Tag Archives: ancient Britain

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Women in Celtic Society

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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?).

Women of the Dark Ages

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)

http://www.angelfire.com/ok/eileensmusic/celticchristianity.html

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: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?page_id=24; the Pelagian Heresy: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?p=323 and Religious Non-Conformity in Wales: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?p=464). 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.”

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Geoffrey of Monmouth

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Geoffrey of Monmouth was born sometime around 1100, probably in Monmouth in southeast Wales. “His father was named Arthur. Geoffrey was appointed archdeacon of Llandsaff in 1140 and was consecrated bishop of St. Asaph in 1152. He died c. 1155.

Geoffrey is one of the most significant authors in the development of the Arthurian legends. It was Geoffrey who, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (completed in 1138) located Arthur in the line of British kings. Such an action not only asserted the historicity of Arthur but also gave him an authoritative history which included many events familiar from later romance. Geoffrey also introduced the character of Merlin as we know him into the legends. Geoffrey’s Merlin, a combination of the young and prophetic Ambrosius in Nennius’s history and the prophet Myrddin who figures in several Welsh poems, first appears in a book known as the Prophetiae Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin), which was written about 1135 but then incorporated as Book VII of the Historia. This book contains the prophecies made by Merlin to Vortigern, which foreshadow not only the downfall of Vortigern but also the rise and fall of Arthur, events subsequent to the end of the Historia, and events of the obscure future.”  http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/geoffrey.htm

“Modifying the name of the northern bard Myrddin, Geoffrey uses Welsh predictions of a Celtic revival and many of his own probable invention and ascribes them to the prophet. This work was followed toward 1136-1138 by the Historia Regum Britanniae that incorporated the prophecies in it. Near the end of 1150 he composed a long narrative poem expanding on Welsh traditions about the prophet entitled, Vita Merlini (“Life of Merlin”).”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/geoffrey_of_monmouth.html

By his late twenties, Geoffrey certainly seems to have travelled eastwards to work at the Collegiate Church of St. George at the castle in Oxford.   He remained there, as a tutor of some kind, for at least the next twenty years  and began writing not long after he arrived.  The Prophecies of Merlin appear to have been a series of ancient Celtic prophecies which, at the request of Alexander of Salisbury, Bishop of Lincoln, Geoffrey translated into Latin, perhaps with some additions of his own. “Whether they had previously been attributed to the Northern British bard, Myrddin, is unknown. As with all his works, Geoffrey hoped the prophecies might bring him a lucrative preferment in the Church, and he used its dedication to ingratiate himself with Alexander who was Bishop of his local diocese. Geoffrey made a more appreciative acquaintance while at St. George’s, in the person of Walter the Provost, who was also Archdeacon of the city. In his writings, Geoffrey tells us that Walter gave him “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” and, probably because he was unable to read Welsh (or Breton) himself, the Archdeacon encouraged Geoffrey to translate it into Latin.”

Geoffrey began writing History of the Kings of Britain’ dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Waleran, Count of Mellent in 1136. “At the time, the work was taken at face value and accepted by most as a true history of the Welsh nation from around 1100 bc to around AD 689. Merlin appeared again, as an advisor to Kings Ambrosius and Uther, but the work was most notable for its extensive chapters covering the reign of the great King Arthur. Since the 17th century, however, its author has been largely vilified as an inexorable forger who made up his stories “from an inordinate love of lying”. Modern historians tend to be slightly more sympathetic.

At the end of 1150, Geoffrey appears to have come into the possession of further source documents concerning the life-story of his original subject, the bard, Myrddin (alias Merlin). Unfortunately, these did not line up terribly well the information he had given about this man in his History of the Kings of Britain – perhaps indicating that this part was either invented or, more probably, that Merlin’s name had been rather over-eagerly attributed to an otherwise unknown Royal adviser. Keen to put across the true story, without losing face, Geoffrey wrote the Life of Merlin, correctly placing its events after the reign of Arthur, but thus giving his title role an impossibly long lifespan. It was dedicated to his former colleague at St. George’s, Robert De Chesney, the new Bishop of Lincoln.

