MODERN authors don’t have to look far for inspiration. Often, it’s right there on their shelves in learned tomes of history.
Some of the stories are truly fantastic. Others are simply amazing examples of human behaviour.
Dr Katie Barclay of the Adelaide University school of History and Politics says she finds the use of history in popular modern fiction fascinating.
“These are clearly engaged with much of the historic literature, particularly for the medieval period,” she said. “And, as a historian, you watch it, and you’re constantly thinking ‘yeah that’s good’, and ‘no, that wouldn’t happen’, except it’s fantasy so you can’t get annoyed!”
Dr Barclay points out that history and fantasy have had a long and close relationship: The first novels were called “histories” and purported to be based on real events.
“They often were,” Dr Barclay said, “at least to the level that they featured real historical characters if re-imagined to suit the sensibilities of the era”.
And such “re-imagining” is central to the history-fantasy link. The same story is often retold in different ways over hundreds of years, with each incarnation pitched at the tastes and expectations of a new generation, she said.
“But the most inspirational tales for modern writers and audiences are not necessarily those based on the most outlandish stories or supernatural events, but those that relate to unexpected human relationships.”
Here’s just a sample of some of the most eye-catching historical sources you may recognise in popular books, films and television shows.
CAUTION: There are some Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
SCOTLAND’S ‘RED WEDDINGS’
The “Red Wedding” episode from Game of Thrones had fans in shock, with several characters cut down. However there is a precedent — clan-based slaughter in the north of Britain.
“The Scottish ‘Red Weddings’ linger in the historical imagination because of what it says about betrayal and loyalty and human relationships, and because they wiped out whole families, not just because they are bloody,” Dr Barclay said.
The brutal slayings, while not weddings, were regarded as particularly heinous as they breached strict moral codes of hospitality.
In 1691 a terrible betrayal saw most of the key members of clan MacDonald massacred.
The Scottish clans had been summoned to produce a signed document swearing allegiance to King William of Orange. The MacDonald clan, delayed through a series of misfortunes, delivered their oath several days “too late”.
Several months later, a troop of 120 men under the king’s Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonald’s estates in Glencoe and claimed shelter from the harsh weather.
Hospitality was duly offered, but, after a fortnight of enjoying the MacDonalds’ food, drink and card-games, the soldiers slew about 40 of the clan as they slept in their beds in what would become known as the Glencoe Massacre. The 40 or so women and children that escaped died of exposure.
An earlier, similar, massacre has gone down in history as “The Black Dinner”.
In 1440 the young Earl of Douglas (traditionally called the Black Douglas), 16, and his younger brother David were invited to dine at Edinburgh Castle with 10-year-old king James II.
The story goes that the young nobles were getting along like a house on fire, enjoying food, entertainment and each other’s company until deep into the evening. Suddenly, legend has it, the severed head of a black bull was dropped on the dining table.
The two Black Douglas boys were dragged outside, given a mock trial, and beheaded.
The young king was not likely to have been to blame. The Chancellor of Scotland, Sir William Crichton, had issued the invitations as he felt the Black Douglas clan had grown too powerful.
THE REAL DRAGON SLAYER
If “Smaug” the dragon from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gets your blood racing, imagine what impact the real thing would have had on medieval Europe.
The only encounter with a “dragon” recorded in history happened on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes in the 1340s. The question is, what was the beast really — a crocodile? A giant lizard?
According to the Order of St John’s archives, the beast had established a lair to the south of the fortified city of Rhodes. There, it had begun preying on the local livestock and maidens.
Several Knights Hospitaller are said to have set out to prove their valour by tackling the dragon. After they failed to return, the Order’s Grand Master firmly ordered a stop to such expeditions.
One, however, ignored the order. The French knight Dieudonne de Gozon decided to take on the beast personally. He gathered as many descriptions as he could of the animal from the country folk who had seen it and built a scale model.
He then trained his dogs to attack the creature and practised angles from which he could attack it with his sword and lance.
Once confident, he sallied forth into the countryside and slew the dragon. He was then summarily expelled from the Order for disobedience.
