he would abrogate bad laws and unjust customs, if any such had been introduced into his kingdom, and would enact good laws, and observe the same without fraud or evil intent.

Then came the true moment when he would become king: the anointing. Attendants came forward to removed his clothing except for undergarments, and giving him sandals embroidered with gold to wear. He was wearing a special shirt designed to keep his right shoulder and his chest bare. Baldwin of Forde, the Archbishop of Canterbury (whom Richard had ordered months earlier to stop his radical re-organizing of their chapter house), anointed his head, chest, and arm.

Richard then donned consecrated linen and royal robes, spurs and a sword. The crown was sitting on the altar. Richard took it, handed it to Baldwin, and was formally crowned. (In fact, two earls held it above his head because of its weight.) Richard then sat himself on the throne, and a Mass of celebration was begun.

Roger of Hoveden continues:

The mass having been concluded, and all things solemnly performed, the two bishops before-named, one on the right hand the other on the left, led him back from the church to his chamber, crowned, and carrying a sceptre in his right hand and the rod of royalty in his left, the procession going in the same order as before. Then the procession returned to the choir, and our lord the king put off his royal crown and robes of royalty, and put on a crown and robes that were lighter; and, thus crowned, went to dine; on which the archbishops and bishops took their seats with him at the table, each according to his rank and dignity. The earls and barons also served in the king’s palace, according to their several dignities; while the citizens of London served in the cellars, and the citizens of Winchester in the kitchen.

It must have been a sight that no one present would forget. Unfortunately, nor would they be likely to forget the mayhem that followed when some "uninvited guests" came to pay their respects and offer gifts to the king. Riot and murder followed, but that is a story for next time. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Baldwin of Forde

What made Baldwin of Forde (c. 1125 – 19 November 1190) think his connections and his rise to the highest ecclesiastical position in England gave him the authority to do as he liked. He was wrong. The Canterbury Cathedral Chapter Controversy was a blot on what could have been a spotless career.

Gervase of Canterbury claimed very humble origins for him, but the truth is his father became the archdeacon of Totnes and his mother later became a nun. He was sent by the Bishop of Exeter (Robert Warelwast) to Bologna to study law, where he met Peter of Blois, whom he would later hire, and the future Pope Urban III, whom he would seriously anger. Baldwin was chosen by Pope Eugene III (the "Homeless Pope") to tutor Eugene's nephew, a clear sign of papal favor. A few years later, Baldwin was back in England in 1155 in the household of Robert of Chichester, the new Bishop of Exeter.

Robert's successor, Bartholomew Iscanus, made Baldwin archdeacon of Totnes to replace his recently deceased father. John of Salisbury wrote to Baldwin, urging him to persuade Bartholomew to provide better support to Becket in the controversy with Henry II. Bartholomew and Baldwin were apparently leaning toward the idea that the king had authority over the church in England in certain matters.

Baldwin became a monk c.1170, and then abbot of a Cistercian monastery at Forde. His background in law meant that many legal disputes came to him after being sent to the papal Curia and getting remanded back to local experts. King Henry was impressed by his handling of a secular case in which he prevented a hanging.

His support of Henry in the Becket affair is likely why Henry was determined to have Baldwin succeed Richard of Dover as Archbishop of Canterbury, despite the monks of Canterbury putting forward three different candidates. For the problems that followed, see the link above.

One thing he did as Archbishop of Canterbury that was not controversial was preside over the coronation of King Richard I after Henry's death. It happens to have been the first coronation in England for which we have any details, thanks to Roger of Howden, and was intended to be elaborate, thanks to the new king's mother. Let me tell you how it went tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Canterbury Cathedral Chapter Controversy

When Peter of Blois' old law professor, Baldwin of Forde (pictured here outside of Canterbury Cathedral), became Archbishop of Canterbury, Peter might have been happy about renewing old acquaintance. Baldwin, however had some changes in mind that created a controversy that no one else wanted.

The controversy surrounded the chapter house of Benedictine monks. All well and good, but Baldwin belonged to the Cistercians, who branched off from the Benedictines around 1100 because they felt the Benedictines had not been rigorous enough at following the Rule of St. Benedict. They kept the rule, but amended it with ideas from Bernard of Clairvaux.

Baldwin felt the Benedictines were too worldly: diocesan properties that belonged to Canterbury Cathedral had been put in their hands to support their management of pilgrim traffic, especially around the shrine of Thomas Becket. Baldwin also took back the Easter offerings that had been allowed to go to the Benedictine chapter by Pope Lucius III. Baldwin wanted it for the diocese.

Baldwin was also determined to move the chapter north of Canterbury to Hackington.

The Benedictines complained to the current pope, Urban III, who had also been one of Peter's teachers. They also wrote to every bishop and archbishop, and even to King Philip II of France, looking for support. Peter, who had studied law under Baldwin and had been persuasive in the past, was sent to Rome by Baldwin to argue his case. The Benedictines, however, were represented by a skilled full-time Roman lawyer named Pillius, and Peter was no match for him.

Peter argued for months, and wasn't helped by Baldwin, who continued to do provocative things back in Canterbury. The pope had ordered the demolishing of the Hackington building, but Baldwin continued the construction. Baldwin seized the manors of the chapter and excommunicated the monks. Peter followed the papal court to Ferrara in October 1187 to continue to debate on Baldwin's behalf, but Baldwin's refusal to follow papal orders incensed Urban. Urban died on 19 October—Peter's account says it was dysentery—and the new pope, Gregory VIII, was elected on 21 October. He did not take a strong stand on the issue before dying in December and being succeeded by Clement III.

None of these changes in the chair of St. Peter helped Baldwin's case, although he took advantage of the transitions to continue his changes. On 26 January 1188, Clement sent a letter: Baldwin was to cease his changes and restore everything to the way it was prior to his meddling. Once again, however, he ignored the orders until August 1189 when Richard I (who had just become king after his father's death a month before) forced him to submit to the papal resolution.

