Nu History Podcast – Episode 9: Law and Emotion in Late Medieval England

Today’s podcast features Dr. Gordon McKelvie, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at The University of Winchester. He’s here to talk to us about some of his recent research in Late Medieval legal records, as well as a look into the role of emotions in the decisions and events of the Wars of the Roses!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Cabo Verde: A Slavery Hub

Continuing with our ABC of world history, today as part of our third entry in this yearlong enterprise we invite you to come with us to the beautiful archipelago of Cabo Verde. If you’re an Anglophone, I must warn you that you may still be referring to this country by Cape Verde, and if that’s the case, you really should stop, as the government officially changed the name for all purposes as of 2013. (It seems there was a need there to reflect the Portuguese inheritance of the country and the common use of the English terms in a global sphere didn’t really stick). The name Cape Verde came from Cap-Vert which was the closest landmass to the archipelago: a peninsula on the western coast of Senegal. At this stage, you may be wondering exactly where this place is I am talking about and what I will be discussing today. Well, let’s not rush things but, here is the deal.

Continue reading “Cabo Verde: A Slavery Hub”

“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”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 5: Late Medieval Kings and Kingmakers

Here’s another podcast for you!

In this episode we talk to Alex Brondarbit, Academic Analyst in the division of Academic Affairs at University of California, and author of two books on late Medieval nobility, power and advancement. We discuss his recent work particularly around English kings and power brokers. We also talk about the experience of getting history books written and published in this day and age.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

