Tag Archives: medieval


What did medieval people drink?

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What did medieval people drink? It wasn’t just alcoholic beverages, though alcohol was so commonly drunk at every meal that it was almost a food rather than a beverage.

Water–Yes, people drank water in the Middle Ages! https://io9.gizmodo.com/no-medieval-people-didnt-drink-booze-to-avoid-dirty-w-1533442326

All over the internet, sources say that water was not drunk in the Middle Ages due to impurities. Certain sources question that, in large part because people didn’t know where disease came from, so how would they have pinpointed water as the source of the problem?  Maybe because it didn’t taste good? Other sources indicate that water might not have been drunk often, but that it may have been more of a class thing, rather than a health issue. Poor people drank water, since they couldn’t afford wine or beer. Medieval people did have access to well water, which was a relatively clean source of water.

Regardless, while water was readily available, even if a person might choose wine, beer, or mead over water if he could. This is a list of possible water-based and non-alcoholic drinks that medieval people might have drunk:  http://mbhp.forgottensea.org/noalcohol.html

Milk–among the Celts and later the Welsh and English, milk was drunk as well as eaten in great quantity as cheese, butter, cream, etc. The Welsh in particular were herders of sheep, goats, and cattle, so milk was a widely available cheap (if not free) food for all classes of people, and an important source of protein. http://www.medieval-recipes.com/medieval-food/milk/

Wine–Wine was drunk all over France and the Mediterranean  where grapes were grown. It was less common in Britain where it would have had to have been imported. The wealthy did import it, however, and particularly as the centuries progressed, lords and kings would have drunk wine as a matter of course. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_wine

Mead–a common beverage in Wales made from fermented honey. Essentially, it is honey wine. The Welsh were herders, not farmers, so they didn’t grow grains in the same quantity as the English. I talk about what mead is here:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/what-is-mead/

Cider–a less common beverage, but derived from the fermentation of fruits, usually apples.  http://www.archiveofciderpomology.co.uk/origins_of_cider.htm

Beer— an alcoholic drink made from grain, water, and fermented with yeast. It is a generic term that includes other fermented beverages such as ale. Nowadays, beer includes hops, which weren’t added to beer until the 16th century. “Beer was the first alcoholic beverage known to civilization, however, who drank the first beer is unknown. Historians theorize that humankind’s fondness for beer and other alcoholic beverages was a factor in our evolution away from a society of nomadic hunters and gathers into an agrarian society that would settle down to grow crops (and apparently drink). The first product humans made from grain & water before learning to make bread was beer.” http://inventors.about.com/od/bstartinventions/a/beer.htm

“As the cultivation of barley spread north and west, brewing went with it. As time passed, the production of beer came under the watchful eye of the Roman Church. Christian abbeys, as centers of agriculture, knowledge and science, refined the methods of brewing. Initially in the making of beer for the brothers and for visiting pilgrims, later as a means of financing their communities. However, there was still very little known about the role of yeast in completing fermentationBeer brewing played an important role in daily lives. Beer was clearly so desired that it led nomadic groups into village life. Beer was considered a valuable (potable) foodstuff  and workers were often paid with jugs of beer.

By the fifteenth century, there was a record of hops used in Flemish beer imported into England, and by the sixteenth century hops had gained widespread use as a preservative in beer, replacing the previously used bark or leaves. Perhaps the most widely known event in brewing history was the establishment of German standards for brewers. The first of these regulations was the inspiration for the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 – the most famous beer purity law. This pledge of purity states that only four ingredients can be used in the production of beer: water, malted barley, malted wheat and hops. Yeast, though not included in this list, was acceptable, as it was taken for granted to be a key ingredient in the brewing process. The “Reinheitsgebot” was the assurance to the consumer that German beers would be of the highest quality in the world and acknowledges the European disdain for adding adjuncts such as corn, rice, other grains and sugars.”  http://www.alabev.com/history.htm

Ale–an alcoholic drink made from grain, water, and fermented with yeast. Certain web pages claim that what English people really drank in the Middle Ages wasn’t beer, but Ale, which is a drink without hops.

