Tag Archives: Britain


The Holy Grail and Dinas Bran


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That King Arthur got mixed up with Jesus Christ can’t be too surprising, given the myth-making that went into the King Arthur story.  Rumor has it that Bran, for whom the castle, Dinas Bran, was named, was Joseph of Arimithea’s son-in-law.  Legend has it that after Jesus’ death, Joseph brought the Cup of Christ from Israel to Britain.  It does seem unlikely, doesn’t it?

But that is what the ‘Holy Grail’ is, that King Arthur’s knights go in search of:  “The Holy Grail of Christian legend is the vessel given by Christ to his disciples to sup from at the Last Supper. Later, it is said to have been given to his grand-uncle, St. Joseph of Arimathea, who used to collect Christ’s blood and sweat whilst he hung upon the Cross.”  http://www.arthurianadventure.com/holy_grail.htm

Dinas Bran, in turn, is the “site of an ancient Iron-Age hill-fort, believed to have been the home of the Kings of Powys, well into the 8th century. It is particularly associated with King Elisedd of Eliseg’s Pillar fame. The castle is, however, named for King Bran Fendigaid (the Blessed), a Celtic God known from both Welsh and Irish mythology who was later mortalized into a monarch of North Wales.” http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/corbenic.html

“Much of the information available about Bran the Blessed strongly suggests that at least part of his legend entered into later Arthurian romance. His Magic Cauldron is probably that sought by King Arthur in the Welsh poem, the “Spoils of the Annwfn”.  As in Bran’s Irish tale, Arthur travels to the Celtic Otherworld and, like the Welsh tale, only seven men survive. The vessel was later reborn as the Holy Grail, the cup of plenty or cornucopia found in mythology from across the Globe. The wound to Bran’s foot, inflicted by a poisoned spear, which caused his lands to fail is echoed in that of the Arthurian Grail guardian, known as the Grail or Fisher King.

His latter title may be related to Bran’s association with rivers and river-crossings (such as those he encountered in Ireland). His castle was Corbenic or Castell Dinas Bran, both names deriving from the word Raven or Crow. The Fisher King, like Bran’s head, could feast with his followers indefinitely and his forename was said to be Bron (or Brons) in the so-called Didot Perceval: clearly a transformation of Bran. Here, he is given a wife, Anna, the daughter of St. St. Joseph of Arimathea, probably through confusion with his grandmother, Beli Mawr’s wife, Anu. Bran may also be the original of other Arthurian characters like Brandegorre, Bran de Lis, Brandelidelin or Ban of Benoic.”  http://www.whiterosesgarden.com/Nature_of_Evil/Underworld/UNDR_Deities/UNDR-D_western_europe/UNDR_bran2.htm

It was Joseph of Arimathea who gave his tomb to Christ upon his death and (again, legend has it) first brought Christianity to Britain aroun 63 AD, along with the cup.

“During the late 12th century, Joseph became connected with the Arthurian cycle, appearing in them as the first keeper of the Holy Grail This idea first appears in Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain. This theme is elaborated upon in Boron’s sequels and in subsequent Arthurian works penned by others. Later retellings of the story contend that Joseph of Arimathea himself travelled to Britain and became the first Christian bishop in the Isles.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_of_Arimathea

Glastonbury Tor claims this too, but we know that can’t be true :)


The Wool Trade


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Edward I was the first English monarch to tax the wool trade–to help pay, as always, for his wars.

Sheep have been herded in Wales since possibly the Celts, though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when sheep first came to Wales.  “Excavations show that in about 6000 BC, during the Neolithic period of prehistory, the Castelnovien people, living around Chateauneuf-les-Martigues near present-day Marseille in the south of France, were among the first in Europe to keep domestic sheep. Practically from its inception, ancient Greek civilization relied on sheep as primary livestock, and were even said to name individual animals. Scandinavian sheep of a type seen today — with short tails and multi-colored fleece — were also present early on.

Later, the Roman Empire kept sheep on a wide scale, and the Romans were an important agent in the spread of sheep raising throughout the continent. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (Naturalis Historia), speaks at length about sheep and wool.  Declaring “Many thanks, too, do we owe to the sheep, both for appeasing the gods, and for giving us the use of its fleece.”  He goes on to detail the breeds of ancient sheep and the many colors, lengths and qualities of wool. Romans also pioneered the practice of blanketing sheep, in which a fitted coat (today usually of nylon) is placed over the sheep to improve the cleanliness and luster of its wool.

During the Roman occupation of the British Isles, a large wool processing factory was established in Winchester, England in about 50 AD.  By 1000 AD, England and Spain were recognized as the twin centers of sheep production in the Western world.” (See Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep#In_Europe for citations)

“Wool became the backbone and driving force of the medieval English economy between the late thirteenth century and late fifteenth century and at the time the trade was described as “the jewel in the realm”! To this day the seat of the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords is a large square bag of wool called the ‘woolsack’, a reminder of the principal source of English wealth in the Middle Ages.

As the wool trade increased the great landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep. The monasteries, in particular the Cistercian houses played a very active part in the trade, which pleased the king who was able to levy a tax on every sack of wool that was exported.

