Medieval Swords and Armor were NOT heavy!

That 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.

http://historymedren.about.com/library/weekly/aa041500b.htm

“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

My son informs me that a few years ago when he downloaded a patch for a game–Skyrim–it finally made weapons and armor the proper weight.  Apparently, the original game had swords weighing 10 pounds!

King Stephen

King Stephen’s reign was full of turmoil because of the conflict between him and King Henry’s daughter, Maud (Matilda).  Both claimed the throne of England and tore the country apart trying to get it.  Maud was supported by her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, who couldn’t claim the throne because he was a bastard.  Otherwise, he was the richest and most powerful man in England behind Stephen.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a very lengthy entry on the time of King Stephen, and (in fact) ends with his death in 1154.  The Chronicle describes the brutality of events and reads, in part: “When King Stephen came to England, he held his council at Oxford; where he seized the Bishop Roger of Sarum, and Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and the chancellor Roger, his nephew; and threw all into prison till they gave up their castles. When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and soft, and good, and no justice executed, then did they all wonder. They had done him homage, and sworn oaths, but they no truth maintained. They were all forsworn, and forgetful of their troth; for every rich man built his castles, which they held against him: and they filled the land full of castles. They cruelly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle-works; and when the castles were made, they filled them with devils and evil men. . . . I neither can, nor may I tell all the wounds and all the pains which they inflicted on wretched men in this land. This lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king; and it grew continually worse and worse. . . . To till the ground was to plough the sea: the earth bare no corn, for the land was all laid waste by such deeds; and they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints.” (James Ingram translation)

“Stephen was the grandson of William the Conqueror and about half-dozen years older than his cousin and rival for the throne, Matilda (daughter of Henry I). After his father’s death in 1102, Stephen was raised by his uncle, Henry I. Henry was genuinely fond of Stephen, and granted his nephew estates on both sides of the English Channel. By 1130, Stephen was the richest man in England and Normandy.

. . . Stephen had promised to recognize his cousin Matilda as lawful heir, but like many of the English/Norman nobles, was unwilling to yield the crown to a woman. He received recognition as king by the papacy through the machinations of his brother Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and gathered support from the barons. Matilda was in Anjou at the time of Henry’s death and Stephen, in a rare exhibition of resolve, crossed the Channel and was crowned king by the citizens of London on December 22, 1135.

Stephen’s first few years as king were relatively calm but his character flaws were quickly revealed. Soon after his coronation, two barons each seized a royal castle in different parts of the country; unlike his hot-tempered and vengeful Norman predecessors, Stephen failed to act against the errant barons. Thus began the slow erosion of Stephen’s authority as increasing numbers of barons did little more than honor their basic feudal obligations to the king. Stephen failed to keep law and order as headstrong barons increasingly seized property illegally. He granted huge tracts of land to the Scottish king to end Scottish and Welsh attacks on the frontiers. He succumbed to an unfavorable treaty with Geoffrey of Anjou to end hostilities in Normandy. Stephen’s relationship with the Church also deteriorated: he allowed the Church much judicial latitude (at the cost of royal authority) but alienated the Church by his persecution of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury in 1139. Stephen’s jealous tirade against Roger and his fellow officials seriously disrupted the administration of the realm.

Matilda, biding her time on the continent, decided the time was right to assert her hereditary rights.” With her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda invaded England in the fall of 1139. Betwen them, they dominated western England by 1141. “Robert captured Stephen in battle at Lincoln; Stephen’s government collapsed and Matilda was recognized as Queen. The contentious and arrogant Matilda quickly angered the citizens of London and was expelled from the city. Stephen’s forces rallied, captured Robert, and exchanged the Earl for the King. Matilda had been defeated but the succession remained in dispute: Stephen wanted his son Eustace to be named heir, and Matilda wanted her son Henry fitzEmpress to succeed to the crown. Civil war continued until Matilda departed for France in1148. The succession dispute remained an issue, as the virtually independent barons were reluctant to choose sides from fear of losing personal power. The problem of succession was resolved in 1153 when Eustace died and Henry came to England to battle for both his own rights and those of his mother. The two sides finally reached a compromise with the Treaty of Wallingford – Stephen would rule unopposed until his death but the throne would pass to Henry of Anjou.”  http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon25.html

For Wales, Stephen’s reign allowed some measure of renewed sovereignty, most notably under the rule of Owain Gwynedd.