On Medieval Parish Guilds in England

Today I bring you something I worked on a few years ago when I was doing my MA investigation: Medieval guilds and fraternities. I remember this was a very relaxed module – only 2 students! – but we had an amazing field trip to see some of the most spectacular gothic cathedrals of the south of England. As the topic for the module was the general development of the English church in the later middle ages, i found myself a little out of my depth..Yeah I know religious history and I are like bread and butter…But perhaps you missed the Later Middle Ages in England…So I decided to focus on something that was not so foreign territory. I had considered focusing my undergraduate dissertation in cults and sects in the later medieval period as well as societies and fraternities rising at this point in history. So, i decided to dust up some tomes, research and different bag of beans to put something on the subject together. This is very much condensed and edited from the general investigation, but I hope it sparks some interest. /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0cm; mso-para-margin-right:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0cm; line-height:107%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:”Calibri”,sans-serif; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:EN-US;} Introduction to The Religious Fraternities I guess you all would like to know what we consider guilds or parish fraternities. Well, here is the first issue: there are many words that refer to the same type of association. Farnhill provides several names such as guilds, brotherhoods, fraternities, charities, companies and confraternities. All these words seem to be synonyms of the concept of parish fraternities. Whatever the name of these associations may be, it seems clear that they originated from the efforts of the lay community to get more involved in their religious life. Most of them were created to help the building of cathedrals and other churches in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although the origin of these communities changed with time.  A good example of these Samaritans is the Brotherhood of St. Andrew at Wells. We also see the rise of these guilds in correlation to the period of the Black Death. They became means to obtain salvation, by founding a chantry where to perform prayers for the souls of the founders and benefactors. But as usual, there are other theories and it has been suggested that the origin of these fraternities goes far back to Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon times. Although these associations were predominantly formed by the laity, some included members of the clergy as well. In fact, the parishes tried to incentivise these organisations as they were beneficial for the church: the guilds provided with clerical funds, and they contributed to the pastoral work as well as to the acquisition of money for the altar fabrics. However, the guilds were not always welcomed by the clergy or the English society. At the beginning of the movement, it was considered by many that their practices were “pre-Christian” if not “un-Christian”. But eventually the clergy stopped their criticism and some joined in their local groups….If you can’t fight them…Right? I guess it was all for the benefit oftheir own pockets… There are other complications that muddle the investigation of these guilds; for instance, the dualism between religious and craft fraternities. Sometimes it is fairly difficult to identify them as separate beings. Barron suggests that at the core of every trade guild was ‘a religious brotherhood dedicated to the worship and promotion of a particular saint’. We have to consider that in many ways these associations were as much of a religious community as they were a social group. Brown actually questions in his work how much the actual legitimacy of the religious implication of craft guilds was. He does indeed consider that, although they would most likely profit from the spiritual intercession of their cult, perhaps there was more wealth and social status display involved in their activities than actual religious ritual. Another problem is that a lot of these societies seem to be rather ephemeral in nature. There is a definitive date of termination for these associations, as they were abolished in 1547 because of the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries. But before that not much can be inferred from the sudden termination of their activities. They seemed really active and involved whilst they lasted. Role and Function of the Guilds The guilds primary function was to provide for the souls of the laity that were part of these groups. However, they performed many other activities from which laity benefited, and in which they contributed. Let’s have a look at the case of the fraternity at St.Laurence in Reading. The records show that he churchwardens of the parish acquired ₤6, 2s and 4d from the guild of Our Lady to repair he chancel. Furthermore, the biggest achievement a fraternity could hope for was to provide with a perpetual chaplain for the guild, or even the parish, but this was expensive and not all associations could afford it. Primordially guilds oversaw providing lights for their saints’ altar and for the high altar on Sundays, as well as performing funerals for their departed brethren and commemorations. The guild was also in charge of organising their annual meal, and patron feasts, where all their members would gather. This was almost a process on its own, perhaps less ritualistic, where commensality and solidarity, bringing people from different background and status, were key factors. These were also opportunities to carry other other charitable events, for example, the members Saint Lawrance’s guild in Lincoln invited paupers to their feast to share their food and drink. Rosser argues that these activities apart from being para-liturgical, were a way of reclaiming the moral authority that the parishioners had and that the canons had denied to the lay members of society. It seems likely that this type of activity was one of the biggest appeals for the lay people to belong to a guild. Once again, Rosser argues that the proportion of members attending the guild meal was higher in smaller, more localized guilds, although the attendance level was satisfactory in general for most of the brotherhoods. Finally, it is likely that some guilds would have asked for their members to go on pilgrimage, although this sort of activities seem to decline in popularity by the end of the fifteenth century. Other guilds carried out more liturgical activities. Such is the case of the Kalendars. The Kalendars were an interesting and uncommon fraternity; there are barely three recorded in England, located at Bristol, Exeter and Winchester, and they met to celebrate the Kalends, from where their name comes from, on top of the usual intercessory masses. Nevertheless, the guild at Bristol acquired an evangelic function when Bishop Carpenter decided to fund a public library in the fifteenth century, to try and eradicate the seeds of Lollardy spread around the area. So, in this sense the members of these guilds were meant to behave not only like good citizens, but in general like good Christians. They were role models even. Their sense of communitas drove the brotherhoods to help maintaining good relationships with the city rulers as well, in addition to organising collective activities and being arbitrators in certain issues affecting the town. In some cases, fraternities would become shadow governments like in the case of the guild of St. George in Norwich, whose members acted as a parallel town authority and dispensers of the town’s law. On a final note, it seems that many of these associations could have acted as sources of credit, as well as patronage and employment. It is more than likely that many of these fraternities would have provided money for the poor, as well as for their sick members, but this type of transaction is not properly recorded in their official accounts, which suggests perhaps it was a more informal action that was not strictly regulated. This is my brief introduction to the topic. However, if this is something that interests you, here are some bibliographical references so you can dig in and find out more about these religious societies: Ken Farnhill. Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia, c. 1470–1550. York: 2001. Richard Goddard. ‘Medieval business networks: St Mary’s guild and the borough court in later medieval Nottingham’, Urban History, Volume 40, Issue 1, (February 2013) , pp. 3-27 Caroline Barron. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500. Oxford: 2004 Andrew D. Brown. Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury, 1250-1550. Oxford: 1995. Gervase Rosser. The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550. Oxford: 2015. Nicholas Orme. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. New Haven and London: 2006. – this one contains a fair bit of info about the guilds themselves like the Kalendars.

The Creation of Hangul


This post will focus on the creation of the Korean Alphabet, namely its creator, how it it is written and what was used before Hangul.

Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul. Note: King Sejong written in Hangul


The Creator-

Hangul was created by King Sejong the Great in the fifteenth century. He was the fourth King of the Joseon dynasty of Korea. It was a phonetic writing system to convey the Korean Language, in the hope that all social classes in Korea could read and write from the same script.
King Sejong wanted to encourage literacy amongst the lower classes in Korea who had little to no educational opportunities and to create a separate cultural identity for the Korean people.