From the Lake District and Pennines in the north, down through the Cotswolds to the rolling hills of the West Country, across to the southern Downs and manors of East Anglia, huge numbers of sheep were kept for wool. Flemish and Italian merchants were familiar figures in the wool markets of the day ready to buy wool from lord or peasant alike, all for ready cash. The bales of wool were loaded onto pack-animals and taken to the English ports such as Boston, London, Sandwich and Southampton, from where the precious cargo would be shipped to Antwerp and Genoa.”  http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/England-History/wooltrade.htm

John Davies writes, in his History of Wales, in regards to the newly formed chain of Cistercian monestaries in Wales:  ” . . . for the monks were granted thousands of hectares of grazing land, where they pioneered the Welsh woollen industry; there is very little evidence that sheep were important to the Welsh economy before the coming of the Cistercians” (2007:126).

It certainly became important as The Welsh National Wool Museum can attest:  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/wool/

“Power notes three breeds as accounting for most wool production in the Middle Ages, Ryeland, Cotswold and Lincoln. Ryeland was the most famous of short-woolled breeds, grown in the country between the Severn and the marches of Wales, and was largely responsible for the ‘Lemster ore’, the golden fleece of England. The bulk of the fine wool exported in the Middle Ages came from two long-woolled breeds, however, Cotswold and Lincoln and in the fifteenth century the largest source of fine wool seems to have been the Cotswolds.”  http://www.wildfibres.co.uk/html/sheep_history.html


Boudicca’s Revolt

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The Romans conquered Britain over the course of one hundred and fifty years.  Julius Caesar was the first to attempt it.  He established a beachhead in the east, but never got further into the country despite multiple expeditions.

“His first expedition, however, was ill-conceived and too hastily organised. With just two legions, he failed to do much more than force his way ashore at Deal and win a token victory that impressed the senate in Rome more than it did the tribesmen of Britain. In 54 BC, he tried again, this time with five legions, and succeeded in re-establishing Commius on the Atrebatic throne. Yet he returned to Gaul disgruntled and empty-handed, complaining in a letter to Cicero that there was no silver or booty to be found in Britain after all.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/questions_01.shtml


100 years later, in 43 AD, the Emperor Claudius determined to try again, and this time the Romans would not be dissuaded.  By 60 AD, after many years of upheaval, factional disputes and multiple emperors and governors, C. Suetonius Paullinus was chosen to lead the forces in Wales and put down the Druids on Anglesey.

“This island had become the last point of retreat for the rebels. Being surrounded by water, this was logical since the British forces could only retreat towards the sea. The Druids, seen as one of the strongest band of people in Britain, were also on the island. Angelsey was to be no pushover. It is written that it was defended by praying Druids, fierce warriors and wild women. The assault and taking of Angelsey was brutal, bloody and savage in the extreme.”  http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=conquest_roman_britain

After the defeat of Anglesey and the destruction of the druids, Boudicca rose in rebellion.  The Roman legions were busy cleaning up the mess they had made there, so had left little protection in the east.

“Boudicca was married to Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni people of East Anglia. When the Romans conquered southern England in AD 43, they allowed Prasutagus to continue to rule. However, when Prasutagus died the Romans decided to rule the Iceni directly and confiscated the property of the leading tribesmen. They are also said to have stripped and flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. These actions exacerbated widespread resentment at Roman rule.

Boudicca’s warriors successfully defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and destroyed the capital of Roman Britain, then at Colchester. They went on to destroy London and Verulamium (St Albans). Thousands were killed. Finally, Boudicca was defeated by a Roman army led by Paulinus. Many Britons were killed and Boudicca is thought to have poisoned herself to avoid capture. The site of the battle, and of Boudicca’s death, are unknown.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/boudicca.shtml

“The main Roman army was making its way back from Angelsey along the Watling Road. Suetonius knew he was heavily outnumbered, so he selected a place for the battle and waited for the Iceni to come to him. With dense woodland protecting his rear and a narrow defile in front, he was in a position where his troops (outnumbered by 10 to 1) had the advantage.

The Iceni, so confident of victory, charged down the defile falling over each other in the charge. The Romans stood firm. The Iceni charged again and again, but they were no match for the diciplined Romans, and in the end the Romans charged against the Iceni trapping them against the waggons that had followed the army. By the end of the day 80,000 Iceni lay dead.”  http://www.oldcity.org.uk/norwich/names/boudicca.php

The timeline for these events is here:  http://www.historyonthenet.com/Chronology/timelineroman.htm

and here:  http://localheroes.digitalbrain.com/localheroes/web/Final/boudica/03/

The ordnance survey has some excellent maps that are less accessible than they were (but I bought so as to have a paper copy).  You can see the roman roads and all the ruins in Wales through Getamap:  http://www.getamap.ordnancesurveyleisure.co.uk/

I use this all the time, not only for Roman ruins, but for all ancient artifacts on the landscape.


The Thirteen Treasures of Britain

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Dyrnwyn, the flaming sword, lost for centuries beneath the earth.

A hamper that feeds a hundred, a knife to serve twenty-four,

A chariot to carry a man on the wind,

A halter to tame any horse he might wish.