“The following year, Geoffrey’s sycophancy at last paid off. He was elected Bishop of St. Asaphs, for good service to his Norman masters; and was consecrated by Archbishop Theobald at Lambeth Palace in February 1152. As a Welsh-speaker, he was probably chosen in an attempt to make the diocesanal administration more acceptable in an age when Normans were not at all popular in the areas of Wales which they controlled. However, the strategy seems to have been unsuccessful. Owain Gwynedd’s open rebellion was in full swing and Geoffrey appears to have never even visited his bishopric. He died four years later, probably in London.”   http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/geofmon.html

“Whenever his dates are checked, as in the Roman period, Geoffrey emerges clearly as a writer of fiction and cannot be relied upon for facts. Following medieval tradition, he fully modernizes Arthur’s court to the 12th century. Later, however, from Caesar on he is using what passed for real history at the time and some of his source materials can be identified – the Historia Brittonum, Bede and Gildas in addition to Roman historians.

For the most part he is creating and aggrandizing very little data but in his preface he claims to be translating from a much fuller source, one “ancient book in the British language” (maybe Welsh but probably Breton) bestowed upon him by Walter, archdeacon at Oxford. This claim remains dubious as no copy of this source is extant. But the tale of Arthur scribed by Geoffrey cannot be fully accounted for from the aforementioned sources hinting at some unknown text of some kind. There is a possible tie to the Continent from the resonance with 5th century events in Gaul. Traces of a similar source are found in the preface to the Breton Legend of St. Goeznovius.”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/geoffrey_of_monmouth.html

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The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

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The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack extensive (or in some instances, any) historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

TLP blog“Initially, this era took on the term “dark” . . . due to the backward ways and practices that seemed to prevail during this time. Future historians used the term “dark” simply to denote the fact that little was known about this period; there was a paucity of written history. Recent discoveries have apparently altered this perception as many new facts about this time have been uncovered.

The Italian Scholar, Francesco Petrarca called Petrarch, was the first to coin the phrase. He used it to denounce Latin literature of that time; others expanded on this idea to express frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements. While the term dark ages is no longer widely used, it may best be described as Early Middle Ages — the period following the decline of Romein the Western World. The Middle Ages is loosely considered to extend from 400 to 1000 AD.”  http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is nowWales andEngland—for about five minutes.

From Gildas:

As the Romans went back home, there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea-valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts. … They were more confident than usual now that they had learnt of the departure ofthe Romans and the denial of any prospect of their return. So they seized the whole north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to (i.e. as far south as) the wall (presumably Hadrian’s). A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them, but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground.

From contemporary accounts in 411:

Zosimus

They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britainand some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica, [Emap (7)] and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces ofBritain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

Fastidius — letter to a widow in Britain

We see before us many instances of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are being judged at the present moment, and denied this present life no less than the life to come. This is not hard to understand, for in changing times we expect the deaths of magistrates who have lived criminally, for the greater their power, the bolder their sins. … Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to shed their own. … Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others have been individually torn limb from limb. Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children, leaving them bare and beggared … for they plundered the property of the men they killed. But now it is their wives who are widowed, their sons who are orphaned, begging their daily bread from strangers.

http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBbestest.html

It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions fromEurope.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

445:  In the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, the English came to Britain.

Bede

449:  The British consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations. They all agreed with their king Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation. … The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

449:  Martian and Valentinian assumed the Roman empire(actually in 450) and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed inBritainin a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.

Nennius

453:  But Hengest was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Sizing up the king’s incompetence, and the military weakness of his people, he held a council, and said to the British king “We are a few; if you wish, we can send home and invite warriors from the fighting men of our country, that the number that fight for you and your people may be larger.” The king ordered it be done, and envoys were sent across the sea, and came back with sixteen keels, with picked warriors in them. In one of the keels came Hengest’s daughter, a beautiful and very handsome girl. When the keels had arrived, Hengest held a banquet for Vortigern, and his men and his interpreter, whose name was Ceretic, and told the girl to serve their wine and spirits. They all got exceedingly drunk. When they were drinking Satan entered Vortigern’s heart and made him love the girl. Through his interpreter he asked her father for her hand, saying “Ask of me what you will, even to the half of my kingdom”.

http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBbestest.html

It’s important to point out that Welsh literature, language, and culture flourished during the Dark Ages.  Much of the material in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Camarthen date to this time.