But the public outcry from the peasants about how poorly their hero had been treated soon saw “the Dragon Slayer” restored to the Order and he ended up becoming Grand Master himself in 1346.
“The Rhodes story is not the only crocodile as dragon story going around,” Dr Barclay said. “There is one for St George too — only the crocodile got to Essex! We don’t really know if it was a crocodile, that’s just what a 19th Century scientist thought when he saw a skull in Rhodes that they claimed belonged to the dragon. Given that selling relics was big business during the medieval period and there was 600 years for a ‘dragon skull’ to go missing, decompose (or never exist in the first place) and be replaced with that of a crocodile by an entrepreneurial relic salesman, we don’t really know the truth here. Maybe there really was a dragon!”
HISTORY’S HORRIBLE FAMILIES
There is a reason why the likes of the Tudors keep appearing in books and on our screens. Many were truly awful people from absolutely horrible families.
“Games of Thrones is fascinating,” Dr Barclay said, “not just because of the gruesome deaths and sex, but because these are families defending lineages, committing incest, being wiped out in a single generation.
“We get behind the families because of their relationships to each other, not just because they have dragons.
“Wendy Moore’s Wedlock (a tale described by The Independent as a “misery memoir” of how Georgian Britain’s worst husband met his match; it is “crammed with corrupt surgeons, questionable chaplains, fallen women and gossips”) is also fascinating because of the manipulative and abusive relationship between husband and wife. Then there was Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire — which became the movie The Duchess — a story about a dodgy threesome.”
There is also the true story of James Annesley, the heir to the estate of Anglesea. He was abducted as a child in the 1730s and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. He managed to escape in his late teens and returned to Britain to discover his uncle had inherited his estates. He won the first trial, but died during a drawn-out 10-year appeals process. This inspired stories such as Memoirs of an Unfortunate Nobleman, Peregrine Pickle and The Wandering Heir.
The magic of a glittering, all-dominating sword is a powerful icon of hope and victory. In the case of magic swords, it may be an idea burnt onto our cultural heritage by history.
Some say the legend of Excalibur could have been born from the impact a high-quality Roman sword would have had if it had survived into the Dark Ages of Britain. Such a refined, well-made and strong weapon could indeed win almost magical status among its enemies.
This is likely what happened some centuries earlier, as the Bronze Age collapsed before the onrushing Iron Age. The new grey metal swords cut through bronze as if it was butter. Whole armies could fall in the face of a smaller band of iron-equipped men.
Iron’s impact was not just felt on the battlefield. The entire economy and social structure of Europe was turned on its head as it shifted away from bronze to the tougher, easier, more common metal.
Even the story of pulling Excalibur from the stone may be a cast-back to a long-forgotten time. Bronze blades were cast in moulds of stone before being pulled out and polished.
Iron was to experience a similar revolution when the refinement of steel emerged. It’s an arms race that has never ended. And each age would most likely have had its own “Excalibur”.
But such magic-history links are rare, Dr Barclay said.
“The ‘magical’ element of fantasy allows us to set aside our practical concerns (’that wouldn’t happen’) and go with the story (‘it isn’t real, so that’s fine’), despite the fact that what drives the story could often happen without the magical elements,” Dr Barclay said.
THE BLACK WATCH
The romantic notion of a band of outcast warriors living on the fringes of civilisation who have taken a binding oath to protect the ignorant and ungrateful people they left behind is a common one.
It was no less popular when it was a reality.
The Knights Templar are well known for their supposed mystical secrets and the staged trial that accused them of such. But their real purpose also has passed into legend.
In the early 1100s, a small band of knights resolved to police the roads of the newly captured Holy Land for pilgrims making the dangerous journey from Europe.
To save their souls and prove their devotion the knights adopted the rigid rules and lifestyle of monks, with the added responsibility of protecting Christendom from all its enemies.
The idea spread like wildfire: Soon every second son in Europe was clambering for permission to win glory (and a secure lifestyle) within a rapidly expanding network of farms, forts and fleets all designed to feed equipment, knights and soldiers to a distant chain of castles protecting Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
Many other Orders sprung up, imitating the idea: The Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights were among the largest.