The cauldron of the Giant to test the brave,

A whetstone for deadly sharpened swords,

An entertaining chess set,

A crock and a dish, each to fill one’s every wish,

A cup that bestows immortality on those worthy of it,

And the mantle of Arthur.

His healing sword descends;

Our enemies flee our unseen and mighty champion.

–Taliesin, The Thirteen Treasures, The Black Book of Gwynedd

tlp blogI wrote that poem (on behalf of Taliesin) for my Last Pendragon Saga, but it has deep roots in Celtic mythology.

When JK Rowling talks about the deathly hallows in the Harry Potter books, she is giving a nod to the Thirteen Treasures, which she didn’t make up, in that their roots lie in the mythology of Britain dating back to the Celts.  In the Deathly Hallows, the treasures are an invisibility cloak, a stone that brings the spirit of someone back from the death (for a time), and a powerful wand.

The original thirteen treasures are tied to the Arthurian legend.  In some sources, Merlin seeks them, in others, Arthur or his men are sent on quests to retrieve them.

“The “Thirteen Treasures of Britain” were famous in early legend. They belonged to gods and heroes, and were current in our island till the end of the divine age, when Merlin, fading out of the world, took them with him into his airy tomb, never to be seen by mortal eyes again. According to tradition, they consisted of a sword, a basket, a drinking-horn, a chariot, a halter, a knife, a cauldron, a whetstone, a garment, a pan, a platter, a chess board, and a mantle, all possessed of [marvelous qualities] . . .

It is these same legendary treasures that reappear, no doubt, in the story of “Kulhwch and Olwen”. The number tallies, for there are thirteen of them . . . That there should be  discrepancies need cause no surprise, for it is not unlikely that there were several different versions of their legend. Everyone had heard of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. Many, no doubt, disputed as to what they were. Others might ask whence they came. The story of “Kulhwch and Olwen” was composed to tell them. They were won by Arthur and his mighty men.”  http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cml/cml26.htm

From Wikipedia:  “The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain (Welsh: Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain) are a series of items in late medieval Welsh tradition. Lists of the items appear in texts dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. Most of the items are placed in the Hen Ogledd or “Old North”, the Brythonic-speaking parts of what is now southern Scotland and Northern England; some early manuscripts refer to the whole list specifically as treasures “that were in the North”. The number of treasures is always given as thirteen, but some later versions list different items, replacing or combining entries to maintain the number. Later versions also supplement the plain list with explanatory comments about each treasure.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirteen_Treasures_of_the_Island_of_Britain

Wikipedia has a list (see link above), and another can be found here:  http://www.tartanplace.com/faery/thirteen.html

and here you can take a quiz about them!:  http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Post/1089305


European Invasions

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Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, different groups moved from one location to another.  Sometimes, the purpose was conquest, sometimes raiding, and sometimes it involved a quest for a better life and the intent was to settle, rather than conquer, new lands.

But usually somebody was already there.  The map at right show the paths of various groups from Roman times to through the Middle Ages. After the sack of Rome in 410 (see my post here: http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/the-fall-of-rome/) tribes were on the move all through Europe:

Angles/Saxons/Jutes:  These three groups derived from Denmark and Germany.  “Following the departure of the Romans in A.D.410 and after the sacking of Rome, Britain was left unprotected. The distant dominions frantic call to Rome went unheard. Mutiny spread through the ranks of the British defenders remaining who were now descendants of Roman stock. Britain in desperation declared independence from Rome and defended itself the best way it could. Despite this sudden change in fortune for Britain, the Roman lifestyle continued, if on a downward path for the next fifty years. The departure of the Romans did not go un-noticed by the Picts, Scots and especially the Saxons, who saw Britain as a prosperous and plunderable asset.”  http://www.battle1066.com/saxons.shtml  The Saxons waves continued until the 800s, when they’d conquered all of England, pushing the Welsh and Scots to the edges of the map.

Franks:  The Franks originated in what is now Belgium, but spread post-Rome south to France.  “Clovis extends his power from the Somme down to the Loire by using an unscrupulous blend of warfare, intrigue and murder to assert his authority over other Frankish tribes in the region. He then sucessfuly demands tribute from the Burgundians in the southeast and, more significantly, drives the Visigoths from the southwest. By 507 the whole of France, except a narrow strip along the Mediterranean, is his acknowledged realm.”
Read more: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab74#ixzz1ABfvBH4X

Goths/Visigoths/Ostragoths:  The Goths overall are a German people, with the Visigoths coming from Western Germany and the Ostrogoths from Eastern Germany.  “They originated in Scandinavia, but by the 2nd century of the Christian Era had moved into what is now Southern Russia. The Goths had adopted the habit of fighting on horseback. This arose from the fact that the first area the Goths invaded in the 2nd century AD were the vast plains of Eastern Europe and southern Russia.  . . .  The Goths first burst upon the scene of history in the 3rd Century, when they swarmed out of Southern Russia by both land and sea to beset the Roman Empire. After an heroic struggle, the Romans managed to drive them back to work on their military techniques a little more. In the mid-4th century the Goths were attacked by even wilder peoples, like the Huns. The Visigoths sought security within the boundries of the Roman Empire, offering to help defend the Balkans in return for land, but the Emperor Valens spurned their offer. So they invaded, and in 378 overwhelmed a Roman army at Adrianople, using cavalry in combination with a fortified camp. The victory seems to have surprised the Visigoths almost as much as it did the Romans, for they agreed to settle in the Balkans and help defend them against other tribes. Within a century, the Visigoths had drifted westwards, to settle in southern Gaul (modern France) and Spain, where they set up a kingdom of their own.”  http://www.hyw.com/books/history/goths.htm

