No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Deganwy is one of those castle-forts that has become part of the legend of Wales, although very little of it remains.

This plan shows a reconstruction of the early medieval fort.  It was the seat of “Maelgwyn Gwynedd, the foremost historical figure of the 6th century in north Wales, patron of St Cybi and St Seiriol, but reviled as a drunken tyrant by the chronicler Gildas. Excavations on the western summit in 1961-66 confirmed occupation in the 5th and 6th centuries.”

“The area below the castle is called Maesdu (Black Meadow) and was, doubtless, the site of many bloody battles. The lower ground of the later bailey may have been the site of a settlement of serfs and bondmen; while Maelgwn’s stronghold stood atop the higher of the later castle’s twin peaks. It would have been largely of wood, although the defences included some dry stone walls. These were excavated by Leslie Alcock in the 1960s. A dozen sherds of Dark Age pottery, imported from the Mediterranean, were also discovered, showing the exceptional taste and far-reaching contacts of Gwynedd’s Royal dynasty.  Deganwy appears to have been first occupied during the Roman period, but was popular in the Dark Ages because it was safe from Irish raids. The place was burnt down when struck by lightning in AD 860.”

Robert of Rhuddlan built a castle at the site in 1080, which the Welsh captured, to the point that Gerald of Wales called it a ‘noble structure’ in 1191.  King John burned it to the ground early in the 13th century, Llywelyn Fawr rebuilt it in 1213, and then Dafydd destroyed in advance of the English attack in 1245, to the point the English “were forced to shiver in tents”.

“The campaign of Henry III saw the construction of walls and towers, the ruins of which survive today. The castle, with towers on each hilltop and a bailey on the saddle between, had an associated borough which received a charter in 1252. It was under construction from 1245-54 but was never completely finished.  As Henry became more embroiled with his own troubles, the power of the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was growing. In 1263, after a long siege, he captured this outpost of English power and systematically demolished it. When Henry’s son, Edward, advanced across this territory in 1283 he camped at the ruins of Degannwy, but recognizing the greater strategic value of a riverside site and also the political impact of a castle across the river Conwy, which up until then had been the frontier of the essential Gwynedd, he founded his new castle at Conwy. Degannwy was abandoned.

The ruins visible today belong mainly to Henry III’s castle. The defences of the bailey – earth banks and ditches on the north side, the base of two D-shaped gatehouse towers, and the curtain wall hastily built by Edward I on the south – can still be recognized. The mass of fallen masonry near the base of the gatehouse is a relic of the demolition of 1263.”

A pic from our recent visit in 2016:
Deganwy small


Family Tree of the Royal House of Wales

No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In general, marriages between the well-born in the Middle Ages were arranged–daughters in particular were essentially sold off in order to cement alliances, concentrate wealth, or gain allies.  That is not to say that sons were any better off, since they too were not marrying for love.  They, however, for the most part had more leeway on whether or not they were faithful to their wives, and certainly had more freedom in general.  Perhaps the most startling example of an arranged marriage that cements an alliance is when Isabella de Braose married Dafydd ap Llywelyn, the son of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the Prince of Wales, after her father, William, had been hung by Llywelyn for sleeping with Joanna, his wife.

The families trees of the Gwynedd indicate how closely linked the Welsh princes were to the Marcher lords and to the Kings of England themselves.  Click on the image to make it larger.




No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bloodletting is one of the more horrific aspects of doctoring in history to the modern mind, the exact opposite of the prescription, ‘first do no harm’.

In Starz production of Pillars of the Earth, set in the 1100s AD in England, an early scene shows a doctor bloodletting a patient.  This surprised me because I thought it too early for that particular method of harming a patient.

I was wrong.

Bloodletting has been practiced for thousands of years and was common among the ancients.  “‘Bleeding’ a patient to health was modeled on the process of menstruation. Hippocrates believed that menstruation functioned to “purge women of bad humors”.  Galen of Rome, a student of Hippocrates, began physician-initiated bloodletting.”

