Monday, July 29, 2019

Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) is considered a great Scottish hero.  His name is evoked all over Scotland for his role in making that country independent from England.

(But wait, you say, aren't they the same country?  Emphatically no.  They are both part of the United Kingdom, several different kingdoms under one monarch.  It's been this way since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England.  From the Scottish point of view, Scotland took over England.  England has never seen it that way.)

So why is Robert called "the" Bruce?  Bruce was the name of his clan.  Last names were just coming in during the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, so he might also be called Robert Bruce.  But because he was head of the Bruce clan, he was "the" Bruce.  If I were head of my own clan (my siblings would vociferously disagree), I would be Dale the Brittain.

Medieval Scotland had had its own kings, but in the second half of the thirteenth century the English, led by King Edward I,  conquered the kingdom.  Edward's father had already conquered the kingdom of Wales, naming baby Edward Prince of Wales.  So you see the island of Great Britain had not been the peaceful UK we now imagine it to be.

The Scots fought against the English in what were called the "wars of independence," culminating when Robert the Bruce, having killed his principal rival, had himself crowned king of Scotland in 1306.  He was descended in the female line from twelfth-century kings of Scotland.  The glorious (from a Scots point of view) battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where the English were routed, cemented his claim.

Scottish schoolchildren are taught all this in school, and most Scottish castles highlight their connections to Robert.  The church of Dunfermline, where he was buried, was rebuilt in the nineteenth century to celebrate him (image below, note it saying "Bruce king" at the top of the tower; it says Robert on the other side).  It shouldn't be a surprise that when England says it plans to leave the EU, the Scots are seriously rethinking this "united" kingdom.

After Bannockburn, Scotland stayed an independent kingdom until 1603.  Now relations were not always good with England, and there were such adventures as Mary, Queen of Scots, being held captive for years by her cousin Elizabeth I of England--Mary was James I/VI's mother.  But this seems like a good stopping point.

A good biography is by Michael Penman, Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots (Yale University Press, 2014).

 © C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on Britain during the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Castles through the Ages

Castles, as I've noted in previous posts, really only first appeared around the year 1000, as a combination of palace and fortress.  There had of course been palaces and fortresses going back to prehistoric times, but their combination in a single defensible structure was new in the eleventh century.

We have very few eleventh-century castles.  The occasional grim eleventh-century square tower is about all that we have, or perhaps an outer wall such as the eleventh-century shell-keep of Gisors in Normandy, seen below.

The reason we have such few remains of eleventh-century castles is because castles were rebuilt a lot.  Siege technology was constantly improving (think trebuchets), and castles had to stay one step ahead.  Besides, castles had to make a Statement, and the bigger, the stronger, and more elegant they were, the better statement they made.  Any castle lord who could afford it would renovate and rebuild his castle every generation or so.

In some ways gunpowder did in castles.  In France, where under Louis XIV his war minister, Vauban, systematically went around the countryside with cannons destroying castles (or at least knocking big holes in them), castles were pretty much given up in the early modern period.

But the castles were still there.  They were built of literally millions of stones and were not going anywhere.  And all that stonework could be made defensible again with some effort.  In some places, like Scotland, where it was harder to get cannons across the lochs and highland hills, new castles were being built in the early modern period, designed pretty much the same as medieval castles.  After all, that's what a castle was supposed to be like.

The image below is of Blackness Castle in Scotland, on the Firth of Forth.  It was used for its original military purpose up through the nineteenth century, when soldiers were quartered there.

For the most part, however, most medieval (and early modern) castles had become ruins by the nineteenth century, with a lot of the best stone carried off by enterprising locals to use in their own building projects.  With the development of the Romantic movement (think Ivanhoe) as a reaction against the industrial age, people decided they liked ruined castles.  Castles were romantic.

Some castles were renovated once again in the twentieth century, becoming elegant homes (by twentieth-century standards) as they had once been elegant homes (by twelfth-century standards) in the Middle Ages.  These aren't ruined anymore, but they sure are romantic.

The image above is the Scottish castle Eilean Donan, on an arm of the Irish Sea.  It's now a house as well as a castle that has been voted "most romantic" by various entities.  It really is a romantic site.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on castles and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other ebook sellers.  Also available in paperback!

Monday, July 22, 2019

Fire in medieval cities

Fire was a constant concern in medieval cities.  Because both heating and cooking required open fires, there was always a chance for accidents.  Fireplaces, where the flames were at least surrounded by stone on most sides, were expensive (both for the stone and for the masons to build the fireplace), and because a lot of the heat went up the chimney, they were less efficient than a fire out in the middle of the room.

We have coroners' reports from late medieval London, showing how people died.  For children, one of the heart-breaking aspects of these reports is the frequent indication that the cause of death was accidentally falling or rolling into the fire.

Mom would have been very busy, doing all the things moms do but with far less technical help (no running water, no refrigerators, no washers & dryers, no vacuum cleaners, no ranges, no packaged foods, no prepared baby food, no disposable diapers).  As all mothers know, someone with legs less than a foot long can outrun the grownups if given a head start.  Short of tying the kid up, something no parent would want to do, it would be impossible to make sure they never encountered something dangerous.

