Glastonbury Abbey

Archaeology magazine’s Jason Urbanus reports on new findings from University of Reading archaeologist Roberta Gilchrist, who heads up the Glastonbury Archaeological Archive Project, an intensive reexamination of 75 years’ worth of excavations and discoveries from Glastonbury Abbey, many of which have been stored for decades without any scientific analysis. Gilchrist and her colleagues have found evidence that occupation of the Glastonbury site may indeed date back to the purported year of Arthur’s reign in the fifth century, but not due to any mystical connection with the king.

We know for certain that Glastonbury was a thriving community in the seventh century, where Saxon villagers created large furnaces to melt down and recycle Roman glass. Gilchrist’s project has confirmed that the glassworks predated the abbey, possibly by centuries, and was one of the largest glass production facilities in England at the time.

In the early eighth century, King Ine of Wessex offered an endowment to a burgeoning abbey on the site. Thus began the rise of what ultimately became the wealthiest monastery in England. Towering atop a picturesque hill, the abbey grew famous for its beauty and its lucrative glassworks, drawing pilgrims and visitors from all over England and beyond.

Indeed, the abbey was already famous abroad when the Norman Conquest brought England under French control in 1066. The Norman invaders happily claimed the abbey as their own, adding sumptuous new buildings and enriching it further. The monastery continued to grow and thrive for over a century when tragedy struck. A massive fire in 1184 destroyed nearly all the buildings and treasures that the monks had amassed, converting a famous attraction into a smoking ruin overnight.

As they struggled to get funds to rebuild, the monks needed something to make the abbey seem significant again. It was now competing with Westminster Abbey, which had been established in 1065 and whose soaring architecture was already a marvel. But there was one thing Glastonbury could have that Westminster didn’t. In the 1190s, Glastonbury monks let it be known that they had discovered the skeletons of King Arthur and Guinevere in a tree trunk, buried deep underground; they relocated the grave onto the grounds of the Abbey’s new church.

With the help of archaeologists like Gilchrist, however, we are coming to understand that Glastonbury’s significance is far more complicated than we ever imagined. It was a community that thrived on its craft production of glass and then later on its reinvention as part of the Arthurian legend. You might say that Glastonbury’s twelfth-century monks were very modern indeed. They cashed in on the abbey’s long history, using it to turn myth into money.

King Edward I (1277-1307) presided over a translation of these relics, probably as a way of publicizing the idea that Arthur was well and truly dead, and was not hanging out on the island of Avalon, ready to return to aid the British (i.e. Welsh) against the invading Anglo-Saxons (i.e. Plantagenets). But I think the best myth of Glastonbury is that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in the Chalice Wall at Glastonbury.

Hitler Has Only Got One Ball

From the Guardian. No word on the testicular status of Goering, Himmler, or Goebbels:

Hitler really did have only one testicle, German researcher claims

Analysis of long-lost medical notes seems to confirm that Nazi leader suffered from cryptorchidism, or an undescended right testicle

The song sung in schoolyards by generations of British children mocking Adolf Hitler for only having “one ball” might be accurate after all.

A German historian has unearthed the Nazi leader’s long-lost medical records, which seem to confirm the urban legend that he only had one testicle.

The records, taken during a medical exam following Hitler’s arrest over the failedBeer hall putsch in 1923, show that he suffered from “right-side cryptorchidism”, or an undescended right testicle.

Notes written by Dr Josef Steiner Brin, the medical officer at Landsberg prison, state “Adolf Hitler, artist, recently writer” was otherwise “healthy and strong”.

Long thought to have been lost, the records of the examination surfaced at an auction in Bavaria in 2010 before swiftly being confiscated by the Bavarian government. They have only recently been properly studied by Professor Peter Fleischmann of Erlangen-Nuremberg University.

Normally, men’s testicles descend from inside the body into the scrotum during childhood, but Fleischmann told German newspaper Bild the records showed one of Hitler’s testicles was “probably stunted”.

The records seem to contradict long-running specualation that Hitler lost one testicle to shrapnel during the Battle of the Somme in the first world war.

That rumour was backed up by Franciszek Pawlar, a Polish priest and amateur historian, who claimed a German army medic who treated Hitler after the shrapnel incident told him about the injury.

The medical records also contradict Hitler’s childhood doctor, who told American interrogators in 1943 that the future Führer’s genitals were “completely normal”.

Wikipedia on the topic: Adolph Hitler’s Possible Monorchism.

Wild Man Found!

From the BBC:

Rare treasure found in Suffolk depicts medieval ‘Wild Man’

A 500-year-old artefact is one of the earliest depictions of a mythical figure from medieval Europe, an expert has claimed.

Metal detectorists found the spoon handle with an engraving of “Wild Man” near Woodbridge in Suffolk.