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Empress Maud (Matilda)

Maud was the eldest, legitimate daughter of Henry I of England.  Her major claim to fame is that she warred for 19 years with Stephen of Blois, her cousin (both were grandchildren of William the Conqueror), for the throne of England.  This period of English history is known as ‘The Anarchy’.

Maud resolved to take this path after the death of her brother, Henry, who went down with the White Ship in 1120 AD.  His death left King Henry with no legitimate sons (and up to twenty illegitimate ones).  In English law, illegitimate sons could not inherit, which left only Maud to take the throne.  While Henry was still alive, he tried very hard to get the barons to swear they would follow Maud.  Afterwards … Stephen felt that as a legitimate male, even if descended through his mother, Adela, a daughter of William.

Stephen and his wife, Matilda, were crowned King and Queen of England in 1135, shortly after King Henry’s death.  They had crossed the English Channel from Normandy more quickly than Maud and claimed the throne.

Both Stephen and Maud, of course, were Normans.  The spoke French, they held lands in Normandy and France, and hadn’t actually spent very much time in England before they began fighting over it.

“Matilda is the Latin form of Maud, and the name of the only surviving legitimate child of King Henry I. She was born in 1101, generally it is said at Winchester, but recent research indicates that she was actually born at the Royal Palace in Sutton Courtenay (Berkshire).

In something of a political coup for her father, Matilda was betrothed to the German Emperor, Henry V, when she was only eight. They were married on 7th January 1114. She was twelve and he was thirty-two. Unfortunately there were no children and on the Emperor’s death in 1125, Matilda was recalled to her father’s court.

Matilda’s only legitimate brother had been killed in the disastrous Wreck of the White Ship in late 1120 and she was now her father’s only hope for the continuation of his dynasty. The barons swore allegiance to the young Princess and promised to make her queen after her father’s death. She herself needed heirs though and in April 1127, Matilda found herself obliged to marry Prince Geoffrey of Anjou and Maine (the future Geoffrey V, Count of those Regions). He was thirteen, she twenty-three. It is thought that the two never got on. However, despite this unhappy situation they had had three sons in four years.”  http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon25a.html

Unfortunately, when Maud did have a chance to claim the crown, the people of London refused to crown her and drove her from the city.  The chronicles report that she was haughty and disagreeable (Norman, remember, overseeing Saxon subjects).  King Stephen’s Queen, Matilda, though also Norman, had behaved more to their liking.  Maud never came close to gaining the throne again.  http://www.guide-to-castles-of-europe.com/empress-matilda.html

The final outcome of The Anarchy was Maud’s retirement from the field in 1148 at the death of her greatest supporter, her half-brother Robert (who was illegitimate).  Once King Stephen’s son, Eustace died in 1153, it allowed for “the possibility of a peaceful settlement between Stephen and his rival, the young Henry of Anjou. According to William of Newburgh, King Stephen was “grieved beyond measure by the death of the son who he hoped would succeed him; he pursued warlike preparations less vigorously, and listened more patiently than usual to the voices of those urging peace.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eustace_IV,_Count_of_Boulogne

Here is a timeline for Maud’s life:  http://womenshistory.about.com/od/empressmatilda/a/matilda_timelin.htm

King Owain Gwynedd (King of North Wales) took advantage of The Anarchy to consolidate his lands and power.  This period in the twelfth century is the setting for my Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mysteries.

Murder and Mayhem in the Early Middle Ages

It is common knowledge among anyone who’s spent time wandering the history of Wales that murder and mayhem among the ruling families for power was common.

David Walker (Medieval Wales, 1990) writes:  “Early entries in the Welsh Annales are brief in the extreme, but there are hints of ugly deeds.  In 814, Griffri ap Cyngen was slain by the treachery of his brother; in 904, Merfyn ap Rhodri of Gwynedd was killed by his own men; in 969 Ieuaf ab Idwal of Gwynedd was seized by his brother Iago and imprisoned; in 974, Meurig ab Idwal was blinded” (p. 6).