Why did Baldwin think he could so readily ignore the pope(s)? What was England's royal policy on the controversy boiling over in its most important cathedral diocese? Who did Baldwin think he was? Let's take a close look at the man who started it all next time.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Peter of Blois

Peter of Blois (c.1130 - c.1211) was well-connected; not through his family, but through people he knew growing up and going to school. One of his important early influences was the medieval platonism philosopher, Bernard Silvestris, who urged him to embrace facts over fables. He went to the University of Bologna, where he studied Roman law under Baldwin of Forde, who became an Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as under another who would become Pope Urban III.

He also spent over a decade studying theology at the University of Paris, making a living as a tutor. He tutored two sons of the Bishop of Salisbury, Jocelin de Bohon, which might explain why he spent time at Old Sarum Cathedral, of which he had a harsh opinion. He also amused himself by writing songs in the Goliard tradition; some of his works appear in the Carmina Burana collection.

In 1166 he went to Sicily to where he tutored the future King William II of Sicily. William's mother, Margaret of Navarre, had written to relatives looking for an appropriate teacher. The Archbishop of Rouen sent Peter of Blois along with a party of Frenchmen. Later, the archbishop of Rouen got Peter involved in diplomacy surrounding the conflict between Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Peter re-made the acquaintance of one of his earlier pupils, a son of the Bishop of Salisbury, Reginald Fitz Jocelin. Reginald was to become Bishop of Bath in 1173, but getting the pope's approval was difficult because of Reginald's support for King Henry in the Becket affair. Peter's letters in his defense helped to rally support.

By 1173, Peter was in England and working as chief letter-writer for Richard of Dover, who followed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. 1173 was a time of upheaval in England. Some of Henry's sons had followed his heir, Young King Henry, to the court of the King of France to plan a revolt against their father. Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had opposed Henry, and Peter wrote to her, criticizing her for leaving her husband. 

Peter diligently wrote on Henry II's behalf to prelates and potentates in Europe, explaining that despite the rumors, Henry was not responsible for the murder of Becket. Peter's efforts helped his career. He was appointed Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Canterbury. He was also appointed Archdeacon of Bath. He was also made Dean of the College of Wolverhampton.

When Richard of Dover died, Peter's old teacher Baldwin of Forde became Archbishop of Canterbury. This looked like an excellent moment in Peter's life: someone he knew well and with whom he was now going to work closely. Instead, the new arrangement almost cost Peter his career, which I'll explain tomorrow.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Old Sarum

The earliest settlement in Salisbury was Old Sarum, and by "earliest" we mean starting at c.3000BCE. Around 400BCE a hill fort was constructed, and at the time of the Romans in the 1st century CE it was controlled by the British tribe, the Atrebates. The settlement became part of Wessex when the hill was captured by the Saxon King Cynric in 552CE.

King Alfred didn't do much with the place until the Vikings became a problem; he fortified it, making it therefore usable by others such as King Ecgberht of Wessex (ruled 802-839), and King Edgar (ruled 959-975). It was abandoned when Svein Forkbeard invaded in 1003.

Always treated as a potential defensive position more than an important municipal center, the hill was crowned with a motte-and-bailey three years after the Norman Conquest. Topographical limits kept the town small and cramped, although not so small that William the Conqueror couldn't gather all his nobles, prelates, and sheriffs to take the Oath of Salisbury, declaring loyalty to him and no other. It is likely that this occasion saw William presented with the completed survey called the Domesday Book.

Why was it called the Oath of Salisbury if the town was called Old Sarum? The Domesday Book calls it Sarisburie (from Old English Searesbyrig, "Seares fortress"). Sarisburie was often abbreviated to Sar̅, but the -r̅ was often used to abbreviate words ending in -um. Sometime in the 1200s the place started being called Sarum. Meanwhile, the Medieval Latin Sarisburie was corrupted to have an -l- in the middle. Sarum had the "Old" tacked on to distinguish it from the new town b being built near the new Salisbury Cathedral. Modern Salisbury can also be rightly called "New Sarum."

The aerial photo above shows the excavated motte-and-bailey structure at the center of the walled town. You can see the old Salisbury Cathedral foundation. For scale, the length of the Norman cathedral was 185 feet, smaller than most of its era.

Henry II had his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, kept at Old Sarum. Their son Richard the Lionhearted designated a plain near there for tournaments.

William of Malmesbury called Sarum "more like a castle than city, being environed with a high wall"; he certainly drew from firsthand experience, since he became a good friend of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who owned the land on which Malmesbury Abbey was situated, where William spent his entire adult life. William noted that the site did not have sufficient water to make it sustainable, and supposedly this was one reason why a new cathedral needed to be relocated. Peter of Blois, canon of the cathedral, described it as "barren, dry, and solitary, exposed to the rage of the wind"; a papal legate looking into the cathedral verified that the wind was so strong that divine office could sometimes barely be heard.

Once the "new" Salisbury was established, Old Sarum lost population and significance—and materials, as resources were dismantled to take to the new town. Edward II had the castle demolished in 1322. Old Sarum was one of the first sites named in the 1882 Ancient Monuments Protection Act.

Peter of Blois had very strong feelings about Old Sarum. He felt that the cathedral in Old Sarum was "as a captive on the hill where it was built, like the ark of God shut up in the profane house of Baal." Let's take a look at this colorful canon next time.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

The Bishop of Salisbury

Although he presided over the founding of one of the grandest cathedrals in the United Kingdom, Bishop Richard Poore (in my opinion) should be noted for his attitude toward education.

He was from a "family of bishops." His brother Herbert preceded him as Bishop of Salisbury, and his father, also named Richard, became Bishop of Winchester. The younger Richard was Bishop of Chichester before taking on the position in Salisbury, and was later Bishop of Durham. He was elected to Durham earlier in his career, but Pope Innocent III would not allow it, knowing that King John wished for his own advisor John de Gray to have that position.

While he was at Salisbury, he moved the cathedral from Old Sarum to the town of Salisbury, founding Salisbury Cathedral in 1220. Legend tells that he shot an arrow that hit a deer, and where the deer fell was the new site. In preparation for the building project, he laid out the town of Salisbury as well.

