Category Archives: History

Higgins Armory Museum of Worcester, MA, announces closure

Massachusetts medievalists (and history scholars and enthusiasts) are losing a tremendous resource at the end of this year with the announced closing of the Higgins Armory in Worcester. The announcement, made officially on Friday, ends a long period of financial uncertainty for the museum, but begins a new uncertainty about the future of the Armory’s holdings. The plan unveiled by the Armory’s acting executive director will see the majority of the Higgins collection moved to the Worcester Art Museum (though about 500 pieces, most of them deemed not to be of display quality, are being auctioned off later this month by Thomas Del Mar Ltd., a subsidiary of Sotheby’s of London). Less certain, at least from what I’ve been able to learn so far, is whether the WAM is committed to the same sort of gleeful interactivity that has made the Armory such a joy to visit over and over again.

Like many medievalists within driving distance, I’ve taken students to the Armory many times over the years, and an independent visit to the museum has stood as my (only) offer of extra credit in my medieval survey course. I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve stood in the great hall and tried to decide what to look at first. I’ve had various favorite pieces over the years–a beautiful suit of chain mail with words from the Qu’ran etched on the individual links; a collection of jamadhar (Indian punch-daggers, popular in the 16th-17th centuries); a reproduction suit of boarhound armor kitted out onto a model that looks suspiciously like an oversized Jack Russell Terrier (a.k.a. “Wishbone”). But the overall effect of the museum is greater than any one of its exhibits or pieces, and I’ve cheerfully wandered for hours through its holdings and been transported.

On the other hand, part of the Armory’s charm is the way it interprets its mandate to house and exhibit arms and armor creatively and playfully (see, for example, their 2011 display of reproduction armor from the Star Wars universe, thus giving the universe the glory of, well, pictures like this).

My favorite experiences at the Armory, however, have come from bringing students there and enjoying their explorations of the museum’s offerings–from the jousting exhibits to the try-on-some-real-armor presentations (I still have a picture somewhere of a shocked but rapturously happy student wearing a heavy breastplate during one of these classes) to the student-friendly curators and guides to the building itself, a 1920s art-deco fantasy castle/monastery curiosity purpose-built by the (perhaps slightly eccentric) John Woodman Higgins to house his remarkable collection.  Currently, it’s not clear what will happen to the building–it’s on the National Register in its own right, so it will probably continue to exist, but whether it will still be open to the public is anyone’s guess.

I’ll update the blog with more information as it becomes available. In the meantime, if you’re within a day’s drive of Worcester, do yourself a favor and make the time to go see the Higgins Armory in its current setting before the end of 2013.

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The Benedicts Society…

The announcement of Benedict XVI’s decision to step down from the papal seat has, unsurprisingly, led to a flurry of media attention. A fair amount of the initial reaction has focused on the medieval precedents for a papal resignation (or abdication, depending on whose view is taken of the nature of the papacy). Those precedents which are being cited are mainly those of Gregory XII (1406-1415), the most recent pope to resign the office, or Celestine V (1294), the last to do so for apparently self-determined reasons (Gregory XII’s resignation, triggered by the Council of Constance’s efforts to end the Western Schism, was technically involuntary).

Both are of interest–particularly Celestine, whose relics Benedict XVI has visited multiple times and whose resignation Benedict has publicly called a humble act demonstrating great courage. But, as it is a long-recognized papal tradition to use one’s choice of name to signal a bit of historical precedent, it’s worth noting that, though fewer than a dozen popes are known to have resigned, Benedict isn’t the first of his name to be among them. In fact, with two medieval antecessors, Benedict XVI will be (by most reckoning) the third Benedict to resign the position, making Benedict the most-resigned name in papal history and breaking a tie with the Gregorys (VI and XII) that has stood for nearly 600 years. As we’ll see, the names have been linked in this category before…

Benedict V (964)

Benedict V

Benedict V Grammaticus was elevated to the papacy in May of 964 against the wishes of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. In retaliation, Otto besieged Rome and set about starving the city into submission. After a month (during which Benedict repeatedly threatened to excommunicate Otto and his entire army) the gates were opened and Benedict was handed over. Otto tried Benedict on the grounds that his elevation constituted an usurpation, since Otto’s preferred candidate (the then-antipope Leo VIII) was alive and well. Faced with the possibility of execution and promised mercy if he capitulated,  Benedict admitted his “guilt” and abdicated. He died the following year in Hamburg. He was buried in the cathedral there,  but was moved to Rome sometime around 988…whereupon the record of his reburial location was lost and, if you will, remains unknown.

Benedict IX (1032-1045; 1045; 1047-1048)

Benedict IX

The last Benedict to resign was Benedict IX, one of history’s worst popes and the only one to hold the office three separate times. Benedict IX was somewhere between 12 and 20 when he first became pope through the political favor of his father, Count Alberic of Tusculum. Benedict was actually the third consecutive member of the family to hold the office–Alberic’s brothers Theophlyactus and Romanus were elevated as Benedict VIII (1012-1024) and John XIX (1024-1032) respectively. Four other relatives had held the office in recent history as well–Sergius III (904-911), John XI (931-935), John XII (955-964), and Benedict VII (974-983)–but the level of nepotism shown here was notable even for its time.

