Mozambique: Sofala & Chibuene

Welcome once again dear readers to another entry in our ABC of World History. Today I am taking you back to Africa to the area of Mozambique in yet another effort to make this blog less eurocentric. I really hope the importance of this area comes across because as I was doing my research I still found so many sources about Mozambique and the Swahili coast of Africa that seem to ignore anything noteworthy before the European colonialists swinging by. So today I am bringing you some details about the development of Mozambique in the middle ages and the importance of this area for the development of trade.

As you may know, the Indian ocean key for trade in Africa since ancient times, and Mozambique is an important enclave. Evidence suggests however that since the collapse of the roman empire, sea trade may have declined for people living on the east coast of Africa and this may have powered the growth of the interior of countries such as Mozambique. But changes again with the arrival of Islam into Africa in the 7th century when the Indian ocean becomes again a prime hub for the exchange of goods, people and culture. Although it has been debated for a very long time how much interaction and mingling was between the Bantu and Swahili peoples of Mozambique and surrounding areas, it seems to transpire that there was a fair interaction and integration between the Arab newcomers and the natives. Briggs and Edmunds argue that the best evidence of this is in the language. Although Islam triumphs in terms of religious conversion, Swahili became the language used overall, even if with some Arabic borrowings. Now that you have some context I would like to use the following sections to 2 different enclaves in Mozambique that highlight the importance of trade and that show how active this part of the world has been for such a long time:

Continue reading “Mozambique: Sofala & Chibuene”

“White Rus”: A History of Belarus

For this week in our alphabet of History, will be (pun intended) looking at the History of Belarus. The history of Belarus is a narrative of invasions, wars, unifications and atrocities, but is of great value to any whose interests involve History. Because Belarus’ history is so encompassing, to avoid making this blog seem like a small essay, I will be focusing on Belarus from the earliest days of Human occupation, up until the late medieval period – pre-modern Belarus essentially. I may finish off Belarus’ history in a future blog, but here is the first half!

Continue reading ““White Rus”: A History of Belarus”

The Livonian Crusade – The Beginning of The End of Paganism in Europe

The Northern Crusades, otherwise known as the Baltic Crusades, were religious wars that took place in the 12th and 13th centuries in order to subjugate and forcibly baptize the indigenous peoples of various parts of Northern Europe such as Finland and North and Eastern Germany, but most significantly the areas of modern day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The official starting point for the Northern Crusades as a whole was Pope Celestine III’s call in 1195, but the Christian kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire had already begun to subjugate their pagan neighbours before then.

The part of these Northern Crusades that seems to have been the main focus of the action, and continued in some form or another for almost 100 years was the Livonian Crusade which took place across what is now the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. This crusade takes it’s name from the Livonians, who were the indigenous inhabitants of modern Northern Latvia and Southwestern Estonia, usually referred to as Livonia. Other than the Livonians, during this period the other groups in the region that were a target of this crusade were the Latgalians, Selonians, Estonians, Curonians, and Semigallians.

These peoples inhabiting the Eastern shores of the Baltic were, by the time of the first crusading in the late 12th century, surrounded by several increasingly powerful Christian states. The Orthodox Slavic principalities to the East, and the Catholic Kingdom of Poland and the HRE to the West. During a period of over 150 years leading up to the arrival of German crusaders in the region, Estonia was attacked multiple times by the Slavic states, as well as Denmark and Sweden. This makes it seem that invasions of these lands were inevitable to continue even without the call for a crusade by the Pope and being led by Bishops and holy orders. Suggestions have been made that it is the perspective of the chronicler Henry of Livonia, who wrote the main source for much of these events, that all the military action in the area was due to the crusade, when that isn’t necessarily the case and much of it may have used the Papal decree of crusade as an excuse for expansion.

Map showing conquests in the region (top right) by 1260

Christianity had already come to these areas before the crusades through the settlement of some Swedes and Danes in Latvia in the 11th century. Later there were German traders in the area who were now using the old Viking trade routes to Byzantium. Saint Meinhard of Segeberg then arrived in 1184 with the mission of converting the pagan Livonians. Although Meinhard became bishop in part of Livonia in 1186, Pope Celestine III proclaimed a crusade against the Baltic pagans in 1195.Shortly after this Meinhard died after attempting to forcibly convert local Livonians, and eventually an official crusading expedition was led by Meinhard’s successor; Bishop Berthold of Hanover, which arrived in Livonia in 1198. Shortly after arriving however, Berthold and his forces were killed by Livonians in battle. Pope Innocent III then reiterated Pope Celestine III’s call for a crusade in response in order to avenge this defeat. This time a larger force was assembled and, led by Bishop Albrecht von Buxthoeven in 1200, arrived in Livonia and set up the Bishopric of Riga in 1201, which is now the modern capital of Latvia. From here Albrecht set up the knightly order of ‘The Livonian Brothers of the Sword’ in order to aid in conversion, but perhaps more importantly to protect German trade in the area and secure German control. By 1206 the Livonian chief, who had already been baptized in 1189, was finally defeated in a decisive battle, and the Livonians were declared to be converted. The Livonian chief, Caupo, was to become an ally of the crusaders until his death in battle in 1217.

After the successful conversion of the Livonians their land was essentially taken over by the crusaders and the Bishopric of Riga. Several lucrative trading posts were taken over, and construction began of some important castles in the area; Koknese Castle and Cēsis Castle. Military alliances were also made with some nearby Latgalian principalities.  The remaining Latgalians were apparently easily subdued and absorbed into the Bishopric of Riga, one of which was attacked despite already being Orthodox, the excuse being that they were in alliance with Lithuanian pagans.