However, the trials and tribulations of the hot and volatile Holy Land soon caused the chivalric dream to lose much of its gloss. As such, many in the later ranks of the Templars were drafted from “grey knights” who had committed crimes or lost the support of their lords. In return for their service, these warriors were promised the limited freedom the Order offered — as well as a chance to fight, pursue a career and save their souls.
WINTER IS COMING
In fact, it’s already been. Several times.
We’re talking weird seasons that last for years — not the typical annual event.
In 536AD a 10-year winter kicked off in the Northern Hemisphere. Scribes in Europe and Asia reported bitterly cold conditions that seemed to never end. The sun was darkened, they said, and remained “small” even into the depths of summer.
Famine, war and plague quickly followed as crops failed and hungry hordes started streaming south.
Tree rings and ice core samples have since confirmed these events and tied the decade-long winter to the eruption of a supervolcano in El Salvador. But many academics consider that is in itself not enough to explain the duration of this winter. Some say Earth may have also passed through Halley’s Comet’s dusty tail.
Another unusual winter struck Europe in 1816. Known as “The Year without Summer”, hunger once again quickly swept across Europe as crops shrivelled up.
This event has been tied to the 1815 super eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The dust in the upper atmosphere from this eruption produced an average 1C drop in temperatures worldwide.
From Game of Thrones to The Narnia Chronicles, myth continues the reality.
Fr+ Bryant Jones, Prior of the United States OSMTJ sent us the link to his Conference at the Dighton Rock Museum. I hope you enjoy.
El joven investigador y escritor José Manuel Morales (Córdoba, 1981) ha acudido este jueves a Toledo con su tercer ensayo sobre temas históricos y de misterio debajo del brazo. En esta ocasión, se sumerge en la historia del Orden del Temple con su libro «Templarios: Claves ocultas en catedrales góticas, vírgenes negras y la búsqueda del Santo Grial en España» (Ediciones Luciérnaga). Una obra que ha presentado en la Biblioteca de Castilla-La Mancha junto al también investigador y colaborador de Cuarto Milenio Luis Rodríguez Bausá y Juan Luis Alonso, autor de la web leyendasdetoledo.com.
-Los templarios es uno de los temas más manidos de la historiografía. ¿Qué aporta de novedoso su libro?
-Aunque a mí me encargaron un ensayo, «Templarios» no es un estudio de investigación al uso, ya que hay muchas obras sobre este tema y la época medieval. Yo me he alejado del libro clásico y ofrezco al lector, tanto al que se acerca a esta temática por primera vez como al docto en la materia, una aventura y un viaje en primera persona por las iglesias y fortalezas con huellas templarias, todo ello de forma novelada, aunque no deja de ser un ensayo.
-¿Por qué cree que los templarios tienen tanto poder de atracción entre los lectores y el público en general?
-Por un lado, porque creo que todos los seres humanos tenemos simpatía por las minorías perseguidas. En el caso de los templarios, fue una organización que creció de manera meteórica, luego fueron perseguidos de forma injusta y tuvieron un final muy romántico. Además, a esta orden se la ha relacionado siempre con los temas más fascinantes del medievo, como los últimos caballeros medievales, la construcción de las catedrales góticas, las vírgenes negras o reliquias como el Arca de la Alianza, el Santo Grial y la Mesa del rey Salomón.
-¿Qué hay de cierto en muchos de los mitos y leyendas que se asocian a esta orden?
-Yo soy de los que opina que toda leyenda tiene un poso de realidad. Para la investigación de la Orden del Temple, aunque gran parte de la documentación no se conserva, ha habido que rellenar las lagunas históricas echando mano a las leyendas, siempre separando el grano de la paja, pero está claro que cuando el río suena agua lleva.
-¿Y cuál es el misterio de su fulgurante ascenso y de su no menos repentina disolución y persecución?