Benedict IX was a deeply unpopular pope, known and reviled primarily for his dissolute lifestyle. Commentators of his time accused him of adultery, rape, murder, orgies held within the Vatican, and “other unspeakable acts,” and the Catholic Encyclopedia calls him a “disgrace to the chair of St. Peter” who treated the papacy as a sort of family heirloom. He lost the papacy for the first time in 1045 when one of many dissatisfied factions forced him out of Rome and placed Sylvester III in his stead. Months later, Benedict returned and forced Sylvester out (though some sources still considered Sylvester the legitimate pope). His second papacy lasted only a few months, however, before he was convinced (with a hefty bribe) to resign the seat in favor of his godfather, the soon-to-be Gregory VI. Benedict would regret this decision and attempt to reclaim the seat the following year when Gregory VI was forced to abdicate after his bribery of Benedict led to a charge of simony. The German-born Clement II (who had helped to force Benedict and Gregory out of office) was elected in his place, but when Clement died only a year later (of what we now know was a poisonous dose of sugar of lead–possibly those whisperings about Benedict’s murderous tendencies weren’t exaggerating), Benedict returned to the papacy–by taking the Lateran Palace and investing it with armed troops. In 1048, a German militia was needed to oust Benedict for the third and final time, replacing him with Damascus II. A year later, Benedict refused to appear for his own trial for simony and was excommunicated, after which the historical record becomes a little fuzzy as to his ultimate fate. Two stories often told are that he either became a monk and truly repented of his youthful arrogance or that he lived in exile for decades and never stopped plotting to take back the papacy.

So as we prepare to witness the historic transfer of authority from one living pope to another, let’s be grateful (or perhaps wistful, depending on your personal bent) that the process is almost certainly to be the dullest abdication by a Benedict in Church history…although, if you’re the sort of person to credit the alleged prophecy of the 12th century St. Malachy, things could get a lot more interesting fairly quickly.

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E-Books and the Culture of Reading

A few days ago, I ended up in an interesting conversation with several colleagues about the likely impact of e-books on our work as teachers of writing and literature. As often happens in groups like this, the discussion turned to the future of print books in the age of technology, and a typically funereal note was struck. But I tried to argue for a bit of optimism on multiple fronts. Are e-readers here to stay? Maybe. Are print books dead? Maybe not.

There are some pretty clear parallels between the “death of the print book” and its birth. The advent of the printing press did not change the writing culture of Europe overnight. Decades passed while presses were built and publishing concerns established, but it took even longer to convince the entire reading population that manuscripts (with their artistry, craft, marginalia, durability, and colorful illuminations) were not the superior choice. New technology does not exist in a vacuum. Its utility and possibility is not fully realized until other technologies, educational models, and mindsets are created or adjusted to make fuller use of it. Books became popular over the course of multiple lifetimes, as more people became accustomed to and desirous of the qualities of print books (relatively low cost of production, accessibility, ease of ownership, faster production time, etc.), and more ink-and-parchment users either came to prefer these qualities as well or died off.  Manuscripts became collectors’ curiosities and eventually historians’ prizes, but only after enjoying a long and slow slide into obsolescence. Sentimentality, of course, played a role in that slowness–just as sentimentality is part of what fuels the hue and cry over the death of the book. Will print books, like their manuscript forebears, be reduced to a novelty item?

A new invention and an old one can coexist for a long time. The telephone was patented in 1876, yet the last telegraph to a sitting president (from a naval vessel) was sent in 1999. From the presidencies of Rutherford B. Hayes (whose phone number, incidentally, was “1”) to Bill Clinton, these two technologies existed side by side, one gradually taking the place of the other. New technology replaces an older form when, and only when, a sufficient majority of people decide that the advantages and limitations of the new technology are preferable to those of the older type. It takes a while, therefore, to replace a technology that works, and it would be hard to argue that any technological innovation of the second millennium AD was more culturally pervasive and universally successful than the printing press. (Gunpowder was invented in the first millennium, so I can sidestep the cynical comparison to guns on a technicality). Print books will be around until a new technology, which may or may not look anything like the current crop of e-readers, can convince enough people of its superior utility in comparison to bound paper and ink.

In the meantime, e-readers and “traditional” texts may turn out to interact in ways we’re not fully expecting. Last semester, I was bloviating at a class about the advantage of a physically small book which I’d assigned for class, a copy of which I keep in a coat pocket. “I can get a bit of reading done even while waiting on a line or between classes,” I pointed out, suggesting that they might do the same. A student in the front row held up his iPhone, on which, he explained, he had a copy of the same book–as well as fifty others (and yes, I’d already known that this was possible). After class, he told me that he reads on both an e-reader and his phone. When he’s done with a book, he decides whether he likes it enough to buy a paper copy, which he then can reread and write in if he chooses. My own shelves groan under the weight of books I read once, was indifferent to, and stuck back in place. My student’s private library, on the other hand, is made up entirely of books he’s already vetted and approved through their cheaper, electronically accessible forms.

Are the days of print books numbered? Maybe–but that number is probably a lot higher than many people think.

That said, the more disposable forms of writing, including nearly all periodicals, should look to e-readers as their best hope for the future. I don’t have an e-reader at present, but I’m thinking about getting one–mainly so that I can start accessing my subscriptions to newspapers, journals, and magazines when I’m traveling, stuck in a car with a sleeping baby, or just eating lunch somewhere without my laptop handy.

I probably won’t start reading books on a machine anytime soon, though–I like paper, the ability to move around in the text, my occasional marginal writing, my ownership of a physical text. Besides, I’m comfortable with one foot in the past and one in the present…after all, it’s what I do for a living.


