Posts for : August 2010


Sunrise and Sunset in Wales 0

For those who live in a far northern or southern region of the planet, this will not be news, but for the vast majority of people who do not, the idea that the sun will not set in the summer until what is traditionally viewed as ‘night’ and will rise far too early in the morning is very foreign.  Look at the chart below, showing sunrise and sunset times for Cardiff (which is in southern Wales) for June 2010.  Note that for the entire month, the sun rise varies by 7 minutes:  rising at 5:02 am, reaching 4:55 am in the middle of the month, and by the end of the month is again at 4:59 am.  Sunset varies by 13 minutes, peaking at a 16 hour, 38 minute ‘day’.

1-Jun-10 5:02 AM 9:20 PM 16h 18m 32s
2-Jun-10 5:01 AM 9:21 PM 16h 20m 23s
3-Jun-10 5:00 AM 9:22 PM 16h 22m 08s
4-Jun-10 4:59 AM 9:23 PM 16h 23m 49s
5-Jun-10 4:59 AM 9:24 PM 16h 25m 23s
6-Jun-10 4:58 AM 9:25 PM 16h 26m 54s
7-Jun-10 4:58 AM 9:26 PM 16h 28m 19s
8-Jun-10 4:57 AM 9:27 PM 16h 29m 38s
9-Jun-10 4:57 AM 9:28 PM 16h 30m 51s
10-Jun-10 4:56 AM 9:28 PM 16h 31m 59s
11-Jun-10 4:56 AM 9:29 PM 16h 33m 01s
12-Jun-10 4:56 AM 9:30 PM 16h 33m 58s
13-Jun-10 4:56 AM 9:30 PM 16h 34m 49s
14-Jun-10 4:55 AM 9:31 PM 16h 35m 33s
15-Jun-10 4:55 AM 9:31 PM 16h 36m 12s
16-Jun-10 4:55 AM 9:32 PM 16h 36m 45s
17-Jun-10 4:55 AM 9:32 PM 16h 37m 12s
18-Jun-10 4:55 AM 9:33 PM 16h 37m 33s
19-Jun-10 4:55 AM 9:33 PM 16h 37m 48s
20-Jun-10 4:55 AM 9:33 PM 16h 37m 57s
21-Jun-10 4:56 AM 9:34 PM 16h 38m 00s
22-Jun-10 4:56 AM 9:34 PM 16h 37m 57s
23-Jun-10 4:56 AM 9:34 PM 16h 37m 47s
24-Jun-10 4:56 AM 9:34 PM 16h 37m 32s
25-Jun-10 4:57 AM 9:34 PM 16h 37m 11s
26-Jun-10 4:57 AM 9:34 PM 16h 36m 44s
27-Jun-10 4:58 AM 9:34 PM 16h 36m 10s
28-Jun-10 4:58 AM 9:34 PM 16h 35m 31s
29-Jun-10 4:59 AM 9:33 PM 16h 34m 46s
30-Jun-10 4:59 AM 9:33 PM 16h 33m 55s

In contrast, this is the sunrise/sunset table for December, indicating fewer than eight hours of daylight for most of the month:

