Shall These Bones Live?

From The Telegraph (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

Bones hidden in church revealed to be remains of one of England’s earliest saints

The discovery has been hailed as a ‘stunning result of national importance’

Bones hidden away by monks during the Reformation have been confirmed as belonging to one of England’s earliest saints who founded the country’s first nunnery. 

The seventh-century remains of St Eanswythe, a Kentish Royal Saint who was the daughter and granddaughter of Anglo-Saxon kings, have finally been identified by historians.

The relics survived the upheavals of the Dissolution of the Monasteries – in which King Henry VIII aimed to destroy the monastic system – after being squirrelled away in a lead box behind a church wall in Kent.

Her remains were discovered in 1885. However, it is only now – more than 1,300 years after her death and after carbon dating her teeth and bones – that historians believe they have finally identified England’s first abbess and one of the country’s earliest saints.

The remarkable discovery was made by Kent archaeologists and historians, working with Queen’s University in Belfast, who confirmed that human remains kept at the Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe Folkestone are almost certainly those of the saint.

The discovery has been hailed as “a stunning result of national importance” and has drawn comparisons with the exhumation of King Richard III after DNA confirmed that bones found beneath a Leicester car park in 2012 were those of the former king of England.

Read the whole thing, and the Finding Eanswythe website.

Agincourt and the Middle Finger

From Facebook:

I admit that I bring this story up when I talk about the Hundred Years’ War – only to debunk it. The version that I tell explains the specific British custom of elevating two fingers as a rude gesture.

Singer Robbie Williams insults the viewer. Wikipedia.

The idea being that you need two fingers to draw a bow, which makes more sense, and thus links up a national custom with a triumphant moment in national history! But frankly, I suspect that the French would have done a lot worse to any captured English archers than chopping off their fingers. People who killed their social betters from a distance weren’t very well liked, and would likely have paid with their lives – as did all the French prisoners, archers or otherwise, whom Henry V had executed at Agincourt, in what some historians consider a war crime. 

I’m even more suspicious of the alleged transformation of “p” to “f”. First of all, the word “pluck” begins with the blend “pl,” which would logically become “fl” – if the voiceless bilabial plosive “p” has actually transformed into the labiodentalfricative “f,” which is by no means certain. (There is an Indo-European connection between the p-sound and f-sound – see the distinction between the Latin pater and the Germanic Vater/father – but that split occurred a long time ago.) The f-word itself is Germanic with early-medieval roots; the earliest attested use in English in an unambiguous sexual context is in a document from 1310. 

And where does the distinction between one and two fingers come from? If the one-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, as the graphic suggests, then at what point did it get transformed into two fingers in England? If the two-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, then at what point was it reduced to one finger in North America? You would think that anything English predating 1607, such as the language, Protestantism, or the Common Law, would have been a part of America’s patrimony….

It seems to me that the single upturned middle finger clearly represents an erect penis and is the gestural equivalent of saying “f*ck you!” As such, it is probably ancient – Wikipedia certainly thinks so, although apparently it became popular in the United States in the late nineteenth century under the influence of Italian immigration, replacing other rude gestures like thumbing the nose or the fig sign. I suppose that the two-fingered salute could still come from medieval archery, even if it didn’t come specifically from the Battle of Agincourt, although the example that Wikipedia links to (the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter) is ambiguous. Maybe it means “five” and was a symbol of support for Henry V? 🙂 The fact that Winston Churchill sometimes made his V-for-victory gesture “rudely” suggests that it is of much more recent vintage. What it is supposed to represent I have no idea.

One final observation: any time some appeal begins with “here’s something that intelligent people will find edifying” you should be suspicious. It’s up there with “here’s something that they don’t want you to know.”

The Black Death

From Smithsonian Magazine (hat tip: Dan Franke):

Mass Grave Shows the Black Death’s ‘Catastrophic’ Impact in Rural England

At least 48 individuals were buried in a single grave in Lincolnshire, suggesting the community struggled to deal with an onslaught of plague victims

In the summer of 1348, the Black Death arrived in southwest England. The deadly disease rapidly swept through the country, ultimately killing between one-third and one-half of its population. Now, a team of researchers writing in the journal Antiquity has revealed new details about a mass grave of probable Black Death victims buried in the English countryside. The discovery offers rare insight into the plague’s “catastrophic” impact on rural communities.

The grave, located on the grounds of the historic Thornton Abbey in North Lincolnshire, was first excavated in 2013. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of at least 48 individuals, including 27 children. Differences in levels between the rows of bodies suggest the grave was “filled over the course of several days or weeks,” according to the study’s authors. Radiocarbon dating of two skeletons indicated the victims died sometime between 1295 and 1400, while ceramics and two silver pennies found in the grave helped experts narrow the date range down to the mid-14th century.

Though the researchers acknowledge that any number of factors could have driven the mass fatality in Lincolnshire, they suspect the Black Death is the “most probable cause.” Documentary evidence indicates the bubonic plague had hit Lincolnshire by the spring of 1349. What’s more, centuries-old DNA extracted from the teeth of 16 individuals buried at the site revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the disease.