Especially in the cities, there was also the constant danger that all those fires would start a fire that would sweep across town, destroying houses.  We now think of medieval buildings as built of stone, but those are the ones that survive--and are mostly late medieval.  For much of the Middle Ages, houses were primarily wattle and daub, made with a wood frame filled in with mud and straw and whatever else came to hand.  Roofs in the countryside were typically thatched, and a good thatch roof will be relatively cheap and last a long time, but one can see that they would be a true fire hazard.

City councils naturally tried to avoid fires.  Cities would have fire barrels on every block, barrels filled with water ready to pour on a fire.  Those in the neighborhood were strictly charged with keeping the barrels full.  Once the barrels were exhausted during a fire, citizens would form a human chain to bring water up from the lake or river (all cities were built on bodies of water).  City councils tried to encourage people to replace thatch roofs with clay tiles or slate, even though these were both heavier (requiring a lot better beams) and a lot more expensive.  And they encouraged replacing wattle and daub with stone.

Even though stone will not actually burn, stone buildings will, as seen most recently with Notre Dame.  If beams that hold the roof burn, as happened in Paris, the walls are in immediate danger of collapsing.  And of course anything inside a house or church may be burned.

Three months after the fire at Notre Dame, they still aren't sure how it started.  A long article in the New York Times, however, indicates that the cathedral came extremely close to being destroyed and was only saved by some very brave firemen and firewomen running up and down hundreds of stairs dragging hoses.

In practice, in spite of everyone's best efforts, medieval cities burned every generation or so, and the churches were often damaged.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval cities and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Thursday, July 18, 2019


Picts were an important--though not well documented--part of the history of early medieval Scotland.  They were there when the Romans moved into Britain in the first centuries AD, and our name for them (Picts) comes from the Latin, because the Romans called them "painted people" (same root as 'picture').  We don't know what they called themselves.

(I assume that costume dramas set in medieval Scotland paint the hero's face blue because of the Picts.  But this still doesn't explain why he's wearing a modern kilt.)

The Picts were distinct from the Scots.  The former were over on the eastern side of what is now Scotland, while the Scots, a Gaelic/Celtic people from Ireland, were over on the west.  Not surprisingly, the two groups have become genetically mingled in the last 1500 years, but those who can boast of "pure Pictish" blood do so at every opportunity.

Both Picts and Scots were Christianized as the Roman Empire overall was Christianized, especially in the third and fourth centuries.  Indeed, what is now Scotland remained Christian after a lot of England became pagan with the invasions of the Angles and Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries.  The Picts erected great stone crosses along their roads.  These roads are now narrow country lanes, but they were thoroughfares in the early Middle Ages.

The Picts also erected stones telling of glorious battles (apparently).  It's kind of ironic that a battle would be important enough to go to the great deal of trouble required in carving its story on a stone, but we now have no idea when or where the battle took place, or even who won.  Was it a battle between Scots and Picts?  Picts and Northumbrians? (from what is now northern England).  Between different groups of Picts?  We will never know (there's a reason historians like written records).

The above is a casting of the back of the same stone cross (the casting shows detail a little better than does the original).  The cross is in the churchyard of the church of Aberlemno, where it has apparently been since first carved.  The stone is about 10 feet high.

Dozens of Pictish stones still exist, some in museums, some still out along the lanes.  They are all carved with a variety of what are now called "Pictish symbols" because we don't exactly know what they mean.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval Britain, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Sword fighting

Too frequently costume dramas set (supposedly) in the Middle Ages have people fighting with thin fencing foils, the fighters alternating clangs against each other's sword.  Sometimes the swords are shown as more like medieval swords, sharp blades, but the fighters still (erroneously) fence the same way (using aluminum swords) in many a movie or TV show.  The image below is a medieval-style sword, which you will notice is not a fencing foil; see more here on swords.

Sword fighting was a highly technical skill, which was why medieval warriors started training young.  In practice the purpose was not to clang one's sword against the other's but rather to kill him, disarm him, or at least force him to yield.  There were a great many different ways of doing so.

We have multiple manuals of sword-fighting from the late Middle Ages.  These were not "sword fighting for beginners" but rather books with brief descriptions of different approaches, stances, and techniques.  One would learn sword fighting from a master, then acquire (or create) a manual with brief descriptions of key points, to help one practice or recall how things were supposed to go.

These manuals are being extensively studied at The Armouries in Leeds, England, a museum that holds the armor once stored at the Tower of London.  People with fencing experience work out what the manuals are suggesting, then try them out to see if they work.  With practice, so that the movements come very quickly and smoothly, they work very well.

One thing the manuals indicate, which might not have been self-evident, is that one can grab the blade of either one's own or the opponent's sword without getting cut, if one holds on rather than sliding one's hand (try it with a steak knife, just not a serrated one.)  Most fights are over very quickly, as one person or the other gains a very brief advantage in the fast-paced fighting.

The image below is of two of the fighters at the Armouries demonstrating their technique.

They are using steel medieval-style two-handed swords, light enough to swing around, sturdy enough for use in heavy whacking (a single long piece of steel from pommel to sword-point, so they won't crack off at the handle as "medieval-look" swords often do).

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval fighting, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.