Robin Hood

Sean McGlynn reviews Lesley Coote’s Storyworlds of Robin Hood: The Origins of a Medieval Outlaw (2020) in the Spectator:

Not such a hero: the tarnished legend of Robin Hood

Far from being a selfless righter of wrongs, the outlaw was a brutal killer, according to the original ballads

Britain’s two most famous legendary figures, King Arthur and Robin Hood, remain enduringly and endearingly elusive, and thus ever-fascinating: Arthur slumbering in the mists of nebulous Avalon, Robin as a hardy perennial somewhere deep in Sherwood Forest. Historians, folklorists, Eng Lit academics and cranks — the list is not mutually exclusive — enter these realms at their peril. When I did so a few years back, a headline in the Sun alarmingly proclaimed: ‘ROBIN HOOD FROM TUNBRIDGE WELLS, SAYS HISTORIAN.’ To put it mildly, that was a rather reductive and misleading summary of my research; but it certainly raised my awareness of being ambushed while ambling along the edenic Greenwood pathways. In her engrossing book on Robin Hood, Lesley Coote also considers a geography beyond Sherwood Forest for the legend: ‘It may have differed according to the area in which the stories were being told.’ It almost certainly did, as I have long argued.

Coote rightly recognises that the folklore originates from at least eight centuries ago. Thus, even this primary source is probably more fictitious than historical. And that befits Robin perfectly, a character who, as Coote explains, undergoes constant cultural reinvention: ‘In relatively recent times, Robin Hood has been depicted as a superhero, a rebel, a war-weary outsider with “issues”, and a hoodie-wearing “lad”.’ Indeed so: in the 2018 film, he is a steampunk environmentalist for the woke generation.

Coote convincingly shows how Robin was adapted to the culture of the late Middle Ages as a variation of the fabliaux, pastourelles and tales that were popular across Europe and which were widely known in England, in which ‘the character of the outlaw and that of the minstrel are blended together in the greenwood storyworld of Robin Hood, and together they become the hero’. The constants remain in our cultural referencing of the hero: the Merry Men, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest and Robin as the selfless righter of wrongs.

Read the whole thing

Dangerous Ideas

My friend Andrew Reeves writes on Arc Digital:

What If An Idea Was So Dangerous It Could Lead To Your Eternal Damnation?

A discourse lesson from the High Middle Ages

We are used to thinking of a “dangerous idea” as the sort of thing an intellectual community might want to suppress, or a government might want to censor, or a publication might want to deplatform (or actively platform, for that matter), all so that society remains safe from the idea’s purportedly harmful effects.

But what if the harm were spiritual? And the danger it posed infinite?

What if an idea was so dangerous that it would lead to the eternal damnation of your soul?

What would you do with this idea? Would you box it up, stamp it out, crush any mention of it? Or would you debate it?

This was a very real question in Europe of the High Middle Ages, which roughly spanned from 1050 to 1350. Europe was not even understood as Europe, then, but rather as Christendom, the collections of peoples and nations that acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ through the Catholic Church. To reject the Church’s teachings and practices, either through unbelief or heresy — i.e., willful deviation of the Church’s teachings and practices — was to court damnation. The various guardians of the institutional Church therefore sought to quash even the suggestion of heretical ideas. Indeed, in the popular imagination, the Middle Ages is illuminated with men and women set ablaze for even so much as thinking a heretical thought.

Read the whole thing

Wine Windows

From the New York Post, news of an interesting revival:

Medieval ‘wine windows’ are reopening, reviving Italian plague tradition

By Hannah Sparks

It’s a quaint tradition — with a very dark history.

Centuries ago, the bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, swept through Europe, killing one-third of the continent’s population at the time. Originating in Asia, the disease made its way to Italy during the late Middle Ages, and spread north from there.

These days, we know just as well as medieval Italians that a stiff drink can go a long way to ease troubles during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Thus, the “wine windows,” or buchette del vino, of Tuscany. They are just as they sound: pint-size hatches, carved into the concrete walls of urban wineries and shops, where beverage merchants would serve sips at a safe social distance.

First introduced in the 1600s, their true purpose went untapped for centuries after the plague — that is, until a new one came along this year.