1-Dec-10 7:56 AM 4:07 PM 8h 11m 47s
2-Dec-10 7:57 AM 4:07 PM 8h 09m 47s
3-Dec-10 7:58 AM 4:06 PM 8h 07m 53s
4-Dec-10 8:00 AM 4:06 PM 8h 06m 04s
5-Dec-10 8:01 AM 4:05 PM 8h 04m 20s
6-Dec-10 8:02 AM 4:05 PM 8h 02m 42s
7-Dec-10 8:03 AM 4:05 PM 8h 01m 09s
8-Dec-10 8:05 AM 4:04 PM 7h 59m 42s
9-Dec-10 8:06 AM 4:04 PM 7h 58m 20s
10-Dec-10 8:07 AM 4:04 PM 7h 57m 05s
11-Dec-10 8:08 AM 4:04 PM 7h 55m 55s
12-Dec-10 8:09 AM 4:04 PM 7h 54m 52s
13-Dec-10 8:10 AM 4:04 PM 7h 53m 54s
14-Dec-10 8:11 AM 4:04 PM 7h 53m 03s
15-Dec-10 8:12 AM 4:04 PM 7h 52m 18s
16-Dec-10 8:12 AM 4:04 PM 7h 51m 39s
17-Dec-10 8:13 AM 4:04 PM 7h 51m 07s
18-Dec-10 8:14 AM 4:05 PM 7h 50m 41s
19-Dec-10 8:15 AM 4:05 PM 7h 50m 22s
20-Dec-10 8:15 AM 4:05 PM 7h 50m 09s
21-Dec-10 8:16 AM 4:06 PM 7h 50m 03s
22-Dec-10 8:16 AM 4:06 PM 7h 50m 03s
23-Dec-10 8:17 AM 4:07 PM 7h 50m 10s
24-Dec-10 8:17 AM 4:07 PM 7h 50m 23s
25-Dec-10 8:17 AM 4:08 PM 7h 50m 43s
26-Dec-10 8:18 AM 4:09 PM 7h 51m 09s
27-Dec-10 8:18 AM 4:10 PM 7h 51m 41s
28-Dec-10 8:18 AM 4:10 PM 7h 52m 20s
29-Dec-10 8:18 AM 4:11 PM 7h 53m 06s
30-Dec-10 8:18 AM 4:12 PM 7h 53m 57s
31-Dec-10 8:18 AM 4:13 PM 7h 54m 55s

Remember this when you write about winter in Wales!


Women in Celtic Society

It is a stereotype that women in the Dark Ages (and the Middle Ages for that matter) had two career options:  mother or holy woman, with prostitute or chattel filling in the gaps between those two.  Unfortunately, for the most part this stereotype is accurate.  The status and role of women in any era prior to the modern one revolves around these categories.

This is one reason that when fiction is set in this time, it is difficult to write a self-actualized female character who has any kind of autonomy or authority over her own life.  Thus, it is common practice to make fictional characters either healers of some sort (thus opening up a whole array of narrative possibilities for travel and interaction with interesting people) or to focus on high status women, who may or may  not have had more autonomy, but their lives did not consist of drudgery and child care from morning until night.

This is not to say that men in the Dark Ages weren’t equally restricted in their ‘careers’.  A serf is a serf after all, of whatever gender.  Men as a whole, however, did have control of women, of finances, of government, and of the Church, and thus organized and ruled the world.  Literally.

There are obvious exceptions (Eleanor of Aquitaine, anyone?).

But that is one woman out of thousands upon thousands who were born, worked, and died within 5 miles of their home.

At the same time, within Celtic cultures, women had the possibility of higher autonomy and place.  In Ireland, as one example, the Roman Church had less influence.  Women had a viable place both within the Druid religion and within the Celtic/Irish Church.

“Both men and women were included in the pagan Druid priesthood, having equal status, and this equality was kept in the Irish Christian Church.  Besides the priesthood, the pagan Druid religion also had an order of wandering poets and prophets, called filid, who taught their religion to the common people. The Celtic Christian Church enthusiastically adopted this ministry. Ordained to the office of “bard,” men and women had the duty of proclaiming the messages of the Catholic gospel in songs and ballads.  In pagan Ireland, as Elaine Gill describes, Beltane celebrated the balance of female and male energy in sexual, spiritual, and emotional ways. This idea was embodied in the dual monasteries, where men and women had separate accommodations, but shared a common concern for the well-being of the entire community. The acceptance by the Catholic Church at the time of the idea of equality in Ireland also probably contributed to the swift embrace of Catholic beliefs, in that the two ways of life, pagan and Catholic, were very similar. In that sense, the Catholic way of life was not completely foreign to the pagan Celts, but was adapted by them to their own customs and traditions.  (Robert Van de Weyer, Celtic Fire: the Passionate Religious Vision of Ancient Britain and Ireland (New York, Double Day, 1991)