He further points to the book Courtier’s Trifles by Walter Map, who satirized the reign of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (1039-63 AD), who ruled all of Wales from 1055 until his death.  He writes:  “I name Hywel, whom you caused to be smothered in secret when he was on a mission for you; Rhydderch, whom you received with a kiss and embrace and killed with a knife in your left hand; Tewdws, whom as he walked and talked with you, you tripped up with your foot and cast down the sheer rocks; and your nephew Meilin, whom you secretly captured by guile and let him die loaded with chains in your dungeon.” (p. 6)

This entry from Wikipedia is classic:  “Hywel ap Ieuaf (died 985) was a King of Gwynedd in north-west Wales from 979 to 985.

Hywel was the son of Ieuaf ap Idwal who had ruled Gwynedd jointly with his brother Iago ab Idwal until 969. In that year the sons of Idwal quarrelled and Iago took Ieuaf prisoner . . . In 974 Hywel raised an army and drove his uncle from Gwynedd temporarily. Iago was able to return, but was forced to share power with his nephew. In 978 Hywel made another attempt to take the kingdom from his uncle, raiding the monastery at Clynnog Fawr. In this raid Hywel was helped by English troops, possibly provided by Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia. Hywel defeated Iago in battle in 979, and the same year Iago was captured by a force of Vikings, possibly in Hywel’s pay, and vanished from the scene. Hywel was left as sole ruler of Gwynedd, but apparently did not set his father free, since according to J.E. Lloyd, Ieuaf remained in captivity until 988.

In 980 Hywel faced a challenge from Iago’s son, Custennin ab Iago, who attacked Anglesey in alliance with Godfrey Haraldsson, a Viking chief from the Isle of Man. Hywel defeated them in battle, killing Custennin and putting Godfrey and his men to flight. Now securely in possession of Gwynedd, Hywel aimed to expand his kingdom to the south. He again made an alliance with Aelfhere of Mercia and attacked Brycheiniog and Morgannwg with some success, although he was not able to annex these kingdoms. However in 985 his English allies turned on him and killed him, possibly alarmed by his growing power. He was succeeded by his brother Cadwallon ap Ieuaf, who had not been on the throne long when Gwynedd was annexed by Maredudd ap Owain of Deheubarth.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hywel_ab_Ieuaf

This is much like the open warfare that erupted among the sons of Owain Gwynedd upon his death in 1170:  his youngest sons, Dafydd and Rhodri (children of Cristina), systematically eliminated all of their rivals, including Hywel, the eldest (d. 1170).  “Dafydd drove out Maelgwn in 1173, sending him fleeing to Ireland.  Another brother, Cynan, died in 1174, removing one more contender for the throne. The same year Dafydd captured and imprisoned his brothers Maelgwn (who had returned from Ireland) and Rhodri.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dafydd_ab_Owain_Gwynedd

However, Llywelyn ap Iowerth (son of another dead brother) overthrew his uncle in 1294 and claimed the throne for himself.  Thus began the remarkable rule of Llywelyn Fawr.

Other examples:

Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (d 1244) did everything in his power to undermine the rule of his brother, Dafydd.  Dafydd retaliated by imprisoning him at Criccieth Castle.  Gruffydd ultimately fell to his death trying to escape the Tower of London in which he’d been imprisoned by Henry III.

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd imprisoned his brother, Owain from 1256 to 1277 to prevent him from vying for the throne of Gwynedd.  Their younger brother, Dafydd, defected twice to the English crown and tried to assassinate Llywelyn in 1274.

Eleanor (Elinor) de Montfort

Eleanor (Elinor in Welsh) de Montfort (1252-1282) was the wife of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales.  She was the daughter of Simon de Montfort, who was killed in the Battle of Evesham by the forces of Edward I when she was only thirteen.  Her mother, Eleanor of Leicester, was the youngest daughter of King John of England and his wife, Isabella of Angouleme.  Interestingly, that made Elinor’s mother and Joanna, Princess of Wales and the wife of Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s grandfather), half-sisters.  Joanna had been born in 1191.  After Simon de Montfort’s death, Elinor and her mother) found refuge at the Dominican nunnery of Monargis in France.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan,_Lady_of_Wales

J. Beverely Smith writes:  “Llywelyn’s decision to marry Simon de Montfort’s daughter was revealed in dramatic circumstances at the end of 1275.  Eleanor was travelling from France to join the prince [whom she had already married per verba de presenti–or inabsentia] when she was detained at sea and taken into Edward’s custody.  She sailed in the company of her brother Amaury, and the king was jubilant at a capture which placed Montfort’s son and daughter in his hands and revealed, hidden beneath the ship’s boards, the arms and banner of the Montforts” (1998:390).  Finally, by Edward’s lights, he had real justification for re-entering Wales and forcing Llywelyn to submit to England once and for all.  Note that Elinor was also Edward’s cousin.

