Sutton Hoo

From the East Anglian Daily Times:

Sutton Hoo unveils new £4 million transformation

The National Trust has finally revealed its largest ever investment at the world famous Sutton Hoo royal burial ground – and the public will today be able to enjoy an improved visitor experience.

Thanks to the £4 million renovation of the historic site, visitors will be more intimately connected with the story of one of the most significant archaeological finds in British history.

Since the discovery of the ship burial in 1939, the story has unfolded with every dig made but unfortunately was overlooked at the time due to the impending conflict of the Second World War.

Now archaeologists and historians, alongside Mike Hopwood, visitor experience project manager, Ian Barnes the National Trust head of archaeology and Nick Collinson the general manager of Sutton Hoo, want the story of King Raedwald’s final resting place in East Anglia to finally be heard and given the attention it deserves.

Tens of thousands of people visit the site alongside the River Deben every year and the trust is hoping that the renovations will inspire even more interest in the fascinating tale of royal sophistication, privilege and status.

More at the link, including plenty of images.

Hermits and Anchorites

Mary Wellesley in the London Review of Books revisits a distinctive aspect of medieval piety:

The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. I’d come late on a winter afternoon; the light was seeping away. What light there was came through the ‘squint’ – the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar. I turned on the torch on my phone. In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it. If the floor had been at the same height in the medieval period, the desk would have been too high for an anchorite to rest their elbows on. Had the indentation been made by pairs of hands gripping the edge of the ledge? I wondered at those pairs of hands. This cell had been a coffin to its inhabitants – once inside, they were never to come out. They may have been buried beneath my feet, in this tiny anchorhold in the church of St Nicholas in the village of Compton in Surrey.

An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. Anchoritism emerged in the late 11th century in tandem with a monastic reform movement and a growth in spiritual enthusiasm that is sometimes referred to as the Medieval Reformation. In the Middle Ages in England, as elsewhere in Europe, the practice was not uncommon – there were around a hundred recluses across the country in the 12th century; over the 13th century, the figure increased to two hundred. Women significantly outnumbered men, by as much as three to one.

I came out of the church into the empty churchyard. Except for the sound of passing cars, I was alone. The anchorites who had lived in the cell probably rarely felt that. Anchorites withdrew from the world in one sense, but anchored to their church, they were at the centre of community life. Anchorholds were often situated in prominent places in medieval English towns – sometimes along the routes of liturgical processions. In London there were many cells along the old city walls. As Claire Dowding has noted, they formed a ‘ring of prayer’ encircling the capital.

Life as an anchoress began with a death. On entering their cell for the first time, the recludensus (novice recluse) would climb into a grave dug inside the cell. The enclosure ritual is a piece of macabre high drama. In places the liturgy is indistinguishable from a funeral service. When the moment for enclosure arrived, the anchoress-to-be would process with the celebrant, choir and others out of the church and into the graveyard, as the choir sang ‘In paradisum deducant te angeli’ – traditionally sung as a body is conveyed to a grave. The procession would arrive at the cell built onto the side of the church, usually – in England – on the north side, where the wind was most biting and no direct sunlight fell. Some ordines (liturgical directions) state that the recludensus should pause at the opening of the cell and the bishop should say, ‘Si vult intrare, intret’ (‘if he/she wishes to go in, allow him/her to go in’). An antiphon drawn from the Book of Tobias was sung, concluding with the words, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ The anchoress would then climb into the grave, where she was sprinkled with earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – and the door of the cell was bolted.

More at the link.

Medieval Details

Currently reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Negotiator (1989). I was pleased to note that the late great Maurice Keen has a cameo role in it:

When Simon and Jenny came back he nodded benignly and told them: “You’re with Dr. Keen, I believe. Corner of the quadrangle, up the stairs to the top.”

When they reached the cluttered room at the top of the stairs their tutor in medieval history and introduced themselves, Jenny called him “Professor” and Simon called him “Sir.” Dr. Keen beamed at them over his glasses.