“Everyone is confined to home for two months and then the government permits a gradual reopening,” the Wine Window Association website reads. “During this time, some enterprising Florentine Wine Window owners have turned back the clock and are using their Wine Windows to dispense glasses of wine, cups of coffee, drinks, sandwiches and ice cream — all germ-free, contactless!”

More (including photos) at the link.

Por-Bazhyn

Here is something interesting to see if you’re ever in Tuva. From the Siberian Times:

Mysterious mountain palace, one of the wonders of Siberia, was built in 777 AD

By Anna Liesowska

Breathtaking island complex close to Mongolian border rumoured to have been built for tragic Chinese princess.

New scientific findings have pin-pointed the date of the construction of stunning Por-Bajin in Lake Tere-Khol some 2,300 metres above sea level.

It was designed only for summer living between the magnificent Sayan and Altai ranges but in fact was never occupied.

Its purpose and inspiration have long perplexed experts, and it has amazed almost everyone who has ever ventured here to the very centre point of Eurasia.

As President Vladimir Putin said: ‘I have been to many places, I have seen many things. But I have never seen anything of the kind.’

Now, though, Por-Bajin has given up one key secret.

Research by the University of Groningen using a special carbon-14 dating technique has now established it was built in 777 AD, two decades later than the previous best guesses.

‘In the complex, the scientists found a beam with a spike from the year 775. As they were able to ascertain that the tree was felled two years later, the complex must have been constructed in 777,’ says a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings likely undermine the romantic theory that this was a royal summer home, as espoused by local academic Demir Tulush, of Tuva Institute of Humanities and Social and Economic Research.

He had suggested the version that it could be have been a ‘summer palace built for a Kha Khan’s wife’, possibly the spouse or intended partner of Byogyu-kagan, son of Boyan-Chor.

‘It is known that Chinese princesses could become the wives of Uighur and Turk Kha Khans,’ he explained.

‘Probably, one such princess was destined to live in this palace, but something happened to her on the way here, and she never came to the site. It was totally abandoned in 30 or 40 years.’

More at the link, including lots of images. I reprint the one at Wikipedia:

“Aerial view of site of Por-Bazhyn taken from a microlight plane before start of excavation season 2007.”

Shires

England does not really have counties – it has shires. The fundamental subunit of the English state was the brainchild of Alfred the Great, who reorganized his kingdom of Wessex to meet the threat of Danish invasion from the north. He defeated the Danes at Eddington in 878, and then proceeded to reconquer England from them, imposing his new system as he went. Eventually Wessex expanded to include all England, and reflecting this fact, the names of most English “counties” end in -shire, for instance Leicestershire, Worcestershire, Lincolnshire, or Hertfordshire. If a shire enjoyed an independent existence prior to Alfred’s conquests it might retain its old name, e.g. Kent, Essex, or Cornwall, but don’t be fooled, these too have been reduced to the status of shires. (This is why there is no County Wessex – England itself is Wessex.) 

I assume that the Normans started calling them counties after 1066, given that that was the name they were familiar with on the continent, a name that has stuck. But they are not counties in the French sense of the term, because they are not the private fiefdoms of nobles called “counts.” To this day there are no counts in England – the equivalent noble rank being an “earl” – an Anglo-Saxon term related to the Scandinavian “jarl” (chieftain). But the counties are not earldoms either – such English nobles may have been landowners, but their holdings were scattered here and there – they did not possess their fiefs in return for exercising governmental functions on the local level, as did the vassals of the French king. Instead, the (usually non-noble) shire-reeve, a royal appointee, was in charge of tax collection and law enforcement in his particular shire. William the Conqueror liked this setup and continued it, and the sheriff remained an important figure in medieval England. 

So “county” might have replaced “shire,” but “count” did not replace “earl” (although the wife of an earl is a “countess”). 

And if the word “county” is not really suitable to England, how much less suitable is it to America, where titles of nobility are forbidden by the constitution. But I don’t know what American state subunits should be called. Not duchies or satrapies! “Departments” would be nicely republican. Louisiana calls its subunits “parishes” but given America’s separation of church and state I’ve never felt that “parish” is appropriate either. 

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