Tag Archives: History

History of Christmas Traditions

Last week Neil Morrison of Podcraft Productions invited me to record another podcast, this time on the history of Christmas traditions. In it we discuss everything from Christmas trees and mince pies, to Santa Claus and gift giving. We also reflect on what the festive season has lost and gained since medieval times.

You can listen below, or find the podcast – episode 22 of The University of Liverpool’s podcast series – on iTunes, Blubrry, and the web.

 

You might also like the following blog posts on Medieval Christmas:

Christmas at the Medieval Court
Medieval Winter Sports
Medieval Christmas

Why Do We Love Mermaids?

Image (c) Chiara Salomoni 2

Image © Chiara Salomoni for Project Mermaids

A couple of weeks ago Neil Morrison of Podcraft Productions invited me to record a podcast that tackled the enduring appeal of mermaids. It was a fun afternoon and we chatted for so long that I think we could have produced two or three podcasts from the material! I’m sure some of the sections that didn’t make the final edit will appear on here or Mermaids of the British Isles at some point, but for the time being here’s the final product: a walk through our long, complex and profound relationship with the beguiling messengers from the deep.

 

St Valentine’s – a minor day in a medieval calendar packed with festivals

The feast of St Valentine has been associated with love since the Middle Ages. Back then Valentine was one of many saints honoured in the Christian calendar alongside major religious festivals, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

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The martyrdom of St Valentine in British Library Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243.

In medieval times people lived their lives according to the liturgical – or ceremonial – year. But many festivals on the religious calendar also tracked seasonal changes, marking the darkest and lightest times of year, times of planting, harvesting or using up stored food, or signalling the need for people to tighten their belts in periods of traditional shortage.

Little is known about the St Valentine who was martyred on February 14. There are several Valentines in the Catholic martyrology so it’s unclear whether he’s the same saint mentioned by John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, the first English poets to associate the feast of St Valentine with the mating impulses of birds – which were thought to begin looking for their mates on February 14 (this may have been associated with the sounds of the first songbirds after winter).

But what we do know is that Valentine was not one of the more important saints venerated by medieval people – nor was his feast one of the 40 to 50 festa ferianda, or celebratory festivals, which required people to abstain from work in order to fast and attend mass.

Candlemas

Far from being the main event in February, as today’s British high street retailers would have us believe, St Valentine’s Day was vastly overshadowed by Candlemas on February 2 – or to give it its proper name, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary – which commemorates when Christ’s mother presented her holy child in the temple 40 days after his birth.

Each parishioner participated in a solemn candlelit procession before hearing mass and offering a penny to the church. How people celebrated the rest of this work-free day is not clear – though records of other religious holidays reveal that singing, dancing, playing games, drinking, watching plays and feasting were standard forms of entertainment, despite being frowned upon by church officials. Secular distractions aside, Candlemas had huge popular appeal because it celebrated spiritual renewal through Christ’s light in the darkness of winter. It heralded the end of the cold season and the candle stubs blessed by the priest were believed to ward off evil and protect the bearer from harm for the rest of the year.

Shrovetide

Another festival that has echoes today was Shrovetide, a carnival period before Lent that ran from Septuagesima Sunday until Shrove Tuesday – or as it is popularly known, Pancake Day (Mardi Gras). Shrovetide was similarly well-liked because it provided the opportunity to make merry before the strict rules governing diet, sex and recreation kicked in for the 40 days of Lent, when fasting was obligatory and marriages forbidden.

Second only to the festivities witnessed throughout the 12 days of Christmas, when excessive feasting, music, dancing, and games were the order of the day, Shrovetide, was a time for ordinary people to indulge in food, drink and raucous entertainments, watch plays, and play the popular – but dangerous – game of football.

Wood carving of two youths playing ball on a misericord at Gloucester Cathedral. Gloucester Cathedral, CC BY.

Shrovetide also had a practical function. It legitimised the consumption of the last of the food stored over winter before it turned bad, allowing people to prepare mentally and physically for Lent at a time when there was traditionally a shortage of food. The carnival atmosphere also offered a release from the frustrations of winter. Taking its name from the act of shriving – or confessing – sins, Shrovetide captures the very essence of how the medieval calendar absorbed, governed and brought meaning to everyday life.