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The Saxon Invasions

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It is a matter of record that the ‘Saxons’ invaded Britain in the last years of the Roman occupation, and then in full force after the Romans left the island in 410 AD.  They marched away, seemingly without a backward glance, leaving the Britons–after 400 years of occupation–to fend for themselves.

From Gildas:

    From Britain envoys set out with their complaints, their clothes (it is said) torn, their heads covered in dust, to beg help from the Romans. … The Romans … informed our country that they could not go on being bothered with such troublesome expeditions; that Roman standards, that great and splendid army, could not be worn out by land and sea for the sake of wandering thieves who had no taste for war. Rather, the Britons should stand alone, get used to arms, fight bravely, and defend with all their powers their land, property, wives, children, and, more importantly, their life and liberty. Their enemies were no stronger than they, unless Britain chose to relax in laziness and torpor; they should not hold out to them for the chaining hands that held no arms, but hands equipped with shields, swords and lances, ready for the kill. This was the Romans’ advice.

http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/DECB/DECBps.html

These invaders, as the map to right shows, were not in fact all ‘Saxon’, but a combination of Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Franks, and Frisians, each hailing from a different region of the western coast of Europe.

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were Germanic peoples.  From Wikipedia:   They were “originally a small tribe living on the North Sea between the Elbe and Eider Rivers in the present Holstein. Their name, derived from their weapon called Seax, a knife, is first mentioned by the Roman author Ptolemy (about 130).

In 3rd and 4th century Germany, great tribal confederations of the Alamanni, Bavarians, Thuringians, Franks, Frisians, and Saxons arose. These took the place of the numerous petty tribes with their popular tribal form of government. With the exceptions of the Saxons all these confederations were ruled by kings; the Saxons were divided into a number of independent bodies under different chiefs, and in time of war these chieftains drew lots. This leader the other chiefs followed until the war ended.

In the third and fourth centuries the Saxons fought their way victoriously towards the west, and their name was given to the great tribal confederation that stretched towards the west exactly to the former boundary of the Roman Empire, consequently almost to the Rhine. Only a small strip of land on the right bank of the Rhine remained to the Frankish tribe. Towards the south the Saxons pushed as far as the Harz Mountains and the Eichsfeld, and in the succeeding centuries absorbed the greater part of Thuringia. In the east their power extended at first as far as the Elbe and Saale Rivers; in the later centuries it certainly extended much farther. All the coast of the German Ocean belonged to the Saxons except that west of the Weser, which the Frisians retained.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Saxony

From then on, there are differing views about how rampant the Saxon spread was.  Certainly, it happened (language alone tells us that), but the exact timeline for the spread is not clear.  The Battle of Mt. Badon (whether or not fought by Arthur) is said to have occurred around 500 AD, which held back the Saxon tide for a generation.

After that, however, it was unstoppable.

 

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Halloween in Wales

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fallen princess blogAs I sit here munching candy corn (which my 12 year old declares ‘the best candy’–even better than chocolate), I’m thinking about the Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery, The Fallen Princess, which takes place at Halloween.  Except that during the Middle Ages, it was called ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, the day before All Saint’s Day, and it was less about candy and more about a belief in actual spirits.

All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, has its roots in an older, pagan tradition, called Nos Calan Gaeaf , Welsh for Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning ‘Summer’s End’.  This is the most well-known Halloween tradition in Wales.   http://www.controverscial.com/Samhain.htm  The Welsh translation, interestingly, is ‘the first of winter’.

From the National Museum of Wales:  “A pagan holiday dating back to the Iron Age Celts, Samhain was considered to be the Celtic New Year. It was adopted by the Romans as their own festival when they invaded Britain. Many parts of this festival are echoed in our modern Halloween parties.