Remains of Koknese Castle in Latvia

In 1208 the crusaders deemed themselves ready to venture North and begin campaigns against the Estonians. Estonia at the time was comprised of serveral counties that were led by elders that loosely cooperated with each other. The crusaders began sending raids into Southern Estonian counties with the help of newly converted Livonian and Latgalian allies. The Estonian tribes however appeared to put up a fierce resistance and occasionally were found to have struck back with counterattacks at crusader held areas in Livonia. This part of the crusade was to prove more difficult than those before, and would take much longer. At various points between 1208 and 1227 armies of different sides would wreak havoc across Livonia, Latgalia and Estonia. The Livonians and Latgalians would be on the side of the crusaders or Estonians at various points, as well as the Russians of the Republic of Novgorod getting involved with either side at times. The Estonians used hill forts effectively to defend and serve as centers of each county, and these were to be besieged, captured, and re-captured multiple times.

After some time of war, both the Estonians and crusaders were becoming war weary, and so a three year truce was established from 1213 to 1215. This proved to be more advantageous to the crusaders however, as they were able to consolidate their political position effectively, whereas the Estonians were unable to bring their system of loose alliances into a centralised state. In 1217 there was finally a decisive battle and a turning point in the campaign against the Estonians. Although the Livonian leader, Caupo, died at this battle, Estonian leader and central figure of resistance, Lembitu, was also killed. Although later in 1223 there was an Estonian uprising against Christian held strongholds throughout Estonia, in some places with the help of Russian mercenaries, these places were retaken by the German crusaders in 1224. Later that year the Livonian Brothers of the Sword established their new headquarters at Viljandi in Southern Estonia.

Before the Estonian uprising, the North of Estonia was under attack from the Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden while the South was being taken by the German crusaders. The Swedes made one failed attempt in 1220, but the Danish fleet under King Valdemar II landed in the present day capital of Tallinn and from there subjugated the whole North of Estonia. The Danes would also attempt invasions on the Estonian island of Saaremaa to the West of the mainland. Saaremaa would see off King Valdemar in 1206 and 1222 despite him attempting to establish and hold fortifications upon arrival. The Livonian Brothers of the Sword would also attack the islanders in 1216 by invading over the frozen sea, but were unsuccessful and provoked counterattacks from them. The islanders of Saaremaa would also prevent the Swedes in 1220 from keeping hold of territory in Western mainland Estonia When Swedish strongholds were completely wiped out. Eventually in the winter of 1227 the frozen sea was crossed again by crusaders, this time a 20,000 strong army which forced the surrender of multiple strongholds until the islanders of Saaremaa finally accepted Christianity. The inhabitants of Saaremaa would thrice fight back again, once in 1236, and again in 1261 when they once more renounced Christianity and killed all Germans on the Island. They were defeated once more by a joint force of the Livonian Order, forces of the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, and Danish Estonia. The Livonian Order then esablished a castle on the Island. The Island proved to continue to be a problem however until 1343 when the islanders arose for the last time, again killing all Germans and destroying the castle. This was recovered for the last time and remained under the Livonian Order until 1559.

The remaining chapel part of the Livonian Order castle on Saaremaa

As a whole the crusades, even in the general Livonian area did not end until 1290. The Curonian and Semigallian people from the Western side of the Gulf of Riga started to cause trouble, and in 1236 the Livonian Brothers of the Sword suffered a great defeat to the Semigallians. This defeat was so bad that their remnants reorganised themselves under the Teutonic Order and therefore became known as the Livonian Order. In 1242 the Livonian Order would start to conquer the Curonians but would take a long time to fully defeat them, and were even facing defeat in 1260, but they gradually subjugated them in 1267. Crusaders from Riga started the conquest of Semigallia as early as 1219, but after several unsuccessful campaigns the conquest was almost given up on in 1251. Through to the 1270s the crusaders continued to be at odds with Semigallia, and the Semigallians attacked Riga directly multiple times such as in 1280 and 1287. The last campaigns against the Semigallians took place in 1289 and 1290 when their last territories were finally taken and up to 100,000 of them migrated to Lithuania in order to continue the fight against the Germans.

The main Semigallian hillfort of Tērvete.

The Christianization of  the Eastern Baltic coasts was finally mostly complete by this time at the end of the 13th century, but it would be well into the latter part of the 14th century before the true last Pagans of Europe of Lithuania would be converted. This would prove to be one of the most complicated and lengthiest processes of Christianization in European history.


Gens Normannorum: What is Norman Identity?

In 1829 Sir Walter Scott delighted his readers with Ivanhoe. The novel for sure was a product of the romantic nationalistic movement that most of Europe was embracing but, possibly without meaning to do so, he also depicted the landscape of England after 1066, and its occupants. The image he provides about the Norman invaders is one of their military and political power, that of those French tyrants ruling over the Saxons with no wish to mix with the native population. This description usually comes to mind when thinking about the Normans and who they were. But the myths create confusion in the understanding of their identity. Perhaps we require some clarification of terminology first of all. Starting with the term ‘Norman’-  this is the modern concept that derives from old French and Latin words like Nordmanni or Normanni, which means men from the north. These would have been used by the Franks and their contemporaries, and not the Normans themselves. Then you will be thinking: what actually is the Gens Normannorum? The word ‘gens’ in Latin can refer to an extended group of people with particular characteristics. As per G.A.Loud definition, “a nation would be made up of several ‘gentes’, usually related to each other, but none the less separate and distinct”, which is precisely the concept around which the Normans build their realm. The Normans were a faction that survived by means of political union, adaptation and strong territorial bonds. Therefore, recognising a Norman identity per se is a difficult task.