How it is written-

When Hangul was created there were 28 letters, 17 consonants and 14 vowels. Over time this reduced to 24 in modern Hangul in South Korea. 
Hangul is written as syllabic blocks.  Each word that needs to be written is placed square dimension-ally with one symbol above/below the other. These texts were written right to left but nowadays the text is largely written left to right and western punctuation is common in some publications.


Here is an example of written Hangul today. Note: Seoul written in Hangul above the English term

What was used before Hangul?

Before Hangul was used the Upper classes used Hanja. Hanja uses Chinese characters to write. Chinese characters were borrowed and amalgamated to the Korean writing system. Hanja text was the means of written communication in Korea amongst the educated and elite. The less educated and lower classes could not read or write and did not use or understand Hanja.

The writing formation was very different to Hangul and 214 radicals were used. A radical is grammatical component which is a loose equivalent of the Latin alphabet. 

An example of Hanja. Note the differences between Hanja and Hangul.


There was some opposition when Hangul was introduced. The more privileged thought it was a threat on their positions in society. Some worried if more people from the lower classes were educated to use Hangul, it could diminish the influence of the minority elite. Nevertheless, the popularity of Hangul ensued, much to how King Sejong envisioned.

However, a century later in the sixteenth century Hangul was prohibited in publications when a document written in Hangul critised King Yeonsangun. He closed a temple and the royal university Seonnggyeongwang and converted it as a personal brothel. Not only this but he evicted large residential areas for hunting grounds and instigating involuntary labour for making these things possible. These actions made him very unpopular, particularly with those who used Hangul. His successor, half brother, King Jungjong closed a centre of research in Hangul, suggesting Hangul did struggle to gain acceptance amongst these rulers after King Sejong. This shows it was not a simple transition to Hangul without any problems.

Nonetheless, over time Hangul again became popular through a resurgence in poetry, increased Korean nationalism, government reforms and missionaries promoting Hangul literacy in education. It is now the official script in the Korean Peninsula as well autonomous regions in China and Baubau, a city in Indonesia in the Southeast Sulawesi province.

Photos courtesy of my sister.

Ancient and Medieval Board games

Board games have been a part of human society for thousands of years, and although most of them have been lost to the ages, there are still plenty that have survived either in some physical form, or described. Archaeological finds of various game boards and pieces that we may never know the rules to can be an interesting if frustrating source, but the combination of games that have survived to the modern day, written sources and artwork can often reveal how many of these old games are played. There is evidence to show that all levels of society would have enjoyed gaming in various forms, be you rich or poor, educated or not, old or young.

There are many examples in recorded history of people playing board games, such as Romans sitting in the forum playing Ludus Latrunculorum, Monks in Gloucester Cathedral playing Fox and Geese in their cloister, or even Queen Elizabeth I entertaining her courtiers by gambling with dice games. With all these games, we may know who played them but unfortunately there is little to no word on who designed them. Game design is a very commonly discussed and recorded topic amongst gamers today, but there isn’t really anything of this sort to look at in Historical games. But it is interesting to think how some of these very unique games came to be. A modern game usually undergoes a long process of design, starting with the creator’s first ideas and knowledge of game mechanics, and then going through rigorous testing and redesign. These historical games must have undergone a similar process, as games that are well balanced and play so well don’t get made by accident.

Roman Board games
Throughout the Roman Republic and Empire, there is evidence to suggest that Romans had a culture rich in board and dice games. Game boards have been found scratched into surfaces and pavements, and fragments of ceramic and even wooden boards have survived. Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrunculi is the ‘game of little soldiers’. This appears to have been a well-respected game in the early Empire. Unfortunately the game in its Roman form hasn’t really survived, so instead we must look at those related to it such as the Greek game Poleis, which was played throughout the 1st millennium AD in Asia Minor and the Near East. There is also the North East African game Seega, which appears to preserve some of the Roman game’s characteristics. It would be nearly impossible to fully recreate this game now, not least because a game that existed across an area the size of the Roman Empire was bound to have more than a few variations and houserules. Some Roman authors do give some information though, and these can usually be confirmed by the archaeological finds. Varro (116-27 BC) writes that the board was marked by orthogonally intersecting lines where the pieces moved on the squares between those lines. This sounds like a simple grid as you’d expect. Boards of this type that have been found from the Roman period appear to have varying sizes. For example there was a stone block of 9×10 squares excavated in Dover, 8×8 squares discovered in Exeter, as well as on the steps of the Parthenon in Athens and the Basilica Julia in Rome. And a roof tile from Mainz shows a 9×9 grid. So it appears that the number of squares on the board, and perhaps the number of pieces would have varied. Among other writers to mention the game, one anonymous author wrote a poem dedicated to Roman Senator Cnaeus Calpernius Piso, supposedly a famous player of the game. They mention that the pieces used by the two players would be of two different colours such as black and white, and at the beginning of the game “the pieces are cunningly disposed on the open board”. This suggests that the initial placing of the pieces requires some strategic thought, similar to nine men’s morris, and unlike a game such as chess which has fixed starting positions. An isolated piece was captured by flanking it on two sides, but as philosopher Seneca wrote it was still possible to find a way “the surrounded stone could go out”, before it was removed from play.