Jack O lanterns were originally made from turnips and used to guide the dead back to earth, and the Celts also dressed in costumes much as we do today, but they would use animal skins!  The Romans believed that monsters, gods and magic spells were all around them.”  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/whatson/?event_id=3734

“November 1 was considered the end of the summer period, the date on which the herds were returned from pasture and land tenures were renewed. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes. People set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts thought to be present. It was in these ways that beings such as witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The period was also thought to be favourable for divination on matters such as marriage, health, and death. When the Romans conquered the Celts in the 1st century ad, they added their own festivals of Feralia, commemorating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, the goddess of the harvest.”  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/252875/Halloween

“November was also the month of death in the Celtic calendar, where animals were slaughtered to provide meat for winter. Indeed, the Modern Welsh for November Tachwedd literally means ‘The Month of Slaughter’. This often began with a feast on November 1st where pigs were slaughtered (part of this folklore is preserved in the Cymric (Welsh) legend of Arawn and Hafgan, as told in the Mabinogi of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed.”  http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/halloween-recipes.php

With the coming of Christianity, these traditions were converted to blend in more with the Christian calendar and Christian sensibilities. “In 601AD, Pope Gregory made an important directive. He announced that Christian missionaries were to take a new tack when attempting to convert pagans to the Christian religion. Christian missionaries he said, where possible, should incorporate the beliefs, festivals and sacred sites of pagan beliefs into the Christian religion. This directive meant that the important Celtic festival of Samhain had to be marked in a Christian manner.

In the year 609 AD, All Saints Day was officially designated a Church feast, which was celebrated in May and was later moved to November by Pope Gregory in 835 AD. The Christian Church may have intended that people would spend their time praying for the souls of the dead on an important holy day. However, the fact that this was a day off from work gave many people even more of an excuse to celebrate Halloween with more excitement and excess than ever.

In the eleventh century, a further festival was added to the church calendar; All Souls Day on 2 November. The three festivals of All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls were together known as Hallowmas.” http://suite101.com/article/halloween-in-medieval-times-a71922

“Despite the Church’s success in establishing a Christian foundation for the autumn celebrations, many of the ancient customs and traditions associated with them were still practiced by the population. The carving of gourds and the wearing of costumes and masks to scare away malevolent spirits are typical of the superstitions carried over from these celebrations into the All Hallows Eve observance.

The custom of “trick-or-treating” has its origins in a ritual wherein the elders of a village or town would go from house to house and receive offerings of food and gifts for the souls of dead friends and relatives thought to visit on this night. This practice evolved during the Middle Ages, when beggars would travel from village to village and beg for “soul cakes”. Villagers would offer prayers along with the cakes to those who had died in the past year for their transition to heaven.”  http://www.sharefaith.com/guide/Christian-Holidays/all_hallows_eve.html

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Leprosy

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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:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_IV_of_Jerusalem

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.   http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs101/en/

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:  http://www.nippon-foundation.or.jp/eng/news/20091026GlobalAppealReport.html, is well-meaning, but indicates that the prejudice against people with leprosy and their families continues all  over the world.

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Hadrian’s Wall

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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.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian%27s_Wall

To visit the wall or for more information, maps, etc, see: http://hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/hadrians-wall/hadrian%E2%80%99s-wall-facts

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Iron Age Hill Forts in Wales

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The Iron Age in Wales occurred during the 500 years leading up to the Roman conquest of Britain.  “The earliest iron artefact in Wales is a sword dating to about 600 BCE, but by 400 BCE iron was being smelted and crafted into tools all over the British Isles.

The tribes of Wales developed regional styles of working iron, gold, and other metals, following the exquisite western European style known as La Tene (after the village of La Tene in Switzerland). At the same time as iron was introduced to Britain a new crop of settlers arrived from northern Europe.”  http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/iron-age.htm   This new group were the Celts.  They overran the whole of Britain, whether by conquering the then-native peoples, or gradually settling the country over a period of time.

According to the National Museum of Wales, there are over 1000 iron age hillforts in Wales (though some could be more aptly viewed as ‘defended farms’).