Despite the fact that the Normans were a wonderful collage of different people, it is true that they are usually associated with certain features. Some of these were an invention of their own, but some others were the perceptions of their contemporaries, being the most prominent their so feared military skills. Not only Walter Scott portrayed these people as powerful warriors, so did the Greeks when they saw them conquering their lands in the Mediterranean. The same sentiment was shared by multiple Popes. It seems likely that the feudal system they started to follow from their settlement in Normandy provided a good military service in which the aristocracy got involved quite eagerly, turning to be more efficient than anywhere else in Europe. So maybe this was the genesis of this Norman ideal. Living in such a militarised society, discipline and cooperation evolved quickly, which made possible having a single ruler to lead these diverse people. This ruler would the seek support within his lineage, which becomes another important issue in Norman identity: family. William the Conqueror serves us – funny that – as a perfect example here. Just look at his retinue for the conquest in England: half brothers like Odo of Bayeux, cousins and other distant relatives. It was this power and unity, linked with their adaptable Scandinavian mind which allowed them to create great institutions, like their new bodies of law and government.

Moreover, these pretensions took also a tangible form which is very characteristic of the Normans: castles. These could serve as residences, fortresses and symbols of authority. The typical Norman castle would have been the motte and bailey construction, although it is known that in the southern Norman territories they recycled pre-existing Muslim castles that were more elegant and rather appealing to their ‘greedy’ minds. Therefore, castles seem to represent everything the Normans were; a bellicose race with hunger for new lands. But that was not just the point, though, was it? It happened that the Normans were quite good and efficient architects that helped to develop a whole new architectural style: the Romanesque. Furthermore, we have the issue of monastic revival and all that religious work the Normans did…Let’s not forget that their conversion only happened in the 10th century. Just like the Carolingians did before, they promoted Christianity through learning and pious charity, and they embraced their new religion as a vital part of their lives. Many religious buildings were built with the money and patronage of the different noble families, in order to provide for their souls but also to improve their status, and to portray themselves as Norman pious rulers. So, it seems that not only were these Northmen warriors, but people with cultural sensibility and religious devotion. How did they end up being related to such different concepts, and why is the first one the prevailing one?

Sadly, those to blame are the Norman historians from the 11th century, as they built up the Gens Normannorum around the idea of their military prowess. It is likely that the intention was to portray them as tough survivors, particularly considering their Viking origin. Consider that, what Rollo and his companions managed to do by 911 was, in medieval terms, extraordinary and epic. They found themselves a new context in a land whose ancestors had ‘terrorized’ for decades. They managed to grasp power and survive, of which they were obviously be proud, as Dudo of St.Quentin reflects in his text History of the Dukes of the Normans. According to him, the Normans were descendants of the Dacians; the heirs of Antenor, who was known to be a Trojan survivor. Not only was he giving them a legitimate legacy to rule over their new lands by linking them with an ancient culture, he was establishing a bond between them and the Trojans who were warriors and survivors, just like the Vikings. Even more, he was establishing a parallelism: the Aeneid gives the Romans a Trojan background and origin, the same than Dudo is doing to the Normans…What else could the new European power desire that being equal to the Roman Empire? This was all a matter of legitimacy. The Normans were lovers of history; heroic history. And so this historical snowball got bigger and other authors came and  reinforced the ideal. Then with William the Bastard, they just elevated their might to holy standards. His chaplain, William of Poitiers, describes his great religiousness while participating in mass before battle. Furthermore, he is praised and elevated to the level of Christian icons such as David and Salomon, even Jesus or God as “he heals where he wounds…peace and war obey him sympathetically”, like it is stated in the poem Jephthah. So not only the Normans were now warriors: they were crusaders.

And so, from the 12th century onwards the crusader image begun. Figures like Tancred, who managed to get control of the Principality of Antioch that brought more glory to the Southern Normans. But then, there is a sudden twist. The issue of the 12th Century for the Normans and their identity is a problem of generational change.  They had now spent several decades in Normandy, but also in the Mediterranean and England. In England, they tried to suppress the ‘English’ traditions, but it was impossible, as the Saxon customs had been there for a longer period. The Normans assumed an ‘English’ past at the same time that the Norman myth got introduced within the Saxon population; now both the ‘gentes’ Normannnorum and Anglorum were not easy to separate. In addition, there were family crisis shaking the Norman rule: Henry against Robert, then Matilda and Stephen, and even in the South William I had trouble with the Sicilian aristocracy. There are even evidences of decline in Norman art: the further they expanded, the weaker the influence of Romanesque was. In addition, their military prestige disappeared as the age of Conquest came to an end…and considering that in Southern Italy and Sicily they had to deal with the Islamic and Orthodox population, one can even doubt their religious unity.

So, what was in truth Norman identity? It was everything and anything at the same time. It is clear, though, that as Marjorie Chibnall puts it “the Norman people were product, not of blood, but of history”. One could argue that, the only true Normans were those that lived in Normandy – centuries later they would promote their independence. Perhaps, Norman identity was nothing more than a Viking wish of adventure and expansion with a French touch of creativity and piety more appealing to their neighbours, therefore making it easier for them to fulfill their objective. Others might blame the imagery on the 11th Century chronicles that promulgated the Norman pragmatism and opportunism to satisfy their lords and their own minds. Maybe this is hypocritical, and just a pure modernist judgement, from which scholars should try to learn and focus on what the Normans thought of themselves and why. There is still much to consider and revise about the subject. Until then, I am happy to keep in mind, and N.Webber advises that Norman “identity evolved in these years, through changes of patria, of language, of enemy and of religion…’Norman’ was used in Normandy, in England, and in Italy and Sicily, to do so was to assert different claims in different areas, and in different times”.