To everything a season

Of course, there were many other holy days, or holidays, providing occasions for celebration. Christmas, Easter and Pentecost (which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples after Christ’s ascension) were the principal religious periods – balancing penitential fasting and solemnity with time away from work, merriment and gift giving. And the outdoor revels of early May and summer also played an important role in people’s lives, giving rise to secular rituals such as “Maying” (gathering blossoms and dancing around the Maypole, etc), mummings and various forms of secular and religious plays. Events such as these took full advantage of the spring and summer months, with warmer days providing ample opportunity for large numbers of people to gather together outside and celebrate the natural seasons of rebirth and growth.

The complex seasonal rhythms of the liturgical year remained consistent in England right up until the Reformation, when the observance of saints’ days was abolished and events in the temporal cycle were modified. That some of the Catholic feasts, such as Valentine’s Day, Shrove Tuesday and Halloween (All Hallows Eve) survived the Reformation to remain in our cultural calendar today, is undoubtedly due to the rituals and traditions that secular folk attached to them, an issue that brings us full circle to St Valentine.

Be my Valentine

By the end of the Middle Ages, the meaning of Valentine’s Day had expanded to incorporate human lovers expressing their feelings in hope of attracting or reaffirming a mate. In February 1477, one would-be lover, Margery Brews, sent the oldest-known “Valentine” in the English language to John Paston, referring to him as her “right welbelouyd Voluntyn”. At the time Brews’s parents were negotiating her marriage to Paston, a member of the Norfolk gentry, but he was not satisfied with the size of the dowry offered by her father.

The earliest English Valentine from Margery Brews to John Paston. British Library.

The couple married shortly after, so Margery’s heartfelt letters clearly appealed to her beloved. While we have to wait until the Tudor period to witness the now familiar concept of bestowing material gifts on one’s Valentine, it is Margery’s Valentine that best captures the essence of how the saint’s day transformed from being a lesser-known feast on the medieval liturgical calendar to one of the most important days of the year for hopeful and hopeless romantics, regardless of religion.

Further Links:
A reading of Margery’s letter in Middle English is available on this page.
An earlier blog post on medieval Valentines is available here.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Remembering the Past: The History Behind Game of Thrones

‘We watch. We listen. And we remember. The past is already written. The ink is dry.’ So speaks the Three-eyed Raven to Bran Stark in a trailer for HBO’s eagerly awaited sixth season of Game of Thrones. In many respects the Raven’s words, resonantly intoned by Max von Sydow, capture the essence of the series’ enduring appeal. For all of its fantastical elements – dragons, White Walkers, magic – viewers watch and listen in their millions largely because of George R. R. Martin’s flair for taking inspiration from the past and conjuring a world that bears an uncanny resemblance to our own.

Pick practically any period in world history, and precedents for the characters and action can be found in abundance. The Dothraki, for instance, are reminiscent of early nomadic horse-riding peoples, like the Mongols, Huns, and various Native American tribes, while the fierce, seafaring nation of the Iron Islands, the Ironborn, align with the Vikings. Pick any location in Westeros or Essos and the fictional geography maps onto terrains our ancestors inhabited. Thus, the Great Pyramid of Meereen evokes ancient Egypt, and the labyrinthine canals of Braavos nod to the watery geography of Renaissance Venice.

Meereen

The City of Meereen (copyright HBO)

But as any fan will know, the series owes its greatest debt to the history of medieval Britain, especially the protracted civil conflict known as The Wars of the Roses. In the rival Houses of Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and Targaryen, there are clear reverberations of the Houses of York and Lancaster, the rival dynasties that vied for control of the English throne between 1455 and 1487. Dogged by a torrent of regicide and appalling battles, such as the bloody devastation at Towton, where 28,000 men died amidst a snow-storm befitting Winterfell, this epoch supplies the heart-stoppingly brutal, but realistic violence that has made the show so controversial and absorbing for viewers.

war

Game of Thrones takes inspiration from the late fifteenth-century dynastic wars

To temper the raw physicality of the fictitious hostilities, the Wars of the Roses also furnishes Game of Thrones with a tangled web of political intrigues and betrayals. Aspects of Tyrion Lannister’s story parallel Richard III’s as he stands accused of attempting to murder young Bran Stark in a tower at Winterfell. Later, he is condemned (unjustly) for murdering his nephew, Joffrey, and in a brilliant twist of the tower-murder motif, flees Westeros after putting a crossbolt through his father, Tywin, in The Tower of the Hand. Like Richard III, Tyrion also exhibits Machiavellian behaviour. His love of books and instinctive ability to read people makes him adept at manipulating events and influencing others. While Tyrion uses this skill to help others or save his own skin, other characters, like Petyr Baelish, rise to power through fiendishly brilliant manouverings.