A leading historian has hailed the discovery as a “rare find”.
Some of the earliest writings about The Wild Man come from Spain in the 9th Century and he was described as “barbaric, chaotic and unrestrained”.

The 15th Century handle, found two years ago, was declared as treasure at an inquest in Ipswich this week.

Covered in leaves and brandishing a club, the hairy Wild Man was a popular medieval mythical figure mostly found in pictures and literature rather than on objects.

Professor of history Ronald Hutton, from the University of Bristol, said: “It’s certainly one of the earliest depictions of the Wild Man.

“There would have been earlier ones on manuscripts and tapestries but not like this.”

He said it would have been owned by someone “well-off” and from the “upper to middle class”.

People were fascinated by the creature who was “barbaric, chaotic and unrestrained”, he said.

“This might have been given to someone as a present to remind them of how not to behave,” he added.

“He was a bogey in a world obsessed with religious and social order, an awful warning of the consequences of a lack of either.”

The figure is being valued by the British Museum, which will then decide what to do with it.

I’m pleased to see they consulted Ronald Hutton about this – I’ve admired his work over the years, and enjoyed his talk at the Folklore Society in London some five years ago now.

In heraldry the wild man is known as a woodwose and two of them appear as supporters in the royal arms of Denmark:


Via Wikipedia.

Marathon claims that you need to stop believing the myth that marathons are 26 miles long “because of the ancient Greeks”:

One common myth is that marathon is 26 miles because that is the length that the Greek messenger ran from Marathon to Athens to announce a Greek victory.

In actuality, today’s race length dates back to the 1908 London Olympics.

Runners were set to race about 26 miles, but an extra 385 yards was tacked on so that the royal family could good view of the race, according to the NY Times.

Google Maps claims that the shortest route on drivable roads between Marathonas and Athens is 42.7 km, which translates to 26.5 miles, so it doesn’t sound like too much of a myth. Wikipedia says that:

The International Olympic Committee agreed in 1907 that the distance for the 1908 London Olympic marathon would be about 25 miles or 40 kilometres. The organisers decided on a course of 26 miles from the start at Windsor Castle to the royal entrance to the White City Stadium, followed by a lap (586 yards, 2 feet; 536 m) of the track, finishing in front of the Royal Box. The course was later altered to use a different entrance to the stadium, followed by a partial lap of 385 yards to the same finish.

The modern 42.195 km standard distance for the marathon was set by theInternational Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) in May 1921 directly from the length used at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London.

In other words, prior to the 1920s, there was no standard length for a marathon (just as there is no standard size and shape for a baseball field even today). They then settled on one based on the 1908 Olympics, which only tangentially had to do with the royal family.

A better myth that you need to stop believing would be that Pheidippides ever made the run in the first place, following the Athenian victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Herodotus, our main source for the Persian wars, mentions a runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for help, but the first mention that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce “Victory!” right before falling down dead was Lucian of Samosta, who lived and wrote in the second century AD. In other words, like Archimedes shouting “Eureka” and running down the street naked, or like Newton getting hit on the head by an apple, it’s one of those delightful stories that add spice to a lecture, but which must then be disavowed. (Stephanie Trigg would call it “mythic capital.”)


A followup to a post from last year, about Reinhardt’s village of Waleska, Georgia. I snapped this photo just now, of the city seal emblazoned on the door of an official truck.

Presumably this is the “Cherokee Princess” of blessed memory, and the city’s alleged namesake. According to the 1889 article in the Weekly Constitution, however, “Walesca” was a man, and a friend of Lewis Reinhardt’s, whom Reinhardt convinced to head out to Oklahoma during Cherokee removal in the 1830s.

I wrote last year that it would likely be difficult to pin down the real origin of the town’s name. At the time I thought it really didn’t matter all that much, but now I’m not so sure. The “princess” legend adds a certain “romantic” cast to the whole sordid enterprise of Indian removal, whereas the “Reinhardt’s friend” version really highlights the betrayal.

What Happened to Harold?

Via my friend Chris Berard, a new theory (in the Daily Mail) about what happened to Harold Godwinson, king of England in 1066 (emphasis added):


Shot through the eye by an arrow, he died at the hands of four Norman knights brutally dismembering his body – or so almost 950 years of history dictates.

But archaeologists are now claiming King Harold may have survived the Battle of Hastings, and lived out his years before quietly dying of old age.

The alternative version of events, put forward in a 12th century document housed in the British Museum, discounts the Normans’ portrayal of his death in the Bayeux Tapestry.

The artwork, long considered an accurate depiction of the 1066 Battle of Hastings, shows King Harold clutching at an arrow in his eye as four Norman knights hack at his body.

But now a team of historians, who discovered the remains of Richard III in a municipal car park in Leicester in 2012, are eager to dispel the long-accepted story. 