“Now,” he said merrily, “there are two things and only two that I do not allow. One is wasting your time and mine; the other is calling me ‘sir.’ ‘Dr. Keen’ will do nicely. Then we’ll graduate to ‘Maurice.’ By the way, Jenny, I’m not a professor either. Professors have chairs, and as you see I do not; at least not on in good repair.”

He gestured happily at the collection of semi-collapsed upholstery and bade his students be comfortable. Simon sank his frame into a legless Queen Anne chair that left him three inches off the floor, and together they began to consider Jan Hus and the Hussite revolution in medieval Bohemia. Simon grinned. He knew he was going to enjoy Oxford.

Alas, the author should have consulted with Keen about the contents of his book. On page 187 we read:

He had a light lunch in a small sandwich bar off the street, called Crutched Friars, where monks once hobbled with one leg bound behind them to cause pain for the greater glory of God, and he made up his mind what he would do.

Needless to say, the “Crutched Friars” didn’t use that type of crutch, at least not habitually. Their name derives from the Latin Fratres Cruciferi, meaning “cross-bearing brethren,” and refers to the staves that they carried with them, which were surmounted by crucifixes.

It’s somewhat like how Edmund Crouchback, younger brother of King Edward I, was not actually deformed, but simply a crusader, “crouchback” being a corruption of “cross-back,” referring to the crosses that crusaders would stitch onto their clothing.

Paleoichthyology

It’s a real word, referring to the study of fish in the past, as detailed in a recent Atlantic article:

The Medieval Practices that Reshaped Europe’s Fish

In Europe, aquatic animals have been traded at least since the days of the Roman Empire. But it was during the early Middle Ages, with the arrival of widespread Christianity, that the animals became a popular source of protein. That’s partially due to the roughly 130 days a yearwhen the faithful were exhorted not to eat meat, because fish didn’t count in that category.

At the same time, expanding agrarian populations were cutting down forests to create fields and diverting rivers to fill defensive moats around castles and towns, Hoffmann writes in one paper. From the ninth century a.d. to the 11th, the number of grain mills built along rivers in England exploded from about 200 to 5,624. Species that came into fresh water to spawn, such as salmon and sturgeon, began declining. New regulations, such as King Philip’s, were put into place to manage fish populations. A Scottish statute from 1214 required all dams to include an opening for fish and barrier nets to be lifted every Saturday, for instance. Soon highly sophisticated aquaculture ponds stocked with carp also provided regular access to fish for the landed elite.

This decline in freshwater populations coincided with a sudden, commercial-scale boom in sea fishing, which began around a.d. 1000 and is known as the “fish event horizon.” In one study, archaeologists collected cod bones in London from 95 Roman, medieval, and postmedieval sites. The number of bones jumped circa the year 1000, and isotopic sampling showed that in the following centuries, fish came from farther and farther away, indicating long-distance trade. In the southern English town of Southampton, the remains of marine species (such as cod) began to outnumber freshwater species (such as eel) by 1030.

That “fish event horizon” could have been caused by a number of forces. It came at a time of population growth, urbanism, new ship technology, and increased trade, says the archaeologist James Barrett, from the University of Cambridge. But, he adds, “I’ve argued consistently that this must also be about human impacts on freshwater and migratory fishes. The degree of vulnerability of fishes depends on how bounded the ecosystem they occupy is.”

In other words, because their habitat was smaller, freshwater fish were more likely to respond to human pressures sooner. When the reliable stocks of freshwater fish began dwindling, hungry Europeans turned to the much larger oceans. And while those populations had larger ranges, humans still had an impact.

Prince Arthur

Arthur Tudor, that is, whose death (in 1502) left Katherine of Aragon a widow after five months of marriage. Would the English send her back to Spain with her dowry, and be deprived of an alliance with a country that had just discovered the New World? Would Katherine lose the opportunity to be queen some day? By no means! The English arranged for Katherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry, who succeeded to the throne in 1509 as King Henry VIII.* But Katherine’s daughter Mary displeased Henry – Henry Tudor had won the crown in 1485 through right of conquest, and Henry VIII really wanted a son to carry on the dynasty. Katherine, however, produced a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, which Henry began to believe was punishment for violating Leviticus 18:16: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” (Indeed, the English had to get special permission from the papacy for the marriage to happen, and they based their argument partly on Deuteronomy 25:5: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her” – you can see how Biblicism had already become standard in formulating Christian policy.) Henry’s petition for a divorce from Katherine was denied, in part because the papacy had had to grant an exemption for the marriage in the first place, and in part because Rome was then occupied by Charles V, Katherine’s nephew, and was in no position to grant Henry any favors. 