For Llywelyn’s part, he had decided to marry Elinor after the events of 1274 when his brother, Dafydd, and other conspirators had tried to kill him.  Nobody knows why he’d waited this long to marry (he was now approaching 50 years old) but his failure to father a child with any woman up until then might have played a role–once married, there was no chance to father a child with another woman who might prove more fertile, AND have that child acknowledged by Edward and/or the Church.

In the end, Edward kept Elinor captive for three years, until after Llywelyn had lost the war of 1277 and submitted to Edward at Rhuddlan castle.  Elinor and Llywelyn were married (again) on October 13th (the Feast of St. Edward) in 1278, at the cathedral church at Worcester.  Edward gave Elinor away.

Wales remained at peace until 1282, when Prince Dafydd’s men launched a surprise attack on English castles on Palm Sunday.  Elinor herself died in childbirth on June 19, 1282 at Garth Celyn, and was buried across the Menai Strait at Llanfair Abbey, beside her aunt, Joanna.  No trace remains of her grave.

From The Chronicles of the Princes (Red Book of Hergest): “And then, on the Feast of St. Edward, the marriage of Llywelyn and Eleanor solemnized at Winchester, Edward, king of England himself bearing the cost of the banquet and nuptial on the feast of St.  festivities liberally. And of that Eleanor there was a daughter to Llywelyn, called Gwenllian and Eleanor died in childbirth, and was buried in the chapter house of the barefooted friars at Llanvaes in Mona. Gwenllian, after the death of her father, was taken as a prisoner to England, and before she was of age, she was made a nun against her consent.”

Geoffrey of Monmouth

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

The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

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.

Bloodletting

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

It was thought that blood carried the vital force of the body and was the seat of the soul; body weakness and insanity were ascribed to a defect in this vital fluid.” http://www.pbs.org/wnet/redgold/basics/bloodlettinghistory.html

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/redgold/basics/bloodletting.html

Leprosy

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.

Welsh Rebels

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

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

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

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

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

One was Madog ap Llywelyn (1294-95):   Frustrated by high taxes, forced levies for Edward’s wars, misuse of power by his officers (sound familiar?), Madog rose to lead an organized rebellion at Michelmas in 1294, just as Edward was preparing to cross the English Channel for a continental campaign.  He immediately abandoned that plan and turned his attention to Wales.  http://www.medievalists.net/files/08100401.pdf

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

A second was Llywelyn Bren in 1316 who rebelled against Edward II, somewhat despite himself.  His real argument was with Sir Payn Turberville whom Edward had appointed to rule Glamorgan after the death of its Earl.  As always seemed to be the case with these royal, English appointments, he was tyrannical and vicious.  Llywelyn made some statement to that effect, which Turberville reported to Edward II, who then called Llywelyn to account.  Instead of allowing Edward to hang him, he fled and fomented rebellion, although he ultimately surrendered rather than have the full weight of the Marche brought down on his countrymen’s head.  This page has a detailed description of what went on:  http://edwardthesecond.blogspot.com/2010/01/uprising-in-south-wales-1316.html

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

Then, of course, there’s Owain Glyndwr (Glendower) who gets his own post 🙂 http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/owain-glyndwr/

Child Mortality in the Middle Ages

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

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

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

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

Children of Edward I:

Daughter:  1255 (stillborn)

Katherine:  1261-1264 (age 3)

Joan:  1265-1265 (infant)

John:  1266-1271 (age 5)

Henry:  1268-1274 (age 6)

Eleanor:  1269-1298 (age 29)

Daughter: 1271 (infant)

Joan:  1272-1307  (age 35)

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

Alphonso:  1273-1284 (age 11)

Margaret:  1275-1333 (age 58)

Berengaria:  1276-1278 (2)

Daughter: 1278 (infant)

Mary:  1279-1332  (53)

Son:  1281 (infant)

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

Edward:  1284-1327 (age 43)

Thomas:  1300-1338 (age 38)

Edmund:  1301-1330 (age 29)

Eleanor:  1306-1310 (4)

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

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

Hadrian’s Wall

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