Tag Archives: British Isles

Bamburgh Castle

The Seat of Kings

Not far from Lindisfarne, indeed within sight of it (on a clear day), lies Bamburgh Castle, seat of the kings of Bernicia. Aethelfrith, the pagan Anglo-Saxon king of Bernicia, aggressively expanded into the neighbouring kingdom of Deira, forcibly uniting his own kingdom with it to form Northumbria sometime around AD604, and then proceeded to attack everyone around him, including the kingdom of the Mercians, the various territories of the Britons and Picts, and the Irish kingdom of Dál Riada. By AD616 he was dead, killed in battle against the Mercians, and the rival royal family of Deira seized control of Northumbria, only to lose it to an alliance of Britons and Mericians who broke it in half…

The Return of the King

Aethelfrith’s son, Oswald, was sent into exile among the Irish, where he became a Christian, and married an Irish princess named Fín. At the age of 30 he returned at the head of an army, defeating the British king Cadwallon, whose forces dominated Bernicia, at the Battle of Heavenfield in AD633/4, and re-established the kingdom of Northumbria. He invited Aidan of Iona to establish a Christian mission at Lindisfarne. For the next seventy years or so Northumbria was the dominant kingdom in Britain, and was home to the golden age with produced, among other kings, such material as the Lindisfarne Gospels, works of Bede, and a new wave of architecture.

This is not that Castle

This vibrant kingdom, ruled from Bamburgh, was not actually ruled from this particular castle. The Anglo-Saxon castle was destroyed in AD993 by the Vikings, with the Normans later founding a new castle on the site, which itself became the basis for the castle as it stands today. It was added to and expanded over time, fell into a deteriorated state, before a very wealthy man embarked on a sustained restoration effort in the 19th century. Even if it isn’t the original Anglo-Saxon castle, it’s still a very cool place… even if the tour-guides claim that the original inhabitants of the region were cannibals…

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Lindisfarne

An Island in the North

First off, Lindisfarne isn’t very good at being an island; at low tides it reaches out to Britain, such that one can drive across a slightly anxious, regularly submerged road. This makes it an ideal location for a monastery, both removed from, yet still in contact with, the world. Layers of meaning in that one. Or, perhaps it was just a convenient place for the monks of Iona to set up shop within sight of Bamburgh, where the king was.

The Irish in the North

The monastery was founded around 635 by Aidan, a monk of Iona, which was a very important Irish monastic centre off the west coast of Scotland, founded by the redoubtable Columba (Colum Cille).  It is no mere coincidence that someone from arguably the most important ecclesiastical site north of Kildare was involved in the evangelisation of the north of Britain; the king who gave the island to Aidan, Oswald, lived in exile and was baptised among the Irish, even fought for them and married and Irish princess, and won his father’s kingdom back with the aid of Irish warriors. It’s safe to say he was rather fond of the Irish.  Lindisfarne was home to Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and many Northumbrian kings retired and were buried there. They also produced some really beautiful manuscripts, such as the eponymous gospel-book. It was also the first place in Britain that the vikings attacked, in 793, beginning the ‘Viking Age’ (though this is, of course, debatable). In any case, the monks upped sticks and left, taking the bones of their saints with them, eventually settling at Durham, though some were returned to the island.

Not my Lindisfarne

Sadly, the ruins of the abbey of Lindisfarne are not the ruins of Aidan’s abbey. They are much newer, dating from the 11th century, and there is a new castle, and a new church.  All still very interesting, but it is not the Lindisfarne that I read about, that I see in my mind, an island full of monks speaking Irish, Northumbrian, and Latin, preparing calf-skins and inks for the production of manuscripts, building libraries, educating. Yet it was fun to think that there where I stood, once too, perhaps, did Aidan, Adomnán, Cuthbert, and Oswald, and listen to the North Sea tumble onto shore. It’s a beautiful place, reaching back into the earliest periods of British and Irish history, when Angles and Irish did great things together.