  • Hillforts are fortified enclosures built of earth, timber or stone and frequently sited on defensible hilltops. They were built from the Late Bronze Age, throughout the Iron Age (1100BC-AD50) and some were also occupied during Romano-British times. They enclose areas of between 0.1 and 80 hectares, although in Wales most are under 2 hectares in area.
  • Hillfort defences usually consist of a bank (rampart) made of material dug from an outer ditch. Some hillforts were provided with additional defences. Many hillforts have elaborate and strengthened entrances incorporating impressive gate structures.
  • More recently, a number of archaeologists have emphasised the great diversity in hillfort characteristics. They argue for a number of different roles, not merely defensive ones. Many hillforts are sited in poorly defensive locations, others do not seem to have been lived in continuously or intensively. Instead, they may have acted as stock enclosures, agricultural fair grounds and religious centres at certain times of the year. As monuments, they may have been as much about displaying the status and power of different community groups, as they were about defence. A large number of small hillforts in Wales should essentially be seen as single farms occupied by small family groups.  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/2370/

 

Three hill forts of particular interest that cover the whole range of styles and periods are Dinas Bran, Dinas Emrys, and Tre’r Ceiri.

The ruins that sit atop Dinas Bran (meaning literally, “Hill of the Crow”, or “Bran’s Stronghold”) were built in the medieval period, but the site was continuously occupied from the Iron Age and the ditch and earthen embankments visible today date from that initial settlement.  http://www.castlewales.com/dinas.html

“The hillfort has a single bank and ditch enclosing an area of about 1.5 hectares. To the south and west the defences are most considerable being up to 8 metres high in places. The entrance lies in the south-west corner of the fort and is defended by an inward curving bank. To the north the fort is defended by the natural steepness of the land and no earthwork defences were required.”  http://www.cpat.org.uk/educate/guides/dinasb/dinasb.htm

Dinas Emrys sits atop a rock that is one of the strongest, natural fortifications in Wales.  Modern archaeology reveals: “Dinas Emrys was occupied to some extent in the late Roman period, but that rough stone banks around its Western end are later. They were poorly built of stone two or three times and took strategic advantage of natural crags. Still less substantial walls were also discovered to the north and south. Broken sherds of Eastern Mediterranean amphorae, Phoenician red slip dishes and a pottery lamp roundel featuring a Chi-Rho symbol indicate that these features do indeed date to the 5th and 6th century.”
http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/archaeology/emrys.html
http://www.castlewales.com/dinas_em.html

The last site, Tre’r Ceiri is a spectacular iron age site, located on the Llyn Penninsula in Wales. A climb to the top of the 457 meter hill reveals 150 hut circles still clearly discernable, capable of housing upwards of 500 people. The stone walls surrounding the fort were 4 meters (12+ feeet) high in places and the huts range in size from 3 meters to 8 meters across.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northwest/sites/celts/pages/trer_ceiri.shtml

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Dinas Bran (Castle)

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Dinas Bran is a medieval castle begun in 1260 and destroyed in 1277 during the Welsh wars with King Edward I of England.

The first settlement that we know of was an iron age hill fort, from which it gets its name.  “”Dinas Bran” is variously translated as “Crow Castle,” “Crow City,” “Hill of the Crow,” or “Bran’s Stronghold.”

The castle first appears in 12th century historical documents as part of a medieval piece entitled “Fouke le Fitz Waryn,”or “The Romance of Fulk Fitzwarine.” While this work claimed that the castle, known as “Chastiel Bran,” was in ruin as early as 1073, the remains we see today date to the occupation of the princes of Powys Fadog in the mid 13th century. Possibly, the Chastiel Bran mentioned in the romance was a Norman timber castle, but nothing of substance supports this conjecture. However, the encompassing ditch and earthen embankments, which enclose the southern and eastern portions of the stone fortress, do date to the Iron Age. They remind us that this hilltop had strategic value long before the princes of Powys, or the Normans, ventured into the region. Interestingly, the word, “Dinas,” has its origins in the Iron Age as well, and is found in the names of Iron Age hillforts throughout Wales.”  http://www.castlewales.com/dinas.html