Cersei Lannister is equally adept at exploiting others to advance her cause. In this, and her irrepressible devotion to her children, she bears a striking resemblance to Margaret of Anjou, the consort of ‘mad king’ Henry VI. Like Cersei, Margaret engaged in the male-dominated politicking at court and was vexed by rumours of her son’s illegitimacy. In an attempt to strengthen her family’s position, she was forced to negotiate a number of strategic alliances, the most incredible being the marriage of her son, Prince Edward, to Anne Neville, daughter of the earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, the man who had helped to depose Henry VI several years earlier in 1461.

Perhaps it’s Game of Thrones’s capacity for capturing the essence of real life dramas, but not slavishly following them through to their historic conclusions that leaves viewers thirsty for more. We might hazard a guess that Daenerys Targaryan will return across the ‘narrow sea’ to claim the Iron Throne, just as her dragon-bearing counterpart Henry VII did when he crossed the Channel to claim the English throne from Richard III, but with myriad of historical machinations, murders, and power plays to draw on, it’s more likely that George Martin, David Benioff and Daniel Brett Weiss, have plenty of twists in store for us inspired by the incredible dramas of the past.

A shorter version of this article was published as A History Buff’s Guide to Game of Thrones in The Big Issue (issue 1201, 18 April 2016). Online Feature here.

London's Bloody Tower plays host to Game of Thrones Season Five

All decked out. Ian West/PA Wire

The star-studded world premiere of Game of Thrones’s fifth season has taken place – in the UK, at the Tower of London. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting venue for a show based on George R. R. Martin’s notoriously brutal novels.

Like the fictional Red Keep built by Aegon the Conqueror at Kings Landing after his War of Conquest, William the Conqueror founded London’s iconic fortress to subdue the locals after the Norman Conquest and reinforce his dominance as the new monarch. And 900 years on, the Tower has become synonymous with political intrigue, imprisonment, torture and death – a reputation that stems largely from the late 15th and 16th centuries, when several kings, queens and martyrs were imprisoned, murdered or executed within and around its walls.

The Iron Throne at the Tower. ©Sky Atlantic/Justin Downing

During the Wars of the Roses, the medieval conflict that inspired Game of Thrones, King Henry VI was confined in the Tower twice by his dynastic rival, Edward IV. Not unlike Aerys II, the “mad” Targaryen king, who incites Robert Baratheon’s rebellion in the back story to the series, Henry VI’s ineffectual leadership and madness triggered the historic civil war.

A prisoner for more than five years, Henry was murdered at the Tower following the death of his only son and heir at the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471). His execution, like the slaughter of mad king Aerys and his immediate heirs, was followed by a period of relative peace. But when Edward IV died in 1483, political wrangling resumed and the Tower once again provided the backdrop for the next stage of the conflict: the controversial disappearance of Edward’s sons, the “Princes in the Tower”.

The Tower of London in the 15th century. The British Library, MS Royal F ii, f. 73

Sons and queens

The slaughter or disappearance of young heirs and bastards is also a disturbing and recurring motif in Game of Thrones, resonating with the medieval and Tudor obsession with bloodlines and succession.

Jamie Lannister throws young Bran Stark from a tower at Winterfell to prevent his incestuous affair with Cersei and their illegitimate children being discovered. Theon Greyjoy fakes the murder of Bran and Rickon Stark to secure Winterfell by butchering two proxies. Joffrey orders the Gold Cloaks to massacre Robert Baratheon’s bastards. Rickard Karstark kills Tywin Lannister’s nephews. Craster sacrifices his newborn sons to the White Walkers. All are innocent children, and all fall victim to the morally ambiguous “game” being played by the leading Houses of Westeros.