Medieval Myths about Ireland

The fanciful Welshman

Gerald of Wales (sometimes referred to by his Latin name, Giraldus Cambrensis) was a very interesting chap for many reasons: his grandmother was a mistress of Henry I, his father is the ultimate ancestor of the Barrys of Cork (who are famous for their tea), he was a monk, and he lived in Paris for a time. Oh, and he wrote a book (Topographia Hibernica, “The Topography of Ireland”) which denigrated the Irish and provided centuries of imperialists with invented fodder to argue that the Irish could not take care of their own affairs, and so should be given a kindly hand in doing so… Yeah… Anyway… Gerald visited Ireland twice, in 1183 and 1185, but doesn’t seem to have strayed very far from the Norman strongholds of Cork, Waterford, and Dublin: at one point he says that the interior of Ireland has many high mountains, which it does, except for the one small detail that it doesn’t. But we’ll let that slide, because, as you will soon see, this is not the strangest notion Gerald had about Ireland, not by a long shot.

I think Gerald was told a few Tall tales by an Irishman…

Gerald wrote that, not only do Irish badgers dig and scrape out holes in the earth for refuge and defence, some of them are born to serve (Bk. I, ch. 19). He informs us that one badger will hold a stick in its mouth and lie on its back while others pile dirt and stone on it. When fully loaded, the other badgers would then grasp the stick in their own mouths, as a handle, and drag the bizarre living bucket out of the sett. Apparently Welsh beavers did something similar…

The Welshman was also told that nothing poisonous lived in Ireland, and that any venomous creature that brought to the island immediately died, sometimes explosively (Bk. I, chs. 21-25). The appearance of a frog in Ossory (a kingdom which lay between Leinster and Munster) was taken as an evil portent of the coming of the English to Ireland… He also notes that this strange inability of poisonous animals to live in Ireland decided to whom the Isle of Man belonged: since poisonous reptiles live on it, Man must be British, not Irish (Bk. II, ch. 48).

The islands in the lakes, and around the coast, of Ireland appear to have had some unique properties (Bk. II, chs. 37-39). There was an island in a lake in north Munster where, if any female creature set foot upon it, they would instantaneously die. On another island, nobody could every die, but when they grew withered and worn and tired of life they sought help to transport them off the island (medieval precedence for assisted suicide?). On an island off the coast of Connacht innumerable corpses had been left out in the open air, where they remained without corruption or decay for centuries, such that men could recognise their ancestors by their faces. Oh, and for some strange reason, mice hated to be on this island, to the point that they would throw themselves into the sea once they realised where they are.

Apparently ravens could not alight upon the earth, or eat,  anywhere near Glendalough on the feastday of Saint Kevin (3 June), because, when the saint was living, a raven spilled his milk, and he cursed all ravens (Bk. II, ch. 61). Gerald also relates the interesting properties of a certain bell which was kept in the land of Mactalewus: if it wasn’t exorcised each night with a specially composed prayer, it would appear the next morning many miles away in the church at Clonard in Meath (Bk. II, ch. 66). Perhaps Irish monks were fond of pranking one another after a few too many sips of whiskey…

Gerald, after examining some of the miracles of Irish saints, concludes that:

“… just as the men of this country are, during this mortal life, more prone to anger and revenge than any other race, so in the eternal death of the saints of this land that have been elevated by their merits are more vindictive than the saints of any other region.” (Bk. II, ch. 83)

Yeah, he’s not wrong there; Irish saints seemed to have been more ‘Dirty Harry’ than ‘turn the other cheek’.

Some nice things that he said,

Gerald reckoned that the very air of Ireland promoted good health, such that there was little need for doctors (Bk. I, ch. 26), and that anyone who lived in Ireland never suffered from any sickness or ailment, other than death. Which is nice of him to say, but Irish Law made explicit provisions for doctors, hospices, and the care of the sick. He did note the rain (how could he not?), but that this was actually a good thing, since the overall climate was good for one’s health (he had some very nasty things to say about dry, sunny places!).