“Historically the terms beer and ale respectively referred to drinks brewed with and without hops. It has often now come to mean a bitter-tasting barley beverage fermented at room temperature. In some British usage, however, in homage to the original distinction, it is not now used except in compounds (such as “pale ale” (see below)) or as “real ale“, a term adopted in opposition to the pressurised beers developed by industrial brewers in the 1960s, and used of a warm-fermented unpasteurised beer served from the cask (though not stout or porter).

Ale typically has bittering agent(s) to balance the sweetness of the malt and to act as a preservative. Ale was originally bittered with gruit, a mixture of herbs (sometimes spices) which was boiled in the wort prior to fermentation. Later, hops replaced the gruit blend in common usage as the sole bittering agent.

Ale, along with bread, was an important source of nutrition in the medieval world, particularly small beer, also known as table beer or mild beer, which was highly nutritious, contained just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydration without intoxicating effects. Small beer would have been consumed daily by almost everyone in the medieval world, with higher-alcohol ales served for recreational purposes. The lower cost for proprietors combined with the lower taxes levied on small beer led to the selling of beer labeled “strong beer” that had actually been diluted with small beer. For many medieval people, ale was healthier than the local drinking water, which was often contaminated by bacteria, whereas the ethanol in ale kills bacteria. In some places even children drank it.

Brewing ale in the Middle Ages was a local industry primarily pursued by women. “Brewsters,” as they were called, would brew in the homestead for both domestic consumption and small scale commercial sale. Brewsters provided a substantial supplemental income for families; however, only in select few cases, as was the case for widows, was brewing considered the primary income of the household. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ale





The Battle of Cymerau

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The fortunes of the Welsh ebbed and flowed in the 13th century, but between 1255 (the Battle of Bryn Derwin when Llywelyn defeated his brothers, Dafydd and Owain) and 1277, they were on the rise.

One of the first important battles was that of Cymerau.

In September of 1256, Stephen Bauzan, Prince Edward’s officer in south-west Wales, brought a substantial force of men to Ystrad Tywi, located in the northern portion of Deheubarth at the base of the Cambrian Mountains.

Thus, on the eve of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s advance into Perfeddwlad, a force was arraigned against Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg, the Welsh lord of those lands. Llywelyn and Maredudd, eyeing each other with mutual concern about their own power and authority, struck an alliance, and perhaps this is the true impetus for Llywelyn’s foray east of the Conwy River. After he took all of Gwynedd under his control, he swept south, taking over all of Wales from the Dee River to the Dyfi, and then turning southwest towards Ystrad Tywi and taking all those lands for Maredudd.

Then, Llywelyn turned back east and drove towards Welshpool, through the lands of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn in Powys. Further south, he took lands from Roger Mortimer, including Builth, initiating a lifelong animosity between the two men.  Llywelyn found himself in possession of almost the whole of Wales and the chroniclers realized he was cut from the same cloth as the great Kings of Wales who preceded him.  They began to speak of him in the same breath as his grandfather, Llywelyn Fawr.

All this activity forced Prince Edward to engage his Marcher barons–Mortimer, Bohun, Lestrange, Valence–none of whom was enthused about the idea of challenging Llywelyn. Edward was also short of funds. But he had no choice but to attempt a counter measure and try to wrest back some of the lands that Llywelyn had taken from him.

At Edward’s behest, Bauzan again set out (hard to see why Edward entrusted this mission with him, given the disaster of the previous year, but he did).  On 31 May 1257, he reached Llandeilo Fawr and camped. During the night, Maredudd ap Owain and Maredudd ap Rhys drew their forces close.  At dawn, they attacked in a shower of lances and arrows. For two days, the English cowered under the onslaught. Rhys Fychan, an ally of Edward and Prince Llywelyn’s nephew, who’d encouraged the whole endeavor, slipped away and made for Dinefwr.  This was the Welsh court of Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg, to which he thereby transferred his allegiance.