-Chibnall, M., The Normans (Oxford, 2000)

-Davis, R.H.C., The Normans and Their Myth (London, 1976)

-Dudo of Saint-Quentin, ‘History of the Dukes of the Normans’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)

Haskins, C.H., The Normans in European History (New York, 1959)

-Fulcouis of Beauvais, ‘Jephthah Poem’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)

-Kennedy, H., Crusader Castles (Cambridge, 1994)

-Loud, G.A., ‘The Gens Normannorum- Myth or Reality?’, Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol. IV, (Woodbridge, 1982), pp. 104-116

-Potts, C., ‘Atque unum ex diversis gentibus populum effecit: Historical Tradition and the Norman Identity’, Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol. XVIII, (Woodbridge, 1996), pp. 139-152

-Searle, E., Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power 840-1066 (Berkeley and London, 1988)

-Ville de Caen, ‘Les Normands, peuple d’Europe’, accessed 20th May 2011,

-Webber, N., The Evolution of Norman Identity (Woodbridge, 2005)

-William of Poitiers, ‘Deeds of Duke William’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)

Girona: Travel guide, Medieval past & Sightseeing



This post will talk about the small city of Girona in the Autonomous Community of Catalonia in Spain within the medieval period, paying particular attention to my recent visit to the city, the Cathedral and the history of Girona’s Jewish population. Girona is roughly 62 miles (22Km) north of its more famous neighbouring city, Barcelona. Before I go into more detail about my visit and medieval Jewish Girona, I will provide some important information regarding Girona’s formation and background history. Girona itself has a complex history in that it was claimed a number of times.

In Ancient times the city was named Gerunda. When the Romans claimed Hispania they adopted this name and they built a citadel in the city. After the Romans left Hispania, the Visigoths ruled Girona that was until the Moors from North Africa arrived in 715 to conquer the city. The Moors is a name that is attached to people of Muslim origin, commonly used when describing the medieval period. However, the name does not denote a particular ethnicity it largely encompasses people who were from the Arab world (this includes the Berbers from North Africa). In 785 however, Charlemagne conquered Girona from the Moors. Some years later in 793 the Moors reclaimed Girona. The Moors maintained their control over Girona and much of the Iberian Peninsula at this time. However in the year, 1015, the Moors were eventually driven out of Girona permanently. This however did not prevent the Moors from sacking Girona in years to come. The Moors sacked Girona in; 827, 842, 845, 935 and in 982. Girona was amalgamated into the County of Barcelona in 878. The County of Barcelona was originally under the rule of the Carolingian dynasty. The County of Barcelona in a sense formed the basis of what was to become Catalonia. Through marriage alliances other Catalan territories were acquired. The County Of Barcelona itself became amalgamated to the Crown of Aragon when Ramon IV of Barcelona married Petronilla of Aragon in the twelfth century. When their son Alfonso I became ruler of Aragon, he was styled as Alfonso I of Aragon. From this point monarchs from Aragon dropped the title of Count and Countess as this was to be included in the title, Aragon. In the eleventh century Girona was designated as a city.

Girona is a pleasant city to visit and it is relatively easy to get to from Barcelona as a day trip. I recommend using the AVE (High speed train) Barcelona Sants to Figueres route and get off at Girona. It is the most expensive option but it saves time, which means you have more time to explore Girona! This journey is approximately 45 minutes. Another alternative for budget wary travellers is to use the Rodalies (Catalonia train service) that provides access to Girona. The journey time takes longer, however it is less expensive than the AVE route. Travelling by bus is doable and can sometimes be cheaper than both AVE and the Rodalies. However, the distance between Barcelona and Girona by road is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. After arriving at Girona, whether it be via train or by bus the destination is the same because the trains and the buses terminate at the same place. The City centre is a 20 to 25 minute walk. I recommend walking along the river when you reach Carrer Nou. That way you can get beautiful views of the river and it leads you directly to the tourist office for further information about Girona and the surrounding area.

I only spent a day in Girona, however a day is doable providing you have idea of what you would like to see and have access to a map to avoid getting lost and time wasting! I wanted to visit Girona because I like to tick off as many Cathedrals as I can on my travels, seeing as Girona had a Cathedral this made me really happy! It may sound bizarre but I heard about Girona Cathedral because of Game of Thrones. Whether or not you are a fan of the show it has certainly made me aware of the beautiful filming locations and the real history behind it, Girona Cathedral was indeed one of them. Girona Cathedral was used to film the exterior of the Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing.

The Cathedral, full name, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona is a beautiful structure that dates back to the eleventh century and was completed in the eighteenth century. The style of the Cathedral contains many different architectural types. Firstly, when the Cathedral was consecrated in the eleventh century of how we see it today the style was built in the Romanesque fashion. Now only the bell tower and the cloisters remain as part of the Romanesque style. However in the thirteenth century the style was built in the Gothic fashion. Girona Cathedral has the longest Gothic nave in the world measuring at 22.98 metres. The last style the Cathedral has is a Baroque façade at the entrance which was completed in 1607. The interior is certainly worth a look inside, my favourite part was seeing the altarpiece. This altarpiece is from the fourteenth century and is silver gilded with gold. Included in the price of one ticket is an audio guide (English is available) and a visit to the Basilica of Sant Feliu. If you have the time it is worth seeing the Basilica. The Basilica is behind the Cathedral and similarly it contains three different styles; Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque.

The prices for the Cathedral are as follows-

Adults- 7€

Concessions (students and pensioners)- 5€

Children under the age of 7- Free.

*Please note- all pricing is correct at the date and time of submission. Please refer to the relevant websites in the future if this changes.