Huns:   “Arriving on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, riding their war horses out of the great steppes of Asia, they struck fear into Germanic barbarians and Romans alike. Some scholars believe that they had earlier moved against the Chinese Empire but were turned away and swept to wards Rome instead. As they approached the Black Sea and conquered the Ostrogoths, they also drove the Visigoths across the Danube into the Roman Empire and caused the crisis that led to the astounding defeat of the Roman army under the Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378 AD.

Those early Huns, using the traditional tactics of mounted archers, seemed like monsters from the darkness to their more civilized contemporaries. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the end of the fourth century, described their savage customs and elaborated on their military tactics:

“The nation of the Huns…surpasses all other barbarians in wildness of life….And though [the Huns] do just bear the likeness of men (of a very ugly pattern), they are so little advanced in civilization that they make no use of fire, nor any kind of relish, in the preparation of their food, but feed upon the roots which they find in the fields, and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal. I say half-raw, because they give it a kind of cooking by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses….”  http://members.gcronline.com/attila/history.htm  He was probably biased.

Vandals:  “The Vandals first entered collapsing Roman Empire in the winter of 409 AD, when they crossed the frozen Rhine river with a group of Alans and Sueves. They were taking advantage of a rebellion within the Empire which kept the Romans from defending themselves well. The Vandals (with the Alans and Sueves) slowly travelled south through Gaul (France), looting and fighting as they went. When they reached the Pyrenees mountains that separate France from Spain, they were actually invited into Spain by one of the rebel leaders, in exchange for helping him with his rebellion.
After this rebellion failed, the Vandals were left on their own in Spain. They took over the southern part of Spain in about 411 AD. A Visigothic attack in 415 AD weakened them but did not destroy them.

By 429 AD the Vandals decided to move to Africa instead of Spain, and ferried all 80,000 of their people across the Straits of Gibraltar in boats. Under their king Gaiseric, the Vandals established a kingdom in Africa, which they used as a base for piracy around the Mediterranean for a hundred years. They set up an Arian church, minted their own coins, and had diplomatic relations with other Mediterranean kingdoms.
In 533, however, the Roman Emperor Justinian sent his general Belisarius to reconquer Africa for Rome. When Belisarius succeeded, that was the end of the Vandals.”  http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/medieval/history/earlymiddle/vandals.htm


How did medieval people keep warm?

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How did medieval people keep warm?  The short answer might be they didn’t, but that’s only half an answer.  Certainly, in medieval Wales like in modern Wales, people didn’t have to deal with extreme temperatures of say–Minnesota–but they did have to deal with snow and cold in the winter, and occasional heat waves in the summer.

How did they protect themselves against the cold?  Houses, certainly, weren’t kept very warm.  Cloaks, scarves, boots, and gloves were worn indoors.  Especially with the inefficient and smoky heating system (see my post on chimneys), the cold inside could approximate the cold inside.

Medieval people had gloves, for example:  http://medievalgloves.blogspot.com/2007/11/three-pairs-of-gloves.html

“For the peasant, the garb was basic and simple. The outer clothing was commonly made of wool with undergarments of linen. As one would expect, the wool garments were hot, heavy and itchy, but fortunately, the linen undergarments made the wool a bit more comfortable. The undergarments were laundered, but it was rare to wash the outer garments. While one might think this would serve to create a rather pungent society, such was not necessarily the case. Though the peasants worked very hard, frequently at manual labor, they also spent a great deal of time around open fires and smoke. The smoke permeated their clothes and acted as a natural deodorant reducing the odors.

In the winter and colder months, cloaks, mittens and woolen hats were worn as protection from the elements. Shoes were worn, but were often a luxury. Leather boots could be found among the peasants, but it was not uncommon for peasants to go without shoes. Along with their woolen dresses, women often wore simple caps.”  http://www.medieval-period.com/medievalclothing.html

BBC did a feature on what Robin Hood might have worn in Sherwood Forest to keep warm in winter:  “In the medieval era, clothes would be made of wool with a next-to-body material generally of linen. Both materials – worn in layers – are excellent to keep you warm. Perspiration reduces this effectiveness, so if you couldn’t avoid sweating for some reason and you became hot through physical exertion the correct thing to do would be to take a layer or two off until you cooled down, then put the layers back on again.

Medieval men wore a linen shirt and underclothes, a woollen coat with a hood over a coif – a tight fitting cap – on the head and also covering the shoulders and upper arms. Gloves were known – by comparison to our modern five-fingered gloves medieval winter gloves had two ‘fingers and a thumb’ only or more likely looked like mittens, made from wool or padded / lined leather.