The next day, the English attempted to retreat to Cardigan, but at Coed Llathen the force lost many of its supplies.  Then, at Cymerau, the Welsh and English forces met openly on a battlefield. The Welsh so routed the English that 3000 men were recorded as having fallen.  It was an embarrassing and epic defeat for Edward.  Unfortunately for Llywelyn, his alliance with Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg was irrepairably damaged by his acceptance of Rhys Fychan back into the fold, and Maredudd defected again to the king before the year was out.

These details come from:

Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King, Edward I and the Forging of Britain.

J. Beverley Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.

And Wikipedia has a great description here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cadfan#The_Battle_of_Cymerau


Owain Gwynedd’s birthday

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When was Owain Gwynedd born?  Here’s the truth:  no idea.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.  Like Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, nobody seems to have recorded the date Owain Gwynedd was born, or even the year.  This is fine as far as it goes, because we can make some general estimates.  The problem arises when the birthdays for his many, many children haven’t been recorded either.  Nor his siblings.  Nor the dates of his marriages.

My go-to-guide, John Davies History of Wales doesn’t discuss birthdays or ages, probably because he knows it’s fraught with difficulties, but many web sources try.  For example, here’s one huge root of the problem, the Wikipedia entry, citing a book by John Edward Lloyd  A history of Wales from the earliest times to the Edwardian conquest (Longmans, Green & Co.) written in 1911.  This has Owain born c. 1100, and a long list of his offspring  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owain_Gwynedd):

Although I have edited the entry on Wikipedia to reflect the uncertainty of the birthday, if we’d continued to follow the 1911 source, Iorwerth ab Owain Gwynedd, the eldest son of Owain’s first wife, Gwladys, would have been born in 1145, a year after Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd, the eldest child of Owain’s second wife.  Such a date could be possible for Dafydd, since he is first mention in the annals of wales in 1157. At the latest, that means he was born in 1143/44, since Welsh boys become men at the age of fourteen.  Obviously, we now have a problem.

It gets worse.  The Castles of Wales site, normally very reliable, has Owain Gwynedd born as late as 1109.  While neither Rhun nor Hywel get birthdays, they were full grown men by 1143, when Hywel is tasked with rousting his uncle Cadwaladr out of Ceredigion. If that’s the case, you have to think he’s at least 20 at the time.  If this is true, however, for Hywel to be  20 in 1143, he would have to been fathered by Owain at the precocious age of 14, and his elder brother Rhun even earlier.  Not impossible, but…  http://www.castlewales.com/owain_g.html

Furthermore, Citing The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (by Mike Ashley, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. New York, 1998), elsewhere on the site, it makes the claim that Owain was born c. 1100 (so I give them a pass on that), but now Dafydd, the eldest son of his second wife Cristina, was born in c. 1135.

Deeper into a search, the EBK site reports that Owain’s father, Gruffydd, married Angharad in 1195 (when he was 40) and had three sons (Cadwallon, Owain, Cadwaladr) and some daughters, including the youngest, Gwenllian.  http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/gruffcgd.html  Fine. But it is Gwenllian who elopes with the much, much older Gruffydd ap Rhys in 1113.  Whoa.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruffydd_ap_Rhys  Note that the particular entry on Gwenllian, which actually has citations, not all of which I have access to, has her born c 1197, which by necessity must push all these other dates back into the earlier 1190s to make any of this work.  Unfortunately, to push those dates earlier is problematic, because Gruffydd was imprisoned for between 12 and 16 years, starting in 1081, so the earliest date of his release is 1093. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwenllian_ferch_Gruffydd



The Triumph of Medieval Propaganda

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Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain back in the 12th century. It was at the behest of Robert of Gloucester, his patron, that he claims to have transcribed/copied/invented his history, placing King Arthur at the center of a national–and by that I mean English–origin myth. The idea was to justify the conquest of Britain by the Normans as a mirror to what King Arthur had done in the 5th century, including crossing the English Channel from Normandy to  Britain.