The Irish were, Gerald reckoned, incomparable when it came to music, and that the Welsh and Scots strive to emulate Irish music (Bk. III, ch. 94).

And some not-so-nice things…

Gerald did write that the Irish have

“… beautiful upright bodies and handsome and well-complexioned faces… fully endowed with natural gifts…”

but also that

“their external characteristics of beard and dress, and internal cultivation of the mind, are so barbarous that they cannot be said to have any culture… They are a wild and inhospitable people. They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living… this people despises work on the land, has little use for the money-making of towns, contemns the rights and privileges of citizenship, and desires neither to abandon, nor lose respect for, the life which it has been accustomed to lead in the woods and countryside” (Bk. III, ch. 93)

That’s a little harsh, Gerry; just because the Irish didn’t have the same settlement patterns as you were familiar with doesn’t mean they were beasts. And, by the time the Anglo-Normans invaded, there were a few cities dotted around the island. Maybe Gerald was a prescient Conservative who didn’t like all this hippy communal living, eco-friendly worldview of the Irish… Ah, probably not.

“This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice… They do not avoid incest. They do not attend God’s church with due reverence. … men in many places in Ireland… debauch the wives of their dead brothers.” (Bk. III, ch. 98)

Ah well now, this is just a misunderstanding. Under Irish law it was not uncommon for a man to marry his dead brother’s widow: this was mostly to insure that property stayed within the family, and to ensure her, and her offspring’s, rights were protected. As for not attending the church with due reverence… Well… I’ll let that one lie…

Propaganda

Gerald has a very long list of the vices of the Irish, but he affirms that Ireland is a lovely place. Can you see what he is doing? He is basically offering an argument to his patron, Henry II, that the English should just move in; the Irish aren’t up to much, and sure they don’t hardly use the land at all, it’s a good thing to take it from them. Here we have one of the roots of the colonial myth that has been imposed across Africa, the New World, Asia, and Eastern Europe by Imperialists for centuries. The Topographia Hibernia was accepted as an accurate work on the history and culture of Ireland for hundreds of years, read and reread by successive generations, quoted endlessly to justify the subjugation of the Irish. This, among other reasons, is why history, as an academic discipline, is vital: lies and half-truths are entertaining, and engaging, but they are also misleading, and often cloud real issues. While Gerald’s work is valuable for many reasons (he records in great detail certain aspects of Irish and Hiberno-Norman life, music, and culture, and his attitudes are very indicative of the time), it is also a reflective device: the Topographia Hibernia is propaganda, pure and simple, and though we might laugh at his strange notions now, some still endure in various guises. We can see how he carefully laid his argument, how he planned the myth of a bountiful land left wasting by its native inhabitants. The discipline of history does not accept a written text as gospel, it interrogates it, it seeks out every contradiction and flaw, every accuracy and concordance. This is a very useful skill to have, to be able to analyse in detail the politically motivated writings of long dead authors, which may or may not have had tremendous historic repercussions, not only because it offers some insight into the past, but because we see the same propaganda alive and well in the modern world. You don’t see it? Can you think of any nation that, for ‘historic’ reasons, is subjugating or terrorising another? Can you think of a political party that demonises its opponents? How about a culture whose role in society is sidelined because it doesn’t fit in with the approved ‘norm’? Gerald was writing from a position of imperialistic vitriolic prejudice, a malady which continues to infect the human condition, which can only be shorn away by reason, and the acceptance of all humanity in its wonderous variety.

Europe, Distilled

Sent to me by a friend, we have here 1000 years of European history distilled into roughly 3 minutes. With epic music. It’s rather fun to watch the rise and fall of empires; keep an eye out for the height of the Habsburgs, Napoleon’s marches into Spain and Russian, the frequent butchering of Poland, the multiple conquests of Ireland, and the rise of Prussia.

Good job Harru no’ stæsj?.

(The username has a question mark in it, I’m not puzzled or being sarcastic, just to be clear).

(EDIT, roughly 10min after original posting)

After some brief research, it turns out this isn’t what I thought it was. Still very cool and everything, but it was made with this software, so most of the credit goes to these folks: The Centennia Historical Atlas. Credit where credit is due.