Another example of a popular Roman boardgame is ‘Five Lines’. It is one of the oldest known boardgames from ancient Greece where it was known as Pente Grammai. The poet Alkaios mentioned the game in one of his poems, and boards in terracotta with five parallel lines typical of the game have been found in graves of the same period. There are also similar boards to be found scratched into the surfaces of marble floors in temples the ruins of other Greek sites. In the time of the Roman Empire we can find more information about the game. Pollux in the 2nd Century AD wrote that “each of the players had five pieces upon five lines” and that “there was a middle one called the sacred line”. Based on other descriptions and archaeological finds, it appears that there would have been larger versions of the game as well.

Anglo Saxon and Viking Board games
As we go further through history, we can see some different games appearing. The Anglo Saxons and Vikings of the early Medieval period both played ‘nine men’s morris’ extensively. The game is much older though, and is one of the longest surviving board games to this day. There are Roman Examples, with boards carved into pavements and clay tiles, and the earliest dated example is a clay board dated to around 100 AD from Mycenae, but there are other boards resembling these from Egypt that may go back as far as 1400 BC. The game also spread through the Roman Empire and even ended up in 9th century India. Examples from the Viking world include those from the 9th century Gokstad ship burial in Norway. The game was also incredibly popular through the medieval period, as such it was recorded in Alfonso X’s ’Book of Games’ in 1283, and many carvings of it have been found in the cloisters of Cathedrals such as Canterbury, Salisbury, and Westminster Abbey. The origin of the name ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ is somewhat of a mystery, but it was possibly first recorded as such in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The most plausible theory for the name is that ‘Morris’ is not actually related to the English folk dance, but comes from the latin merellus, which means gaming counter. The game itself is a fairly simple two-player strategy game where each player attempts to capture their opponent’s men by making rows of three counters. A key aspect to the game is that it is played in two phases, with the first phase being about each player taking turns to strategically place all their men before the main phase starts. There are also many variations of the game with varying rules, inevitable for a game that has lasted thousands of years across multiple continents. Some versions differ in size, such as the smaller three men’s morris, or the larger twelve men’s morris.

Tafll Pieces found in a 9th Century grave in Birka, Sweden

One game that is most commonly associated with the Vikings is the Tafl family of games, most notably Hneftafl. There are many variations of this game, usually of differing sizes, and many examples come from England and Ireland, as well as Scandinavia. Most games date to the typical dates of the Viking period, from around 800 AD, but it could have originated much earlier. All Tafl games are asymmetrical, which is what makes it fairly unique when compared with most other historical games. It is a grid of an odd number such as 13×13, 11×11 or 9×9 squares. This allows for a central square on which a ‘king’ is placed. The concept of the game is that a king and his bodyguards are in the center, and a greater number of attackers on the opposing team surround them on all 4 sides of the board. The Goal for the attackers is to capture the king by surrounding him with 4 pieces, whereas the king’s team instantly wins if he reaches one of the 4 corners of the board. There are two particularly important writings about Tafl games, the earliest being a 10th century Irish gospel book which shows the starting positions for a game called Alea Evangelii, which is an 18×18 variant of Tafl. The second is a Welsh writing from the Tudor period which explains the rules of an 11×11 variant. Other variants of the game include Fitchneal which as a small 7×7 variant taken from Irish written sources, and with some physical examples such as the Balinderry peg-board, which is now at the National Museum of Ireland. Tablut is a 9×9 version which has a written observation of it in play from 1732 by Carl Linnè while travelling in Lapland. Hneftafl is the example that appears frequently in Norse literature and discovered in Viking Age sites. It is a 13×13 board with 32 attackers facing 16 defenders and a king.