Children’s author Phillip Womack (author of The Other Book and The Liberators) said in the Times Online:  “As inhabitants of these islands, we don’t have many myths that bring us together, but King Arthur is one.  I think that we will always seek him as a saviour, whatever situation we’re in, because that’s human nature. The reason the Arthur myths are currently so popular is that they reflect our age brilliantly.”

This is a nice quote, and not at all inaccurate, but none-the-less astonishing because this is EXACTLY WHAT GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH INTENDED!  He wrote his book in 1139 AD. It was meant to be a mythology for the nation of England, justifying the Norman conquest of England (and particularly Empress Maud’s claim to the throne) and placing her in the line of rulers dating back to King Arthur and earlier.

Geoffrey’s book was an immediate hit, and for the most part taken by the populace to be ‘true’, even if the scholars at the time dismissed it.  One site states:  “There is nothing in the matter or the style of the Historia to preclude us from supposing that Geoffrey drew partly upon confused traditions, partly on his own powers of invention, and to a very slight degree upon the accepted authorities for early British history.  His chronology is fantastic and incredible; William of Newburgh justly remarks that, if we accepted the events which Geoffrey relates, we should have to suppose that they had happened in another world.”

Furthermore: “William of Newburgh  . . . belongs to the northern school of historians, who carried on the admirable traditions of the Venerable Bede. This was a spirit very unlike that which inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mythical “History of the British Kings” with its tales of King Arthur, and William attacks Geoffrey and his legends with great indignation, calling the latter “impudent and shameless lies“. This striking illustration of his historic integrity won for him from Freeman the title of ‘the father of historical criticism’, and the compliment is not altogether undeserved.”  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15634c.htm

But it doesn’t matter.  Geoffrey had launched the legend of King Arthur upon the world and there was no turning back.


Murder and Mayhem in the Early Middle Ages

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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.


Halloween in Wales

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fallen princess blogAs I sit here munching candy corn (which my 13 year old declares ‘the best candy’–even better than chocolate–though he can’t have any because he’s allergic to corn), I’m thinking about the Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery, The Fallen Princess, which takes place at Halloween.  Except that during the Middle Ages, it was called ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, the day before All Saint’s Day, and it was less about candy and more about a belief in actual spirits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more customs of Calan Gaeaf: 


The Medieval Gait


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Recently, a reader posted a link to a video positing that people in the Middle Ages walked differently than people do now. http://digg.com/video/walking-different-medieval-times

They did this because of the idea that most medieval footwear didn’t include hard soles, so walking toe to heel instead of heel to toe allowed a person to negotiate hazards better. The author references medieval images of people with their toes pointed out, like a ballet dancer now, and particularly points to manuals about warfare.

This idea has been shared all over the internet this month, and being interested in medieval things, I wanted to know if I’ve been thinking about medieval people all wrong. I also decided to write about it because my first instinct was to think this theory is absurd, but if I’m wrong, I want to know it.

What  Roland Warzecha doesn’t delve into, and perhaps he hasn’t considered, is that this idea has ramifications that go far beyond the Middle Ages to affect all of human history. If what he is saying is true, after millions of years of humans walking one way, suddenly in 1500 AD when we more often wore hard soled shoes, our gait changed completely.

What I am not arguing with at all is that humans walk differently when wearing shoes versus barefoot, and that the hardness of the sole and the height of the heel have an effect on our gait. What I object to is the idea that people walked toe to heel, that this is a better, healthier way to walk, and that heel to toe is essentially a post-1500 AD way of walking.

With the idea that I do the research so you don’t have to, I decided to return to my anthropologist origins, and that, of course, means I started with the Laetoli Footprints.