Peter Tremayne, of the Sister Fidelma series, has an extensive essay on his treatment of women in his books–as of equal status to men in many, many ways:

In this way, the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages were not a seemless period of time.  Before the Middle Ages, Wales too was less subject to the restrictions of the Roman Church (see Myth and Religion in the Dark Ages:; the Pelagian Heresy and Religious Non-Conformity in Wales  As in Ireland, women had a higher status in Wales than in Christendom as a whole, including the right to divorce her husband and societal acceptance of illegitimate children.

The Laws of Women (part of the Laws of Hywel Dda) in Wales which framed the status of women in the Dark Ages included:

“Rules governing marriage and the division of property if a married couple should separate. The position of women under Welsh law differed significantly to that of their Norman-English contemporaries. A marriage could be established in two basic ways. The normal way was that the woman would be given to a man by her kindred; the abnormal way was that the woman could elope with a man without the consent of her kindred. In this case her kindred could compel her to return if she was still a virgin, but if she was not she could not be compelled to return. If the relationship lasted for seven years she had the same entitlements as if she had been given by her kin.[7]

A number of payments are connected with marriage. Amobr was a fee payable to the woman’s lord on the loss of her virginity, whether on marriage or otherwise. Cowyll was a payment due to the woman from her husband on the morning after the marriage, marking her transition from virgin to married woman. Agweddi was the amount of the common pool of property owned by the couple which was due to the woman if the couple separated before the end of seven years. The total of the agweddi depended on the woman’s status by birth, regardless of the actual size of the common pool of property. If the marriage broke up after the end of seven years, the woman was entitled to half the common pool.[8]

If a woman found her husband with another woman, she was entitled to a payment of six score pence the first time and a pound the second time; on the third occasion she was entitled to divorce him. If the husband had a concubine, the wife was allowed to strike her without having to pay any compensation, even if it resulted in the concubine’s death.[9] A woman could only be beaten by her husband for three things: for giving away something which she was not entitled to give away, for being found with another man or for wishing a blemish on her husband’s beard. If he beat her for any other cause, she was entitled to the payment of sarhad. If the husband found her with another man and beat her, he was not entitled to any further compensation. According to the law, women were not allowed to inherit land. However there were exceptions, even at an early date. A poem dated to the first half of the 11th century is an elegy for Aeddon, a landowner on Anglesey. The poet says that after his death his estate was inherited by four women who had originally been brought to Aeddon’s court as captives after a raid and had found favour with him.[10] The rule for the division of moveable property when one of a married couple died was the same for both sexes. The property was divided into two equal halves, with the surviving partner keeping one half and the dying partner being free to give bequests from the other half.”


Update on King Arthur’s ’round table’ in Chester 0

Yes–slacking off today.  But I did find this interesting piece on King Arthur’s round table by Keith Fitzpatrick-Mathews.  It is a much more lengthy rebuttal than mine (, but makes many of the same points (also see,  Fitzpatrick-Mathews also takes to task Christopher Gildow’s article entitled “Top Ten Clues to the Real King Arthur”.  What’s particularly great is the exchange between the two in the comments at the end.   Worth a read for anyone who thinks King Arthur might have really existed.’s-round-table-discovered-in-chester/


Medieval Poisons

King Henry I died in Normandy in 1135 of food poisoning “according to legend from eating a ‘surfeit of Lampreys’ (an eel type fish).”

In the new mini-series on Starz “Pillars of the Earth” based on the book by Ken Follett, he was deliberately poisoned by King Stephen (who succeeded him) or someone working for him.  For those watching the show, in point of fact, King Henry did not die within moments of the birth of Maud’s son, Henry (born 5 March 1133), who ultimately succeeded Stephen as King of England, but two years later.