Oval Film and Stratascan, whose efforts were applauded around the world for the discovery, will carry out an underground scan of Abbey Gardens at Waltham Abbey Church in Essex, the supposed site of King Harold’s tomb, to look for his remains.

King Harold is thought to have been killed in the 1066 battle


Thank goodness for twelfth-century documents in the British Museum! (By which I assume the author means the British Library?) Strangely missing, of course, is a shelfmark or any description of what the document is called, or anything else it might contain. And, at the risk of being labeled an academic snob, “Oval Films and Stratascan” is hardly “a team of historians.” It is a commercial operation trying to raise money for its next big project – note that there’s no mention of Philippa Langley, the real historian behind the discovery of King Richard’s bones.

Anything’s possible of course, but my hunch that “Harold survived and died of old age” is about as true as Ian Mortimer’s theory that Edward II was not murdered in 1327 and buried in Gloucester Abbey, but ended his days in retirement in Italy. I assure you that this theory has no support among everyone I know who studies fourteenth-century England.

Professor Buzzkill

Via my friend Bill Campbell, a website devoted to debunking historical myths. A good one:


Drink Up Buzzkillers

Prohibition and Heavy Drinking

It’s another great image that has set Professor on his quest. A city street crammed with revelers, staggering from speakeasy to speakeasy, policemen on the beat looking the other way, and flappers dancing to the crazed jazz of the 1920s. During Prohibition, so the story goes, the rate of drinking among the American population went up, despite the demon liquor being outlawed.

After the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages was banned in a fit of morality and temperance in 1920. The myth that is so repeatedly told is that Americans actually began to drink more, partly to say “up yours” to what they saw as Federal over-reach. In order for this story to have been true, people who had consumed alcohol before the ban would have had to continue drinking (and probably drink more), and, in all likelihood many people who had abstained from alcohol would have had to start drinking.

It’s not true, though, folks. Scholars disagree over the numbers and statistics (and even over which statistics to use – rates of cirrhosis of the liver, rates of alcohol poisoning, arrest rates for drunkenness, and others), but they all agree that alcohol consumption declined during prohibition and that many alcohol-related illnesses decreased too.


Read the whole thing, and some of the others.

St. Patrick

Happy (belated) St. Patrick’s Day! That St. Patrick, a fifth-century British missionary to the Irish, ever used a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity, or that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, are myths… but fun myths. He was by no means the only early medieval missionary to Ireland; the fact that he is considered the most important one and Ireland’s patron probably has to do with the later importance of his monastic foundation at Armagh.

So Help Me…

An interesting article from David Parker, professor of history at nearby Kennesaw State University and friend to Reinhardt’s history program, on History News Network:

In 2009, Peter Henriques made a startling announcement in an oft-cited piece for History News Network: There is “absolutely no extant contemporary evidence,” he wrote, to support the traditional story that George Washington added the phrase “so help me God” to the presidential oath of office at his first inauguration. In fact, this story did not even exist until 1854, when Rufus Griswold included it in a book titled The Republican Court. (Griswold got the story, Henriques said, from Washington Irving, who as a six-year-old boy had watched the event from two hundred feet away.)

In a recent piece in Common-Place, the online journal of the American Antiquarian Society, I showed how quickly the “so help me God” story caught on after Griswold “reported” it. My methodology was simple: I used various online databases (Google Books, Internet Archive, American Periodicals Series,, and others) to search for the phrase. It’s fairly easy to show that, before 1854, there are no accounts of Washington saying “so help me God” at the end of the oath (at least in the millions of print records covered by these databases). Then Griswold told the story. By the end of the 1850s, almost a dozen books and magazine articles had repeated it, and the numbers grew over the next few decades. “So help me God” quickly became the traditional story, a part of the American creation myth so accepted that, through the twentieth century, no one, including academic scholars, thought to question it.

When historians use the word “myth,” we don’t mean “a story that isn’t true.” A myth is an explanatory narrative that serves to unify a society, justifying its past and validating its present. The myth of the Lost Cause, for example, is a southern re-writing of history that defended the Old South, justified secession and the waging of war, and explained the Confederacy’s defeat. True or not, the Lost Cause myth became the Truth, the accepted story, and as such it greatly influenced the way white southerners viewed (and still view) their past.

So my interest in the Griswold story was not to discredit it; I don’t really care if Washington said “so help me God” or not. Instead, I wanted to show how quickly this became established in our national memory after 1854—to describe the “so help me God” story as an example of American myth-making.

Read the whole thing. This is what primary sources are for! It’s to be expected that Cold War would have provoked the myth that “every president” said “so help me God” in his oath of office, but I wonder what caused the original Washingtonian myth to catch on so quickly in the 1850s. Dr. Wheeler, any thoughts?