(EDIT, 27 May 2012)

It seems that the makers of the historical atlas have had the video pulled from YouTube. Pity, but it is their property. This one is not as good (apologies to the creator), it begins too late for my taste, but hey, what can you do?

Search Terms.

Keeping track.

WordPress has this fun little feature which tells me what search terms are used to arrive at my frivolous endeavours. The majority of them make sense, but there are some oddities, some of which are stupid, others disturbing. In the last month Worpress recorded two vaguely racist searches, “anglo saxons in Missouri”  and “anglo saxon and proud” which amuse me all the more because the people who use this phrase tend not to realise how little the Anglo-Saxons contributed to the genetic make-up of the people of the British Isles. In fact the genetics of an Irishman from the extreme west, which never saw an Anglo-Saxon, are almost identical to the point of statistical irrelevance to a woman from York. Even culturally the English owe more to the French, via the Normans, than they do to the Anglo-Saxons. And besides, being proud of your genetic heritage is nonsense, if anything genetic research has proved how little difference there is between individuals humans. So stop it, stop being racist, stop suggesting that your ancestry is superior, stop being an idiot.

And now to more amusing things…

I’m not really sure what people are looking for when they type these – “adam & eve first people on earth”, “what did adam look like”,  “jezus born [sic]”,  “the tree ate by adam and eve”, “jesus birthday photo/portrait”, but at least they are looking for answers, I suppose. The short answers are, in order, no they weren’t; Adam didn’t look like anything, he probably didn’t exist; I assume you mean Jesus, and he may have been born, but not to a virgin, or the daughter of a virgin; even if they did exist, how could they eat a tree, I think you mean the fruit from the tree of knowledge, which isn’t real either; and there is no picture or portrait of Jesus because (a) cameras weren’t invented until about a millennium later (moron), and (b) nobody knows what he looked like anyway, he certainly wasn’t the guy in all the pictures we see in churches, he probably looked a lot more like a Palestinian than a BeeGee…

To be perfectly blunt, most of the characters in the Bible are just that, characters. Adam and Eve, Noah, and all the earlier fantasy folk did not exist, even the Catholic Church accepts this. Abraham and Moses may have existed, and David definitely did, but all have been greatly aggrandised to the point of caricature. Jesus, a charismatic faith-healer who wandered around annoying the establishment, probably existed, but Paul, the real inventor of Christianity certainly existed. If you sincerely believe in the talking snake, fitting all the animals in the world onto one boat, a huge movement of people that nobody else noticed, and the writings of men who were very imaginative if not delusional, seek help, soon.

Bad History.

There are some wonderfully odd entries concerning historical matters, and the Merovingians appear to be particularly popular, with such gems as “merovingian atlantis”, which is an odd opposition of terms since one had nothing to do with the other (aside from the simple fact that there was no Atlantis), and, this is brilliant, “what are merovingians, really”. Clearly someone has become exasperated with all the pseudo-historical nonsense concerning the early rulers of the Franks, which is what they were, really. The ruling family of a bunch of Germans (ironically) who settled in Roman Gaul. No magic, no Atlantis, no conspiracies.

Of course we find the odd historically inaccurate searches, such as “visigoths and roundheads”. The Visigoths began bothering the Romans in the 3rd century, and were running  Spain by the 6th, while the Roundheads were the Parliamentarians of the English Civil War in the 17th century. That’s over a thousand years, most of France, and a narrow stretch of water apart. What could possibly connect the two? Coming in at a close second we have “the huns,the vikings, and visigoths who tear down rome”.  Neither the Huns, nor the Vikings ever sacked Rome, the city, though the Visigoths did. In relation to the larger empire, the Visigoths and the Huns did create instability which contributed to the fall of the empire in the west, but it could hardly be said that they tore it down. The Vikings had nothing to do with Rome, unless you count the sack of 1084 perpetrated by the Viking/French hybrid Normans. The city of Rome was sacked by Gauls, Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, the last of who ended imperial power in the west.