The Laetoli Footprints

The Laetoli footprints are a 27 meter (88 foot) trail of 70 footprints made by three early hominds in Laetoli, Tanzania. They were “formed and preserved by a chance combination of events — a volcanic eruption, a rainstorm, and another ashfall. When they were found in 1976, these hominid tracks, at least 3.6 million years old, were some of the oldest evidence then known for upright bipedal walking, a major milestone in human evolution.”   https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/07/1/l_071_03.html

“The early humans that left these prints were bipedal and had big toes in line with the rest of their foot. This means that these early human feet were more human-like than ape-like, as apes have highly divergent big toes that help them climb and grasp materials like a thumb does. The footprints also show that the gait of these early humans was “heel-strike” (the heel of the foot hits first) followed by “toe-off” (the toes push off at the end of the stride)—the way modern humans walk.” (emphasis mine)   http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/footprints/laetoli-footprint-trails

As an anthropologist, that is enough evidence for me, but if it isn’t for you, I discovered more detail about shoe and shoe construction which calls into question the ideas upon which this theory is based.

Developments in Shoes

First of all, the Romans had hard soled shoes, so if anyone was going to walk like we do because of shoes, they did. They also had heels, which were built up layers of leather inside the shoe.

Secondly, platform shoes were commonly worn in the middle ages to raise people above the muck of the streets. These shoes had hard soles. It’s hard to know how often they were worn. Try not to judge.

Thirdly, the invention of heeled boots is actually attributable to keeping a man’s foot in the stirrup, and these were invented thousands of years ago. There is some dispute as to when stirrups reached Europe, but it was at least by the time of Charlemagne (c 800 AD). Stirrups and spurs are clearly visible in the images on the Bayeux tapestry, woven in the 11th century to commemorate the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

I had been struggling with the idea that knights wore soft leather soles, when the technology for hard leather was used in all of their gear–and so many cultures outside of Europe wore hard-soled shoes, so I was pleased to discover archaeologists in Oxford just found some 700 year old shoes  with hard soles and definite heels. To my eyes, they wouldn’t look out of place today.

Did some people walk toe to heel? Sure. I know people now who walk that way. Do elite runners run on their toes? For sure. I find it exhausting, but apparently it’s faster. Have we distorted our feet by wearing shoes–definitely. And high heels are insane. But are we fundamentally different in the way we walk –or can walk–compared to five hundred years ago … or three million? I would say not.



Aber Castle (Garth Celyn)


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Aber Garth Celyn was the seat of the Princes of Wales since Aberffraw and Deganwy were destroyed sometime in the early middle ages.  With the fall of the Royal House of Wales and the subsequent conquering of Wales by Edward I, the location of Garth Celyn was lost to history.  It is only in the last 20 years that we have a better idea of where it might be.

One possibility put forth by CADW, the Welsh Archaeological society, is at ‘y Myd’–a man-made mound to the west of the Aber River in North Wales.  “Excavations at Abergwyngregyn, near Bangor, unearthed the remains of a medieval hall dating back to the 14th century, the period when Llywelyn the Great and Llywelyn the Last were fighting for Welsh independence.” [a note from Sarah–that the archaeologist would say this is somewhat surprising since Llywelyn was killed in 1282, otherwise known as the 13th century. If the best they can do is the 14th century, then there’s no evidence this hall dates from the time of the princes.]

“A test dig on the same site in 1993, revealed medieval pottery, a bronze brooch and a coin dating back to the post-conquest era.

“You can see a large area with some substantial walls and the floor plan of a medieval hall with large wings either side,” said John Roberts, archaeologist for the Snowdonia National Park Authority.

“There’s also an enclosure which has features that might relate to industrial activity – metalwork or large ovens.””  http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/northwestwales/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_9140000/9140324.stm

These excavations were covered over in 2010 to protect them.