King Henry died of food poisoning despite the high likelihood of having some kind of ‘food taster’.  Admittedly, such a person could be circumvented by a slow-acting poison.  In addition, in regular food poisoning, the effects are not felt for up to 24 to 48 hours, although 4-6 is also common.  Either way, a taster would not have been an effective stop to poisoning.

“The heavy burden of preventing poisoning appears was spread amongst a veritable platoon of servants, from the head cook to the lowliest server, each with the responsibility for specific and often repeated steps for ensuring that their liege lord did not succumb to a poisoning attempt. In The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, Scully describes a lengthy process for ensuring the master’s food was safe…

“Everything that was intended for the prince’s mouth became subject normally to two general sorts of tests, called assays: on the one hand, a test by means of a unicorn horn[crazy as it sounds], and on the other, a test by what vulgarly we might today call guinea-pig experimentation. This second sort of test needs no long explanation: it derived from the principle that one should oneself be willing to stand the salubrity of what one offers to others while making the claim that it is perfectly harmless….Clearly the test assumed that any poison effective enough to do in the prince — merely harming him could very readily prove in short order to be fatal to the poisoner instead! — would become manifest quickly and plainly enough to spare the prince the danger of ingesting it.”

The most common poisonous herbs in the Middle Ages were belladonna, hemlock, monkshood/wolfsbane, and foxglove.

Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade):  “Its deadly character is due to the presence of an alkaloid, Atropine, 1/10 grain of which swallowed by a man has occasioned symptoms of poisoning. As every part of the plant is extremely poisonous, neither leaves, berries, nor root should be handled if there are any cuts or abrasions on the hands. The root is the most poisonous, the leaves and flowers less so, and the berries, except to children, least of all. It is said that an adult may eat two or three berries without injury, but dangerous symptoms appear if more are taken, and it is wiser not to attempt the experiment. Though so powerful in its action on the human body, the plant seems to affect some of the lower animals but little. Eight pounds of the herb are said to have been eaten by a horse without causing any injury, and an ass swallowed 1 lb. of the ripe berries without any bad results following. Rabbits, sheep, goats and swine eat the leaves with impunity, and birds often eat the seeds without any apparent effect, but cats and dogs are very susceptible to the poison.

Belladonna is supposed to have been the plant that poisoned the troops of Marcus Antonius during the Parthian wars. Plutarch gives a graphic account of the strange effects that followed its use.”

Hemlock:  “Poison Hemlock can grow to be about 6 to 10 ft. tall. It has leaves and white flowerheads resembling those of parsnips, carrots, and water hemlock. It has a fleshy, white taproot, a main stem with characteristic light red spots and a disagreeable smell. All plant parts are poisonous. However, the seeds contain the highest concentration of poison. The conium alkaloids are volatile and can even cause toxic reactions when inhaled.”

Monkshood/Wolfsbane (Aconite):  “All the species contain an active poison Aconitine, one of the most formidable poisons which have yet been discovered: it exists in all parts of the plant, but especially in the root. The smallest portion of either root or leaves, when first put into the mouth, occasions burning and tingling, and a sense of numbness immediately follows its continuance. One-fiftieth grain of Aconitine will kill a sparrow in a few seconds; one-tenth grain a rabbit in five minutes. It is more powerful than prussic acid and acts with tremendous rapidity. One hundredth grain will act locally, so as to produce a well-marked sensation in any part of the body for a whole day. So acrid is the poison, that the juice applied to a wounded finger affects the whole system, not only causing pains in the limbs, but a sense of suffocation and syncope.

Some species of Aconite were well known to the ancients as deadly poisons. It was said to be the invention of Hecate from the foam of Cerberus, and it was a species of Aconite that entered into the poison which the old men of the island of Ceos were condemned to drink when they became infirm and no longer of use to the State. Aconite is also supposed to have been the poison that formed the cup which Medea prepared for Theseus.”