The prime responsibility of the noblewomen, such as Cersei Lannister, Margery Tyrell and Sansa Stark, is to provide the next generation of kings. They are therefore also at the heart of the political machinations. And here, too, the series draws inspiration from the real medieval and Tudor women associated with the Tower.

Sansa, kingdom currency. ©2015 Home Box Office, Inc.

In his pursuit of a male heir, Henry VIII famously had his politically sharp consort, Anne Boleyn, imprisoned and executed at the Tower on charges of treason, adultery and incest (the same crimes embraced by Cersei Lannister). This example will be particularly fresh for those who watched the BBC’s Wolf Hall.

Queen of the Roses

Henry VI’s widow, Margaret of Anjou, was likewise incarcerated in the Tower after a decade-long struggle to secure the crown for her son, Prince Edward. A formidable and proud French woman, who married for political purposes, Margaret was unafraid of engaging with the factionalism of her husband’s all-male council. She fought fiercely, if not always astutely, when her son’s birthright came under attack, and made strategic alliances wherever she could – most notably by marrying Prince Edward to the daughter of her former enemy, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, better known as the “Kingmaker”.

Captured after leading the Lancastrian army against Edward IV at the aforementioned Battle of Tewkesbury, where her son was killed, Margaret avoided her husband’s grim fate and was eventually ransomed, returning to France to live out her days in relative obscurity.

If aspects of Margaret’s story sound familiar it’s because she is one of several resilient historical women who inspired the characterisation of Cersei Lannister. While Cersei’s future is uncertain, we’ve seen her fight to influence and fortify Joffrey’s sovereignty and this season promises to follow her struggle with Margery Tyrell for control of King Tommen, her second son.

Ravens and crows

It’s impossible to avoid a final comparison between the Night’s Watch, or “Crows”, who swear to be “the shield that guards the realms of men” at the Wall, and that other species of the crow genus – the raven – which said to protect the kingdom by its presence at the Tower. According to tradition, if the ravens ever leave, the Tower and the realm will fall.

Game of Thrones’s kind of crow. ©2014 Home Box Office, Inc.

By the same token, one can’t help wondering what will happen to the Seven Kingdoms if the crows defending the northern frontier are slain, or forced to flee, by the White Walkers. In future seasons, Bran and the mysterious three-eyed raven doubtless have an equally important role to play in the defence of the kingdom.

But for the time being, the imminent series of Games of Thrones will continue to delight and terrify its audience with the same bouts of intrigue, scandal and brutality that have contributed to the Tower’s notorious reputation and popularity.

If winter is coming, then so is more bloodshed, for, as Tower prisoner and martyr Sir Thomas More once said in his account of Richard III’s acquisition of the crown, “king’s games” are “for the more part played upon scaffolds”.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

London’s Bloody Tower plays host to Game of Thrones Season Five

All decked out. Ian West/PA Wire

The star-studded world premiere of Game of Thrones’s fifth season has taken place – in the UK, at the Tower of London. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting venue for a show based on George R. R. Martin’s notoriously brutal novels.

Like the fictional Red Keep built by Aegon the Conqueror at Kings Landing after his War of Conquest, William the Conqueror founded London’s iconic fortress to subdue the locals after the Norman Conquest and reinforce his dominance as the new monarch. And 900 years on, the Tower has become synonymous with political intrigue, imprisonment, torture and death – a reputation that stems largely from the late 15th and 16th centuries, when several kings, queens and martyrs were imprisoned, murdered or executed within and around its walls.

The Iron Throne at the Tower. ©Sky Atlantic/Justin Downing

During the Wars of the Roses, the medieval conflict that inspired Game of Thrones, King Henry VI was confined in the Tower twice by his dynastic rival, Edward IV. Not unlike Aerys II, the “mad” Targaryen king, who incites Robert Baratheon’s rebellion in the back story to the series, Henry VI’s ineffectual leadership and madness triggered the historic civil war.

A prisoner for more than five years, Henry was murdered at the Tower following the death of his only son and heir at the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471). His execution, like the slaughter of mad king Aerys and his immediate heirs, was followed by a period of relative peace. But when Edward IV died in 1483, political wrangling resumed and the Tower once again provided the backdrop for the next stage of the conflict: the controversial disappearance of Edward’s sons, the “Princes in the Tower”.