My personal favourite place in Girona was the old Jewish quarter. The Jewish quarter, otherwise known as “The Call” in Girona had its heyday in the thirteenth century as the Christians and Jews appeared to get along nicely. For instance, the Girona Synagogue was even situated next to the Cathedral. In addition, Girona had one of the largest Jewish settlements in Catalonia. Naturally the streets were narrow and winding, complete with cobbled streets. It almost felt like being in a giant maze. You could certainly use your imagination when walking down the tiny alleyways that this once bustling quarter was full of people selling and buying goods. However, this peaceful coexistence soon ceased. Later in the thirteenth century the Jewish population became scapegoats and were frequently targeted by racist abuse. Eventually the Jewish population were consigned to just the call and had no freedom to travel elsewhere in the city. In this sense, the quarter turned into a ghetto. Violence soon sprang upon the Jewish residents and in 1391 a local mob vandalised and attacked the Jewish quarter and people. Many Jewish people were injured and there was approximately 40 casualties. In spite of all these atrocities happening to the Jews, they were still under royal protection and as such were meant to be protected. The survivors of this massacre were sent to Galligants Tower, north of the Cathedral. This was regarded to be for the protection, nevertheless it did not stop non Jewish residents from ransacking their homes and looting their possessions. Many of the Jews converted to Christianity or left. In 1492 when the Kingdom of Spain was unified under King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the remaining Jews (all Sephardic Jews) were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.



Points of interest-

Museu d’Historia dels Jueus de Girona

Museu d’Historia de Girona

Sant Pere de Galligants, now houses the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia

Arya film scene in Game of Thrones where she passes through the old Jewish quarter and leaves her blood from her fingers on a wall in this quarter



A Guide to Norman Art and Architecture in Southern Italy and Sicily

Once again, I am doing a runner back to my roots. When I graduated from University, I had done more work on art history and the Normans that there were modules available, I swear – probably because that it what my dissertation was about, but regardless, Norman art and architecture, the peak of the Romanesque, the Bayeux Tapestry, you name it. My parents even took me to Normandy to experience the glory of the old great duchy in real life. Now, another thing you may all well know me for is for anything that involves intercultural syncretism ideas. And what best to put them both together than a post on the artistic works of the Normans during their rule in Italy, and particularly Sicily? Well, get ready then, because I am about to get technical with this stuff!

If you are jumping on the boat of Norman studies, ditch Caen and Rouen, forget the British Isles and take a trip to the Mediterranean. Why? Because despite the field is evolving, there is still a lot of research to do in their rule over Italy and Sicily, due to the great cultural exchange and the intrinsic political and social dynamics of their reign.

So lets start with the architectural side of things. The Normans arrived nicely to the shores of the Mediterranean, most of the second and third sons of Norman lords, who had not a plot of land for themselves and that perhaps could not be bothered to make it all the way to the Middle East. Everyone knows that buildings are sign of power and lordship, therefore they then start erecting new structures, both for secular and religious purposes. As Norman builders were masons, stone was normally their main resource for construction. However, once they got used to the surroundings its materials and traditions, they incorporated the use of brick and mortar for the creation of vaults, and also rubble for the thick walls, creating different textures and polychromatic effects. They used two different types or arches. The rounded arch was used for small openings, window-frames and decorative purposes, while the pointed arch, which was adopted from the Islamic population, had its uses in the major openings of the buildings. Another common characteristic is the use of regional motifs. Instead of getting rid of the old decorative elements of each region and imposing prototypical Norman patterns, they actively promoted these ornaments and integrated them in their constructions, allowing to prevail the distinct character of the local artists. This is the reason why even nowadays interlaced arches, string courses and rose patterns can be distinguished in many churches, like in St.Maria la Nuova (Monreale).

From WikiCommons Inside of the cloister of Monreal Cathedral

The mesmerising architecture can be found all across the area. For instance, there is a large collection of domed basilicas in the zones of Valdemone and Calabria, dating from c.1091-1130 which are believed to have been, at least originally, orthodox churches for the large Greek population of the realm. A common feature of the Apulian churches, which is very well represented by the one in Trani, is that their apse is directly projected from the transept. Also, there are some evidences of Moorish architectural influence. An example of this could be the tower of the cathedral of Cefalù, which K.J.Conant described as “North-African minarets in design”. Islamic influence can also be seen in Sicilian Norman castles, like La Zisa. Apparently, the Normans ‘recycled’ these very appealing and elegant Muslim castles, rather than building their typical motte and bailey ones, although there are few examples of the latter, like the one in Petralia Soprana, and even one carved in the rock in Sperlinga. Last but not least, there is even the strange case of a church in Venosa (La Trinità), that was never finished, but its layout suggest that otherwise, it would have been one of the few Norman churches in Italy to have a stereotypical French ambulatory and radiating chapels. It has been suggested that the reason why the project was abandoned had something to do with the moving of patronage influence from Apulia to Sicily.

In what concerns the art, the influence of the Byzantine civilization is quite pronounced, as the Atlantes of the cathedral of San Mateo (Salerno) represent. Also,this is clearly seen in the use of mosaics for wall decoration in practically every single church of the area. Mosaics present a great advantage for ornamental purposes as the colour does not fade away, it is elegant, and both geometrical and figurative patterns can be created with no problems, as it can be seen in those about Geoffrey of Antioch in the church of la Martorana. The mosaic skills got mixed with the Norman traditions to create wonderful pavements such as those made by the monk Pantaleone in the cathedral of Otranto, representing scenes from the Bible. Despite of the use of mosaics, the fresco tradition was not left behind. The best specimens are found in the church of San Angelo in Formis (near Capua). L.I.Hamilton has the theory that the meaning behind this work commanded by abbot Desiderius is linked with his reforming character, and these would be the images that reflected his religious dominance in Capua.