Filed under History, Teaching, Technology

Middle Ages in the News: Richard III and Hildegard of Bingen

A short post in honor of two recent news items:

Richard III Found?

In September, archaeologists might have uncovered the body of Richard III (1452-85) under a Leicester car park. The skeleton has the tell-tale head trauma as well as the spinal abnormalities associated with descriptions of the king. I never hear something like this without a little shiver of excitement. I can’t even imagine the emotion at the moment of such a discovery. It’s Howard Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamun (cursed or not). Bouchard and the Rosetta Stone. The Xi’an farmers and the Terracotta Army. Terry Herbert, his metal detector, and the Staffordshire Hoard. To uncover that type of history, to change our understanding of history. There is no word to describe it. Granted, we do not have evidence to prove whether this skeleton really is Richard III yet. Still, the imagination cannot help but hope. What can we learn? Perhaps historic forensics can tell us about his last moments before he was killed. Perhaps study of the body can reveal the true nature of his physical ailments, a discovery that is of great interest to those like myself working in the field of disability studies. Shakespeare has given us an image of Richard III as ill-formed in body as well as in character. This description has been set at the feet of Thomas More, who seems likely to have been, as Emyr Wyn Jones states, “directly involved in the retrospective Tudor propaganda directed against the last of the Plantagenets.”1 Maybe this will be one of those perfect intersections of science, history, and literature when each will inform the other and create a multi-disciplinary window for viewing the past.

Hildegard of Bingen Named Doctor of the Church

After being officially named a saint earlier this year, Hildegard of Bingen has now been named a Doctor of the Church, only the fourth woman to be so named of, now, thirty-five other Doctors, all given the title for their contributions to the Church, particularly in matters of doctrine. Hildegard is rather an amazing woman. I learned of her when I was quite young through her music. If you have not listened to her work, I recommend remedying that immediately. Check it out here. No matter your stance on chants, it is an experience. As a side note, like Richard III, she provides another interesting opportunity for science, history, and theology to meet. As a mystic, Hildegard is known for the visions she experienced, which greatly shaped and influenced her beliefs and which she shared with others. There has been much discussion, based on her descriptions of her experiences, that has suggested she might have suffered from migraines. Thus, another figure of interest to those studying medieval illness. For more information on Hildegard, see Fordham’s The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).

Emyr Wyn Jones, “Richard III’s Disfigurement: A Medical Postscript,” Folklore 91.2 (1980): 211 (211-27)

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England Study Abroad…Test Run

As I mentioned on a previous post, I took a trip to England this summer, both as (primarily!) a vacation and as a bit of a test run for a future study abroad course I will be leading in 2014 (that date just looks impossible and yet it is incredibly near). Here, as promised, are a few notes…

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, built 1385. I actually chose this particular site somewhat at random. Travelling with my six-year-old nephew, I wanted to make sure he saw a little of everything, and this castle has…wait for it…a moat! As it turns out, it was a good decision. In a remote area, Bodiam is rather an idyllic setting , which explains, as I learned later, why it was such a popular destination in the 18th century – a perfect opportunity to discuss medievalism and the varying interest in the period up to present times.

Bodiam Castle, chapel ruins

I was particularly intrigued by the chapel ruins at Bodiam. With no roof and the only remnants the empty window frames, it invokes a sense of the passage of time. It’s easy enough to imagine what it originally looked like, and yet there is the bittersweet melancholy of decay. Bodiam was the first site we visited, and I think it is an effective starting point – low-key, yet interesting, and definitely beautiful.


Westminster Abbey, Chapter House

Westminster Abbey, London (well, really, Westminster). Westminster needs no justification as a place to visit. The amount of connections that can be made at the Abbey are limitless. Chaucer and Poet’s Corner. Edward the Confessor. Coronations. Architecture. The place is packed full (quite literally) of history and culture. Constructed in the mid-13th century, the Chapter House, however, deserves a great deal of attention. From the oldest door in England (1050!) to its paintings and stone benches, it is by far my favorite spot in Westminster.


Tower of London

Tower of London. Like Westminster, the Tower really needs no justification. Its historical striations  are complex and compact, building on each other and creating a spider web of English culture. Here is the moment to connect medieval and Early Modern history together, demonstrating how it develops rather than abruptly shifts. For myself, I am always intrigued by the Norman presence within the White Tower, particularly the chapel.

Tower of London, inside St. Thomas’s Tower


Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. For a medievalist, every trip to Canterbury Cathedral is a pilgrimage. It is easily one of the most prominent literary sites, of course. This was my first time at Canterbury, and it didn’t disappoint. Winding through streets, looking for the cathedral, then finding it at the end of an alley. The gateway obscuring it until you get close enough to peer through, and then your breath is taken away. I was fortunate in that it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and cotton clouds. When we first arrived, there was a graduation ceremony taking place inside, and, as luck would have it, the choir was singing. A perfect moment. Like any medieval visitor, I stared straight up in awe. It’s difficult not to. The sheer scope of the cathedral is unbelievable.

The crypt is the place to go first. We were found by a lady working there who told wonderful stories about Becket. I found it easier to conceptualize the inside of the cathedral after having seen the crypt.

Canterbury Cathedral, shrine of Thomas Becket

The shrine to Thomas Becket is also a powerful aspect of the cathedral (and well-represented with the above sculpture and the single candle marking where his tomb rested) – and again the opportunities for teaching are endless.