“The hillfort has a single bank and ditch enclosing an area of about 1.5 hectares. To the south and west the defences are most considerable being up to 8 metres high in places. The entrance lies in the south-west corner of the fort and is defended by an inward curving bank. To the north the fort is defended by the natural steepness of the land and no earthwork defences were required.” http://www.cpat.org.uk/educate/guides/dinasb/dinasb.htm

“Reid (1973) speculated that the hill at Dinas Bran was occupied in the 8th century by a man named Eliseg. The same Eliseg also gave his name to an ancient pillar that stands just north of Valle Crucis Abbey, near Llangollen. The mystery man may have been an ancestor of the princes of Powys who later dominated the area, but there is no real proof to support this assertion.

The historical record also conflicts over whom really built the remains at Dinas Bran. The most reliable sources state that Gruffydd Maelor II, son of Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor I, began the castle in the late 1260’s. The elder Madog founded nearby.

During those final two decades, the castle on the hilltop became a prized possession of the princes of Powys Fadog. Dinas Bran’s power did not go unnoticed by English forces. In 1277, during Edward I’s initial foray into Wales, the Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, besieged the castle. The Welsh lord of Dinas Bran was forced to submit to the invading army, which promptly set the site afire, completely destroying it.”

For more about the medieval castle see: http://www.castlewales.com/dinas.html
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The Welsh/British High Council

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Within British (and by that I mean Welsh/Cymry/Celtic) legend, a High Council–a Parliament of a sort–existed in the Dark Ages to choose a “high king”.  One of these high kings, according to legend, was King Arthur.  Later, during Arthur’s reign, he instituted his ’round table’, a gathering of equals, to discuss the troubles in his realm.  Or so the story goes.

But did this High Council ever exist?

The answer is ‘yes’–certainly during the reign of the last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.  In 1282 when Edward I of England wrote his letters to Llywelyn and Dafydd, demanding that they concede defeat, he also wrote a letter to the ‘Council of Wales’, laying out his case.  To this they responded:

“The people of Snowdonia for their part state that even if the prince desired to give the king seisin of them, they themselves would not do homage to any stranger, of whose language, customs and laws they are utterly ignorant. For by doing so they could be brought into perpetual captivity and barbarously treated . . .”  http://garthcelyn.com/letters_14.html

Our evidence for a council of ‘Britain’ (which in the post-Roman occupation period did include all of what is now England and Wales) is first and foremost, Gildas.  He writes:  “Then all the council members, together with that proud tyrant [theoretically, Vortigern], were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nation.”

From Robert Vermaat:  “What Gildas does not do is describe Vortigern as a sole ruler, or a ‘High King’ if you will. He rules as a king, but together with a Council, the members of which are rulers of their own territory. Gildas sees this as a logical but reprehensible evolution from the usurpation of Magnus Maximus, which has seen the progressive disintegration of the British territory from one single state (diocese) into several smaller kingdoms without overlord in Gildas’ day.

Though in the days of Vortigern this was clearly not the case, and Vortigern’s decisions seem to be obeyed in the whole diocese. Dumville has proposed that there is nothing to suggest that Vortigern’s rule did not encompass the whole diocese. But Vortigern is not ruling alone, as observed above. He has power over magistrates, who later evolve into sub-kings or provincial rulers, but that power may have been wielded by the Council as a whole, for Gildas puts the blame with all of them. Gildas does not mention the Council in this function elsewhere, or so it seems. Gildas does seem to indicate, however, that the members of the council in the days of Vortigern had become the warring princes of his own days.”  http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/gildvort.htm

That a council of Britain existed appears to have been a common understanding throughout the subsequent centuries, as Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century mentions it often.  He states that Britains ‘flocked together from all parts and in a council held at Silchester,’ and crowned Constantine High King;  furthermore, Aurelius holds a council in chapter 7 and 8 of book 6; and Arthur in chapter 1 and 16 of book 9.