Modern copy of the Tabula by Al-Idrisi

On Islamic influence, the most relevant work to be mentioned, without considering the planisphere from ‘The Book of Roger’, by the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, would be the honeycomb ceiling of the Capella Palatina (Palermo). This wonderful ceiling is covered with painted stalactites, which work has been attributed to Muslim artists working shortly after the consecration of the chapel (c.1140). There was a great deal of ivory work within their culture. Ivory was a very precious material, and because of its rarity, it was used for very special and important artefacts. The best example of this could be one of the caskets found in the Treasury of the already mentioned Capella Palatina that is meant to contain the privileges of chapel, which is quite rare and likely the reason why it was kept in this ivory box. Furthermore, it would be a crime if i did not mention the metal work produced at the doors of the cathedral of Trani made by the local artist Barisano. Finally, a quick mention to manuscript illumination, as it differed from what is known elsewhere about the Normans. Oddly enough, considering the great Anglo-Norman tradition of manuscript keeping and decoration, there are not many from the southern lands. There is notice of a copy of the Homilies in the area of Troia, and an epistolarium of marked muslim influence from Palermo. But, the most important is the Expositio Orationis Dominicae, by Maio de Bari (12th C), which is the only Sicilian manuscript preserved from this period that also contains some traces of illumination.

But perhaps the most important aspect of everything the Normans created in the south had to do with their identity. R.H.C Davis questions if these were the same Normans than those from Normandy or England, as he supports the theory that they were trying to portray themselves as new Byzantine emperors rather than anything else. It has to be considered that these Normans left their home-land some years before it reached the glory days of William the Conqueror, and even though they kept in touch, something was changing. The feeling rises that when the Normans established themselves in the Mediterranean their drive was not one of simple conquest but of ‘new found land’, a whole new place to start with their lives again, to make a difference…to take a chance. And that is precisely what they did. They did not just brought together several different cultures and make a Norman version of it. They adapted and bent them in a way it was understandable for everyone, it did not matter if your origin was Greek, Moorish or from up north. And this is reflected in their art. It was not a new Romanesque…it was not even Romanesque any more. It was something different, something unique from those lands. Art was the instrument these Normans used to create a whole new identity for the population of these territories, to preserve their diversity, to create a strong and united kingdom.

On a final note, I’ll give you a sample of the bibliography one can dig from the Martial Rose library at the University of Winchester in order to find anything of use on this subject (this is not including the generic art books…sad but true)- note the old dates – remember my comment on the field that needs to improve? Get on it!

-Browne, E.A., Great Buildings and How to Enjoy Them: Norman Architecture (London, 1907)

-Buchthal, H., ‘The Beginnings of Manuscript Illumination in Norman Sicily’, Paper of the British School of Rome, Vol. 24, (1956), pp. 78-85

-Conant, K.J., ‘The Two Sicilies’, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, 800 to 1200, (Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 214-224

-Davis, R.H.C., The Normans and Their Myth (London, 1976)

-Diringer, D., ‘Italy: Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’, The Illuminated Book; its History and Production, (London, 1967), pp. 294-307

-Hamilton, L.I., ‘Desecration and Consecration in Norman Capua, 1062-1122: Contesting Sacred Space during the Gregorian Reform’, The Haskins Society Journal, Vol. 14, (July, 2005), pp. 137-150

-Matthew, D., The Norman Kingdom of Sicily (Cambridge, 1992)

-Nicklies, C.E., ‘Builders, Patrons, and Identity: the Domed Basilicas of Sicily and Calabria’, Gesta, Vol. 43, No. 2, (2004), pp. 99-114

-Norwich, J.J., The Normans in Sicily: The Normans in the South 1016-1130, and, The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194 (London, 1992)

-Pinder-Wilson, R.H., and Brooke, C.N.L., ‘The Reliquary of St. Petroc and the Ivories of Norman Sicily’, Archaeologia, Vol. 104, (1973), pp. 261-305

-Ville de Caen, ‘Les Normands, peuple d’Europe’,

King John: Is History a bit unfair?

Welcome to another Blog post. This may seem weird to you, after all, I’m not really known for my posts on Medieval history (well I’m not known at all really!), but after some of the people at the blog made fun of my lack of writing on this subject, I’d thought I would rise to the challenge and write about something which I remember very well from when I was at school all those years ago. Therefore a post about King John is what I bring you today. My main aim here is to not necessarily open your eyes to any new information, far from it, but to challenge your perspectives on the king who signed the Magna Carta.

So I would assume and argue that most of us know our information about King John from the tales of Robin Hood, you know, those stories which probably were made up, or at least was an amalgamation of a few from different counties, brought together by the print revolution. So even academics who go into this field of study will most likely go in with an already biased interpretation based of a tale which can hardly be trusted for accuracy. So when we look at him, we must remember to try to banish all thoughts of Robin Hood to start with.

When we compare him with his brother, I get the feeling that we praise Richard for really nothing and attack for John for a failing family. Richard was hardly ever in England, and couldn’t even speak the language, how can we then say he was a good king? He was too busy fighting in the crusades to deal with the problems in his own country. Therefore perhaps John inherited a country that was already in trouble. John was well learnt, he studied and could speak the language of the country that he was in charge of. Therefore to class him as a bad king, seems a bit unfair, surely? He at least tried to sort things out unlike his brother.

John also gave more to the poor than those before him, again I’m no expert on this, but I’m sure I have read that John gave the most, so does this show him to be a caring king? He also could be argued to be the founding father of the English navy, although as an early modernist, I find that a tedious claim, as navies really found their footing in the seventeenth century! But he set up ports and saw the construction of some kind of navy that would later have a great impact in our national identity.

The defeats in the army can hardly be put on him, more of an unlucky King, after all if the battles are analysed in detail, it can be seen that perhaps it wasn’t him necessarily being bad, but unfortunate circumstances being the main problem. So perhaps, before we start judging and pointing out fingers and thinking how bad he is, ask ourselves perhaps there were reasons and circumstances that lead to what happened.

I hear you say, what about the Magna Carta, oh that document, the one that poor john is forever known as signing. The document which is known as the start of our constitution, and always quoted somehow. Well I think the circumstances that he was in and the problems he faced made this inevitable, I think that the rising taxes for the failing army and military campaigns would of course cause problems.