The Tower of London in the 15th century. The British Library, MS Royal F ii, f. 73

Sons and queens

The slaughter or disappearance of young heirs and bastards is also a disturbing and recurring motif in Game of Thrones, resonating with the medieval and Tudor obsession with bloodlines and succession.

Jamie Lannister throws young Bran Stark from a tower at Winterfell to prevent his incestuous affair with Cersei and their illegitimate children being discovered. Theon Greyjoy fakes the murder of Bran and Rickon Stark to secure Winterfell by butchering two proxies. Joffrey orders the Gold Cloaks to massacre Robert Baratheon’s bastards. Rickard Karstark kills Tywin Lannister’s nephews. Craster sacrifices his newborn sons to the White Walkers. All are innocent children, and all fall victim to the morally ambiguous “game” being played by the leading Houses of Westeros.

The prime responsibility of the noblewomen, such as Cersei Lannister, Margery Tyrell and Sansa Stark, is to provide the next generation of kings. They are therefore also at the heart of the political machinations. And here, too, the series draws inspiration from the real medieval and Tudor women associated with the Tower.

Sansa, kingdom currency. ©2015 Home Box Office, Inc.

In his pursuit of a male heir, Henry VIII famously had his politically sharp consort, Anne Boleyn, imprisoned and executed at the Tower on charges of treason, adultery and incest (the same crimes embraced by Cersei Lannister). This example will be particularly fresh for those who watched the BBC’s Wolf Hall.

Queen of the Roses

Henry VI’s widow, Margaret of Anjou, was likewise incarcerated in the Tower after a decade-long struggle to secure the crown for her son, Prince Edward. A formidable and proud French woman, who married for political purposes, Margaret was unafraid of engaging with the factionalism of her husband’s all-male council. She fought fiercely, if not always astutely, when her son’s birthright came under attack, and made strategic alliances wherever she could – most notably by marrying Prince Edward to the daughter of her former enemy, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, better known as the “Kingmaker”.

Captured after leading the Lancastrian army against Edward IV at the aforementioned Battle of Tewkesbury, where her son was killed, Margaret avoided her husband’s grim fate and was eventually ransomed, returning to France to live out her days in relative obscurity.

If aspects of Margaret’s story sound familiar it’s because she is one of several resilient historical women who inspired the characterisation of Cersei Lannister. While Cersei’s future is uncertain, we’ve seen her fight to influence and fortify Joffrey’s sovereignty and this season promises to follow her struggle with Margery Tyrell for control of King Tommen, her second son.

Ravens and crows

It’s impossible to avoid a final comparison between the Night’s Watch, or “Crows”, who swear to be “the shield that guards the realms of men” at the Wall, and that other species of the crow genus – the raven – which said to protect the kingdom by its presence at the Tower. According to tradition, if the ravens ever leave, the Tower and the realm will fall.

Game of Thrones’s kind of crow. ©2014 Home Box Office, Inc.

By the same token, one can’t help wondering what will happen to the Seven Kingdoms if the crows defending the northern frontier are slain, or forced to flee, by the White Walkers. In future seasons, Bran and the mysterious three-eyed raven doubtless have an equally important role to play in the defence of the kingdom.

But for the time being, the imminent series of Games of Thrones will continue to delight and terrify its audience with the same bouts of intrigue, scandal and brutality that have contributed to the Tower’s notorious reputation and popularity.

If winter is coming, then so is more bloodshed, for, as Tower prisoner and martyr Sir Thomas More once said in his account of Richard III’s acquisition of the crown, “king’s games” are “for the more part played upon scaffolds”.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

On His Majesty's Secret Service: Henry V's Spy and Scottish Independence

One of the highlights of being a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker this year has been making a short film with BBC Arts. The film offers a little taste of my work on John Hardyng, a fifteenth-century solider who fought in Henry V’s army during the Hundred Years’ War with France.

Three years after Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt, Hardyng was sent to Scotland to obtain evidence of English sovereignty over the realm, and to map out an invasion route, should the king wish to assert his claim of overlordship. My film explores the connection between Hardyng’s espionage and the Chronicle of British History that he wrote several decades later during the Wars of the Roses.