Later Medieval Board games
Related to nine men’s morris, which would have still been popular at the time, is a game that is first named in 15th Century English documents, and that is Fox and Geese. Physical evidence for this game goes further back, as there are some carvings of the board in Gloucester Cathedral from the 14th Century. It may be even earlier, as it is also referred to as Marelles, which is related to the other name for nine men’s morris. The name ‘Fox and Geese’ itself is first found in 1633. It is also around this time when the game seemingly saw an increase in popularity. The basic rules are that there is a single ‘Fox’ against a gaggle of thirteen ‘geese’. Players take it in turns, with one moving a single goose at a time, and the other moving their fox. The geese have to trap the fox and prevent it from moving to win, whereas the fox has to remove all the geese, which is done by jumping over a goose if there is an empty space the other side. This means the geese must surround or corner the fox in multiple ranks before they have too few left. Variants of this game mostly include more geese, which may have been an attempt to balance the game. There are also double and triple size versions of the board that come about in the 17th century that increase the number of geese and foxes as well. An offshoot of the game is Asalto from the 18th century, which replaces the old theme for a more military emphasis, it being about two officers facing off against multiple enemy soldiers.

There are many many other board games that I could go into here, not least of all is chess, but that is perhaps the most famous board game of all time, so I needn’t explain it here. I will simple say that chess was originally a 6th Century Indian game known as Chaturanga. It reached Europe by the 10th Century. From the 13th century onwards there were many variants that would seem bizarre to us now such as four-seasons chess, which is a four player version, and there is also courier chess, which is played on a rectangular board, uses more pieces named the courier, counsellor and spy that move differently, and moves are taken in turn but four at a time. From the late 15th Century onwards we begin to see what would become modern chess, and it was fairly recognizable by the 17th Century.

1260: From Mongol to Mamluk Control in the Near East

The following update has been inspired by an article I read by Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) regarding the year 1260 and the incredibly important consequences that this date had for Europe and the Mediterranean world. Vincent declared this to be a dramatic year which is often overlooked despite the serious political change it brought to more than one civilisation, but particularly the changes to the Mongol empire. I have been in a very “oriental/Asian” mood lately – in fact I am writing this whilst listening to some Mongolian throat singing – so I decided to pick up on this topic which I had looked into a while back, so we can all share the mood.

Vincent’s article was mostly focus on the Battle of Ain Jalut, which took place in the Kezreel valley near Jerusalem the 3rd of September 1260. The result was the clash of two great fighting forces. By this moment in time the Mamluk had consolidated power very quickly in the area of Egypt and extended their area of influence all along the Mediterranean coast in the Near East. This was of great threat to the Mongols, who has already started suffering from this shift in power since their ransacking of Baghdad in 1258, thus ending 500 years of Abbasid rule. The leader of the Mongol army at this moment in time was Hülegü Khan – sometimes referred to as Hulagu Khan, who was the grandson of our dear friend Temujin. Hugalu is responsible for the formation of the Ilkhanate of Persia, which will lay the foundations for modern-day Iran. And he was also the man responsible for the siege of Baghdad and the following conquest of Syria. So, as you can see, it is not like the Mamluks were just going against any whatever general. Now the reasons why with this background the Mongols were caught off foot at Ain Jalut are multiple, and there are more than I could cover in a blog post – with intrinsic details I would leave to military historians, a field that as you know is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, I will give you an outline of the issues at this scenario that leads to the Mamluk control of the area and the reason why Vincent determines this was a decisive moment in history.

