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 Read more…

Aber Castle (Garth Celyn)

????? Aber Garth Celyn was one of the most important palaces of the Kings of Gwynedd, dating back possibly as far as the fifth century. The current village has two medieval sites. The first is the remains of a medieval tower, known locally as ‘Llywelyn’s Tower’, which is all that remains of the royal palace of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native ruler of Wales. In addition, within the village proper is a motte dating to the time of Robert of Rhuddlan (d. 1093), a Norman who built a string of motte and bailey castles across Gwynedd in an attempt to solidify Norman gains in Wales during the 11th century. 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 Read more…

Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon

Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon was a real person.  His father, Cadwallon, was killed in the battle of Catscaul or “Cad-ys-gual”, the Battle of the Wall (Heavenfield, near Hexham) in 634 AD.  An unknown usurper, Cadfael ap Cynfeddw, placed himself on the throne of Gwynedd, and was himself overthrown in 655 AD by the twenty-two year old Cadwaladr, Cadwallon’s son, who’d been raised in exile until he could return to claim his birthright. Cadwaladr is mentioned in the following sources: The Harlaein Genealogies:  a collection of old Welsh genealogies preserved in British Library, Harleian MS 3859.  They’ve been dated to the reign of Hwyel Dda (10th century).  Cadwaladr is mentioned as the son of Cadwallon and the father of Idwal, all Kings of Gwynedd. Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales):  A single line:  682 – A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr Read more…

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth was born sometime around 1100, probably in Monmouth in southeast Wales, though his family was undoubtedly from France, having come with the Norman conquest of Britain. “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 Read more…

The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

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. “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 Read more…

A Good Meal–Food in the Middle Ages

Diana Wynne Jones’ book Tough Guide to Fantasy Land (recommended for any fantasy/historical fantasy writer) is a hilarious riff on the fantasy genre.  At one point, she mocks fantasy authors’ tendency for their adventurers to eat ‘stew’ in great quantity, which travelers would for the most part never do. The classic example of this is when Sam, in Lord of the Rings, hauls those pots all the way to Mordor.  A much more likely scenario would for him to have stashed a couple of sticks in his backpack to poke through those poor rabbits he takes from Gollum in order to roast them over the fire.  Stew is far too much work. So if not stew, then what? Roasted meat over a spit, when possible.  Stale bread.  Berries or root vegetables gathered from the surrounding area.  Salted, smoked, and dried meat that keeps for weeks Read more…

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 Read more…

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 Read more…

European (Medieval) Martial Arts

There is a fascinating documentary on the rediscovery of the European ‘martial art’ of sword fighting called Reclaiming the Blade, available on Netflix, if you subscribe:  http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Reclaiming_the_Blade/70111112?trkid=2361637 It begins by talking about sword fighting movies (Lord of the Rings was highlighted in particular), but once they stripped away the honor and righteous talk, it had a really good argument that sword fighting prior to the invention of gunpowder was just as legitimately a martial art as karate. In Europe, there are now European sword fighting academies which teach medieval sword fighting like my children learn karate. How cool is that? A society now exists to promote it.  http://www.aemma.org/  with lots of resources to promote this lost art  (http://jwma.ejmas.com/php-bin/jwma_content.php?LLM=0&Tab=articles&MD=) is one example–the Journal of Western Martial Arts. Three of my children are black belts in Shodukan Karate (the fourth is a green belt). My eldest Read more…

Castell y Bere

?   My daughter says that Castell y Bere is in ‘the freaking middle of nowhere’ which is why King Edward couldn’t convince any English settlers to live there after he conquered Wales.  Plus ‘it’s really, really windy.’ Potentially, that is all you need to know about Castell y Bere, but if that turned you away from visiting, that would be unfortunate.  Historically, Castell y Bere was also one of the most important castles of the Welsh Princes–certainly it is one of the largest and most elaborate.  It sits on elongated plateau of rock in the Upper Dysynni Valley.  Because of its central location (at the time), it helped Llywelyn Fawr, who built it, control the territory along the old mountain road from Cadair Idris to Dolgellau.  It also guards the territory between the Dyfi and Mawddach estuaries (see above Read more…

Owain Glyndwr

At my nativity The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes, Of burning cressets; and at my birth The frame and huge foundation of the earth Shaked like a coward … all the courses of my life do show I am not in the roll of commen men. –Shakespeare (Henry IV) Born in 1349, at the height of the Black Plague, Owain Glyndwr lived in a turbulent time in Wales.  With the defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282, Wales became nothing more than a vassal to the English crown and the vast majority of the native rulers were dead or unseated by English barons.  Glyndwr’s family had supported Llywelyn, but had allied themselves with the Mortimers and Lestranges afterwards such that they got to keep their lands. As was so often the case in Wales, however, Glyndwr found Read more…

The Fictional King Arthur (rant!)

Yes, I have some issues with King Arthur as a fictional character. Please pardon the rant! King Arthur, as usually written, comes off as either as a flat character, someone whom the author employs as a backdrop to explore the personalities of other characters (Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot), or as unheroic and human, tripped up in the end by the overwhelming burden of his imperfections. Arthur is either a pawn, buffeted by the winds of fate, or so flawed, one has to ask how he was remembered as a hero in the first place. One recent example of this is Starz’s aborted Camelot series, at least the bit I watched, where it is inexplicable that Merlin would come to him as the hero (in a totally deserted castle) and expect anything good to happen. A second is the odd King Arthur: Read more…