-Quizá, lo más llamativo sería pensar que encontraron el Arca de la Alianza y relacionar la eclosión del arte gótico -surgido alrededor de 1130- con el ascenso de los templarios y, cuando la Orden del Temple es disuelta, este estilo artístico desaparece. Por eso, la hipótesis que yo lanzo en el libro es que encontraron este valioso objeto que les hizo poderosos a ojos del Papa, de monarcas y nobles, además de permitirles el acceso a cierta información para aplicar la geometría sagrada a los templos que ellos mismos financiaron.
-Francia es quizá el país donde las huellas templarias son más claras. Pero, en su expansión, llegaron hasta España. ¿Qué les trajo hasta aquí?
-Los templarios vinieron por dos motivos. Por un lado, su razón fundacional era proteger a los peregrinos que acudían a Jerusalén y, en el caso de España, este papel lo desempeñaron en torno al Camino de Santiago. Y, por otro lado, fue importante su labor en la Cruzada contra los territorios musulmanes en la Península Ibérica, como en el caso de la batalla de las Navas de Tolosa en 1212 o en la conquista del valle del Guadalquivir bajo el amparo del rey Fernando III El Santo.
-Toledo tuvo un gran papel para ellos. ¿Por qué?
-Toledo es uno de los lugares de la Península Ibérica con más huellas de la presencia de la Orden del Temple. Además, tiene una peculiaridad, ya que las encomiendas templarias habitualmente se situaban alejadas de las ciudades, pero Toledo fue la única ciudad con presencia templaria de España por así decir.
M. CEBRIÁN Toledo
The story of England’s heroic King Arthur and his arch enemy Mordred has been a popular tale since the medieval era. It has been told and retold and been the subject of paintings and films as well as a succession of books. There are many differences between the narratives. For instance, sometimes Mordred is depicted as Arthur’s illegitimate son from his half-sister, or he might be portrayed as the son of the King of the Orkneys. He is also sometimes described as a member of King Arthur’s court who rebelled against him. However, the conflict between these two warriors and Mordred’s death in battle with Arthur are subjects of general agreement.
From the British Isles the legend of Arthur was carried to the European Continent and later to other English speaking countries around the world. The popularity of the first name Arthur in so many countries can also be traced to the fame of this legendary hero monarch. Today it is going to be hard to find someone educated in one of these lands who has not heard of King Arthur and is also able to name a few other of the characters and places featured. Although parts of the story are so well-known, its history and significance are not so widely appreciated.
The Origins of the Legend
Historians continue to speculate if King Arthur, Mordred and the other scenes and players in the legend have any historical basis. For the most part the story is associated with fifth or sixth century Wales. If a prototype for Arthur did exist he might have been a Celtic chieftain rallying his forces to fight off the Saxon invaders. References have been found to figures that might have been the model for King Arthur in some of the scare writings that survive from the Saxon period in British history, but none of the associations made are conclusive. Two Medieval writers share the responsibility for publicising the tale and incorporating in it many of the elements familiar to us today.
In 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a history of the Kings of Britain. Many allege that he drew more on his imagination than on any older records that had come to his notice. Others claim that some of what he wrote corresponds with information in earlier documents that have now come to light. Whatever the authenticity of his facts, Geoffrey introduced his readers to a King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Merlin the Wizard and of course, King Arthur’s arch enemy Mordred. In this version of the tale King Arthur goes to fight against the Roman Empire in Gaul (France of today). The evil Mordred takes advantage of the opportunity to usurp Arthur’s throne and take Queen Guinevere as his wife. The news reached King Arthur on campaign. He returns to his kingdom and fights a fierce battle with Mordred at a place called Camlann, Mordred is killed but Arthur is mortally wounded.
In the late medieval period Thomas Malory published a revised and comprehensive version of the Arthur stories, entitled “The Death of Arthur” (Le Morte d’Arthur). The publication of this work coincided with the introduction of the printing press. Malory’s work became one of the first books printed in England and standardised many aspects of the Arthur legend, for example, the idea of Arthur and his knights sitting at the Round Table dates from this publication. The bitter enmity between Arthur and Mordred continues to form a key part of the story but in a key change from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narrative Queen Guinevere remain loyal to King Arthur.