“Prior to the time of Hippocrates (460 to 377 B.C.), all illness was attributed to one disease with variable symptoms. Careful clinical observations by Hippocrates led to the recognition of specific disease states with identifying symptoms. It was during this time that the concept of body humors developed. The four fluid substances of the body were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Health depended on the proper balance of these humors. Bloodletting was, therefore, a method used for adjusting on of the four body humors to proper balance. This clinical concept led to the decline in the doctrine of evil spirits in disease.

It was thought that blood carried the vital force of the body and was the seat of the soul; body weakness and insanity were ascribed to a defect in this vital fluid.”

The Christian Church, although supporting bloodletting in the early days, prohibited it at the Council of Tours in 1163, saying:  “The church abhors bloodletting,” perhaps because it was associated with astrology.

George Washington was effectively murdered by bloodletting:  he died from a throat infection in 1799 after being drained of (some say 4, some say 9) pints of blood within 24 hours.

Again from PBS:  “Most bloodletters would open a vein in the arm, leg or neck with small, fine knife called a lancet. They would tie off the area with a tourniquet and, holding the lancet delicately between thumb and forefinger, strike diagonally or lengthwise into the vein. (A perpendicular cut might sever the blood vessel.) They would collect the blood in measuring bowls, exquisitely wrought of fine Venetian glass.

Bleeding was as trusted and popular in ancient days as aspirin is today. The Talmudic authors laid out complex laws for bloodletting. Medieval monks bled each other several times a year for general maintenance of health. Doctors devised elaborate charts indicating the most favorable astrological conditions for bleeding.

It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that people began to question the value of bloodletting. Scientists such as Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch showed that germs, not humors, were responsible for disease. Furthermore, medical statisticians tracking case histories began to collect evidence that bloodletting was not effective. Eventually the practice died, although it continued in some parts of rural America into the 1920s.”




Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leprosy was one of the scourges of the Middle Ages–not so much because of scale, but because when a person caught it, their community cast them out.  The lazar house in the Brother Cadfael books, St. Giles, plays a significant role in the series.  In the movie, Kingdom of Heaven, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is portrayed as a leper, which is historically accurate.  He ruled from 1174 to 1185.  The man who recognized he had the disease (instead of the Baron played by Liam Neeson) was William of Tyre, later Archbishop and Chancellor.  As you can see from the following article, the rest of the movie is entirely fictive as well:

Leprosy, also known as ‘Hansen’s Disease’, is a contagious disease caused by a bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, which is why it is curable post-antibiotics.  Left untreated, leprosy is often progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Body parts fall off as a result of disease symptoms, rather than the disease itself.  ”

  • M. leprae multiplies very slowly and the incubation period of the disease is about five years. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.
  • Leprosy is not highly infectious. It is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases.
  • Untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Early diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) remain the key elements in eliminating the disease as a public health concern.

The issue with leprosy in the Middle Ages was partly that is was so disfiguring (although not very contagious), and partly that the Bible ascribes it as a product of divine punishment.  People thus inflicted were driven out of their communities and condemned to wander the countryside, often from one leper house to another.

In today’s world millions of people stills suffer from leprosy.   It is curable, but ignorance and poverty are pervasive and prevent its eradication.  This article:, is well-meaning, but indicates that the prejudice against people with leprosy and their families continues all  over the world.


The Fictive and Historical King Arthur


Categories: Writing

Historians are not in agreement as to whether or not the ‘real’ Arthur—the living, breathing, fighting human being—ever existed. The original sources for the legend of King Arthur come from a few Welsh texts. These are:

1) Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin, with it’s passing mention of Arthur. The author refers to the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600 and describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.

2) Gildas, a 6th century British (that is, Welsh) cleric who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). He never mentions Arthur, although he states that his own birth was in the year of the siege of Mount Badon. The fact that he does not mention Arthur, and yet is our only historian of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians suspect that King Arthur never existed.