Thus was founded the Church of England, with Henry as its head, and the power to grant his own divorce.**

To return to Prince Arthur, I noticed an article in Town and Country magazine just now (likely inspired by the success of a new television series, The Spanish Princess, about Katherine). Excerpt:

The Cause of Prince Arthur Tudor’s Death Remains a Medical Mystery

The Prince of Wales’s unexpected passing changed the course of European history, but we still don’t know exactly how he died.

Also known as the sweating sickness and simply the sweats, the so-called “English Sweat” which claimed Arthur, Price of Wales’s life has remained a medical mystery for centuries.

Reaching epidemic proportions on no less than five occasions during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, sweating sickness was highly lethal. Physician John Caius, whose book about the illness remains the most famous account from the time period, noted that death could occur within 3 hours of the onset of symptoms, and that those who survived the first 24 hours would usually make a full recovery (though surviving did not, evidently, prevent the patients from contracting the disease again.)

Sweating sickness was confined almost exclusively to England during its outbreaks, ravaging the wealthy more often than the poor. And yet, for all of its virulence, the sweats seemed to disappear almost as suddenly as they appeared in the first place, with no known outbreaks after 1578.

While the disease’s disappearance no doubt saved thousands of lives, it has also stymied modern medical investigators hoping to understand what claimed the life of Arthur and so many of his subjects.

Part of the trouble stems from sweating sickness’s symptoms—fever, chills, aches, delirium, and, of course, intense sweating—which are common to a number of diseases including influenza, scarlet fever, and typhus, yet never seem to fit exactly in strength, duration, or combination with any known medical issue. The most common modern theory suggests that the outbreaks may have been a form of hantavirus, similar to a hantavirus pulmonary syndrome that struck the American southwest in the 1990s. Exactly why the virus, if that was indeed the cause, would disappear so suddenly is not known, but some scholars suggest that it could be a result of the virus evolving in a way that made it less deadly or less easily spread to humans.

More at the link, including an image of the now-lost east window of St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, which was commissioned for Arthur and Katherine’s engagement. You can see the couple in the lower right and left of the window; you can also see St. George on the left, another piece of evidence about his national importance in the late Middle Ages.

* Somehow this episode reminds me of a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “But I don’t want to think I’ve lost a son, so much as gained a daughter! For, since the tragic death of her father… I want his only daughter to look upon me as her own dad, in a very real, and legally binding sense.”

** You can always tease an Anglican about the sordid origins of his Church. However, he will respond with the claim that Anglicanism represents the via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, a tolerant Big Tent of a religion that eschewed fanaticism (although Queen Elizabeth, whose Settlement inaugurated the rhetoric of the via media, did condemn numerous Catholics for religious reasons).

Spain

In the first half of the twentieth century, if you were an American medievalist and wanted to pick a country to specialize in, you would probably pick England, or France. Those were judged to be the most important and influential medieval polities – particularly England, whose language, Common Law, and system of governance were the direct antecedents of America’s own. France, for its part, was the birthplace of Gothic architecture, troubadour poetry, the Crusades, chivalry, “feudalism,” and other such archetypically medieval motifs.

Spain did not enjoy such status. It was on the periphery of Europe, and its New World descendants were all Third World countries.