Foxglove:  “In 1775 an English doctor named William Withering (1741-1799) began studying the foxglove plant. He learned that an effective medicine for treating heart ailments could be made from drying leaves picked just before the plant blossomed and crushing them into a powder. Withering also discovered that this medicine, digitalis—one of a number of substances called found in the plant—could be poisonous if the patient was given too much. Withering was aware that digitalis was effective only in certain forms of dropsy (edema), but apparently did not associate this with the cardiac actions of the drug. Withering published his findings about digitalis in 1785, but in spite of his warnings about proper dosage, many doctors prescribed the medicine in doses that were too large and for sicknesses it could not cure.

The active principles of digitalis were not known to researchers until the mid-1800s, when two French scientists, Homolle Ouevenne and Theodore Ouevenne, found the substance digitalin in the foxglove plant. In 1875 Oscar Schmiedeberg (1838-1921) identified the potent chemical digitoxin in the plant, and in 1930 the English chemist Sydney Smith obtained the medicine used today, digoxin, from the wooly foxglove plant, Digitalis lanata.

Today doctors know that if too much digitalis enters the circulatory system the patient may experience nausea, vomiting, trouble with vision (seeing too much yellow or green), and a very slow and irregular heartbeat. A larger amount of digitalis can result in convulsions (severe seizures) and death. Even grazing animals that eat too much of the foxglove plant can become poisoned by its glycosides.”

Read more: Digitalis – used, anesthetic, blood, body, produced, plant, Foxglove, The Pharmacy in the Garden, Witherings Studies


Historiography of the Welsh Conquest

Thank you to Brynne Haug for the next installment of her essay on the conquest of Wales.


While there has been some measure of historical debate on the benefits and detriments of the English conquest of Wales on the country itself, the majority of scholars have agreed that in terms of identity and culture, the conquest had a negative impact. Wales prior to 1282 was fiercely independent, its people pastoral and very much devoted to the land on which they lived. In the years that followed the conquest, however, Edward I, in an attempt to “civilize” the Welsh, built walled towns throughout Wales and brought English settlers to live in them. Thus, by the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Welsh—who were in theory entirely excluded from these English towns of privilege—were, in the words of R.R. Davies, “outsiders in their own country.”[1] Historians have not argued that such attempts at “civilization” had a positive effect on Wales; even economically, England destroyed local systems rather than bolstering them.[2] However, historians have debated whether the actions of certain individuals had an effect on the outcome, good or bad, for Wales.

Historians agree that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, and King Edward I of England were primary players in the conflict between Wales and England. The tension between the two countries, however, was not new. The Brut y Tywysogion, a Welsh chronicle redacted in the 13th century and written in Middle Welsh, spoke of “battle between the Britons [Welsh] and Saxons” in 760 and of repeated skirmish with the English throughout the intervening centuries.[3] The Anglo-Normans were persistent in their efforts, even after they had taken the greater part of Britain.

Given this drawn-out conflict between Wales and England, it is not surprising that what historians have debated most widely is what caused the subjugation to occur when it did—not the content of what occurred. In particular, historians focus the size of the role that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, whatever his intentions, played in bringing about the conquest of his lands. The debate focuses on whether the conquest would inevitably have occurred in that period, or if Llywelyn’s flagrant disrespect of King Edward I precipitated Wales’ subjugation. The most simplistic interpretation of the conflict, summed up by Ifor Rowlands, is that the attack Edward launched on Wales resulted from behavior by Llywelyn that “challenged royal overlordship in the most blatant fashion,” and that the ensuing wars were a direct “punitive expedition . . . launched to purge the contumacy” of a “disobedient vassal.”[4] Without passing judgment on either party, Rowlands’s interpretation sees Llywelyn’s behavior as a violation of the terms of the society in which he lived: as an underling of King Edward, he had to have known his refusal to pay homage to him would bring the wrath of the king down on him.