Dover Castle

Dover Castle, Kent. I have already posted about Dover, so I won’t say much here. Still, I wanted to include a photo.


Glastonbury Abbey, site of alleged tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere

Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset. If I absolutely must choose my favorite site from this trip, I will have to go with Glastonbury Abbey (the birds of prey exhibit and being able to hold a falcon definitely added to the experience). Given one of my interests is Arthurian literature, being able to visit the ruins was a special treat. It helps that it lived up to expectations as a peaceful place, worthy of all the stories of its sacredness and import. There are two signs (one of which is above) marking the Arthurian significance of the site. I think it would be quite a revelation to students after reading any version of the death of Arthur. Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia .


Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne, Holy Island, Northumberland. Lindisfarne is a long drive up north, but well worth it. There’s an inescapable excitement in crossing over the causeway – after consulting the tidal charts just to make sure you don’t get stranded there! The little village, surrounding the Priory ruins, and the castle looming in the distance make for quite the atmosphere. I don’t think students can appreciate the vulnerability of Lindisfarne to the Viking attack in 793 until seeing it. There is an exhibition concerning the Gospel – the manuscript itself is travelling to the island, I believe, next year. I was concerned that the Island was too far out of the way, but I really wouldn’t want the students to miss it.

Lindisfarne Priory, view from the sea side of the island


Chesters Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall

Chesters Roman Fort, Hexham, Northumberland. Chesters was built to guard the part of Hadrian’s Wall that crossed over the bridge on the River North Tyne. The ruins are very well-preserved, particularly the rather intricate bathhouse. It’s an excellent example of life in Roman Britain, with the museum providing all kinds of artifacts from Chesters and other parts of the Wall. There are two sections of the Wall itself still intact, demonstrating how the fort and the Wall connected. I chose Chesters for the sake of ease of travel; however, Corbridge Roman Town is another site I will consider in the future as a companion to it.


Sherwood Forest, Major Oak

Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. I said above that Glastonbury was my favorite site. This is only because I put Sherwood in a class of its own. There are many things I could say about the forest, but I will limit myself to its pedagogical assets. First on that list is, of course, its literary connections. Seeing Sherwood makes the stories real. However, beyond that, I think the sheer age of the forest is its value. It is difficult, even for New Englanders, to grasp the weight of time in England as compared to the United States. In Sherwood, it is inescapable.


I think the key to a study abroad trip of this nature is variety – expressing ideas, history, and culture from the perspective of different types of people, different architecture, different ways to connect what they have read to what they are seeing. With all of these sites, we have cathedrals, abbeys, castles, rural areas, cities, islands, forests, etc. We have Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Middle English, Early Modern. In case you haven’t picked up on it, the word “connection” is very important to me – as an individual, as a researcher, and as a teacher. I have some tweaking to do as well as some adding (I want to include some libraries into the mix), but I’m calling the test run a success.

I, naturally, have all kinds of texts in mind to assign for this course, but I would be interested in hearing ideas about what you would assign as companions to these sites.


PS For more photos, see my Flickr set.


Filed under 14th Century, Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer, Early Modern, History, Medievalism, Teaching, Travels

Travel Destination 2012: Dover Castle

First of all, I commented in my last update that Facebook was an entirely different post. Well, I wrote that post – but for a different blog, my colleague Ben Railton’s American Studier. If you’re interested in my musings about social media and American views of isolation, check it out here.

I also mentioned that I would be doing a series of posts on various sites I plan to visit this summer in England.

My travel MAP.

Today, let’s go to Dover Castle.

(VERY) Brief history:

Potential Iron Age earthworks

Roman lighthouse, c.50CE (the Roman invasion is usually dated to 43CE)

Saxon fortified settlement

Norman invasion, 1066

  • Due to Dover’s strategic location, it played a role even in the early negotiations between William the Conqueror (when he was still just the Bastard) and Harold Godwinson. According to William of Poitiers (of course, William was on the Conqueror’s payroll, so we have to be a little careful about his statements) in his Gesta Guillelmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum (“Deeds of William Duke of the Normans and King of the English,” 1071-77), Dover was part of the fealty Harold swore to the Duke, promising to fortify the castle for William at his own expense:

“traditurum interim ipsius militum custo dise castrum Doveram, studio atque sumptu suo commu uitum”[1]

  • Later, after the Battle of Hastings, William, on his way to his coronation, made a point of stopping at Dover – a side trip that ended in flames, according to William of Poitiers. The Duke then had a timber fortification constructed.

Henry II, 1133-89

  • Designed by Henry’s architect, Maurice the Engineer, the actual castle was built between 1180-85.
  • It was designed as both a defensive fortification and a location for royal ceremony.
  • It is believed that Henry took advantage of the new popularity of the nearby Canterbury Cathedral, after the murder of St.Thomas Becket. Ironic, given his involvement in the death.

First Barons’ War, 1216

  • The French king Louis VIII tried to take the castle with the help of some of the barons.
  • During the battle, the only example of a counter tunnel was created. The tunnels, and later additions, played a role in Napoleonic times and during the World Wars.