While at Salisbury, he welcomed the new Franciscan friars (founded in 1209). He created a set of statutes to guide diocesan practices. Because they were re-issued after he moved to Durham, they are known as the Statutes of Durham. They were used by many other dioceses.

When King John died in 1216, leaving nine-year-old Henry III as king, Poore helped Hubert de Burgh take over running the kingdom, along with Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (under whom Richard had studied at Paris) and Bishop Jocelin of Wells. All four worked together to manage England until Henry reached the age of 14.

I found him interesting because of policies he instituted at Salisbury geared toward children. He instructed his clergy to choose a few children to be educated in church doctrine and prayers so that they could instruct other children. He was willing to provide some teachers with benefices for their financial support provided that they would then teach for free. He also had his clergy preach every Sunday on the dangers of children being left alone in the house with a fire going. Bishop Wordsworth's School in modern day Salisbury has a dormitory named Poore House after Richard Poore's dedication to education; it is regularly declared one of the top-performing schools in England.

Poore felt that no one should hold two benefices at a time, and a person who complained at this rule should lose both. He also did not want his clergy involving themselves in "worldly business." He was not completely harsh toward his clergy: he established a retirement house for Durham clergy.

Although claimed by Salisbury and Durham at his death on 15 April 1237, he had retired to Tarrant Keyneston in Dorset and was buried there.

So what was it about Old Sarum that made its cathedral unsuitable? Why did Poore feel the need for a new town as well as cathedral? Let's visit Old Sarum next time and see what it was like.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Salisbury Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as Salisbury Cathedral, is noted for having the tallest church spire in England, but it has other notable qualities: the largest cloister, one of the oldest working clocks in the world, and one of four original copies of the Magna Carta.

There was already a gothic cathedral in Salisbury at Old Sarum, but a decision was made to construct a new church and move the cathedra, or bishop's seat, to Salisbury town. The bishop at the time was Richard Poore (died 15 April 1237), who lived almost to see the new building finished. Fees for construction came from canons and vicars of the diocese annually until the building was completed. (Legend that Bishop Poore shot an arrow that hit a deer, and where the deer died was chosen as the new site, cannot be substantiated.)

The first of its 70,000 tons of stone were laid down on 28 April 1220 by the 3rd Earl of Salisbury William Longespée, an  illegitimate son of King Henry II, and his wife. Remarkably for a structure of it size, it was completed in 38 years, which led to a consistency of design sometimes lacking in cathedrals that took generations and had multiple architects over time. It also took 3000 tons of timber and 450 tons of lead. The spire (a later addition, in 1320) and tower alone used 6400 tons of stone and would have collapsed like many other spires if not for the addition of buttresses and anchor plates (iron braces holding stones together). Sir Christopher Wren in 1668 added tie beams above the crossing (where the nave and apse intersect, above which stood the tower), which also helped.

The copy of the Magna Carta—incidentally the best preserved of the four surviving originals—came to Salisbury because one of the men given the task of distributing copies of the document, Elias of Dereham, was also a stonemason who oversaw the cathedral's construction and became a canon of Salisbury.

The famous clock, thought to be the oldest working clock in the world, has no face. Early clocks did not have hands; rather they noted the hour by ringing a bell. It was used regularly until 1884, when it was placed in storage and forgotten. Found again in 1928, it was restored in 1956 and works to this day.

I mentioned Bishop Richard Poore who oversaw most of the building of the cathedral. There is a statue of him in one of the many niches in the cathedral. He did arguably much more important work at Salisbury than building a new cathedral, which I'll tell you about tomorrow.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Medieval Grotesque

The word grotesque does not appear in that form until the 1560s, though now it is used to refer to illustrations and carvings from much earlier eras. It is from Italian grottesca ("of a cave") from Italian grotto ("cave") because it was first used to refer to paintings found in basements in the ruins of Classical Era Rome, specifically the palace complex begun by Nero in 64CE that had been abandoned and buried long ago.

We see grottesca used in Italy in a 1502 contract in which Raphael Sanzio da Urbino (better known to the Modern Era simply by his first name) agrees to decorate the Piccolomini Library attached to Siena Cathedral.

Not everyone appreciated the fanciful designs. One artist complained about

this insatiable desire of man sometimes prefers to an ordinary building, with its pillars and doors, one falsely constructed in grotesque style, with pillars formed of children growing out of stalks of flowers, with architraves and cornices of branches of myrtle and doorways of reeds and other things, all seeming impossible and contrary to reason... [link]

We use the word to describe three-dimensional art such as gargoyles. If you wanted to categorize types of grotesques in two-dimensional art, you will often see hybrids such as the illustration to the left. Another type is a strange juxtaposition or anthropomorphism such as a rabbit jousting with lance and sword, using a hybrid snail for a horse.

Sculptural grotesques originally were used for waterspouts in medieval architecture, but became their own genre of architectural decoration. Despite the complaint noted above, folk like the monk who designed Salisbury Cathedral did not hesitate to add grotesque figures that had no function other than to provide decoration. Salisbury, in fact, shows a more consistent architectural style than most other cathedrals, owing to its swift completion: 38 years, as opposed to generations for most gothic structures. In fact, Salisbury Cathedral is a good subject for the next post. See you soon.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023


Large stone buildings intended to last for centuries, such as examples of Gothic Architecture, would be exposed to ages and ages of rainwater running down the sides and eroding the mortar. The solution was to devise a channel that would carry water away from the side of the building. The channel was thought of as a "throat" or "gullet" carrying water, and the French term for that was gargouille from the root gar "to swallow."

Not all gargoyles are waterspouts. In Italian architecture, a distinction is made between the carved creature used as a waterspout and called a gargolla or garguglia, and a carving designed simply to carry water away from the building, which is called gronda sporgente, literally "protruding gutter."

A late-14th century legend of St. Romanus explained the origin of the term as the name of a dragon; a good story, but pretty silly.