First of all, the army that Hugalu was commanding ranked around 20,000 people who needed to eat.  Reuven Amitai-Preiss discusses in his study of this period that this proves to be an issue and leads Hugalu to withdraw from Syria. Traditional viewpoints suggest this was due to the unrest that appears in the central domains of the Mongol empire following the death of Mongke Khan, who was Hugalu’s brother. This opens a window for the classic political manoeuvres of succession that end in civil wars. However, Reuven thinks that this was not so much Hugalu’s concern, but rather the fact that with such a big army, he finds himself in an area where supplies are scarce – Syria is not particularly well-known for its grazing fields! There is an exchange of correspondence between him and Louis IX of France where this is discussed. So, although there is evidence that food and graze for the horse was an issue, the fact that Iran was suddenly very exposed to the potential threat of the leader of the Golden Horde, and Hugalu was without his brother as protector, most likely led him to retreat part of his troops over to the eastern border of the Ilkhanate. In addition, it seems that, despite all his military might, Hugalu also made a strategic mistake: he completely undermined the threat that the rising powers in Egypt supposed to his realm. Turns out that the force that was marching over towards Hugalu on behalf of the Mamluk Sultanate was bigger – current estimates range from around 24,000 to the 100,000s…the reason for this disparity in the sources, however, escapes me. Regardless, the thing is the Khan simply did not take his enemy seriously, and the consequences were devastating. Baibars, commander of the Mamluk army, took advantage of the mobility of their units to exercise hit-and-run tactics to lure the Mongols to where the main force lead by Qutuz, the sultan of the Mamluk dynasty at the time. The first attack was gained by the Mongols and they did hurt the Mamluk forces significantly. However, the retaliation of the enemy was great, and their superior knowledge of the area – and presumably the considerably larger army – eventually turned the tables and destroyed Hugalu’s force. In the process of doing so, his designated deputy commander, Kitbuqa, was captured and his head was cut off and sent over to Cairo as a souvenir and proof of the Mamluk prowess.

The thing is, that with the defeat of the Mongols in 1260, and the growing tensions elsewhere in their domains in what is known as the Berke-Hugalu War (as you can see they really did not get along…), they were never able to secure back the area, with the resurgence of Egyptian power to extents that could be compared to the previous Abbassid rule. In fact, it only took the 30 years for the pressure from the Mamluks to be so prominent in the Near East that the Crusader armies started to give up and evacuate the area. This led the crusading efforts towards the Baltic and left the Mongols in a state of crisis and civil war. Interestingly, and despite his amazing victory, Qutuz did not enjoy his success for much longer. On his way back to Cairo, he was assassinated at El Salheya, seemingly due to the scheming of our ambitious friend Baibars, although it appears several Emir’s unhappy with Qutuz own raise to power and policies may have actually been the cause of his death. In any case, Baibars becomes the new sultan and with him a consistent rule, that lead to the consolidation of Mamluk power in the Levant area, and the defeat of the Seventh Crusade.

The Outlaw King – A Medieval Movie Review

Just a couple of months ago Netflix released The Outlaw King, their historical action drama about the life of Robert the Bruce in early 14th Century Scotland. Chris Pine is the big name here starring as the Bruce himself. Overall the film has received exceedingly average reviews, with around a 60% aggregated score. This is even after 20 minutes of battle and action scenes were cut due to complaints about length from the initial previews. Unfortunately the heavy amount of criticism it has received has mostly been due to it being seen as boring rather than having any glaring fault. Personally I feel the problem is that the average film reviewer and Netflix watcher aren’t able to appreciate the place where The Outlaw King shines, and that’s in its physical presentation of history.

The scope of the film is fairly narrow, as it doesn’t really cover Robert the Bruce’s whole life or reign, but only some time just before coronation up until after the battle of Loudoun Hill. Furthermore if you come into this film expecting a heavy degree of accuracy in its events then you may be disappointed. As with most movies, this one does mess around with the timeline somewhat, as well as putting historical figures in places where they maybe wouldn’t have been. For example the film depicts Edward I as dying before the battle of Loudoun Hill, when he in fact died some months later. Also the film does the usual and makes the protagonist the good guy and his opponents inherently evil. The character of Bruce is that of an enigmatic and well-behaved man of the people, who desires to restore Scotland to its citizens. However, historian Fiona Watson notes the real Bruce was most likely cold, canny, and driven by his personal ambition. I do think that some of this can be forgiven, as the characterization of the Bruce as the hero and Edward Longshanks and his son Edward II as evil can show the perspective of those on the Scottish side. After all the English were seen as the invaders and oppressors.

In either case, the film doesn’t overly sugar coat the cause of the Bruce and his men. It does show some of the underhanded tactics they may have made use of. The story is really kicked off when Bruce murders an opponent of his John ‘The Red’ Comyn in a priory. In the film it is shown as a hasty decision that Bruce made to stop Comyn from telling the English of his plans to revolt, when in reality it was probably a more planned decision, and when it turned out that Comyn survived Bruce had him finished off. So the film does somewhat clean things up there. However in a later scene James Douglas, one of the Bruce’s men, is shown to have a similar disregard for murder in holy places when he goes to take back his family’s castle from the English by waiting for the guards to be in a service in the chapel and slaughtering them before they could arm themselves. Douglas is then on known as ‘The Black Douglas’, and so we see that the morality of the Scottish side isn’t entirely unquestionable in the film. On a side note, I do think that Chris Pine’s depiction of the Bruce is a little overshadowed by the charismatic fury shown in the Black Douglas, especially in combat.