Even soaking wet wool provides a modicum of warmth. Our medieval outlaws couldn’t wear anything else anyway, as fibres such as polyester, lycra and nylon weren’t invented and silk was both rare and too expensive for a common man when seen at market (Silk is a recommended next-to-body material for keeping warm, but rare in England for many years to come. Being an outlaw, if you couldn’t afford any silk you could always steal some).

Wool if clean and maintained is waterproof up to a point, but would not resist a downpour and shelter have to be sought. Wool can be waterproofed, but this affects the warmth it provides.

A far better and a more common waterproof for wintertime would be leather – a fatty skin taken from an animal such as a deer or a pig or a skin treated and tanned into leather and fashioned into a cloak, perhaps including a hood.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/nottingham/features/2003/12/sherwood_forest_survival_guide.shtml


How did Latin get into English?


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It was the Romans right?

Well, ultimately, but not necessarily because they conquered Britian in 43 AD.

The Romans controlled Britain from 43 AD to when they marched away in the beginning of the 5th century.  During that time, they built roads, towns, forts, and established a government.  Upon their departure, the ‘dark ages’ consumed Britain, with the assistance of several invading groups (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, plus Picts, Scots, Irish).

The people who lived in Britain at the time were Celtic and spoke a language that eventually became what we know today as Welsh.  As the story goes, these invading groups pushed the Britons into Wales until a real wall (Offa’s Dyke) permanently created a barrier between them.

Latin had been spoken by the Romans, of course, and had entered the Welsh language as a result.  “These borrowed words are usually for things foreign to the British before the conquest, such as ‘pont’ (in Latin ‘pons’, a bridge), ‘bresych’ (‘brassica’, a cabbage), and ‘eglwys’ (‘ecclesia’, a church).”  http://tinyurl.com/74lgnl4

Percent of contribution of other languages to English

Latin had been the language of writing.  With the departure of the Romans, that also abated, until the coming of the Christian Church (first) and then the arrival of the Normans in 1066 (second).  The Normans were descendants of the Vikings but had adopted French as their language.  Thus, when William conquered England, he brought the language with him.  French is a ‘Romance’ language–a language derived from Rome, and thus, Latin.

For several hundred years afterwards, French was the language of the nobility, laid over a Saxon peasantry.  The Saxons spoke “English” (though interestingly, the Welsh still refer to the English as ‘Saxons’).  Over time, the Saxons adopted French words (and thus Latin words) into their vocabulary.

The French words didn’t necessarily replace the English ones, but coexisted alongside the Saxon ones or were adopted whole cloth:  “A lot of basic French vocabulary will look familiar to you: le restaurant (restaurant), la table (table), l’âge(age), lefruit (fruit),  l’hôtel (hotel),  l’animal (animal),  and so on. However, don’t be fooled by some words that may look or sound exactly the same as an English word, but don’t have the same meaning. For example, le collège is roughly equivalent to middle school in the United States, not university. Also, sale in French means dirty, and has nothing to do with discounts, and blessé(e) means wounded, not blessed.”    http://www.fodors.com/language/french/

30% of English words have a French origin with another 30% from Latin.  The borrowing from Latin (and Greek) is clear.  From a rap song I found on line:

“aqua” means water, “ami” means love
“bio” means life, “hemo” means blood
“geo” means earth, and “vita” means life

“pre” means before, and “fix” is to attach
“anti-” means against, “inter-” means between
“poly-” means many, while “homo-” means the same
“pseudo-” means false, and “trans-” mean across

“-ology” means study of, “-ism” is belief in
“-cide” means killing, and “-or” and “-er” mean demonstration
“-phobia” means fear of, “-kinesis” means movement


The Saxon, however, endured too.  For example, we have two words for ‘eat’:  ‘eat’ which is Saxon, and ‘dine’ which comes from the French word ‘to dine=diner’.  Another example is ‘go’, obviously Saxon, and ‘voyage’ from French.  “Many [Saxon] words had a single syllable, and compounding was a common practice. Most words with more than one syllable were characterized by a stress accent on the first syllable.”  http://www.ibiblio.org/lineback/words/sax.htm

Here is a list of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Anglo-Saxon_origin


The Wild Boar in Britain


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Four hundred years ago, wild boar officially became extinct in Britain.  A wild boar is a creature that weighed upwards of two hundred pounds.

Range: green; introduced range: blue

“The wild boar is a member of the pig family, Suidae, and is an even-toed ungulate or artiodactyl. It is a large mammal, with an adult male weighing up to 200 kg., or occasionally more, and with a head and body length of up to 2 metres. The tail, which is usually straight, is about 25 cm. long. Female boars are about two thirds of the size of the males, although both stand about one metre in height.

A prominent feature of the wild boar is its coat of short, thick bristly hair, which can vary in colour from brown and black to grey. In western Europe, boar generally have brown coats, while in eastern Europe black coats are more common. A line of longer, upright hair grows along the spine of the boar, and this has led to their common name of razorback in the southeast of the USA, where feral pigs have given rise to a wild boar population.”