Additional mention of some kind of council is found in the Chronicle of the Princes (Red Book of Hergest).  From 1096:  “And the Britons, having retreated to their strongest places, according to their usual custom, agreed in council to save Mona.”

Chronicle of the Princes (Ystrad Fflur).  From 1220:  “Llywelyn, prince of Gwynedd, gathered to him the princes and leading men of all Wales. . .”

1258:  “In this year all the Welsh made a pact together, and they gave an oath to maintain loyalty and agreement together, under pain of excommunication upon whomsoever of them broke it.”

Certainly the power of the Council was not constant, and in part depended upon the unity of Wales as a whole and the individual authority of the ruling high king, and later Prince.

As to whether King Arthur was ever high king?  At this point, we just don’t know.

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Llywelyn ap Iorwerth Takes the Throne

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Upon the death of Owain Gwynedd in 1170 AD, his eldest son, Hywel, purportedly a most capable man, succeeded to the rulership of Gwynedd.  In Wales, all sons, regardless of their legitimacy, can inherit, provided their father had acknowledged them.  This should have been the case with Hywel.

As I wrote in this post, the downside of this enlightened approach to illegitimacy is that it divided the kingdom between all the heirs and fostered animosity among brothers over their portion of their inheritance.  Such was the case when Owain Gwynedd overcame his brothers to take the throne, such was the case many years later after the death of Llywelyn Fawr, and such was the case in 1170.

Thus, Dafydd ap Owain Gywnedd conspired with his mother (Owain Gwynedd’s second wife, Cristina) and brother Rhodri to usurp the throne from Hywel, the eddling, whom his father had chosen to succeed him.  Dafydd drove Hywel out of Gwynedd and ultimately defeated him at the battle of Pentraeth.  After the untimely and suspicious deaths of most of Dafydd’s other brothers, Dafydd eventually ruled most of Gwynedd and parts of Wales all by himself from 1174.  http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/1255610

Llywelyn ap Iorwerth was born in 1172, at the remote castle of Dolwyddelan, south of Mt. Snowdon.

Iorwerth, Llywelyn’s father, was the eldest legitimate son of Owain Gwynedd, by his first wife Gwladys.  He seems not to have taken part in the upheaval among the brothers and perhaps it had something to do with his disfigurement (he is nicknamed Iowerth Drwyndwn ‘broken nose’).   He married Marared, daughter of Madog ap Maredudd, Prince of Powys.   Thus, Llywelyn was grandson to Owain Gwynedd and of a powerful lineage on both sides.

“The infant prince, being a potential menace to the power of his father’s half-brothers in Gwynedd , probably grew up in Powys under the protection of his maternal relatives. Following an obscure period of apprenticeship in arms (he entered the turbulent arena of northern politics at a very tender age), he combined with his cousins, the sons of Cynan ap Owain Gwynedd, and in 1194 defeated his uncle, Dafydd I, seizing from him a share in the government of Perfeddwlad, which in 1197, he transformed into sole rulership. With the capture of Mold in 1199 he promised to become a leader of the calibre and vision of Owain Gwynedd; in fact, between 1199 and 1203 , he restored the undivided sovereignty of his grandfather over the whole of Gwynedd , including Merioneth and Penllyn .”  In 1194, he was only 22.

http://yba.llgc.org.uk/en/s-LLYW-API-1173.html

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Offa’s Dyke

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In 780 AD, King Offa of Mercia was at the height of his authority.  Prior to his rule, in 750 AD, King Eliseg (immortalized by Eliseg’s Pillar near Llangollen) had swept the Saxons out of the plains of Powys.  Offa, in turn, attacked Powys in 778 and 784, and tradition states that he built the dyke, sometime (or throughout) his reign.  Prior to this, Aelthelbald, King of Mercia, had built ‘Wat’s Dyke’, which extends from the Severn Valley northwards towards the estuary of the Dee (A History of Wales, John Davies p. 62).

There is a quote from George Borrow, from Wild Wales, that “it was customary for the English to cut off the ears of every Welshman who was found to the east of the dyke, and for the Welsh to hang every Englishman whom they found to the west of it”.  This is potentially apocryphal, but indicates the significance of this man-made border between the two countries.