Obviously, we don’t hold such values anymore; in fact, the positions have reversed. It’s old-school and “conservative” (even “racist“) to specialize in medieval England. Spain is much cooler, reflecting the protected status now afforded to Hispanics in the United States, and the importance we currently place on Diversity.* For medieval Spain was famously Diverse, featuring Muslims, Christians, and Jews living side-by-side in what is known as the Convivencia. The kingdom stands a riposte to the idea that the Middle Ages were characterized by intolerance and fanaticism, and act as a multicultural model for our own day. That this happy situation was brought to an end by Christian fanaticism offers further confirmation of academic prejudice.

Although… was the Convivencia a myth? As with all historical phenomena, opinions differ, and the debate will continue for a long time to come. One dissenter is Dario Fernandez-Morera, whose book, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016) is reviewed by Lawrence Farley (hat tip: Rachel Brown):

The enthusiasm for the glories of tolerant Islam is suffused throughout modern scholarship, to the point of embarrassment. It is difficult not to conclude, after one looks at the actual historical facts that the scholars ignore and suppress, that their enthusiasm for Islam finds its roots in their distaste for Christianity. It is certainly not rooted in the historical evidence itself.

In this vision of Islamic Spain (renamed by the Muslim conquerors as “al-Andalus”), all three monotheistic faiths got along famously and all three enjoyed cultural flowering and prosperity under the watchful eye of a tolerant Islam.

In this version of history, the Christians of Spain were a benighted, primitive, and ignorant lot, who fortunately for them, ended up under Islam, which then offered them previously undreamt of opportunities to learn tolerance and culture. In this paradise Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted in a happy sunlit land, enjoying the benefits of convivencia—at least until the horrible Christians spoiled it all at the Spanish Reconquista, which recovered the land for Christendom and brought again the blight of intolerance and darkness to their land.

Read the whole thing. I like his Gone with the Wind references.

* Not that I’m embittered, mind, but I don’t like it when people who study Spain still complain that their specialty doesn’t get any respect.

Plague

Apparently eating raw marmot kidneys is not actually good for one’s health – in fact, it might be a vector for bubonic plague. From NPR (hat tip: Bill Campbell):

Bubonic Plague Strikes In Mongolia: Why Is It Still A Threat?

The medieval plague known as the Black Death is making headlines this month.

In Mongolia, a couple died of bubonic plague on May 1 after reportedly hunting marmots, large rodents that can harbor the bacterium that causes the disease, and eating the animal’s raw meat and kidneys – which some Mongolians believe is good for their health.

This is the same illness that killed an estimated 50 million people across three continents in the 1300s. Nowadays, the plague still crops up from time to time, although antibiotics will treat it if taken soon after exposure or the appearance of symptoms.

Left untreated, the plague causes fever, vomiting, bleeding and open, infected sores — and can kill a person within a few days.

The ethnic Kazakh couple died in Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia’s westernmost province bordering Russia and China. It is not clear what treatment they received, if any.

Read the whole thing.

Medieval Cleanliness

Katherine Harvey offers an interesting exploration of medieval hygiene, disease, and parasites on Aeon:

In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), two minor characters spot King Arthur. They know who he is because, as one of them points out: ‘He must be a king … he hasn’t got shit all over him like the rest of us.’ The scene encapsulates an enduring belief about the Middle Ages: medieval people were dirty. Some might have heard Elizabeth I’s famous (but probably apocryphal) declaration that she had a bath once a month whether she needed it or not. In a time when only the richest enjoyed running water in their homes, very few Europeans had the resources to abide by 21st-century standards of hygiene, even if they wanted to.

At the same time, the filthiness of medieval people should not be exaggerated. Much evidence shows that personal hygiene mattered to medieval people, that they made an effort to keep clean. Popular advice books recommended washing the hands, face and teeth on rising, plus further handwashing throughout the day. Other body parts were washed less frequently: daily washing of the genitals, for example, was believed to be a Jewish custom, and thus viewed with suspicion by the non-Jewish population. Nevertheless, many households owned freestanding wooden tubs for bathing, and late-medieval cities usually had public bathhouses. Medical compendia gave recipes for washing hair, whitening teeth and improving skin. Medieval clergymen complained about the vanity of people who spent too much time fussing over their appearance.