Personal interest:

Well, any one of the bullet points above would be enough to make me want to spend days tromping around the castle and its environs. (If I’m completely honest, a castle wouldn’t even need to have a history to make me happy.) However, I’ll pick one reason here. Henry II. My favorite English king. Was he a good guy? Probably not – okay, really not. But is he cool? Absolutely. I wrote an encyclopedia article on him several years back. An excerpt:

At the time of Henry’s succession to the throne, which was the first peaceful transition of power in several generations, he was the most powerful lord in Europe; he controlled over half of the French territories through inheritance and marriage, an area stretching over 500 miles, approximately the length of Britain. As a result of Henry’s mass accumulation of land, the power structure in Europe changed considerably in the 1150’s; French duchies that had once been in competition with one another now owed allegiance to one man, who was also the king of England. Given the breadth and wealth of his holdings, Henry could claim to be more influential than the king of France, his ostensible overlord. By the end of his reign, his provinces would extend all the way to the Mediterranean, successfully preventing any territorial expansion on the part of the French monarchy. In Britain, he effected the restoration of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Northumbria from the king of Scotland in 1157, conquered parts of Ireland in the 1170’s, which he later granted to his son John, and negotiated the fealty of the Welsh princes. [2]

All interesting developments. Great history. But my overriding interest in him is simple: his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. My medieval heroine. To think of wandering around a site Henry II commissioned and where Eleanor stayed from time to time never fails to make me shiver with excitement.

Teaching potential:

  • Dover’s long, varied history provides an excellent example of the early history of Britain. Iron Age. Romans. Saxons. Normans. Plantagenets. They all left their mark, and they all wanted to exploit Dover’s strategic location.
  • The way the medieval history of the castle is woven into more recent events, such as WWII, makes for a poignant connection.
  • The “history” written by such men as William of Poitiers allows for a moment to consider the genre and the biases of particular individuals.
  • The court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is the center of much of the literary activity of the twelfth century. Locating it in a place like Dover makes it real.
  • The relationship between Canterbury and Dover provides some interesting considerations.
  • Have one of your own to add? 

There is more, so much more, about Dover Castle – its use as a defensive fortification, its political significance to Henry, the restoration of its Great Tower…the list could go on.

— Kisha


[1] William of Poitiers, Scriptores rerum gestarum Willelmi Conquestoris, ed. John Allen Giles (London, 1845), 108.

[2] “Henry II,” The Early Peoples of Britain and Ireland: An Encyclopedia, ed. Christopher A. Snyder (Oxford: Greenwood, 2008), 303.

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St. Scholastica’s Day: Town and Gown problems in the 14th century

The new semester is well underway, and my teaching load this semester (one section of History of the English Language, one section of Chaucer’s Works, and two sections of a Second-Year Seminar on the Oxford Inklings) means that I’m busy with reading–prep work for classes and piles of student work. As usual, I’ve also got several books around the house in various states of being read–Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, Frederick Hackwood’s Old English Sports, Timothy Jones’ Outlawry in Medieval Literature, and Armin Brott’s The Expectant Father (this will, of course, require a separate entry soon).

I’ve also got a book that caught my eye in a used bookstore a while back–an 1876 edition of Reverend T. F. Thiselton Dyer’s British Popular Customs Present and Past. It’s an quirky bit of armchair sleuthing in which the Reverend Dyer collects accounts of the various festivals, customs, and local oddments from around the British Isles and from texts drawn from a millennium’s worth of writers and historians.

As a bit of personal entertainment, I’ve started reading the appropriate day’s events and celebrations whenever the calendar dictates it, and today’s entry on St. Scholastica’s Day caught my eye as a useful cautionary tale about the long-standing tension between town and gown. The story is drawn from William Huddesford’s 1772 The Lives of Those Eminent Antiquaries John Leland, Thomas Hearne, and Anthony Wood:

“The Burghers or Citizens of Oxford appeared in their full number on St. Scholastica’s Day at St. Mary’s. Alderman Wright, their oracle, told them that if they did not appear there might be some hole picked in their charter […] he told them moreover that, though it was a popish matter, yet policy ought to take place at this juncture in time. The origin of this custom was a furious contest between the citizens of Oxford and the students. Some of the latter being at a tavern, on the 10th of February, 1354, broke the landlord’s head with a vessel in which he had served them some bad wine. The man immediately collected together a number of his neighbors and fellow-citizens, who, having for a long time waited for such an opportunity, fell upon the students, and in spite of the mandates of the Chancellor, and even the King himself (who was then at Woodstock), continued their outrages for several days, not only killing or wounding the scholars, but, in contempt of the sacerdotal order, destroying all the religious crosses of the town. For this offense the King deprived the city of many valuable privileges, and bestowed them on the University, and the Bishop of Lincoln forbade the administration of the sacraments to the citizens of the town.”

The story then goes on to explain how, after three years of petitioning, the town of Oxford was able to win a commutation of the sentence, but only so long as, on St. Scholastica’s Day each year, the citizens came to St. Mary’s and swore “observance of the customary rights of the University, under penalty of 100 marks in case of omission of this ceremony […] The traditional story that the mayor was obliged to attend with a halter around his neck […] has no real foundation.”

Can anyone else think of any good stories (real or fictional) of medieval students and townsfolk at odds? I’ll spot you The Reeve’s Tale as a freebie…

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A Plague on the History Channel

I’ve just spent a few minutes stocking up my Netflix account with a set of films and documentaries with a vaguely medieval theme, ranging in quality from “looks like a pleasant enough way to kill a couple of hours” to “how bad could it possibly be?” This is one of the ways I like to entertain myself during breaks from teaching, and sometimes it pays off with a new short scene to use or reference in a lecture, or at least with greater (if sometimes painful) knowledge of what my students may have seen or heard recently. One of the documentaries that popped up during my search is a hideous misfire by the History Channel called The Dark Ages (A&E Home Video, Dir. C. Cassel, 2007), which I actually watched during a break this past year. The Dark Ages was merely bad—poor production elements, questionable research, and people who looked as if they wished they were elsewhere. I watched it and forgot it.