One of the biggest mysteries about Offa’s Dyke, in addition to when it was built, is why?  It was a huge undertaking to construct the earthwork, 150 miles in length, up to 65 feet wide and 8 feet high in places, along the entire length of the border between what is now England and Wales.  It clearly wasn’t made to keep the Welsh out of England, or to protect the Saxons in Mercia–since it was never defended.  Both English and Welsh kingdoms appeared to have a hand in determining where to build it, since it runs to the east of Wat’s Dyke when they are parallel, and in Gwent in particular, leaves lowlands to Wales to the east of natural features it might normally have followed.  It was dug, however, “with the displaced soil piled into a bank on the Mercian (eastern) side. Where the earthwork encounters hills, it goes to the west of them, constantly providing an open view from Mercia into Wales.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offa’s_Dyke  The prevailing opinion to date was that Offa built it as a sign of authority and power–as a means of saying, to a certain extent, ‘after this wall, here be dragons.’

I, personally, like the theory that Offa’s Dyke is a Roman construction:

The Roman historian Eutropius in his book, Historiae Romanae Breviarium, written around 369, mentions the Wall of Severus, a structure built by Septimius Severus who was Roman Emperor between 193 and 211:

Novissimum bellum in Britannia habuit, utque receptas provincias omni securitate muniret, vallum per CXXXIII passuum milia a mari ad mare deduxit. Decessit Eboraci admodum senex, imperii anno sexto decimo, mense tertio. Historiae Romanae Breviarium, viii 19.1

He had his most recent war in Britain, and to fortify the conquered provinces with all security, he built a wall for 133 miles from sea to sea. He died at York, a reasonably old man, in the sixteenth year and third month of his reign.

However, this site, http://www.cpat.org.uk/news/oldnews/offaro.htm explains why this is unlikely. “The evident dislocation of Offa’s Dyke from the currently recognised pattern of early 3rd century military sites in the Welsh borders. This includes the legionary fortresses at Chester in the north and Caerleon in the south, other forts such as those at Leintwardine, Caersws and Forden Gaer, and a road system of which some elements are still in use today as parts of the modern, A5, A39 and A41 routes. The alignment of Offa’s Dyke shows no tangible geographical association or functional integration with this network. Indeed, it is in any case very hard to see what possible purpose such an undertaking could have served in Roman occupied western Britain, especially when the surviving Dyke is actually not a 130 mile complete frontier but is only spread discontinuously over that approximate length with extensive unexplained gaps (80 miles of earthwork are known).”

Furthermore, Ian Bapty, Offa’s Dyke Archaeological Management Officer with CPAT states:  “the attribution of the Dyke to Offa by Asser in his late 9th century ‘Life of Alfred’, echoed by the tradition of the ‘Offa’s Dyke’ name itself which can be documented back as far as the 13th century, has been accepted as correct by Anglo-Saxon scholars. ‘Offa’s Dyke is an extraordinary survival from our Anglo-Saxon past’ says Ian Bapty ‘and extraordinary exactly because it is Anglo-Saxon and as such sheds crucial light on a key period of our history when the modern political geography of Britain was beginning to appear. While we can perhaps associate descriptions of the ‘missing’ wall of Severus with somewhat confused and secondarily derived later accounts of Hadrian’s Wall – which was much rebuilt in the time of Severus – we surely cannot backdate Offa’s Dyke to Roman times, and to do so would be to miss the real significance and historical impact of this amazing earthwork’.

‘Ultimately I’d be ready to wager my granny on the fact that Offa’s Dyke is Anglo-Saxon and not Roman!’ says Ian ‘although I’d also have to be say that I’d be keeping granny firmly out of the stakes when it comes to betting on most other aspects of our understanding of the Dyke, including key issues such as exactly why it was built, how it was built, and what it’s original appearance and total extent was. I think it is the process of trying to answer these questions which may throw up some real and lasting revelations concerning not just Offa’s Dyke itself, but the very origins of Welsh and English culture and society’.”  http://www.cpat.org.uk/news/oldnews/offaro.htm

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