This is a strange one, “scottish face hair”… I think it’s called a beard, and yes, sometimes the Scots grow beards.

And, inevitably, I am afflicted with the blatantly stupid search; “fomenko atlantis troy”, which translates roughly as “what does this deranged mathematician who is swiftly losing what credibility that he had think about a fantasy and a true event?”. To be ignored.

Questions and Answers.

I’m guessing the following are lazy students looking for answers. Don’t get me wrong, the internet can be a valuable tool for research, but typing in the essay/exam question hoping for an answer, that’s just indolence of the lowest order. But, just for fun, here are the answers.

“discuss what is meant by salus populi suprema est lex”  In brief, keep the people healthy and the everything will be fine. US Republicans, and others, who think universal free healthcare is bad idea take note. It also has to do with the bee laws, pregnant women, and legal murder, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.

“did the celts call themselves celts?” No, thought Caesar said that they did, but we can’t really trust him… Or can we? He may have misinformed us to fulfill Roman stereotypes, but also, since nobody could really contradict him, he could be telling the truth. Ah, ’tis a delicate puzzle.

“what medieval viking basically rose from nothing to becoming a duke” I really don’t know. There were a few Viking earls, but dukes, I’m not so sure. The closest is Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, who was a viking, but  he didn’t rise from ‘basically nothing’, he was of the nobility. Though, in a sense, we all rose from nothing, a handful of cells which developed music, art, assault rifles, and gelato.

“the 100 years war basic history” It was one hundred years long, and you want a basic history? Actually, that’s a challenge I might take, I’ll get back to you on that.

“explain the causes of world war one”, “what are reasons of second world war” The Germans got a bit uppity, and then the British, French, Russians, and, at the last minute, Americans, gave them a good thrashing. Why did they get uppity? Hunger for land, power, prestige, and the fact that they kept putting megalomaniacs in charge.

“where do you think western art would be today if the byzantines hadn’t continued to support the arts in society” Impossible to know. I don’t really like these ‘what if?’ questions, far too many different factors to consider.

“what was the major factors for european to leap forward from the middle ages overatking the other great civilisation at the time” Luck, lack of space, war, greed, trade, politics… The list goes on. I’m guessing ‘the other great civilisation’ is China, and I really hope this isn’t a reflection of the new (stupid) theory that the East (China) and West (Europe) have been in some kind of cultural war for the last two thousand years. One factor in Europe’s great leap was a sudden shift towards introversion in China, but it wasn’t as if anyone knew what was going on at the time, they couldn’t have planned or foreseen the consequences of their actions. Also, the grammar of this question is terrible.

“french revolution including its legacy and contribution to the world” The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of the greatest scenes in cinema, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, the invention of the bistro, French cinema, the bikini, Napoleon and his complex… The list goes on…

Religiosity.

Finally we come to the truly strange, religion. Let’s start with a fun one; “moral worthiness and chances to go to heaven” and “that your good conducts will be rewarded and your soul will ascend to heaven”. You have no chance of getting to heaven, it doesn’t exist. Your good conduct shouldn’t require a reward, don’t be so feeble-minded. Pick a better set of rules to live by than those written down by a bunch of desert nomads and faith-healers.

“issues trying to comprehend the afterlife” Well there isn’t one, so there should be no issue. Unless the statement is philosophical, as, in a similar fashion, I try to understand why people believe in an afterlife. I imagine it is born of the fear of death, or the facile desire for reward or guarantee.

“do not associate with immoral people” Generally speaking, yes, that is a good rule to live by. Don’t associate with rapists and paedophiles, also known as priests and clergy. Don’t associate with people who base their moral code on the rantings of men who speak to their imaginary friend. Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll are all groovy so long as everyone agrees and nobody gets hurt.

There are more, but I have grown tired of caring. Except for one more, that seems really popular, and is worthy of a longer rant. I’ll get to it later, but for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this small selection of the strange and irrational things people type to get here.