Long before the Romanus legend, Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century commented on gargoyles:

What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange, savage lions and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent's head; there a fish with a quadruped's head; then again an animal: half horse, half goat... Surely, if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.

The origin of gargoyles that were not waterspouts is up for debate: Bernard doesn't seem to know why they were there. One theory is that they were illustrations of sin or evil, designed to make you glad you were a good Christian. Another thought is that they guarded the church.

If a carving of a creature was not a waterspout, it was a grotesque. The medieval grotesque needs its own explanation, which you will get tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

St. Romanus of Rouen

Among other events of which he was a part, Richard Barre also was present in 1179 in Rouen for the display of the body of the 7th century bishop of Rouen, St. Romanus. The Catholic Encyclopedia makes clear that the information we have on Romanus' life is legendary and not authentic. Since his reputation  is based on it, however, let us "go with what we have." His list of miracles makes for fun reading.

A woman named Félicité was sterile, but one day an angel appeared to her husband to say a child would be born in his house. The result was Romanus. He was sent to court to be educated; there he met St. Eligius. We then leap to his adulthood, where he becomes bishop of Rouen. He was also chancellor to the Merovingian king Clothar II.

His legend—found in four differing accounts—includes many miracles. When asked to eliminate a temple to Venus, he simply pulled the dedication to Venus off the altar and the whole temple collapsed. He collapsed another pagan temple he found in the countryside by simply cursing the demons he saw dancing on it.

Needing to create some baptismal fonts and consecrate them, he realized he had forgotten to bring any chrism (holy oil used for anointing). He sent a deacon to retrieve it, but the deacon was in such a hurry that he dropped the vial, which broke and let the oil seep into the earth. Romanus picked up the pieces of the vial and prayed, whereupon the vial reassembled itself and the oil returned to the vial.

A later legend that crops up in an account of his life in 1394 tells of Gargouille, a dragon that inhabited the swamps of the left bank of the River Seine. A vicious beast that devoured livestock and humans, it was tamed by Romanus when he made the sign of the cross. The dragon lay down at is feet, whereupon Romanus put his stool around its neck and led it by this leash into the town where it was killed and either burned or thrown into the river (stories differ).

Near the end of his life he chose to retire to a hermitage. One day a woman appeared, asking for hospitality. Torn between his duty to a guest and his apprehension about allowing a woman into his quarters, he decided to show good manners and allow her in. She then disrobed and unbound her hair. Romanus called on the Lord, an angel appeared, revealing the "woman" as a demon and throwing it into a bottomless pit.

Romanus died ab out 640. Like many early medieval saints, it is likely that we know nothing historically accurate about them, but that does not stop their veneration. St. Romanus has a feast day on 23 October, still celebrated in the archdiocese of Rouen (these days simply transferred to the following Sunday).

Let me now draw your attention to the name of the dragon he tamed, Gargouille. If you say it a certain way, it sounds like gargoyle. There's a reason for that, which we will explore next time.

Monday, July 17, 2023

A Boring Civil Servant

Richard Barre was likely Norman by birth, probably born at La Barre (hence the name) in northern France c.1130. He studied law at Bologna (illustration is of the Bologna University Library in modern times) at the same time as Stephen of Tournai, who would go on to become Bishop of Tournai in 1192 (we have correspondence between Richard and Stephen from later in their careers). A fellow student wrote of Richard "May you manage the causes of bishops and the affairs of kings." As it happens, that is precisely what Richard wound up doing.

By 1165 he was in the household of King Henry II of England. One of the legal matters on which he advised the king was the dispute with Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket over royal vs. ecclesiastical authority over the church. In September 1169, Barre was sent to Rome to complain to Pope Alexander about the behavior of the papal legates to England, whom Barre claimed agreed to one thing and then changed their minds the next day.

Months later, in late winter 1170, Barre was again sent to Rome to discuss rescinding the excommunication placed by Becket on royal officials. It is believed that Barre's mission was also to receive the pope's blessing to allow Henry's eldest son, the "Young King Henry," to be crowned by someone other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, as was traditional. This was absolutely not allowed.

Barre was sent to Rome again after Becket's murder in December 1170 to make clear to Pope Alexander that Henry had nothing to do with Becket's death. Shortly after this mission, Barre became Archdeacon of Lisieux and was named a royal justice. He was also made chancellor to Young King Henry in 1172, but when the son rebelled against the father Barre chose to abandon the son for the father's service.

He continued to go on missions for the Crown. In early 1198 he went to the continent to meet with German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Béla II of Hungary, and Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelos to discuss travel through their lands and permission to gather supplies on an intended Crusade. King Henry's death in 1189 ended the Crusade plans.

After Henry's death, Barre served William Longchamp, who made Barre the Archdeacon of Ely, but when Prince John exiled Longchamp (King Richard was away on Crusade at the time, and John was managing things with the style that earned him the nickname "Bad King John"), Barre had no royal justice duties until Richard's return. Upon Richard's death, the new King John dismissed Barre from royal service; Barre returned to his duties in Ely. He died c.1202.

He wrote a work on the Bible, dedicated to Longchamp, in which he annotated certain passages; it exists in two manuscripts.

There were many people in the Middle Ages who led similar lives. Richard Barre came to my attention because of sci-fi author Duncan Lunan's theory that one of the Green Children of Woolpit was named Agnes and married him.

One of the other events from Richard's life was as odd as the idea that he was married to an alien child. That was the revealing of the body of St. Romanus. Let me tell you about that next time.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Green Children of Woolpit

Sometime in the 12th century, an unusual find in Suffolk produced one of the Middle Ages' greatest mysteries. The event was recorded by William of Newburgh (admittedly not the most faithful historian, but this was the Middle Ages), and by Ralph Coggeshall (who published his history in 1220). Although writing later, Coggeshall says he drew on the writing of Sir Richard de Calne, the man who (we are told) cared for the children.

The story goes that villagers of Woolpit one day during harvest time found two small children—a boy and a girl—looking scared and speaking in an unknown language. More notable than the unknown language was the fact that they had green skin. The villagers took them to Sir Richard de Calne, who took them in.