Another possibility for the location of Garth Celyn, and the one I chose for my books, is just on the other side of the river and includes a still-standing tower, situated on a hill overlooking the Lavan Sands and with a view of Anglesey.

From the Garth Celyn web page (the page is gone, so I just have to quote it here):  “During the centuries between 1283 and 1553, the English crown owned the home and allowed it to become derelict, while at the same time expunging any mention of ‘Garth Celyn’ from the written record.   It is not until the time of Henry Vlll, that his surveyor, John Leland notes, ‘the palace on the hille still in part stondeth.’

Then, on June 14, 1551, Rhys Thomas of Aberglasney, appointed by Roger Williams, the surveyor of crown lands in north Wales, to be the deputy surveyor, obtained a lease for himself for the house.  Subsequently, on 27 April 1553 King Edward VI, seriously ill with tuberculosis, granted the royal manors of Aber and Cemais to William Herbert, earl of Pembroke and William Clerke.  Rhys Thomas and his wife, Jane, then built a house among the ruins of the palace.

Culturally speaking, one of the most important records of Garth Celyn is found in the letters written in the last months of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s life to Edward I and the Peckham, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The royal llys of the Welsh princes excavated on Anglesey does not include a motte, and bears no relationship to the kind of Norman construction CADW is proposing the Llywelyns either built or repurposed at Aber. In addition, Welsh rulers were moving from one royal llys to another as administrative centers from before the Normans arrived in Britain.  http://www.angleseyheritage.com/key-places/llys-rhosyr/

As the house itself, the following is a written account from 1874:

Aber Village August 1874                                        

The castle of Llywelyn is but a few minutes walk from the centre of the village.

To reach it by the quickest and most picturesque road you have to traverse the nook at the back of the mill and to scramble over the loose stones that rise about the surface of the widespread stream. Once over the somewhat perilous brook, you have to pass a gate, then a field, still following the side of the watercourse. Mounting a steep rustic ascent you find yourself a few minutes more before a huge barbaric Round Tower, the principal and almost only vestige of Llywelyn’s Castle at the present day. Attached to this Tower is an interesting looking structure built entirely we are told of the ruins of the ancient palace. It is at present used as a farmhouse. This most picturesque house is well worth a visit, though from its private isolated character it is known to few out of its immediate neighbourhood. 

The farmer’s wife, though little prepared for the intrusion, nevertheless kindly allowed us to traverse the house, contenting herself with showing us alone one particular room in the tower, a clothes press and four chairs, evidently as old as the building itself and quite as primitive.

She also favoured me with a bit of lighted candle and led me to the steps of a vast cellar or dungeon under the tower, telling me to inspect it if I wished, which I hastened to do – I beg pardon, I did not hasten, for the steps down to it were so slimy, damp, and shaky, that any over haste would have been accompanied with serious bodily harm, so needs was to be slow and cautious.

On descending into this cavern, as well as the faint light of the candle would permit of, I noticed several contiguous cells with prison – like apertures. Could these possibly have been dungeons? At least there were good reasons for the conjecture. At the further end of the cavern, or cellar, or prison, or whatever it was and had been, I could perceive the commencement of a subterranean passage, which led, I was afterwards informed, to some solitary spot in the glen – for what purpose, must be left to the imagination, for there are no printed memorials to the spot, nor any written ones, unless Lord Penrhyn, the owner of the property, happens to have any such in the archives of his Castle.



Eleanor (Elinor) de Montfort


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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.”


The Rising of 1256

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I bet you didn’t know there was a Welsh Rising of 1256 did you? This date, even more than the Battle of Bryn Derwin in 1255, is the point at which Llywelyn ap Gruffydd began to assert his authority in Wales beyond Gwynedd and to place himself squarely in the forefront as the inheritor of his grandfather’s vision of a Wales united under one, supreme Prince.