3) Taliesin, a 6th century Welsh poet, who wrote several poems about Arthur.  Including the lines:  “ . . . before the door of the gate of hell the lamp was burning.  And when we went with Arthur, a splendid labour,  Except seven, none returned from Caer Vedwyd.”

4)  Nennius (a 9th century Welsh monk)– “History of the Britons” (Historia Brittonum, c. 829-30)
“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.”

5) Native Welsh Tales: These connected works of Welsh mythology were named the Mabinogion in the 19th century by their first translator, Lady Charlotte Guest.  These include the story of Culhwch and Olwen, in which Arthur and his men track down the thirteen treasures of Britain, and The Dream of Rhonabwy, a tale of Arthur that takes place after the Battle of Camlann (thus indicating that he survived it) and includes directions to ‘Mount Badon’ or Caer Faddon, as the Welsh call it.  These stories are found in the Red Book of Hergest and/or the White Book of Rhydderch, both copied in the mid-14th century.

6) The Annales Cambriae. This book is a Welsh chronicle compiled no later than the 10th century AD. It consists of a series of dates, two of which mention Arthur: “Year 72, The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors. Year 93, The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”    The early dates of the above works indicate little or no relation to the later English/French embellishments of Arthur, which Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized.

Later texts that are built on the above works, in chronological order, are:

1) William, Chaplain to Bishop Eudo of Leon – “Legend of St. Goeznovius, preface” (c. 1019)

2) William of Malmesbury – “The Deeds of the Kings of England (De Gestis Regum Anglorum)” (c. 1125)

3) Henry of Huntingdon – “History of the English” (Historia Anglorum, c. 1130)

4) The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, dating to the middle 12th century. This is the beginning of the King Arthur legend as we know it. Geoffrey was born in Wales, but worked for his patron, Robert of Gloucester, who was particularly interested in legitimizing the claim of his sister (Matilda) to the English crown. Thus, the confusion of landmarks which moved Arthur from Wales to England proper, and the romanticizing of the tale, including the notion that Britain was originally conquered by Brutus, the son of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and thus Britain was ‘classical’ in origin.

5) Roman y Brut (The Romance of Brutus) is the translation of Geoffrey’s work into Anglo-Norman verse. It takes much of Geoffrey’s story and adds the round table, courtly love, and chivalry, thus transforming Arthur from a Welsh warrior to a medieval, Anglo-French knight.  From this point, the Welsh Arthur is all but lost, and the Anglo/Norman/French ‘King Arthur’ is paramount.

By 1191, the monks of Glastonbury were claiming knowledge of his grave, and soon after, the link between Arthur and the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly brought there. By 1225, monks in France had written The Vulgate Cycle, telling of the holy grail from the death of Jesus Christ to the death of Arthur, and included the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. This story became the standard version used throughout Europe.

Whether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either was or he wasn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records (most notably, Gildas fails to mention him), much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘wasn’t’—or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possible wasn’t even a king.

As a side note, the Welsh sources, particularly the dream of Dream of Rhonabwy, make Modred Arthur’s nephew and foster-son, not his illegitimate son as many readers might know him.  This version of events is carried through to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the Arthurian story.  Arthur’s illicit/incestuous relationship with his sister, Morgause or Morgan, is a later (French) addition.

For the purposes of my book Cold My Heart, I choose to believe that Arthur was real, that he was backed into a corner by his duplicitous nephew, Modred, and—as in the Dream of Rhonabwy—he did not die at Camlann as the Norman/French/Anglo version says, but lived to see his country securely in the hands of a worthy heir.  At the same time, the world of Cold My Heart rests in the balance between the historical Wales of 537 AD, and the quasi-medieval Arthurian world that readers have grown to love throughout the ages.

Some points in particular where Cold My Heart is less than historically accurate:

1.  The Christian Church was not as full blown and organized as portrayed in Cold My Heart.  Although St. Dafydd was appointed Archbishop around this time, he did not have ecclesiastical control over Christianity throughout Wales and organized Christianity tended to center on small groups of monks/nuns or hermitages.  Many people remained pagan.