The two would not eat any food put before them. This lasted for days, until they saw some green beans growing in the garden and ate them off the plant. Sir Richard kept them with him for years, teaching them English and slowly getting them to eat available food. (Over time the green of their skin faded; it was presumably because of the different diet.)

Once they had learned sufficient English, the children told this story:

“We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”

“We are ignorant [of how we arrived here]; we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”

“The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”

The children eventually were baptized. The boy died soon afterward of an unknown cause. Presumably the girl lived until adulthood.

Theories in the Modern Era about the origin of the children range from natives of a fairy world, to abandoned non-English-speaking Flemish orphans who were "green" from malnourishment, to extraterrestrial beings transported here accidentally. There is, of course, no way to know.

What happened to the girl? One 20th-century author believes, based on the family tree of Sir Richard de Calne, that she was named "Agnes" and married the clergyman and scholar Richard Barre. That's as good a reason as any to look at the life of Richard Barre next.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Child of the Forest

Widukind (seen here as a memorial in Hereford, Germany) was a Saxon leader who organized the chief opposition to Charlemagne's conquest of Saxony and his introduction (enforcement) of Christianity. To Frankish forces he was a murderer, a heathen, a destroyer of churches. To the Saxons he was a freedom fighter, a great leader, and protector of their way of life.

We know little about him personally except what the Franks record. He is first mentioned in the Royal Frankish Annals as the only significant Saxon leader who did not attend the Diet at Paderborn, when Charlemagne first set down the laws he expected Saxony to follow. Widukind was staying in Denmark with King Sigurd.

In 782 he was back in Saxony and convincing his countrymen to go to war again with the Franks. One success of his led to Charlemagne retaliating with the Massacre at Verden. Widukind agreed to surrender in 785 if the Franks guaranteed no bodily harm would come to him. He was baptized in the Elbe with Charlemagne as his godfather. He is now considered a saint, with churches named for him and a feast day on 6 January.

What made him surrender? Why did he acquiesce to baptism as a Christian after resisting for so long? Of course there is a legend that explains this.

According to the legend, Widukind decided to learn more about Christianity. He disguised himself as a beggar and infiltrated the Frankish military camp. It was Easter, and he saw a priest performing Mass. At the moment of the elevation of the Host, Widukind saw the priest holding up a beautiful child. He offered this beautiful child to each member of the congregation. Widukind was amazed at this vision. Continuing to act as a beggar afterward, he was captured when one of the soldiers recognized him.

He described the scene at mass, and Charlemagne declared that God had given him this vision of the divine child Jesus. Widukind realized the significance of this and renounced paganism, embracing Christianity.

Over time he was hailed as a national hero. A tomb made for him in 1100 in Herford was discovered in the Modern Era to contain the body of a woman. Three graves in front of the altar contain the bodies of three men, two of them about 60 years old, all of them related. It is assumed that one is Widukind.

The name Widukind literally means "child of the forest." For some real "children of the forest," I should tell you about the Green Children next, and that's just what I'll do.

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Saxon Wars, Phase 2

The Saxon Wars (see Part 1) were a series of campaigns led by Charlemagne to incorporate and Christianize Saxony. A first phase was complete by 779CE, with three of the four Saxon areas conquered; Nordalbingia would come later.

There was peace for a few years after that. In 782, Charlemagne returned to Saxony with the goal of making sure their code of laws conformed to his own ideas of justice. This code of laws was the Lex Frisionum, the "Law of the Frisians." He held a gathering of Saxon nobles, but there was one notable exception: Widukind was instead staying with the Danish king Sigurd (father of Ragnar Lodbrok). It might not have been difficult to have the native peoples adopt the new laws, but it was particularly harsh regarding pagan practices.

In autumn of 782, Widukind returned and led a revolt that burned several Christian churches and invaded the Chatti, a Germanic tribe that had been converted by St. Boniface and who were firmly part of the Frankish empire. Charlemagne was busy fighting the West Slavic Sorbs (Serbs), and in his absence Widukind defeated a Frankish army at the Battle of Süntel, killing the leaders and many other nobles. Charlemagne retaliated by killing 4500 rebels in a single day, referred to as the Massacre at Verden.

Charlemagne stayed in Saxony for two solid years of fighting. The Saxon rebels were reduced sufficiently that Widukind himself gave in and had himself baptized in 785. The major battles for Frankish rule over Saxony were done, but sporadic revolts continued for another two decades. The Nordalbingian Saxons were subdued in 798 by allies of Charlemagne, the Obotrites, a confederation of West Slavic tribes near what is now Mecklenburg. The Obotrites had also helped Charlemagne put down an Engrian revolt in 796.

In 797, Charlemagne started backing away from some of the harsher penalties, and in 802 codified Saxon common law. He also established bishoprics in Paderborn, Munster, Bremen, Verden and others.

Widukind's particular entry in this blog (see paragraph two) labels him only as Charlemagne's enemy. His conversion after his strong opposition to Frankish invasion seems unlikely, but of course there's a story behind it, which I will relate next time.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Saxon Wars, Phase 1

In January of 772CE, a church in Deventer in the Netherlands was sacked and burned by Saxons who objected to missionary work in their lands. Deventer had been founded only a few years early, about 768, by an English missionary named Lebuinus. This burning was the reason for Charlemagne's first foray into Saxon lands to conquer the territory and forcibly convert the area to Christianity.

Saxony contained four areas at the time: Westphalia, Eastphalia, Engria, and Nordalbingia in the north. Charlemagne's Frankish forces subdued Engria first. It was on this occasion that Charlemagne destroyed the Irminsul. The difficulty for the conqueror was that he had many campaigns not in Saxony, so that he would "lose ground" whenever he turned his attention to, say, Lombardy. Charlemagne would destroy Saxon strongholds and take hostages, but Saxons led by Widukind would raid Frankish lands while Charlemagne was away.