Wild boar has the widest natural range of any ungulate, or hoofed mammal, in the world. It originally occurred from Britain and Ireland throughout all of Europe (except Scandinavia), in the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, in the Middle East and the Caucasus Mountains and through most of Central Asia to China, Taiwan and Japan. It is also found in South and Southeast Asia, from India across to Vietnam and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.”  http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/species/wildboar.html

“The wild boar, Sus scrofa, is a native British species. It probably became extinct as a wild species at the end of the 13th century (Yalden 1999). After this date wild boar were maintained for game and as a status symbol by introduction of new stock from France and Germany and through hybridisation with domestic and feral pigs. By the 17th century no wild boar were found in Britain, suggesting that the medieval reintroductions were not successful, possibly because of hunting pressure.”  http://www.mammal.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=201&Itemid=232

“A variety of habitats, from tidal marshes to mountain ranges, are suitable for wild pigs. They prefer cover of dense brush or marsh vegetation. They are generally restricted to areas below snowline and above freezing temperatures during the winter. Wild pigs frequent livestock-producing areas. They prefer mast-producing hardwood forests but will frequent conifer forests as well. In remote areas or where human activities are minimal, they may use open range or pastures, particularly at night. During periods of hot weather, wild pigs spend a good deal of time wallowing in ponds, springs, or streams, usually in or adjacent to cover.”  http://icwdm.org/handbook/mammals/wildpigs.asp

Boar hunts were the realm of kings in the middle ages, but not quarries to be taken lightly.  “A charging boar is considered exceptionally dangerous quarry, due to its thick hide and dense bones, making anything less than a kill shot a potentially deadly mistake. Hunters have reported being butted up into trees by boars that have already taken a glancing shot.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boar_hunting

“Unlike the Romans for whom hunting boar was considered a simple pastime, the hunting of boars in Medieval Europe was mostly done by nobles for the purpose of honing martial skill. It was traditional for the noble to dismount his horse once the boar was cornered and to finish it with a dagger. To increase the challenge, some hunters would commence their sport at the boars mating season, when the animals were more aggressive. Records show that wild boar were abundant in medieval Europe. This is correlated by documents from noble families and the clergy demanding tribute from commoners in the form of boar carcasses or body parts. In 1015 for example, the doge Ottone Orseolo demanded for himself and his successors the head and feet of every boar killed in his area of influence.[5]

In this period, because of the lack of efficient weapons such as guns, the hunting of boars required a high amount of courage, and even the French king Philip IV died from falling off his horse when charged by a boar.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boar_hunting



Medieval Swords and Armor were NOT Heavy


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Daughter of TimeThat medieval swords and armor were ‘heavy’ is one of the strangest misconceptions of medieval life.  These people’s LIVES depended on their agility and ability to survive a fight.  Why would they be wielding 20 pound swords and wearing armor so heavy if they fell of their horse, they’d find themselves as helpless as upturned turtles?

One reason for the confusion comes from the fact that ornamental swords and armor that remain to us often ARE heavier than ones used in battle, secondly, the sport of ‘fencing’ has greatly confused people as to what sword fighting really entailed (the purpose of fencing is to poke your opponent with the tip; the purpose of sword fighting is to get your opponent on the ground and shove your 2 lb. sword through his midsection to kill him), and thirdly, that in the late middle ages, the plate armor knights used specifically for jousting WERE heavier than normal so they could survive a straight shot to the chest from a lance.  I have a children’s book that actually claims that a knight had to be helped onto his horse by two servants and a ladder.

No, no, no, no.

“Perhaps the most infamous example is the notion that “knights had to be hoisted into their saddles with a crane,” which is as absurd as it is persistent even among many historians. In other instances, certain technical details that escape an obvious explanation have become the focus of lurid and fantastically imaginative attempts to explain their original function. Among these, the lance rest, an object protruding from the proper right side of many breastplates, probably holds first place.”  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aams/hd_aams.htm

“From ordinary hands-on experience we know full well that swords were not excessively heavy nor did they weigh 10 or 15 pounds and more. There is only so many ways we can repeat how these weapons were not at all heavy or ungainly. Remarkably, while one would think a crucial piece of information as the weight of swords would be of great interest to arms curators and arms historians, there is no major reference book that actually lists the weights of different types. Perhaps this vacuum of documented evidence is part of the very problem surrounding the issue. However, there are a few respected sources that do give some valuable statistics. For example, the lengthy catalog of swords from the famed Wallace Collection Museum in London readily lists dozens of fine specimens among which it is difficult to find any weighing in excess of 4 pounds. Indeed, the majority of specimens, from arming swords to two-handers to rapiers, weigh much less than three pounds.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Medieval swords were indeed light, manageable, and on average weighed less than four pounds. As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally stated: “Medieval Swords are neither unwieldably heavy nor all alike – the average weight of any one of normal size is between 2.5 lb. and 3.5 lbs. Even the big hand-and-a-half ‘war’ swords rarely weigh more than 4.5 lbs. Such weights, to men who were trained to use the sword from the age of seven (and who had to be tough specimens to survive that age) , were by no means too great to be practical.”(Oakeshott, Sword in Hand, p. 13). Oakeshott, the 20th century’s leading author and researcher of European swords would certainly know.”  http://www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm

A major league baseball bat weighs less than a pound–10 ounces or so–and so in comparison, swords are ‘heavy’.  But no knight is planning on hitting a baseball 200 yards either.  Around the world, the new/old practice of ‘European martial arts’ is springing up, because knights were martial artists, with all the maneuvers and kicks and elbow-to-the-nose of Asian martial arts.  I have post about this here:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/european-martial-arts/

If you’re interested in Dark Age and Medieval Armor, here’s another post:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/darkageandmedievalarmor/ (Wow!  This was my first post ever!)