2.  Saxons had only just begun to fight on horseback.  They rode horses, of course, but cavalry weren’t necessarily part of their repertoire.  Nor the use of bows.

3.  A ‘knight’ is a medieval notion, but it is impossible to portray Geraint, Bedwyr, Gareth, and Gawain without using the word.  Forgive me.


Jews in Medieval England

No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jews in Medieval England

I’m updating this post, in large part because of a comment a reader left about my use of the word ‘pogrom’ in Footsteps in Time, having not heard the word before. A ‘pogrom’ is defined as: “An organized, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group, especially one conducted against Jews.”

Jews lived in England during the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, but not as an organized community. This page states:  “When William the Conqueror arrived in England in 1066, he encouraged Jewish merchants and artisans from northern France to move to England. The Jews came mostly from France with some from Germany, Italy and Spain, seeking prosperity and a haven from anti-Semitism. Serving as special representatives of the king, these Jews worked as moneylenders and coin dealers. Over the course of a generation, Jews established communities in London, York, Bristol, Canterbury and other major cities. They generally lived in segregated areas by themselves.”

From the charter by King John (1201), for which he received 4000 marks:  “John, by the grace of God, &c. Know that we have granted to all the Jews of England and Normandy to have freely and honourably residence in our land, and to hold all that from us, which they held from King Henry, our father’s grandfather, and all that now they reasonably hold in land and fees and mortgages and goods, and that they have all their liberties and customs just as they had them in the time of the aforesaid King Henry, our father’s grandfather, better and more quietly and more honourably.”

This goodwill, if it ever existed, had disintegrated by the time of Edward I of England (1239-1307).  As a king, he casts a long shadow over the thirteenth century and historians have generally viewed him favorably, in large part because they view his reign as good for England as a country (meaning he was stubborn, vibrant, and never backed down from a fight), if not anyone else.  But one of his most heinous acts, in addition to conquering Wales, was the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

Edward, and his father before him, began with a series of pogroms designed to reduce their ability to secure a livelihood. He and his predecessors encouraged the Jews to become physicians, merchants, bankers, and traders but they were not allowed to own land. Through apprenticeship and education, which was of supreme importance to the Jewish community, many Jews accumulated a great deal of wealth, in disproportion to their routinely uneducated gentile counterparts. Of course, this engendered animosity among gentiles, who saw only the wealth, and not the effort to attain it.

Map of Jewish expulsions and resettlement areas in Europe. 1100-1500:

This did not stop the gentiles from borrowing money from the Jews, however, and Edward allowed the Jews in England to charge interest on loans. In turn, Edward would exact huge taxes from them.  As the taxes became more burdensome, it forced them to both raise the interest rates which they charged their debtors, and to call in those loans when taxed to excess. If the Jews refused to pay Edward, they were punished. In 1278, Edward arrested 600 Jewish men upon charges of coin clipping and hanged 270 of them. Edward then claimed their wealth for himself, to the tune of over 16,000 pounds.

That equaled 10% of the annual income of the entire realm. The money Edward took from the Jews compensated for the huge expenses involved in defeating Prince Llywelyn of Wales (see how this is all interconnected?).

Once Edward had taken all their money, he had no more use for them, and began to pass more laws restricting their activities. They had to wear specific clothing and badges, could not own land, practice money lending, join any guild or business, or pass on their assets to their children. In 1290, Edward completed his pogrom against the Jews and expelled them from England (although a few paid bribes in order to be allowed to stay). England is the first country in Europe to do this, though France and Germany follow suit in short order.

Which is why Spain had so many to persecute 200 years later during the Spanish Inquisition. And why, by 1935, millions of Jews lived in Poland, which welcomed them after the Black Death.


Welsh Rebels

No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In looking through historical documents, there is a striking resemblance between one of the last letters that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd wrote to Edward I, a month before his death, and the famous speech by Patrick Henry.  From Llywelyn:

We fight because we are forced to fight, for we, and all Wales, are oppressed, subjugated, despoiled, reduced to servitude by the royal officers and bailiffs so that we feel, and have often so protested to the King, that we are left without any remedy . . ..