There were 18 separate campaigns between 772 and 804 needed to complete the absorption and Christianization of Saxony. During this phase he conquered Eastphalia and converted their leader Hessi in 775, then returned to Austrasia through Westphalia, leaving a few temporary strongholds there as well. At this point he felt Saxony was well in hand except for the northernmost section of Nordalbingia. More missionaries were sent by Charlemagne.

In 777, a diet at Paderborn was called to integrate Saxon and Frankish laws. Charlemagne earned the nickname "butcher of Saxons" by decreeing capital punishment for anyone engaging in heathen practices. His harsh approach put him at odds with Alcuin of York, whose position was that God's word should be spread by persuasion, not the sword. Two years later he enforced mass baptisms. There was relative peace at this time, the end of the first phase of the Saxon Wars.

In 782, the second phase would begin because Charlemagne couldn't leave well enough alone. We'll go further with this tomorrow.

As for that church at Deventer, it was rebuilt a few years after the destruction by the "Apostle of Saxony," St. Ludger.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Starkad (the Giant?) Part 2

After the killing of Vikar and receiving the blessing of Odin and the curse of Thor, the (giant?) warrior Starkad joined a Danish viking raid on Russia. The terrain had been scattered with caltrops, but Starkad and the crew donned clogs to get through the caltrops and conquer the Russians. After that event he joined the Bjarmians.

Later he went to Uppsala in Sweden for several years with the so-called Sons of Freyr who claimed descent from the god Freyr, whom Snorri Sturluson called the most renowned of the gods. Uppsala had a temple that was the center of the Norse religion. The dancing and mimes for the sacrificial rites and the jingling of bells connected to them nauseated Starkad for their effeminacy.

He left to join the Danish king Hali and fought with him against King Hugleik of Ireland. Unfortunately for Starkad, the curse of Thor was in effect, and he received the worst wound he had ever had (so far) from one of Ireland's defenders, who happened to be a name we've seen recently, Svipdag. Starkad won anyway, and looted all of Hugleik's treasure.

Starkad then was sent east to quell a rebellion, fighting against Curonians, Sambians, and Semigallians. He also fought a magical Russian warlord named Wisin, who could blunt an instrument by looking at it. Starkad covered his sword with hide and defeated Wisin. He also killed a jotun (giant) named Tania in Byzantium.

His exploits took him all over. He helped Frotho against the Saxons, but when Frotho was succeeded by his wanton son Ingild, Starkad was disgusted and went to join the Swedish king Halfdan (the father of Hrothgar and Halga of Beowulf and other legends). When Starkad heard that Ingild's sister Helga was about to marry a lowly goldsmith, he was so annoyed at the idea that he went back in disguise, castrated the goldsmith, and slapped Helga.

Ingild decided to give Helga in marriage to a Norwegian named Helgi, but to win her Helgi had to fight nine brothers who had courted her. Helgi knew he would fail, so he looked for a champion; he found it in Starkad. Starkad killed all nine himself, but—again, along the lines of Thor's curse—received so many wounds that his intestines were hanging out.

At the end of his life, weakened and with poor eyesight, Starkad went wandering until he ran into Hather. Determining that Hather was noble, Starkad decided that Hather should be the one to kill him. He told Hather to cut off his head, and then run between the head and body as they fell: this would grant him invulnerability (possibly by being splashed with the blood, as in the tale of Bothvar Bjarki). (This is where we remember that Starkad is a giant.) Hather fears being crushed by the enormous body as it fell, so does not follow Starkad's direction. When Starkad's head hits the ground, it bites at the grass, showing his ferocity even in death.

Traditions about Starkad persisted long after the first centuries of the Common Era. The late 13th-century Annals of Ryd (a Cistercian monastery in Schleswig-Holstein) record that his sword could still be seen beneath a certain bridge when the water was low.

Starkad takes up Book 6 of the Gesta Danorum. Book 7 is a collection of unrelated stories. Book 9 is about Ragnar Lothbrok/Lodbrok, about whom I wrote years ago. Book 8 covers the Saxon Wars against our old friend and frequent subject, Charlemagne. Back to the Carolingian Era next time for a little more fact and a little less fiction.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Starkad (the Giant?) Part 1

The story of Starkad was retold in many Scandinavian sources, but the most complete re-telling was in the Gesta Danorum. Starkad the son of Stórvirkr saved himself from a shipwreck and entered into service of the Danish king Frotho, who gave him a ship to patrol the danish shoreline.

In order to be complete in his telling, however, Saxo Grammaticus relates two origin stories for Starkad. In one, Starkad is an Estonian from east of the Baltic Sea. Grammaticus could not bring himself to leave out the earlier version of Starkad's origin: that he was a jotun ("giant") with eight arms. (Alternately, Starkad was a human warrior who was the son or grandson of a jotun also named "Starkad" or maybe "Ali-Starkad." That's the way it goes when legend and history collide.)

In either case, Starkad possessed greater-than-usual size and strength, and no one could defeat him. While on a viking expedition with the petty king Vikar, the ship's progress was halted by a strong wind. The crew thought a blood sacrifice to the gods was the answer, and Vikar was chosen. Starkad made a noose to put around Vikar's neck, saying it was just for show, but Starkad either was lying or the noose magically became stronger and started strangling Vikar. Starkad finishes him with a sword.

In another version of this story, the lot falls to Vikar and the crew puts off the decision to the following day. Then Starkad's foster-father, Grani Horsehair, reveals himself to be Odin in disguise. In exchange for the sacrifice, Odin will bless Starkad with three lifetimes, the best weapons, riches, victory in battle, a noble reputation, and the gift of poetry. Thor, however, because he is a foe to giants, objects to these blessings because of Starkad's jotun heritage. He curses Starkad to counter the blessings: Starkad will commit a crime in each lifetime, he will never have children, he will never possess land, he will always be wounded in battle, he will never be able to remember his poems, he will be hated by the common people.

With the blessings and curses done, Odin gives Starkad a spear which appears to be simply a reed stalk; Starkad uses this to sacrifice Vikar to Odin—his first evil deed.