To class him as a tyrannical, evil King is unjust, and shows a failure to look at other Kings and Queens of this time, to properly understand the circumstances and to understand the pressures to be a King. I am always hesitant to judge the past by present standards, and you could argue well he has never been liked, but my argument is that his perception of him has always been skewed and when we do proper do an in-depth study, we must not go in with pre conceived ideas.

Basing House- Is it One of the Most Underrated Symbols of Early Modern British History?

As a man who has spent most of his life on Old Basing, the relevance of Basing House has been something often slipped by under my nose, even though I often saw memories of it on a daily basis. Yet on a recent trip to the ruins, unlike through previous visits during childhood, I was gripped by just how much history there was around the house. Of course as a child I knew that this was no ordinary ruins, but as I have grown older the significance blew me away. Basing House was perhaps one of the most underrated symbols of Early Modern British history, with every brick having its own unique history.

Basing House Gateway

For many of the residents of Old Basing, I’m sure they fail to realise on a day-to-day basis the significance of the land they step. For Basing House was a hub of activity, through the Tudor and the Stuart age. The house itself dates back to Medieval age, with the huge circular bank and defensive ditches of the castle still visible, following the famous Motte and Bailey castle layout. These were put in place by the de Port family, who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066, and in the 1100’s made Basing House their home. But it wasn’t until the Paulet family, with Sir William Paulet, the first Marquess of Winchester and Lord Treasurer of England, who decided to build what was the more recent picture of the Basing House that we all know in 1535.

Image of one of the many defensive ditches around the castle

It was this settlement in Basing which welcomed big names throughout British History, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I after her marriage in Winchester on her honeymoon and Elizabeth I on many occasions. It was such an important hub of activity in the Tudor era, with it being labelled as the biggest Private House at the time. The house played what we can imagine as such an important part within the village, having the canal run through with a link to Woking, allowing for good link ups to London, as well as providing trade to the area. It is weird to believe that the people of Old Basing will most probably be walking in the footsteps of some of the biggest names in English history.

The Tudor Family

Yet it was the when the English Civil War broke out in 1642, with a divide between the Royalist and catholic supporters of King Charles I, and the protestants who favoured a stronger parliament, when the greatness of Basing House played out in such a bloody battle. John Paulet, the fifth Marquess of Winchester was the resident of Basing House at the time, and very much kept to his family motto of: “Aymez Loyaulte” (Love Loyalty). As you can imagine, being close to the monarchy at a tender time like this did come at a cost, and led to Basing House being attacked by Parliamentary troops, something that happened on 3 occasions. However the house did not fall easily, and it took 3 years for the parliamentary forces to finally break the walls, with the final assault in August 1645 seeing 800 men take up positions on the walls. It wasn’t until Cromwell himself turned up with heavy artillery that the house had been breached in October 1645.

Image of Cromwell as the Storming if Basing House by Croft

In the last few days of Basing House as a real symbol of excellence saw a bloody battle break out in the Basing barn, and saw between 40 and a hundred people killed. Though this may not seem much now, back then it was a huge loss to the village, with the parliamentary troops taking pillage to the house, and soon a fire destroyed the building. Parliament called for the demolition of the building, with villagers allowed to take materials for their own building. Paulet was stripped of his estate, and sent to the Tower of London on a charge of high treason, yet this charge was later dropped and Basing House later returned to him by the restoration of Charles II. Later, Charles Paulet, son of John pulled down the house and moved his own family home to Hackwood, leading to the end of the importance of Basing House in this period.

Image of the Cannon at Basing House, with a range of hitting the AA building in the background of that photo

Unknown to many, the importance of Basing House has been something overlooked by people, and had been such an important symbol of the Civil war conflict in Britain. I myself had completely been naïve on just how much history Basing House had, and how it is still evident in modern-day. For years I had walked on the Old Basing Common, not realising that these were the old hunting fields of the house, and the battlefield where Cromwell led his army to take the castle. History was quite literally on my door step and had such an important role in the Tudor and Stuart periods, and was an important battlefield in the Civil War, without me ever knowing. I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and if you can, go visit Basing House!

Artist Impression of the storming


At WU History it is time for out of your comfort zone! So far I have predominately looked at the eighteenth century and the twentieth century with a particular focus on cultural history. This January post would contain a biography of the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin.

Saladin was the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria during the twelfth century and is considered to be a very wise and effective ruler according to historians. Saladin came from a Kurdish background and in the Islamic world he was known by another name, Salah al-Din Yusuf. In spite of Saladin becoming s great military leader he was in actual fact more interested in other things during his youth. According to source material Saladin had an interest in religion during his early life rather than taking an interest in military. This is interesting as Saladin lived in an area where there were many religions and customs which included Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Saladin also moved to different places within the Arab region, this first instance occurred soon after his birth where his family moved from Tikrit to Mosul and eventually Damascus in Syria.

Saladin was known for his great military prowess during the Crusades, The forces he led were able to triumph over European forces who came to the Holy land in order to control it during the Battle of Hattin in 1187. As a result of this battle the Muslims recaptured the Holy land, which included Jerusalem. However another crusade resulted when the European forces were defeated by Saladin and his men, known as the Third Crusade. Saladin and his forces were defeated by Richard the Lion heart and his crusaders at the Battle of Arsur in 1191. In spite of Saladin losing his territory he was a good negotiator and was able to make a pact with Richard, enabling Muslim control to remain in Jerusalem.

However before he became famous for the Battle of Hattin his military career started with his uncle, Asad al-Din Shirkuh and was a subordinate of the north Syrian military leader of Mesopotamia, Nur al-Din. He aided and eventually led in conflicts with other Muslim territories. An example of this occurred in Egypt, where Saladin offered his military service over three campaigns. In 1169 he rose through the ranks to become an expeditionary leader, after this his position in Egypt improved to the extent that he brought an end to the Shi’ite Fatimid caliphate, a powerful dynasty that ruled not only Egypt but stretching as far as the Maghreb region, North Africa. Upon capturing Egypt, it generated a lot of wealth for Saladin and using this wealth established a dynasty of his own, the Ayyubid dynasty that covered from Egypt towards parts of Mesopotamia, notably Syria and the Levant coast, bringing many major cities in those regions under his control such as Damascus and Mosul, which united the Muslims of those areas before fighting against crusaders again.