Compare it to Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia Assembly:

Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope . . .

Welsh rulers fought the English/Norman rule from 1066 to 1282, but even after the Welsh conquest by Edward I, other men stepped up to foment rebellion, some with more success than others.

One was Madog ap Llywelyn (1294-95):   Frustrated by high taxes, forced levies for Edward’s wars, misuse of power by his officers (sound familiar?), Madog rose to lead an organized rebellion at Michelmas in 1294, just as Edward was preparing to cross the English Channel for a continental campaign.  He immediately abandoned that plan and turned his attention to Wales.

Madog himself wasn’t particularly noble in his ideals–he was a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd but who had not been an ally.  Back in 1256 the Prince of Wales dispossessed his family of their lands, they fled to England and to Edward.  Upon Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s death, Madog expected a return to his fortunes, expectations which failed to materialize.  Madog’s forces overran Caernarfon and occupied the castle.  Other castles across Wales were besieged and many towns put to the flame, including Caerfphilly, Harlech, and Conwy.  Ultimately, of course, Edward’s armies defeated Madog’s and captured him.

A second was Llywelyn Bren in 1316 who rebelled against Edward II, somewhat despite himself.  His real argument was with Sir Payn Turberville whom Edward had appointed to rule Glamorgan after the death of its Earl.  As always seemed to be the case with these royal, English appointments, he was tyrannical and vicious.  Llywelyn made some statement to that effect, which Turberville reported to Edward II, who then called Llywelyn to account.  Instead of allowing Edward to hang him, he fled and fomented rebellion, although he ultimately surrendered rather than have the full weight of the Marche brought down on his countrymen’s head.  This page has a detailed description of what went on:

Ultimately, Hugh Despenser had Llywelyn removed from the Tower of London and murdered.

Then, of course, there’s Owain Glyndwr (Glendower) who gets his own post 🙂


Mortality Rates

No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

One of the hard things about imagining oneself in the middle ages, or writing a character who lives then, is figuring out the odds of them living at all.  The median lifespan of an individual living in the US was 78.7 years in 2010, unchanged since 2004.

I’ve posted before about life expectancy in the Middle ages ( and, indicating that among the elite, both men and women–if they survived childhood–couldn’t reasonably expect to live out of their forties.  Some people did, but what were the mechanisms that kept mortality high?

Mortality rate is a measure of the number of deaths (in general, or due to a specific cause) in some population, scaled to the size of that population, per unit time. Mortality rate is typically expressed in units of deaths per 1000 individuals per year; thus, a mortality rate of 9.5 in a population of 100,000 would mean 950 deaths per year in that entire population, or 0.95% out of the total.”

Some of the more immediate causes of early death are war, maternal mortality, and disease.

War:  War wasn’t necessarily more common in the middle ages, if the 20th and 21st centuries are anything to go by.  At the same time, it’s been over 100 years since a war took place within the borders of the United States.   One of the cruelties of war is that if it occurs on farmland and in villages, crops can’t be sown and people starve.  They might not die from battle itself, but they die from its repercussions.  From my reading of the Chronicle of the Princes, war in some measure was nearly constant, up through the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 and beyond (because then Welshmen were recruited to fight in Edward’s war against Scotland).

Childbirth:  In fifteenth century in Florence, the best estimate for maternal mortality is 14.4 deaths per 1000 births, which 1.44%–so actually pretty rare.

This is compared to the U.S. maternal mortality rate of 13 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2004, or .013%

Other sources state:  “Studies by Roger Schofield, B. M. Wilmott Dobbie, and Irvine Loudon estimate that maternal mortality rates between 1400 and 1800 were between 1 and 3 percent. Most often, women died in childbirth due to protracted labor caused by a narrow or deformed pelvis, fetal malpresentation, postpartum hemorrhage, or puerperal fevers. The health risk was renewed at each pregnancy. Since a woman averaged five pregnancies, 10 percent of these women died during or soon after childbirth.”