Tomorrow I'll relate the rest of his life, including how he tired of it and had himself killed, but even in death he showed his ferocity.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Amleth, Prince of Denmark

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) drew inspiration from history, and not just for his Henry plays. His best-known play was no different. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has been endlessly retold and adapted for 400 years. Shakespeare himself probably got the story from a 1514 Paris printing of Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum. (The illustration here is from a 17th-century Danish printing.) The Amleth story is told in Books three and four of the Gesta.

In the Danish original, Amleth (Amlóði in Old Norse) is the grandson of a Danish king. Amlóði is a term for a fool or simpleton, reflecting the character's pretense of helplessness to fool his victim. Amleth's father, Horvendil, married Gerutha (Gertrude), daughter of the king of Denmark, after slaying the king of Norway, but Horvendil's brother Feng (Claudius) kills him out of jealousy. Feng convinces Gerutha that her husband hated her and that he, Feng, had saved her from this marriage and that she should marry him. This is in Jutland.

Amleth, afraid of sharing his father's fate, acts like an imbecile, but Feng is not satisfied with this. Feng tries to occupy him with a young girl who is being fostered at court (this character becomes Ophelia in Shakespeare's play). Amleth, while speaking in his mother's chambers, slays an eavesdropper (Polonius), and disposes of the body. Feng now knows he cannot trust Amleth, and sends him to Britain with a letter asking the king of Britain to put the bearer to death.

Amleth learns of the letter's content and alters it to instead execute the attendants with him (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and give the king's daughter to Amleth in marriage. Amleth marries the princess and returns to Denmark a year after he left. He shows up in time to see a funeral—his own, since Feng assumed his death had taken place as intended. After encouraging everyone at the feast to drink a lot of wine, he weighs them down with the heavy tapestries from the hall and sets it all on fire, including his mother. He kills Feng with Feng's own sword.

He makes a long speech to his people, who proclaim him king. He then goes to Britain to bring his wife home, but learns that Feng and the king of Britain had a pact to each avenge the other's death. The king is reluctant to kill Amleth, and so sends him on a dangerous task: proxy to woo a Scottish queen who has executed all those who tried to woo her. This queen falls in love with Amleth and returns with him to Britain, where his first wife warns him of her father's intent to kill him. Amleth wins the battle that follows.

He returns to Jutland with his two wives, but Wiglek, the successor of his maternal grandfather, seeks revenge for the death of Gerutha. Wiglek kills Amleth.

From the photo-story of a character with whom we are all familiar, we turn next in the Gesta to a famous hero who is completely unknown outside of Scandinavia, Starkad. See you tomorrow. 

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Early Denmark

The Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danish People") was written in the 12th-century by Saxo Grammaticus ("Saxo the Grammarian"). Its 16 books are indispensable for their look at the history of Denmark, and particularly because they contain a look at early Estonia and Latvia.

Because it begins with pre-history, the first half deals with mythological and legendary characters. It introduces the brothers Dan and Angul, the founders of the Danes and Angles, respectively. Book One relates the loss of Denmark to Sweden (starting a long hostility between the two countries) and the attempt to get it back with the help of Odin. Hading, one of the first Danish kings, is orphaned when his father, King Gram, is killed by King Svipdag of Norway. Hading is taken to Sweden and raised by a giant whose daughter tries to seduce Hading into staying with her instead of training as a warrior.

Hading eventually returns to Denmark with the giantess, Harthgrepa, who raises a man from the dead to get some information but then is killed by supernatural beings. Odin then gives Hading advice and predicts his future.

Hading achieves success fighting in the Baltic, then returns to Denmark to kill his father's killer and assume the throne. He spends his reign fighting the Norwegians and Swedes until his death by suicide. He is succeeded by Frotho I, who has to replenish the royal treasury (depleted due to the Hading's wars) by slaying a dragon for its hoard. Like Hading, he campaigns first in the Baltic and later in Britain where he captures London. He dies fighting against the king of Sweden.

Book Three introduces Hamlet, Prince of Denmark ... sort of. I'll explain next time.

Saturday, July 8, 2023


Yrsa was the mother of the 6th century King Hrolf Kraki. Her name is uncommon, not appearing in any other Norse sources, and there is a common assumption that it relates to Latin ursus, "bear." This would align with the Scandinavian tendency to use bear symbolism for extraordinary people, like Beowulf and Bothvar Bjarki (who appears in Hrolf Kraki's Saga, of which Yrsa is a main character).

Her story is quite tragic. She is the illegitimate child of Halga (a brother of Hrothgar from the poem Beowulf) and the Saxon Queen Oluf. Halga wooed Oluf, but she wanted nothing to do with him; while he was asleep, she shaved his head and tarred him. Later, he returns and kidnaps her, getting her pregnant in the process. Oluf returns to her home and bears a daughter whom she names Yrsa, who is sent away to be raised with shepherds.

At the age of 12, Halga comes upon the young shepherdess and decides to wed her. (Yes, the age discrepancy is alarming, but Halga had a reputation for pursuing women.) Oluf, learning this, keeps quiet about Ursa's lineage, thinking it a sweet revenge that Halga should wed his own daughter. The pair wed, and have a son, Hrolf, who will some day inherit the kingdom of Denmark.

Hearing that the marriage is a happy one, Queen Oluf decides to ruin them by traveling to Denmark to reveal Yrsa's parentage. Halga accepted this, but Yrsa was ashamed, and left him. She winds up in Sweden where she marries King Aðils (Eadgils in Anglo-Saxon literature). Learning this, Halga goes to Sweden to take her back, but he is killed by Eadgils and robbed. Upset by this, Yrsa curses Eadgils that all his berserker warriors will die. Later, when the warrior Svipdag arrives to "test his skills," she supports him and he slays all the berserkers. Svipdag leaves Sweden for Denmark and enters service under King Hrolf, who has succeeded Halga.

Yrsa saw her son again when he went to Sweden to collect the gold that Eadgils had taken from Halga. Eadgils and Hrolf had recently worked together against their mutual enemy, King Áli, Eadgils' uncle who usurped his throne. Eadgils was reluctant to return the gold, and kept putting off the event. Yrsa gives Hrolf much more gold than he was owed, including Eadgils' favorite gold ring, Sviagris, and gives him and his retainers armor, provisions, and the dozen best horses.