In 1256, Prince Edward of England was only seventeen years old.  He had been ceded lands in Perfeddwlad, or Gwynedd Is Conwy (Gwynedd east of the River Conwy), by his father, King Henry.  But both his parents still held authority over them, for the most part, and had been responsible for overseeing their welfare.  They had not done a good job, as usual giving sycophants and hangers-on Welsh lands about which none of the parties involved cared a whit.

These lands, by no coincidence, had been fully in the control of Llywelyn Fawr before his death, and at the death of Prince Dafydd, had fallen under English control.  In November 1256, at the request of the people themselves, Llywelyn  took his men across the Conwy River and into what was then English territory.   They conquered the entire area, with the consent of the people in it, within a week.

Much of these lands Llywelyn then gave to Dafydd, his brother, whom he’d just released from prison.  Only eighteen himself, Dafydd had united with Owain in 1255, but with his defeat, had suffered only a short incarceration before Llywelyn forgave him–and established him as a fully authoritative Prince of Wales in his own right.

As the Chronicle of the Princes states for 1256:

“In this year the gentlefolk of Wales, despoiled of their liberty and their rights, came to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and revealed to him with tears their grievous bondage to the English; and they made known to him that they preferred to be slain in war for their liberty than to suffer themselves to be unrighteously trampled by foreigners. And Llywelyn at their instigation and by their counsel and at their request, made for Perfeddwlad, and with him Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg; and he gained possession of it all. And after that he took the cantref of Meirionydd into his hands. And the land that belonged to Edward, the earl of Chester, the son of king Henry, he gave to Maredudd ab Owain, and Builth he gave to Maredudd ap Rhys, and keeping naught for himself, but only fame and honor.”

Sources:  Llywelyn ap Gruffydd by J. Beverly Smith



On the use of the word ‘gotten’


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Many UK readers have wondered about–and objected strongly to–the use of the word ‘gotten’ in my books. Since the word is not in common usage in England right now, it seems odd to them to read it at all, and a glaring ‘Americanism’ in a book set in the medieval period. At first glance, this might appear to be yet another instance of ‘two countries separated by a common language,’ but as it turns out, the history of the word ‘gotten’ is a lot more interesting than that.

Gotten’ is, in fact, an English word that was in use in England at the time America was colonized by the English. It is found in the King James version of the Bible, and maybe even because of that, over the centuries, the Americans kept on using it and the English did not.

Origin:  1150-1200(v.) Middle English geten < Old Norse geta to obtain, beget; cognate with Old English –gietan (> Middle English yeten), German-gessen, in vergessen to forget; (noun) Middle English: something gotten, offspring, derivative of the v.  http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gotten

“British English discontinued the use of “have gotten” as a form of the past participle for “get” over 300 years ago. The British Colonies on the other hand continued to use it. As a result American English continued the use of “have gotten” while British English relegated the word to obsolescence. It is now rarely used in the British version of the English language. American English continues to use “have gotten” to emphasis the action performed. In American English language “has got” implies possession. It is assumed that if “has got” is used that it is referencing what the person has in their possession. On the other hand, “has gotten” implies that the person acquired, received or obtained an item.”  http://www.reference.com/motif/reference/is-gotten-grammatically-correct  also: http://www.pbs.org/speak/ahead/change/ruining/

“Just seeing the word is enough to set the hair of some British English speakers on end. Yet, despite the many claims that it is an Americanism, it is most definitely of British origin and the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to the 4th century.

Since then, it has been used by many notable British English writers, including Shakespeare, Bacon and Pope and it was one of a number of words that were transported across the Atlantic with the settlers. But then it slipped out of use in British English, along with such words as fall for “autumn” (British English having opted to adopt the French word) and guess in the sense of “think”.” http://www.miketodd.net/encyc/gotten.htm

‘Got’ is also used in Welsh–or at least as much of it as I have so far managed to learn. ‘I have got’ (mae gen i) is a common phrase in modern Welsh and even has its own system of conjugation (you have got, he has got). Of course, my medieval characters aren’t speaking English anyway, so whether they might have used ‘got’ as well as ‘gotten’, like their English counterparts, is something I don’t know! However, if my medieval characters were speaking English (which they generally are not), they would have used, ‘gotten’.