Diseases such as the Black Death:

“Credible death rates  between one quarter and three quarters complicate reaching a Europe—wide  figure. Neither a casual and unscientific averaging of available estimates to  arrive at a probably misleading composite death rate nor a timid placing of  mortality somewhere between one and two thirds is especially illuminating.  Scholars confronting the problem’s complexity before venturing estimates once  favored one third as a reasonable aggregate death rate. Since the early 1970s  demographers have found higher levels of mortality plausible and European  mortality of one half is considered defensible, a figure not too distant from less  fanciful contemporary observations.”

For an extensive summary of mortality in the United States 1935-2010 see:


Child Mortality in the Middle Ages

1 comment

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the hardest things to read about is the infant/child mortality rates that were prevalent up until the invention of antibiotics–and certainly in the Dark and Middle Ages. It may be that it was much worse in Victorian England, when cities grew large, but looking at King Edward I’s progeny, your heart just bleeds for him and his wife (even if he was a tyrant to the Welsh!).

Edward and his first wife, Isabella, produced 16 children. Of those, five were sons. Of those, John lived five years; Henry, six. Alphonso lived until he was eleven, and only Edward, their last child, born in 1284, lived to adulthood and inherited the kingdom.

Of their 11 daughters, five lived to adulthood and six died before the age of three. As a mother of four, to think about losing a child is awful and the mind shies away at the very thought. It is the one thing I cannot even begin to contemplate. As a human being, how do you survive losing half your children to disease? Or more than half?

On top of which, out of his 19 total children (3 by his second wife, Marguerite), 8 lived to grow up. However, only two lived what we would consider longish lives.   The mean for the adult women is 41.8 with a median of 35; the mean for adult men is 36.6 with a median of 38.  Combined, the mean is 39.8 and the median is 35/38.  That is much worse than the Welsh/Marcher nobility documented here:

Children of Edward I:

Daughter:  1255 (stillborn)

Katherine:  1261-1264 (age 3)

Joan:  1265-1265 (infant)

John:  1266-1271 (age 5)

Henry:  1268-1274 (age 6)

Eleanor:  1269-1298 (age 29)

Daughter: 1271 (infant)

Joan:  1272-1307  (age 35)

It does not seem that either Eleanor or Joan died in childbirth, or if they did, the child died with them and there is no record of their births.

Alphonso:  1273-1284 (age 11)

Margaret:  1275-1333 (age 58)

Berengaria:  1276-1278 (2)

Daughter: 1278 (infant)

Mary:  1279-1332  (53)

Son:  1281 (infant)

Elizabeth:  1282-1316 (aged 34)  She was married to Humphrey de Bohun (4th Earl of Hereford) and died in childbirth, having attempted to give birth to her 11th child in 13 years.

Edward:  1284-1327 (age 43)

Thomas:  1300-1338 (age 38)

Edmund:  1301-1330 (age 29)

Eleanor:  1306-1310 (4)

To include all children in the mortality rate brings the mean down to 18.4 and the median to a hideous 6.


European (Medieval) Martial Arts

No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

There is a fascinating documentary on the rediscovery of the European ‘martial art’ of sword fighting called Reclaiming the Blade, available on Netflix, if you subscribe:

It begins by talking about sword fighting movies (Lord of the Rings was highlighted in particular), but once they stripped away the honor and righteous talk, it had a really good argument that sword fighting prior to the invention of gunpowder was just as legitimately a martial art as karate. In Europe, there are now European sword fighting academies which teach medieval sword fighting like my children learn karate. How cool is that?

A society now exists to promote it.  with lots of resources to promote this lost art  ( is one example–the Journal of Western Martial Arts.