Hrolf and his men leave, Eadgils pursues; Hrolf casts Sviagris on the ground; Eadgils sees it and stoops to pick it up by spearing it with the tip of his spear; while leaning down, Hrolf cuts his back with his sword.

When Hrolf was later killed by his brother-in-law, his sister Skuld ruled Denmark. Yrsa gets revenge for the death of her son by sending a Swedish army that captures Skuld, whom she tortures to death. Hrolf's daughters rule Denmark.

Yrsa's story appears in more than the Hrolf Kraki Saga: Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danish People") says she fled with Hrolf, and suggested the stratagem of casting some of the gold behind to delay the Swedes. Thinking ahead, she had packed gilt-covered copper coins for this purpose.

The Gesta Danorum is another collection of stories like Hrolf Kraki's Saga that offers a lot of information about early Scandinavian beliefs and culture. We'll check that out next.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Hrolf Kraki's Saga

There is a major source of Scandinavian legend called Hrolf Kraki's Saga. King Hrolf, supposedly a nephew of Hrothgar—the king mentioned in the poem Beowulf whose hall is menaced by Grendel—would have ruled in the 6th century.

Hrolf is mentioned in Beowulf as Hrothulf. It is not said which of Hrothgar's brothers is his father, but later tradition makes it Halga (instead of Heorogar), because the Saga does talk about his relationship with Halga. The "kraki" that gets tacked onto his name means "tall, angular, slender" and no doubt referred to his physical appearance.

The Saga was composed in Iceland about 1400, and brings together many separate incidents in history and legend, tied together by their connections to Hrolf Kraki and the members of his family, including his father, aunt, and uncle. Its five sections each focus on a different set of people. The first section of four chapters presents a long and illustrious lineage for Hrolf and the struggle for control of the Danish kingdom.

Chapters five through 13 deal with Hrolf's problematic father, a man of uncontrollable ... appetites. He cannot resist women, and apparently doesn't want to: he ignores any advice about caution. This leads him ultimately to a liaison with Yrsa, by whom he sires Hrolf. This is followed by a few chapters about some men who will later become champions in King Hrolf's service.

What follows next is the tale of the bearlike Bothvar Bjarki, in many ways a completely separate story that was grafted onto the Saga by its link to Bothvar working for Hrolf. It is an elaborate tale of magic and adventure far more complex than the summary I gave in the previous post. I've previously discussed some of the shared elements between his story and Beowulf's.

The final ten chapters are more directly about Hrolf himself. Prior to this the Saga has introduced all the significant characters surrounding him, not just warriors but also several notable women. Women make up a large part of these sections: men seek their advice, there is an elfin woman and her daughter who change the destiny of anyone who encounters them, details of marriages (both good and bad) are revealed.

In fact, although Hrolf is of course the focal point for the Saga, women are frequently the connective tissue between different episodes. One in particular is his mother, Yrsa, whose tale is fascinating and deserves to be known. See you next time. 

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Bothvar Bjarki

The Northern European fascination with bears led to heroes like the subject of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. There are enough legends involving bears and humans that they have collectively been referred to by folklorists as the "Bear's Son Tale"; that is, a human raised by a bear who becomes a strong warrior.

A related tale is that of Bothvar Bjarki. He was the son of a king of Norway named Bjorn ("bear"), whose wife was named Bera ("she-bear"). Bjorn was cursed to become a bear during daytime.

Bjorn and Bera had three sons: Moose-Frothi or Elk-Frothi, who is a moose/elk from the navel down; Thorir/Dog-foot, who has dog's feet; Bothvar Bjarki (bjarki="little bear"), who looks human. The boys grow up and go their separate ways.

One day, Bothvar comes upon Moose-Frothi's hut and waits for him. When his brother arrives, he does not recognize the hooded stranger and wrestles him to the ground, whereupon the hood falls away and Moose recognizes Bothvar. Telling Bothvar he is not strong enough, Moose cuts his own leg and has Bothvar drink some of his blood, which makes him much stronger.

The next day, while Bothvar is getting ready to leave, Moose stomps on a rock with his hoof, creating a depression. He tells Bothvar that he will know how Bothvar dies by observing the rock: if it fills with water, Bothvar has drowned; if with mud, Bothvar has died of illness; if it fills with blood, Bothvar will have died from violence.

Bothvar then sails to Denmark, heading for the hall of King Hrolf Kraki. Along the way he lodges at a small farm, where the wife tells him that their son, Hott, is being bullied by the king's men. He is kept in a corner where the men throw bones at him during meals. Bothvar reaches the hall when the men are out; he sees a pile of bones in the corner and a scrawny dirty boy there. He pulls him out and seats him next to Bothvar.

When the men return for the evening feasting, they continue to throw bones at Hott; when one throws a whole leg of an ox, Bothvar catches it and throws it back at the man, killing him. Complaints to King Hrolf fall on deaf ears, as Hrolf declares that the death was justified and wishes to take Bothvar into his service.

As Yule approaches, King Hrolf's men begin to show fear; it turns out that a monster comes to the hall each Yule and kills cattle and men. Bothvar waits outside on Yule, and kills the monster when it arrives, having Hott drink some of its blood, which makes Hott stronger.

Versions of this story appear in Hrolf Kraki's Saga and in the Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danes") of Saxo Grammaticus. It is also mentioned in a. reference to the Skjöldunga saga, a lost work about the Scyldings (the Danish dynasty mentioned in the opening lines of Beowulf). In some versions Bothvar fights as a spirit bear.

Hrolf Kraki was a semi-legendary Danish king of the early 6th century. He is one of those figures who made such an impression that—like Arthur of Britain—stories sprung up around him, like that of Bothvar Bjarki. He also has a direct link to Beowulf, since he was the nephew of Hrothgar, whose hall is menaced by Grendel.

We are going to stay in Northern Europe and look at Hrolf Kraki next.