Mail is very flexible (which meant that while it was effective against slashes and thrusts from swords, was far less so against forceful blows), and relatively light, with a hauberk weighing roughly twenty pounds.  Plate is heavier, more like 45 pounds for a full suit, but with more evenly distributed weight.  When properly fitted, a knight could move easily and fully in either mail or plate.


“An entire suit of field armor (that is, armor for battle) usually weighs between 45 and 55 lbs. (20 to 25 kg), with the helmet weighing between 4 and 8 lbs. (2 to 4 kg)—less than the full equipment of a fireman with oxygen gear, or what most modern soldiers have carried into battle since the nineteenth century. Moreover, while most modern equipment is chiefly suspended from the shoulders or waist, the weight of a well-fitted armor is distributed all over the body. It was not until the seventeenth century that the weight of field armor was greatly increased in order to render it bulletproof against ever more accurate firearms. At the same time, however, full armor became increasingly rare and only vital parts of the body, such as the head, torso, and hands, remained protected by metal plate.

The notion that the development of plate armor (completed by about 1420–30) greatly impaired a wearer’s mobility is also untrue. A harness of plate armor was made up of individual elements for each limb. Each element in turn consisted of lames (strips of metal) and plates, linked by movable rivets and leather straps, and thus allowing practically all of the body’s movements without any impairment due to rigidity of material. The widely held view that a man in armor could hardly move, and, once he had fallen to the ground, was unable to rise again, is also without foundation. On the contrary, historical sources tell us of the famous French knight Jean de Maingre (ca. 1366–1421), known as Maréchal Boucicault, who, in full armor, was able to climb up the underside of a ladder using only his hands. Furthermore, there are several illustrations from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depicting men-at-arms, squires, or knights, all in full armor, mounting horses without help or instruments such as ladders or cranes. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth- and sixteenth-century armor as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armor can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.”  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aams/hd_aams.htm

(update 12/07/12)  My 19 year old son informs me that he downloaded a patch for a game–Skyrim–making weapons and armor the proper weight.  Apparently, the original game had swords weighing 10 pounds!


Rushes on the Floor


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Everywhere in medieval life, you read about ‘rushes’ on the floor.  I, too, have had an issue with the notion of women in long gowns, walking around on loose rushes, whether or not they were sprinkled with herbs.  Wouldn’t it catch in the dress?   This page has this to say, and started off my inquiry:

“I was completely fascinated to find this page of notes about real life for the upper classes in the Middle Ages, and it addresses one of the things I’ve always wondered about. In fact, I came upon it while specifically searching for information about rushes as floor covering. In this piece, the author rejects the idea of loosely strewn straw-like rushes (in rich households), because of the impracticality of the ladies of the house, with their sweeping gowns, navigating such domestic terrain. She opines that what was actually used were woven mats made of rushes, which seems to make more sense, especially since woven/braided rush mats have been in existence since at least 4000 BC (scroll to the bottom) – and so why wouldn’t these wealthy families have these instead of scattered rushes, at least in all the areas where the family members were likely to frequent?

Could “rushes” just have been shorthand for “rush mats” in some cases where we have recorded references to this practice?”  http://ask.metafilter.com/133591/Skirts-and-Rushes-a-Medieval-Mystery

I think so too, and upon further research, this rush mat notion might be more accurate:

“One reads that “rushes were strewn upon the floor.” I beg leave to doubt that armfuls of loose green stems were cast down ankle-deep, like straw in a stable. This image is supportable only by those who want to make their ancestors seem more brutish so as to elevate themselves. People who walk in stables either are wearing ground-clearing garments, or lift their hems to clear. As an earlier section established, ladies in their homes did no such thing. Not only did women wear trailing gowns, but men wore long robes. Even before hems were exaggerated, the gowns were floor-length and often trained, as were robes and mantles.

Picture what happens if loose rushes were indeed used. The servants bring in loads of green rushes in the spring, and spread them out on the castle floor. Milady arrives, approves the work, then crosses the chamber to go downstairs. A clear swath is cleaned behind her, and the rushes pile up in a roll under her back hem. When she reaches the stairs, or rather when her train does, that bundle is dropped on the top steps and partly dragged down them. The top treads would be buried in rushes in one passage.

Obviously this cannot be the proper interpretation of how rushes were used on the floors of castles.

Herbs, we know, were strewn in handfuls over the rushes, and expected to stay underfoot to scent the air when trod upon. Also, the rushes stayed in the chambers and halls (but not on the stairs) until they were dry and perhaps musty, so that it was very refreshing to change the winter rushes for fresh ones in the spring.