And for those who continue to be skeptical, perhaps a few quotes from Francis Bacon (written 1601) will suffice:

“This envy, being in the Latin word invidia, goeth in the modern language, by the name of discontentment; of which we shall speak, in handling sedition. It is a disease, in a state, like to infection. For as infection spreadeth upon that which is sound, and tainteth it; so when envy is gotten once into a state, it traduceth even the best actions thereof, and turneth them into an ill odor. And therefore there is little won, by intermingling of plausible actions. For that doth argue but a weakness, and fear of envy, which hurteth so much the more, as it is likewise usual in infections; which if you fear them, you call them upon you.” ‘Of Envy’

“And because it works better, when anything seemeth to be gotten from you by question, than if you offer it of yourself, you may lay a bait for a question, by showing another visage, and countenance, than you are wont; to the end to give occasion, for the party to ask, what the matter is of the change? As Nehemias did; And I had not before that time, been sad before the king.” ‘Of Cunning’

“Meaning that riches gotten by good means, and just labor, pace slowly … Riches gotten by service, though it be of the best rise, yet when they are gotten by flattery, feeding humors, and other servile conditions, they may be placed amongst the worst.” ‘Of Riches’



Carew Castle

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According to CADW, Wales has more castles per square mile than any other nation. Carew Castle is one of them.

Carew Castle, located on the Caeriw River in Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales, is one of the few castles that displays architecture from the Norman period through the Elizabethan, with archaeological evidence showing indications of settlement dating back 2000 years.   The name ‘Carew’, Caeriw in Welsh, is an anglicized combination of, “caer” meaning fortress, and “rhiw” meaning hill–not that the area on which it stands is hilly:  “Its position is low-lying, but still prominent in the flat land around the tidal reaches of the Carew river. The castle stands at the end of a ridge at a strategically excellent site commanding a crossing point of the then-still navigable river.”  http://www.castlewales.com/carew.html

The name also might come from ‘Caerau’, simply the plural, ‘forts’.

Tradition states that the original castle was built by Gerald de Windsor, a Norman who came with Arnulph de Montgomery, the first Norman Earl of Pembroke.  Gerald married Princess Nest, daughter of Prince Rhys ap Tudur of Deheubarth.  Her daughter, Angharad, was the mother of the travel writer, Gerald of Wales.  (source:  Carew Local History Group/Dyfed Archaeological Trust).   Sir Nicholas’ ancestor William, eldest son of Gerald de Windsor, was the first to adopt the title ‘de Carew’ (‘from Carew’), according to the Norman (rather than Welsh) tradition.

In the 13th century, Sir Nicholas de Carew was a high ranking officer and distinguished soldier in the time of Edward I.  He fought on behalf of the king in Ireland and in Europe (he does not appear to have played much of a role in the Welsh wars up until 1282).  He was responsible for much of the medieval construction of Carew Castle between 1280 and 1310. He died in 1311 and was buried the parish church of Carew Cheriton, where an effigy of a knight believed to be that of Sir Nicholas remains today. He was succeeded by his son John.  http://www.carewcastle.com/

The castle passed to Rhys ap Thomas in 1480, who was the leading Welsh supporter of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII of England, who knighted him after the Battle of Bosworth Field.   After that family fell into disfavor, it came to Sir John Perrot in 1558.  He was convicted of treason in 1592, at which point the castle was let to tenants.  http://www.castlewales.com/carew.html.  According to the Carew Local History Group, it returned to the descendants of the Carew family in the 17th century (Thomas Carew, 3rd Baron Kesteven died in 1915 of wounds recieved in WWI), and the family retains ownership today.

My eldest son is named ‘Carew’, so we have a particular affinity for this place ?


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