The Dark Ages DVD, however, harbored a dark secret—a second documentary, The Plague (A&E Home Video, Dir. R. Gardner, 2005), which was presumably deemed so terrible that it was never given an independent release and instead was hitched onto The Dark Ages‘ bonus features rather like a surprise yersinia pestis-carrying flea on a rat. I watched this second excremental documentary in a state of disbelief—and, caught somewhere between horror and grudging wonder, I offer the following comments. In the interest of getting on with my day, I’ll limit myself here to just five moments in The Plague that made me want to scream out my pain and agony and then track down the writer and director to make them suffer as I have suffered.


1. The narration
The story this documentary and its guest experts (who acquit themselves reasonably well and, I assume, had no idea what was going to be done to their efforts) are trying to tell is already quite dramatic enough–the Great Mortality (the actual name used in the 14th century for the plague; “Black Death” wasn’t coined until the 19th century) wiped out something close to half the population of Eurasia in the space of a few years, and left a fundamentally different geopolitical and socioeconomic world behind. Apparently this wasn’t thought to be enough to sustain the interest of the target audience of this documentary (children? Intelligent border collies? Steven Seagal fans? Steven Seagal?), so the producers tracked down a voice-over actor who contributed a passable impression of the movie-trailer guy (“In a world where…”) and gave him a script that also sounds like a bad movie trailer, so that the narration provides us with grimly-intoned but oddly silly lines like “they had no idea that within the ships were cargoes of food, textiles…and death.” One assumes that, in fact, the crew of the average 14th century merchant ship did know that at least two of those things were down there, unless sailors were routinely shocked when they’d peer down into the ship’s hold: “Say, Guiseppe, where did all these carefully-stowed containers of cinnamon, pepper, and assorted foodstuffs of the East come from? And is that a waterproof-wrapped selection of costly silks brocaded with silver thread down there, or am I nuts?”

Oh, and while we’re on the voice work…

2. The silly, silly accents
Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine–movies and documentaries that want us to understand that the person speaking is NBOA (Not British Or American), but that don’t trust us to read subtitles. The solution, and it’s apparently so obvious that even the director of The Plague figured it out, is to bring in actors to put on fake and hilarious accents so we know they’re playing foreigners. In this documentary, there are “Mongols,” “French,” and “Italian” speakers in addition to English speakers (and, of course, the Movie Trailer guy). Leaving aside for the moment the problem of sticking modern versions of these accents on the characters, and the fact that they’re all speaking modern English anyway, it’s hard to take the whole thing seriously when half the speakers sound like Peter Sellers. The whole thing reaches the height of inanity when a voice-over, purportedly that of Italian chronicler Gabriel di Mussis, speaks on the horror of the plague: “Alla-mighty a-God, son ava de entire-a human-a race, we are-a wallowing in-a the mire av manifold-a wickedness…” I assume the voice actor was wearing a bushy black mustache, holding a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and recording his lines on break from helping his brother Luigi to fight Donkey Kong. Later, the same actor reads an account by Agnolo di Tuola of the early mass graves dug in the Italian countryside, presumably not realizing that his I’m-a-da-pizza-guy delivery somewhat undermines the gravity of the lines: “In-a many-a places, great-a peets were dug and-a piled-a deep with-a da multitude of-a da dead…”

3. The presentation of various popular legends as fact
There are a few really egregious examples here–my favorite is the recounting of a well-known (and, quite possibly, true) story about the Mongol army using “crude catapults” to toss plague victims into the city of Kaffa. The narrative seems a little confused about whether or not this happened:
“While the story might be more legend than fact, the Mongol pestilence spreads to the townspeople of Kaffa. But while these facts seem clear, a mystery remains…”
I should say so. For starters, what facts are we talking about here? Why bother including the disclaimer immediately before asserting that the catapult-a-plague strategy was real? How, exactly, do apocryphal stories spread disease? And while we’re at it, is it worth mentioning that plague could also be spread quite easily between two clashing armies, with or without what the narrator (in another of his Movie Trailer moments) calls “the first example of germ warfare”?

4. A World Gone To Hell
I lost count of the number of variations on this particular theme–it’s almost the theme of the entire film. I counted at least half-a-dozen actual references to “hell on earth” or “a world gone to hell.” It’s not a question of whether things were really very bad in the late 1340s–they absolutely were. The problem is that these lines, almost invariably, are accompanied either by pictures of actual fire (even if that means just showing a torch on a wall) or by totally incongruous images (such as a bored-looking Jewish merchant named “Agamnet” or something similar, whose performer was apparently chosen specifically for his ability to make Jewish merchants look shifty and untrustworthy, but who here seems to be wondering whether he left the oven on). Apparently the idea of people actually dying of a disease they couldn’t explain and couldn’t stop isn’t horrifying enough, but a picture of a large candle is meant to make us widdle ourselves in horror.