The chief problem is actually that Medieval people had no sense of sociological change. They picture Alexander the Great and the Twelve Apostles in Medieval dress without a qualm, though it is a 1300-year anachronism. They assume their readers know what they are talking about in everyday matters, because of course you live in the same world as they.

I would like to suggest that an important step was left out of their remarks about gathering fresh rushes for floor-covering. When original sources wrote that the rushes should be changed every season, certainly once a year in the spring after planting, they were not recording their behaviors for a foreign (in time) culture: they were advising their peers on good household management as opposed to slovenliness.

The step omitted is that the rushes, once gathered, were made into mats. Then the rush mats, still called rushes, were put on the floor, and herbs sprinkled over them.   River rushes are always specified; mere grass will not do. This is because the rushes are thick, long, and strong: short, fragile grass cannot be made into mats. The rushes were probably coiled by the handful and stitched with the longer rushes, like modern raffia or straw mats, or woven with string, or plaited.”  http://historicalnovelists.tripod.com/medlife.htm

rush matsCheck out this image as pointed out by reader Tamara Baker and Julia (below in comments), from Jehan, Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours from circa 1410 — it clearly shows woven rush matting on the floor.

Fabulously, it is possible to BUY rush mats today, woven in the ‘traditional English fashion’!  Check this out:

“The core of Rush Matters’ work is traditional rush floor matting, also known as medieval matting and apple matting. The rush is plaited by hand, using a ‘nine end flat weave’ into lengths three inches wide, and then hand sewn together with jute twine. Each mat is made individually to the clients requirements as a central mat, runner or fitted as a carpet and can be any size. An ‘eleven end flat weave’ produces a fine one and half inch plait to bind the open ends and this can be used on the sides to fully edge the mat.

The rush flooring is suitable for almost any interior space. Its natural tones, texture and scent is ideal for the interiors of today. Equally, it has fantastic historical and traditional uses in older properties. The matting has been bought by The Frick Gallery of Modern Art in New York and used in film and drama including Ridley Scotts ‘Gladiator’ and the BBC’s docudrama of Winston Churchills interwar years ‘The Gathering Storm’. Devotees of Albert Finney’s work will take this as proof positive that the matting is at least brussel sprout proof!

The National Trust has commissioned matting for the dining room at Winston Churchill’s house at Chartwell, Kent and the long gallery at Montacute House in Somerset. Individual pieces have bee shipped as far afield as New York, Beirut and France.” http://www.rushmatters.co.uk/englishrush.htm





The Pelagian Heresy

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The Pelagian heresy is an important part of any discussion of religion in Wales during the era formerly known as the Dark Ages.  Pelagius was a British monk, born around 350 AD, who moved to Rome and was a contemporary of St. Augustine.  His crucial fault was that he believed that the notion of original sin–that all men were condemned because of the actions of Adam–was false.   Unfortunately, our primary source of his writings are not the writings themselves, but the reaction to them on the part of his opponents.  He was condemned as a heretic by Augustine, whose teachings became predominant in the church.  http://www.brojed.org/IE/pelagius.php;

for a list of primary sources:  http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/pelagius.php

The two differing paths are:


1.  Death comes from sin, not man’s physical nature;

2. Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin and those who die without baptism cannot reach heaven

3.  Christ’s grace frees us from past and future sins;

4.  Through Christ’s grace we are given strength to act without sin;

5.  A sinless life is impossible without Christ’s grace;

6.  Everyone is a sinner, which we all must confess.


1.  Humans have a ‘natural sanctity’;

2.  Humanity has free will and makes the choice to sin;

3.  There is no original sin, thus infants are not sinful and unbaptized infants are not outside God’s grace;

4.  God’s grace assists right action but isn’t necessary to it;

5.  Humanity has full control, and thus full responsibility for obeying the teachings of Christ “in addition to full responsibility for every sin.”  Thus, men are sinners by choice.  They are not victims but criminals who need pardon and the atonement of Jesus Christ.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagianism

Eventally Pelagianism was stamped out everywhere but in Wales and Ireland.  Councils were held, and missionaries sent to those countries during the ‘dark ages’ in an effort to combat what the Roman Church believed to be a dangerous heresy, with eventual success, although the Welsh Church did not truly come under full control of the Roman Church until after 1282.

In modern times, the Catholic Church no longer says that an unbaptized infant who dies is outside God’s grace, but is ‘entrusted to the mercy of God’.



The Saxon Invasions


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It is a matter of record that the ‘Saxons’ invaded England in the last years of the Roman occupation, and then in full force after the Romans left England 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.


I’d also like to do a brief plug for my friend, Keith Blackmore, on whose blog I posted the other day. He’s got a new heroic fantasy ebook The Troll Hunter: 

A warrior with a secret.
A band of cutthroats.
And a monster of legend.

Battle rusty from the war infirmaries, a company of Sujins, the heavy infantry of Sunja, march north. They guard a mysterious koch destined for another land. Whipped by the murderous Rusk the Two Knife and led by the enigmatic Bloor, the only cavalier to survive the Field of Skulls, they will march into the unknown, and arrive at the teeth of hell.
And only one man will possess the skills to bring the survivors back.
A tale of heroic fantasy. Some graphic violence and language.

Sounds Saxon-like to me, huh :)