As well as being a good military commander and being skilled in battle, Saladin was a wise ruler and ruled efficiently, particularly when it came to foreign affairs. In spite of being of his army killing many of the crusaders in battle and capturing many others to sell as slaves after the warring disputes over who should rule the Holy land, Saladin did allow Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem and Christian merchants to trade there without any interferences or hostility even though Saladin and his forces defeated Richard and his forces, ending the Third crusade.

Review: The Pillars of the Earth


Image credit: Starz

Today I’ll be reviewing the mini-series The Pillars of the Earth, a Starz mini-series that premiered in 2010 which is based on the historical fiction novel of the same name by Ken Follet. First I will be starting with a brief (and with no spoilers) overview of the plot and a few of the main characters. Then I will reflect on some of the historical aspects of the mini-series and then my own thoughts.

Starting in 1120, spanning the period leading up to and over the Anarchy – England’s first civil war –it recounts how Stephen and Matilida fought over the English throne. The pivotal moment that begins the series is the sinking of the White Ship, which carried England’s heir William Adelin and his wife. He was Henry I’s only legitimate son, leaving his only legitimate child his daughter Matilida. After Henry’s death, his nephew Stephen seized the throne and was backed by the church, despite swearing loyalty to Matilida. The mini-series not only portrays the feud between the two, but the ramifications on the Church, the nobility and the people. The show features a large cast of characters who all interweave with each other. The desire to build a cathedral in Knightsbridge continues across the eight episodes, with many of the characters directly involved.

Philip (Matthew McFadden) – A monk at Knightsbridge Priory, he dreams of a cathedral for the priory to raise its profile.

Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane) – A money and power-hungry cleric, who constantly manipulates events to his own ends, and those who support him.

Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) – A builder who dreams of building a cathedral, accompanied by his family. He is drawn to Ellen.

Ellen (Natalie Wörner) – A former nun she was banished after an affair with a mysterious shipwreck survivor who was executed and as a result gave birth to Jack. She is considered a witch and is drawn to Tom.

Jack (Eddie Redmayne) – The son of Ellen, who has a keen artistic talent and is enamoured with Aliena.

Aliena (Hayley Atwell) – The daughter of Bartholmew, who vows to him to get back the title for her brother.

William Hamleigh (David Oakes)– the son of a minor lord, his parents have designs on the earldom of Shiring and he has an unhealthy obsession with Aliena.

Historical accuracy does occasionally let the show down. Elements of the actual history of the Anarchy are incorrect or not shown. William’s wife was not actually on board the White Ship when it sunk so her death is historically inaccurate. Maud/Matilida is never shown to flee London on her coronations, as her real counterpart did. The death of three of the characters is also incorrect, Henry I did not die immediately after the birth of his grandson, as shown within the series nor was Eustace killed by his cousin. Robert of Gloucester was also not killed in battle. Other inaccuracies are simpler and more to do with the realities of medieval life such as Aliena as a former noble would have not spoken the same language as those from the lower classes who she would later work with.

The mini-series takes advantage of the uncertainty of events due to a lack of historical record, or where contemporaries simply did not know. The sinking of the White Ship in 1120 which is the catalyst for the plot is somewhat of a mystery. A cause for the sinking was never exactly determined, which allows the show to fill in the gaps and present its own theory of the sinking for the means of making a story but of course within the realms of possibility. The vast majority of events in the series would have not been possible without this uncertainty.

The show portrays an awful lot of violence, be this on the battlefield or in the towns and villages. There has been debate on how violent the period that is considered the Middle Ages was. Marc Morris argued that especially under Norman rulers that England was a remarkably less violent place than it had been previously. However Morris only refers to the nobility, which would make some aspects of The Pillars of the Earth inaccurate but it does not mention the effects on the ordinary people. The lack of surviving literature from this period, and the overall low-level of literacy from those who would interact with ordinary people can make it somewhat difficult to exactly establish the effects on them. One author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the period: ‘I have neither the power or the ability to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country; and that lasted the nineteen years while Stephen was king, and it was always going from bad to worse.’ While this is only one perspective it also worth remembering that with no monarch considered absolute and both Stephen and Matilda’s reliance on nobility for support that a blind eye was probably often used when violence was used against the people.

It is hard to explain how good this show is without spoiling major plot points as its strength is in its development of its characters and how the plot continues to develop, twisting and turning with each episode. The show is tight and I’d say there is no ‘filler’ in the series. It is constantly gripping. Many of the characters the viewer will inevitably find themselves rooting for, or rooting to come to a sticky end. However this does not mean that the characters verge into pantomime villainy, their motivations or how their heads tick is examined, while this may not make us any more sympathetic is does help us understand their characters better. The themes of the show are vast, creating something for everyone be this the romantic themes, themes on power and control, familial themes and truth. The mini-series’ interpretation of the Church is also incredibly interesting. It avoids the trap of the Church being a simplified evil or force for good. It shows the corrupt practices and members of the Church but it also shows those who strived to be holy. It examines their relationship with not just the crown and nobility but also the ordinary people. The almost business like aspect of the Church is also examined in several plot points relating to the likes of the importance of relics for the Church.

I would strongly recommend The Pillars of the Earth; I find it hard to believe most viewers would not find one aspect they enjoy, if not the majority of it. The acting is strong across the board, and visually it’s beautiful. Below I have included a trailer for the series. I hope if you do watch this you enjoy!