5. Joan of England
The documentary builds its narrative around a number of key figures (among them Pope Clement VI, the physician Guy de Chauliac, and Agamnet). One of the major plotlines revolves around Joan of England, the teenage daughter of the English king Edward III. Since essentially the only significant thing anyone knows about Joan is that she died in 1348 on her way to Castile to meet her fiancé, the documentary has to work extra-hard to build some kind of suspense around her story. It fails utterly to do this, opting instead for a series of tooth-achingly-ironic ruminations on the elaborate security precautions and vast personal guard her father expended on getting her safely to Castile: “Along with many distinguished clergymen and diplomats, 100 bowmen will make the journey will make the journey to protect this…precious cargo. But their precautions will come to nothing. Within a year, almost all of them will be dead...” Later, in case we’d forgotten, we are reminded, “Joan is perhaps the most well-guarded woman in Europe right now…but archers and castle walls cannot shield her from an unseen enemy. The phantom, the plague, strikes randomly.”
By the time Joan finally grows ill, we are fully expecting an over-the-top moment, and even here the documentary goes beyond our wildest hopes and fears. As we watch the actress playing Joan laugh and toss her hair fetchingly with her attendants, the narrator intones, “Joan, princess of England, favorite daughter of the king of England, does not survive. Like almost half the population of Europe, she falls victim…” [dramatic pause, while church bells begin to chime] “…to the Black Death. Her father, Edward III, is powerless to do anything but mourn.” And the scene fades out, but not before we are treated to a fade-in of magnified green-tinted yersina pestis bacteria and a brief image of a skull over Joan’s face.

There’s plenty more that was equally ridiculous–the hammy overacting of the Flagellants; the constant re-use of a limited amount of re-enactment footage (so that peasant burials in Italy, France, Germany, and England all involve suspiciously familiar-looking peasants); the shots of Joan of England playing “Ring Around the Rosey” with her friends, seemingly without the connect-the-dots irony which limns the rest of her story; the depiction of prostitutes in plague-era Germany as, apparently, bawdy Italians; and on and on.

If you have the opportunity and are of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 temperament, I recommend hunting down the full documentary and treating yourself to an unparalleled viewing experience. If you take the rather narrow view that something calling itself a “documentary” ought to resist forced melodrama or, indeed, be in any way based on documentary evidence, then you can probably afford to skip it.

In the meantime, does anyone have any recommendations for me to add to my Winter Recess viewing list?



Filed under 14th Century, History, Medieval Movies, Medievalism, Pop Culture

Blown Away…

So I’m still here, and working away at the new semester. But September has been a wash writing-wise, for all sorts of reasons–a big one of which was the hurricane.

Hurricane Irene hit New England hard on August 28. In Vermont, it washed out roads and covered bridges and left entire communities isolated. In Connecticut, flash floods blew through the middles of towns and left puddles the size of city blocks. In my part of Massachusetts, it took down trees by the score–and power lines with them.

My house lost power on Sunday at about 11AM, when a tree fell at the end of our street and brought spaghetti-like heaps of power lines down with it. We weren’t entirely surprised by this–while out walking our dog that morning, my wife and I had pointed out that tree as being very likely to come down (I make no claim to any prognosticative talent thereby–the tree was long dead and had been dropping rotting branches onto the road ever since we moved into our house two years ago). A neighbor put out some orange cones around the downed tree; we packed our food into a cooler and played Scrabble while the storm went on.

Then another tree went down, on the other end of the block.

Then another.

Then the first of the telephone poles came down…and then another…

Once the storm ended, the damage assessment started–and it was kind of a doozy. It took the utility companies a couple of days just to clear the roads, and nearly a week to restore power to my neighborhood. By the time power came back on, I had four days left in which to write the syllabi I’d so blithely assured myself I’d get done in the two weeks before the semester started–and I’ve been scrambling ever since to catch/keep up with the daily work of the semester.

I did find this bit of information interesting: according to NPR, the last few years has seen some of the heaviest hurricane seasons since the Middle Ages, which paleotempestologists (archeologist/stormchasers who must have to order extra-long business cards) have pinpointed as having been something of a golden age for great big hurricanes. They figured this out by combining data from inland lagoon sediment layers, coral growth patterns, and other sorts of evidence. The full article is here (, and offers a glimpse into a world of medieval research far away from my nice dry libraries and archives.

Anyway, with this particular hurricane having passed with no more serious effects for us than a fridge and cooler full of spoiled food and a hectic start to the semester, I’m definitely feeling a bit of guilt over neglecting my writing (both here and elsewhere) over the last few weeks. Back to the grindstone…and all the best to those elsewhere (especially in my fondly-remembered college stomping grounds in Plainfield, Vermont) who are still recovering from more serious consequences of the storm.



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The “medieval turn” in Ice Hockey

While the medievalists of Massachusetts are busy working on our various summer projects, we’re also being hopelessly distracted by the ongoing drama of the Stanley Cup finals. Obviously, we’re a bit partial here at MassMedieval (I, for one, am wearing my Bruins sweatshirt while typing this), and since it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to keep from thinking about tonight’s game, it’s time to talk ice hockey.

A contest recognizable as the modern game of ice hockey can only be reliably traced back to the 19th century, when it was already a popular pastime among Canadians.  The origins of the game, however, go back much, much further, with roots in medieval sport and even older games. Most people who have given thought to the matter argue (sometimes passionately) that hockey belongs among the descendants of one of three games: hurling, bandy, or kolf. I, armed with half an hour’s research in the OED and Encyclopedia Britannica and the iron-clad hubris of the blogging medievalist, offer the following assessment.