Early historiography tended to take such an approach. John E. Morris, writing in 1901, studied the wars in an English context, focusing on the influence of Welsh conflict on the development of English warfare; he viewed the real power in the wars as lying in the Welsh March, balanced between the impetuous Llywelyn and the “destined conqueror of Wales,” Edward I.[5] He emphasized the agency of Edward and questioned the Welsh account of the events leading up to Llywelyn’s death.[6] This attitude is consistent with the tone taken by historians writing in that era. According to later historiographical discussion, some scholars went further, arguing that Llywelyn’s “high-handed” political and military behavior cost him many allies, and not only initiated a war with England, but also divided an already fractious Wales.[7] The kingdom he built, according to J.G. Edwards, was far beyond his military capacity to maintain, and his arrogance and need for personal power influenced his desire for status as a Prince of Wales and ultimately led to the downfall of his kingdom to such an extent that Edwards convicted him of “fumbl[ing] his way to disaster.”[8] J.E Lloyd, who wrote in the early 20th century, did not go so far, but rather argued that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s qualities “hardly matched those which had raised his grandfather above all the other princes of the nation.”[9] Such negative interpretations of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s character and agency are relatively common in historiography of the early half of the 20th century, but more recent studies of the period have come to a different conclusion.

Early historians, some modern scholars argue, might not have misjudged Llywelyn’s arrogance—he was stubborn and prideful, and lost allies as a result of his overbearing treatment of his fellow Welsh leaders—but have overlooked the necessity of his actions. Edward I’s increasing demands on Wales, and his imperialist attitude, were incompatible with Wales’ continued existence as a semi-independent polity.[10] The princes of Gwynedd used royal language to describe themselves; J. Beverley Smith argues that they could not give Edward the total submission he required without sacrificing the image they had created for themselves and that Llywelyn’s course of action was therefore the only one that had a hope of preserving independent royalty in Wales.[11] The idea that Llywelyn’s arrogance and neglect for the welfare of Gwynedd and Wales caused Wales’s fall has not entirely been discredited: Michael Prestwich writes that Llywelyn “unwisely overestimated his own strength,” through hubris bringing about his own ruin to the good fortune of the English.[12] R.R. Davies in particular, however, is adamant that Llywelyn’s actions were deliberate and necessary. Llywelyn not only did what he believed was in the best interests of his people, but he chose the only path he could in good conscience take. Edward I’s “concept of the nature of overlordship,” Davies argues, “could not be squared with Llywelyn’s concept of a native principality of Wales.”[13] Davies sees Llywelyn’s choice as the only one that offered any chance for his country; he goes so far as to suggest that Llywelyn’s action was “the only hope of retaining a semblance of true political independence.”[14] The two views do not seem mutually exclusive; Llywelyn may have overestimated himself, but the actions he took were necessary for an independent Wales.

[1] R.R. Davies, “Edward I and Wales,” in Edward I and Wales, ed. Trevor Herbert and Gareth Elwyn Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988), 3.

[2] James Given, “The Economic Consequences of the English Conquest of Gwynedd,” Speculum 64 (1989), 12.

[3] Brut y Tywysogion; Or, The Chronicle of the Princes, ed. John Williams ab Ithel (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860), 7.

[4] Ifor Rowlands, “The Edwardian Conquest and Its Military Consolidation,” in Edward I and Wales, ed. Trevor Herbert and Gareth Elwyn Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988), 41.

[5] John E. Morris, The Welsh Wars of Edward I (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1901), 23.

[6] Ibid., 183.

[7] Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change, 328.

[8] J.G. Edwards, Littere Wallie (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1935), lxi.

[9] J. Beverley Smith, 3.

[10] Davies, “Edward I and Wales,” 9.

[11] Beverley Smith, 5.

[12] Michael Prestwich, The Three Edwards: War and State in England, 1272-1377 (London; New York: Routledge, 2003), 10.

[13] Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change, 330.

[14] Ibid., 329.