The skeletons’ ages—which ranged from 1 year old to over 45—lend further credence to the theory that something devastating was at play. Hugh Willmott, a senior lecturer in European historical archaeology at the University of Sheffield and leader of the excavation, tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger that medieval cemeteries are typically dominated by very young and relatively old individuals, who are particularly susceptible to disease and injury.

“But what we’ve got is not that profile at all,” says Willmott. “We can tell from the proportion of individuals that everyone is being affected, and everyone is dying.”

Read the whole thing

The Original Windsor Castle

Wikipedia.

The oldest extant part of Windsor Castle is the central Round Tower, which dates from the twelfth century, although no visit would be complete without seeing St. George’s Chapel (fifteenth century, in the lower ward to the left) and the State Apartments (nineteenth century, in the upper ward to the right). Windsor is one of the more important royal castles, from which the current dynasty takes its name and derives its heraldic badge.

Wikipedia.

People forget, though, that Windsor was founded as a castle by William I shortly after the conquest – and now a vision of what that castle might have looked like has been produced. From the Independent:

the first Windsor Castle, built in 1071 to deter Anglo-Saxon rebels, is thought to have consisted of a multi-storey wooden keep on top of a large earthen mound flanked to its north and west by a two-and-a-half acre palisaded triangular courtyard (known as a bailey or ward).

It was probably built there for three very specific reasons. Being on a hill it was easier to defend and, because the Thames was unusually narrow at that point, it could be easily bridged. Indeed, it is now thought that the very first Windsor Bridge was probably built by William the Conqueror at the same time that the castle was erected. The third reason was its proximity to an Anglo-Saxon royal palace at Old Windsor – just one-and-a-half miles away.

The reconstruction of that first Windsor Castle (as it would have looked in around 1085) has just been published by the Royal Collection Trust (which manages most public access aspects of Windsor Castle) in a major new book – Windsor Castle: A Thousand Years of a Royal Palace.

Research – carried out by Dr Steven Brindle, co-author of the book and a leading expert on Windsor – has also generated the first ever archaeologically based modern reconstructions of Windsor Castle as it looked in 1216 and in 1272 (as well as in 1085). All three have just been published for the first time in the book.

Read the whole thing, which includes images from the new book. 

The Myth of Medieval Paganism

From First Things, confirmation of one of my opinions (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

When we encounter “pagan-­seeming” images or practices in ­medieval Christianity, we should consider the probability that they were simply expressions of popular Christianity before positing the existence of secret pagan cults in ­medieval Western Europe. Once we accept that most culturally alien practices in popular Christianity were products of imperfectly catechized Christian cultures rather than pockets of pagan resistance, we can begin to ask the interesting questions about why popular Christianity developed in the ways it did. Rejecting the myth of the pagan Middle Ages opens up the vista of medieval popular Christianity in all its inventiveness and eccentricity. After the first couple of centuries of evangelization, there were no superficially Christianized pagans—but there remained some very strange expressions of Christianity.

That’s the conclusion, but I enjoin you to read the whole thing

Pointy Shoes

From Atlas Obscura (hat tip: Deb Salata):

IN 1463, LONDON OUTLAWED THE shoes of its fanciest men. These dapper lords had grown ridiculous in their dapperness, and had taken to ambling streets shod in long, carrot-shaped shoes that tapered to impish tips, some as long as five inches beyond the toe. These shoes were called “crakows” or “poulaines” (a term also used to refer to the tips alone), and the court of King Edward IV eventually found them offensive enough to pass a sumptuary law prohibiting shoe tips that extended over two inches beyond the toe.

Perhaps one of the silliest and most fascinating trends in medieval fashion, these shoes probably first emerged around 1340 in Krakow, Poland—both names refer to this origin—according to Rebecca Shawcross, the author of Shoes: An Illustrated History. Shawcross also serves as the shoe resources officer at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in England, which claims to have the world’s largest collection of shoes (at 12,000 pairs, but alas, just one intact pair of poulaines).

Europe had flirted with long-toed footwear since the 1200s, but never to this length, or with this saturation. The lords and, to a lesser extent, ladies of 15th-century Europe wore these shoes almost exclusively for over a century. Every person who could afford shoes wore poulaines, though the longer tips were generally reserved for nobility who could afford to wander around in footwear seemingly designed for pratfalls.

For the glitterati of medieval Europe, poulaines were less a fad than a symbol. “If you were a man of status and you had enough wealth, you wanted to show that off,” Shawcross says. “And to do that, you had to take the toe to the extreme.” Shoes with absurdly long toes were expensive and would clearly impair the wearer from efficiently partaking in any kind of physical labor. So they were also an indicator of leisure and luxury, free of extraneous effort or the tyranny of practicality.

More at the link. Happy New Year!

Barking Abbey

Interesting article by Eleanor Parker on History Today:

The Cultured Women of Essex

We should take more notice of the work of those once despised and disregarded.

‘It is asked of all who hear this work that they do not revile it because a woman translated it. That is no reason to despise it, nor to disregard the good in it.’ Many female writers have probably said, or wanted to say, something very like these words. They were written in the 12th century, around 1170, by a woman who composed one of the earliest texts from England known to be by a female author. She was a nun of Barking Abbey in Essex and, though we do not know her name, her words – and her work – demand attention.