Three of my children are black belts in Shodukan Karate (the fourth is a green belt). My eldest son, in particular, helps me choreograph many of the fights that I write into my books. He has always suggested (perhaps instinctively due to his training) that my characters employ the whole of the sword (hilt, crossguard, and blade), wrestling techniques, and moves which are more akin to karate than you might find in movie depictions of sword fighting. Interestingly, this documentary suggests that he is correct—that these techniques were actually common practice in the Middle Ages.

Our view of sword fighting has been colored by fencing, which has rules, or by movies whose sole purpose is to put on a good show, but not to kill an opponent. In battle, there were no rules. A man in battle was likely to use his sword as a bludgeon, swing his sword like a baseball bat with two hands on the blade and smash his opponent in the face with the hilt, or hold it with two hands, one on the hilt and one on the blade of his sword (with his gauntleted left hand) and thrust it into his opponent’s midsection like a pike. A fight was likely to last less than a minute, and as Viggo Mortensen pointed out, a man wouldn’t pull his sword from its sheath unless he intended to use it, and kill with it as quickly as possible.

Fiore dei Liberi (born c. 1350) was a master of Western martial arts.  His book, Flos Duellatorum ( or The Flower of Fencing is the oldest and most complete document of its type. The fighting system he recorded, apparently for the benefit of Niccolo III d’Este, is complex and beautiful in its efficiency and symmetry. The artwork is clear, the instructions direct, and the lessons valuable. While the fighting system itself is the subject of many dynamic projects, little has been uncovered about the author of this fascinating work.”

Here’s another video of a woman champion:

As a side note for those writing about swords, when a man did draw his sword from its sheath, the sword did not make that distinctive scraping noise that you hear movies. Metal on leather is silent.


Castell y Bere

No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


My daughter says that Castell y Bere is in ‘the freaking middle of nowhere’ which is why King Edward couldn’t convince any English settlers to live there after he conquered Wales.  Plus ‘it’s really, really windy.’

Potentially, that is all you need to know about Castell y Bere, but if that turned you away from visiting, that would be unfortunate.  Historically, Castell y Bere was also one of the most important castles of the Welsh Princes–certainly it is one of the largest and most elaborate.  It sits on elongated plateau of rock in the Upper Dysynni Valley.  Because of its central location (at the time), it helped Llywelyn Fawr, who built it, control the territory along the old mountain road from Cadair Idris to Dolgellau.  It also guards the territory between the Dyfi and Mawddach estuaries (see above mentioned ‘freaking middle of nowhere’).  Llywelyn built it with luxuries in mind, and included stained glass windows, inlaid tile, and stone carvings (Paul Davis, Castles of the Welsh Princes).

Llywelyn Fawr began the castle after a dispute with his son, Gruffydd in 1221 AD.  Llywelyn took these territories for himself, and began work on Castell y Bere.  His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, added onto the structures, eventually creating a sprawling complex of buildings, surrounded by a system of walls and ditches that made the castle virtually impossible to assault.  It was the last castle to be taken in 1283, after the fall of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, surrendering to King Edward’s forces without a fight.

King Edward maintained the castle (to the tune of 265 pounds) from 1286 to 1290, but Adrian Pettifer states in his book Welsh Castles, ‘the castle proved too remote to be supplied in times of siege.’  It was burned during Madog ap Llywelyn’s uprising in 1294 and never restored.



Hadrian’s Wall

No comments yet

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Hadrian’s Wall “was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, begun in 122 AD in the reign of the emperor Hadrian. It ran from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea, and was the northern limit of the Roman Empire.

It had a stone base and a stone wall. There were milecastles with two turrets in between. There was a fort about every five Roman miles. From north to south, the wall comprised a ditch, wall, military way and vallum, another ditch with adjoining mounds. It is thought that the milecastles were staffed with static garrisons, whereas the forts had fighting garrisons of infantry and cavalry. In addition to the wall’s defensive military role, its gates may have been used as customs posts.[1]

A significant portion of the wall still stands and can be followed on foot along the adjoining Hadrian’s Wall Path. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.”

To visit the wall or for more information, maps, etc, see:

1 2 3 4 5 35 36