Why have these tales survived the years?
The fact that the reader of this article is likely to be familiar with tales of Arthur and Mordred is a testimony to their enduring power. Yet they are more than simple stories. The Arthur tales have contributed culturally to the shaping of Britain’s identity. Over all these years they continue to serve a useful purpose. People are attracted by the idea that there was once an age when chivalrous knights rode about the British countryside fighting treacherous enemies like Mordred, or even supernatural dragons and other monsters. During World War Two, tales of Arthur’s bravery against the country’s enemies provided a rallying point for resistance to German aggression. Today the interest is probably largely of an escapist nature. Regardless of whether or not there is a basis in history, it seems that tales of Arthur and Mordred still serve a purpose in our hi-tech age.
By: Jane Richardson in newhistorian.com
In 1087, a joint Pisan and Genoese force attacked the North African town of Mahdia, located in modern-day Tunisia. Christian forces returned to Italy triumphantly and used their spoils of war to construct commemorative churches.
A number of Arabic and Latin sources from the time testify to the events surrounding the raid of Mahdia.
One of the most important Latin sources is the poem Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum, ‘Song for the Triumph of the Pisans’. The Carmen, written by a Pisan cleric only months after the raid, commemorates the expedition.
It has often been argued that the raid on Mahdia – conducted under the banner of St. Peter against a Muslim ruler – was a direct precursor to the First Crusade which followed eight years later. The Carmen is often viewed as providing context for the development of a crusading ideology in the eleventh century.
A pioneering new study has taken a fresh look at the Carmen. Matt King, a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the Carmen as a means of understanding Christian perceptions of Islam.
“An examination of this text will allow historians to consider Latin Christian perspectives on Islam and its adherents during the period immediately preceding the First Crusade,” King writes in his article, published in Hortulus, a graduate journal on medieval studies.
It is usually suggested that Pisan interests in North Africa were primarily commercial, with military activities receiving less attention. King argues that there was a certain level of coexistence and cooperation between Pisa and Islamic states, while the Carmen reveals a different side of the story where religiously-charged rhetoric could be applied to justify violent ends.
The Mahdia raid can be located in a wider context of Pisan military activities in North Africa. Pisa had been involved in military actions against Muslims throughout the eleventh century; briefly seizing the city of Bone in 1034 and helping the Norman Robert Guiscard in his conquest of Sicily in 1063.
“The author of the Carmen was thus writing in the midst of conflicts between burgeoning Italian commercial powers and Muslim states in the Mediterranean,” King notes.
Importantly, the Carmen makes frequent Old Testament references in an effort to locate Pisan activity in a Biblical tradition. Within this framework, the inhabitants of Mahdia take the form of Old Testament villains who feel the wrath of God. In contrast, King argues, the Pisans are a Gideon/David/Moses combination who, through the favour of God, are able to defeat their adversary.
“Such a description makes clear the deep religious roots that run throughout this story,” King notes. “In this narrative, it is impossible to separate the sacking of Mahdia or the author’s perception of Islam from this ancient narrative.”
The portrayal of Islam in the Carmen is a multi-faceted one. Pisan attacks are understood as an epic confrontation, similar to the Old Testament and classical tales. Further, the doctrine of the Muslim inhabitants of Mahdia is portrayed as a form of heretical Christianity. Taken together, these depictions of Muslim Africa reveal a medieval Latin understanding of the area as a place and people of the utmost evil.
King notes that the Carmen is, however, a triumphant poem. The author is consciously contextualising the Pisan-Genoese raid in a tradition of God-willed triumph. Simply taking the Carmen’s portrayal of Islam at face value, therefore, may misrepresent the Latin understanding of Islam.
“If we cautiously take the Carmen as indicative of general trends in Pisan perceptions of Islam and Africa,” King concludes, “we thus can see an image of Pisa as a city with some knowledge of medieval Ifriqiya and as one that used this knowledge to nurture some image of righteous war against Muslims.”
For more information: www.hortulus-journal.com
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: DrFO.Jr.Tn
By: Adam Steedman Thake in newhistorian.com