The work she asks us not to disregard is a narrative of the life of Edward the Confessor, written in Anglo-Norman French (‘the false French of England’, the nun modestly calls it). Its author was an educated woman, able to turn a Latin source into engagingly chatty French verse and Barking Abbey must have been a congenial environment for her. Founded in the seventh century, Barking was one of the foremost nunneries in the country, a wealthy abbey which was home to many well-connected aristocratic and royal women. Its abbesses were frequently appointed from the sisters and daughters of kings and, around the time our nun wrote her Vie d’Edouard le Confesseur, Thomas Becket’s sister Mary – herself a woman of literary interests – was made abbess of Barking in compensation for her brother’s murder.

Across its long history of more than 850 years, Barking Abbey was a centre for women’s learning. It has been described as ‘perhaps the longest-lived … institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history’ and it had a strong literary and scholarly tradition that spanned the Middle Ages. In the early medieval period, authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin of St Bertin wrote learned Latin works for the nuns of Barking; later, several nuns composed their own poetry and prose – even their own plays. In the 12th century, when women were increasingly becoming patrons, readers and, in some cases, authors of literary texts, Barking produced more than one talented writer. The first female author in England whose name we know, Clemence of Barking, was a nun there; she wrote an accomplished Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, a saint associated with female learning.

Read the whole thing, and a followup blog post about it. A choice excerpt:

I’m a UK academic writing primarily for UK audiences (not that I’m not glad to have other readers too!), but online those distinctions are blurred; other academics will pass judgement, from half a world away, on conversations they only half understand, and some of them are very resistant to the idea that in different contexts it might be necessary to speak in different languages, to ask and answer different questions. Even the basic idea that words have different connotations in different varieties of English seems to surprise them. In their particular cultural context, medieval history intersects with questions of identity and exclusion in very different ways, and they won’t listen to anyone who tries to tell them things don’t operate like that everywhere in the world. We all have to do what seems right to us in our own context, and I’m sure they are trying to do that; I only wish they were prepared to consider that the rest of us are trying to do the same, just not in the same way. Some feel entitled to demand that every discussion which touches on ‘their’ subject should address their own immediate social and political concerns – not those of (for instance) the people of Barking, of whose existence they are so loftily unconscious. Some of these people also display a deeply exclusionary view of academic status and the privileges it confers on them, and an attitude little better than contempt for the public at large; if you don’t have a doctorate, you’re not worthy of their time or attention. I’ve been observing this tendency for several years, but it’s particularly noticeable at the moment. Since these academics don’t follow British and Irish politics, they really can’t see why this is such an especially bad time to be making pronouncements on how to use words like ‘English’ and ‘British’, without any understanding of the contemporary sensitivities surrounding those terms, and they seem completely unaware of the wider social context in which UK medievalists have to consider the issue of public engagement. I think some of them truly would prefer it if they could stop the public taking any interest in medieval history at all, because that interest is, to them, always inherently problematic; but while they can decide for themselves if that’s the case in their own countries, it’s absolutely out of the question here. 

The Convivencia

An alternate view of The Myth of Andalusian Paradise that I blogged about earlier:

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a self-proclaimed corrective to a “wide-spread belief that it was a wonderful place of tolerance and convivencia of three cultures under the benevolent supervision of enlightened Muslim rulers” (2). The book’s author, Darío Fernández-Morera is an associate professor at Northwestern, a critic of Cervantes and other early modern Spanish literati who positions himself as a “Machiavellian” (nope, not kidding, 3) interpreter of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the book is even more politicizing than the work it discusses and tilts, appropriately for a volume written by a Cervantes scholar, at giants that turn out to be nothing more than badly misperceived windmills.

The Myth consists of over 350 pages of what a colleague poetically calls “convivencia sneering,” a resentful drive to first misconstrue nearly 80 years of scholarship on medieval Spain as a mere celebration of the convivencia, or living-togetether-ness of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and then tear down the newly constructed straw man. “Convivencia sneering” is often found in two guises, both of which are manifest in The Myth: first, the misrepresentation of scholarship on the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of medieval Spain as a uniformly idealizing and one-dimensional endeavor divorced from research into the real “realidad histórica”; and second, treating works written for a popular audience, most notably María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World, as the scholarship in the field while ignoring works written for a scholarly audience and refusing to treat writing for those two audiences as different beasts.

The author claims that contemporary scholarship on medieval Iberia perpetrates the myth of a paradise in with Jews, Christians, and Muslims all more or less got along, and that this view has been deceitfully conveyed to a gullible reading public. His book will set the record straight. In other words, his argument is that a caricature of convivencia has been perpetrated on an unsuspecting audience by scholars who are, in turn, too afraid of the Islamic world and too enamored of it to tell the truth about how horrendous Islam was and is. He supports this claim through a series of misrepresentations of the primary sources and ofthe state of the field facilitated by a desperately poor handle on the relevant secondary bibliography and a blinding need to prove the evil of Islam and the darkness of the Middle Ages.

Read the whole thing