Nor were medieval efforts to keep clean limited to the body. Delicate outer garments might be brushed and perfumed, but undergarments and household linens were frequently laundered. Advice books suggested that underwear should be changed every day, and household accounts are scattered with payments to washerwomen. Large rivers often had special jetties for the use of washerwomen: London’s was known as ‘La Lavenderebrigge’. 


Read the whole thing.

Medieval Dragons

Cait Stevenson on Medievalists.net:

Seven Things You Didn’t Know About Medieval Dragons

1. Medieval people understood what a “dragon” was.

I say dragon, and you visualize a giant fire breathing, flying lizard with legs, maybe claws, maybe a voice. I know, and you know. Dragons are that iconic a cultural image. The same was true of the Middle Ages. As Paul Acker showed, Norse sagas spend basically no time describing the physical characteristics of their dragon foes—despite the physical form of the dragon being crucial to the hero’s contest against it and the audience’s ability to follow the battle.

2. Or rather, medieval people understood what dragons, plural, were. 

In the thirteenth-century Norse poem Fáfnismál, Sigurd digs himself a pit where he knows the greedy dwarf-turned-dragon Fáfnir will slither. Our hero stabs upwards into the dragon’s belly. This feat makes no sense to an audience expecting a monster who lumbers on legs or takes to the skies. Just like we “know” what a dragon is from general cultural awareness, medieval people knew.

Fáfnir is, for all intents and purposes, a giant snake. He spews clouds and rivers of venom like a giant snake. A frequent attribute of dragons in medieval bestiaries (descriptions of animals and their characteristics meant as moral lessons for people) recounts their ability to kill animals as large as elephants via constriction and suffocation… you know, like a giant snake. But nobody blinks when Chretien de Troyes’ great dragon in Yvain is “so full of evil that fire leapt from its mouth,” or when the Norse adaptation of Chretien’s Arthuriana lets its dragon dispense with the cooking and get right to the eating. Sometimes dragons are specified as flugdrekar – flying dragons – and sometimes simple drekar and ormar (“worms”) are described as taking to flight. What medieval people understood by “dragon” was a much wider range than the color-coding schemes of modern fantasy. Which brings us to the most excellent variety of medieval dragon:

3. Before they acquired the ability to fly, medieval dragons dropped out of trees onto people’s heads.

As Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, an important source for medieval encyclopedic and bestiary writing, has it:

The iaculus throws itself from the branches of trees; dragons are dangerous not only to the feet but also fly like a missile from a catapult.

Isidore of Seville in the early seventh century clarified that the iaculusindeed takes its name from the javelin, and the Norse Rómverja sagadraws out this point in excruciating detail:

struck under the cheek that man who was called Paulus and the serpent flew straight into his head and out of his cheek

Read the rest at the link.

Maken Engelond Gret Ayeyn

The great Paul Strohm in Lapham’s Quarterly (hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily) discusses late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth century English trade, in particular the perennial conflict between the ideas of free trade and protectionism. A sample:

Giano’s killing was one episode in the larger story of international trade and its accompanying rivalries in the later European Middle Ages. The so-called Dark Ages were never as dark as their name would imply; hucksters, peddlers, chapmen, and other minor players had always plied Europe’s roads and dealt their goods. But it was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that high-volume international trading seriously resumed, with trade in wool one of its major drivers. In those centuries, the Port of London alone handled almost a thousand arriving and departing trading vessels a year, and numerous other English ports (including the newly active ports of Dover and Southampton) were claiming a role. Half this activity was devoted to wool, and it generated immense wealth for the realm, conferring fortunes on a small and monopolistic group of men. These successful profiteers were not the sheepherders and shearers of the provinces, nor the merchant sailors who braved the seas, but the entrepreneurial middlemen who collected revenues on exported wool. A close-knit group of at most several hundred men, they formed allegiances and confederations throughout the mercantile establishment that dominated the leading guilds and ran the city of London.

Read the whole thing, which concludes that the author of the protectionist Libel of English Policy (1438) may be considered a Brexiteer avant la lettre, “laying early foundations for varieties of economic nationalism now returning to contemporary vogue.”