First, there are these “ancestor” games. Hurling, for those unfamiliar with this terrifying sport, is a game played in Ireland, and has been for a long, long time. It’s actually pre-historic, having been around since before records of Celtic activity on the island, and may stretch back more than 3000 years. The legends of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhail both include reference to games of hurling, and the game is referenced in documents surviving from every period of Irish history. It’s known to have been brought to North America by Irish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, and remains a niche game in many cities with a history of Irish immigration.

Why is it terrifying? Well, it’s played with sticks called hurleys, with which players pass or hit a hard ball (the sliotar, pronounced approximately as “slither”) at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour while trying to work their way to the opposing team’s net…and only last year did the Gaelic Athletic Association mandate that players must wear helmets during match play. Interestingly, the sliotar, when it’s not being called “a hard missile moving at speeds capable of shattering bone,” is often colloquially referred to as the “puck.”

The second contender is bandy, a Russian game dating back to 11th century monasteries. The modern game does date back at least to the 17th century, though, and hasn’t changed a great deal since. The game, like hurling, is played with a cork-center hard ball hit with sticks; unlike hurling, bandy is played on an ice surface, and has offside, substitution, and face-off rules similar to those of ice hockey. Its playing field size, however, is massive (closer to the size of a soccer field than to an ice hockey rink), and, like hurling, it involves many more players in-game at any one time than ice hockey.


Kolf, the third game sometimes mentioned in connection with ice hockey, seems to me to have much the weakest claim to kinship. The game of kolf is of medieval, or possibly pre-medieval, Dutch origin, and resembles a combination of croquet, shuffleboard, quoits, and curling. While it is most frequently played on an ice surface, its resemblance to hockey is otherwise questionable (it’s a lot closer to golf, as its name may suggest)—and no one seems to be able to substantiate the connection in any case. Unable to work out any satisfying reason for the supposed link between hockey and kolf, I did a little Googling (is that the appropriate verb form?); most of the connections I found were either highly speculative or parroted a Wikipedia entry (even to the extent of repeating a typo from the entry over and over again). Wiki-creep aside, no one seems to have any valid reason for including kolf in the conversation (though I’m not ruling out a global conspiracy of Netherlandish kolf enthusiasts protecting a secret list of kolf’s descendants hidden under an inverted pyramid in a museum in Utrecht. Has anyone checked the underside of the Stanley Cup for cryptoglyphs?).

An intriguing possibility is that ice hockey may actually be a hybrid of both bandy and hurling—another team sport called bando, highly popular in Wales by the 18th century, appears to have followed this route, having been adapted from games with characteristics of both sports (bandy through importation of the game by Britist sportsmen, and hurling through its Scots cousin shinty). Though the rules and play of bando aren’t entirely understood today, the game involved teams of players using sticks very similar to modern ice hockey sticks to bat a ball around a field laid out in the usual rectangular shape. The game was apparently hugely popular in Wales and may have been known elsewhere in the British Isles. If hurling and bandy jointly inspired bando, what are the chances that other games—some unrecorded, some surviving—were similarly derived? And how likely is it that hockey deserves an invite to the Bandy/Hurling family reunion?

Now, the OED steps in here with an interesting tidbit: the word “hockey” used in connection with a team sport can first be found in a single Galway document dated to 1527 and catalogued in 1885 during a survey of historical manuscripts undertaken by royal commission under Victoria. The manuscript records a statute banning the play of a game (probably either hurling or a closely related game) described as “the horlinge of [a] litill balle with hockie stickes or staves”; since the reference here appears to be to a kind of stick called a hockie rather than to a game by that name, speculation has been offered about the likelihood that the name derives from the Old French word hoquet, a kind of shepherd’s crook. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence linking hoquet staves to the 1527 game—and, frustratingly, there isn’t another surviving reference to an equivalent game (or stick) called “hockey” for three hundred years, when William Holloway records a game called “hawkey” played with “hawkey-bats” and a ball; this is, I would suspect, most likely another of the stick-and-ball games related to either bandy or hurling. At least one 19th century observer agreed—an 1857 edition of Chambers’ Information for the People  (also cited in the OED) noted that “Shinty in Scotland, Hockey in England, and Hurling in Ireland seem to be very much the same out-of-door sport.”

One last (and, from what I can tell, unlikely) possibility is that the modern game is actually an invention of the New World, and may have only a thin cloak of rules and regulations imported by Europeans. Stick-and-ball games were certainly known to the indigenous North American peoples, and a number of them are recorded. There are even hints of games more directly akin to ice hockey being played; in 1865, for example, the quirky archeologist John Lubbock wrote in his Pre-Historic Times that an informant had observed Eskimo children “playing hockey on the ice.” While this is certainly possible, it is impossible to know whether this game predated European contact—John Franklin, the explorer, wrote in 1825 that his men enjoyed “the game of hockey played on the ice” while exploring northwestern Canada. And in any case, a degree of convergent evolution is entirely possible–after all, we’re talking about using sticks to hit things across the ice. To work out that this is fun, you really only need sticks, things, and ice.

Taken all in all, it seems most likely that ice hockey, though recognizable in its current form for only a couple of centuries, has a lineage that stretches back much further—to Tudor English folk contests, medieval Russian monks’ pastimes,  Celtic warriors’ sports, with perhaps a hint of indigenous peoples’ games in the New World. There’s a “medieval turn” to the sport after all…or, at least, that’s my story—and as a medievalist rooting hard for Boston tonight, I’m sticking to it.

Go Bruins!



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