Finally I should mention what I really loved about the Film. As my particular interest is in historical warfare, and arms and armour, especially of the medieval period, any film that manages to depict these aspects well is instantly in my good books. Sadly I find it very hard to name any one film that manages to tick more than a few boxes for me, but perhaps this film has changed that? Despite the issues with overarching historical events this film has in places, if you look at the details in presentation it blows away bigger budget movies, especially its nearest comparison Braveheart. There isn’t an anachronistic kilt in sight! Anyone who knows their stuff about medieval warfare will find this move a treat, as everywhere you look people are armed and kitted out in a variety of authentic armour and weapons. For example, you’d expect there to be swords everywhere, but in reality swords wouldn’t be very common on the battlefield as they were really just a sidearm, and only for those that could afford it. Instead the Outlaw King shows us armies of spears, the primary weapon on the medieval battlefield. You’ll also see axes and warhammers being used heavily by the main cast, even the Bruce himself is seen using the lowly axe despite being the king, but this is good as it would certainly have been the preferable choice against the armour of the time.

Speaking of armour, this has to be the best depiction of armour I’ve seen in a film to date. Instead of putting everyone in full shining plate like most films would simply due to the assumption that it should be around in the middle ages, this film has heavy use of cloth armour, known as the gambeson, for bulk of the fighters shown, which is a very rare thing to see in films despite how overwhelmingly common it would have been. For those who could afford more, late 13th/early 14th century armour was mostly consisting of mail, and perhaps with a ‘coat of plates’ worn over it. This was the predecessor to the full plate harness that we’re all familiar with. It is a series of steel plates held together under a fabric layer, with larger plates on the chest and back which would eventually become one large single piece in later periods.

By no means is the depiction of weapons and warfare perfect in this film, it’s just far far better than most. For example you will still see the old trope of fire arrows making an appearance. Something that you only really see in movies because it is more visible, especially at night, than real arrows. They are employed during a very short siege in this film, which is one of the weaker moments. They are sold as being an unstoppable weapon despite the castle they are being shot into being mostly made of stone, so the castle is given up without an extended siege, which I would have liked to have seen. On similar note there are some issues with the castles used in the movie themselves, such as the fortifications being oddly sized, but I think this is mostly forgivable as they don’t feature too prominently and are probably more modern castle styled houses or mansions that were used due to budget limitations. Overall however, in terms of the presentation of warfare, as well as many other aspects of medieval life that I couldn’t even begin to go into detail on right now, The Outlaw King really gets things right in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before. The key to this I think is that they’ve actually listened to historians and other advisors on these details rather that leaving things to set and costume designers to fail at reinventing the wheel so to speak. They even went to various re-enactment groups to be extras and train others in combat, as well as going to credible historical crafters and smiths to make their weapons, such as the prominent Tod Todeschini of ‘Tods Workshop’ who designed and made the daggers carried by the main cast.

Overall I think that the film is a fairly entertaining historical drama with excellent action and combat, I could have just done with more of it. I was expecting the final climax to come much later in the Battle of Bannockburn. However with criticism coming from the previews of the length and too much battle, and with the historical accuracy of the timeline already being somewhat muddled and squashed together, I think it was wise to forgo any more messing with the events and keep it as a clean ending after the Battle of Loudoun Hill. Hopefully the mixed reaction isn’t too big a blow for historical films, especially ones with such good details!

Lost Cities – Xanadu

Today I bring you the first instalment of my series of posts on “Lost Cities”. I would like to let you know right from the beginning that the term “lost city” is applied loosely here. As you will see throughout the different posts these are not always locations that are physically lost or not found. In many cases, I use this term to refer to places that used to stand tall. These were often centres of power, the core to long gone civilisations and empires. Therefore, as long as you keep that in mind, we are good to go. Why have I chosen these sites? Well, the answer is different for each of them. This is a fairly popular topic I guess in terms of public history – I am sure you have seen a documentary somewhere. But I think what draw me to look into these locations was not that populist approach, but my inner Indiana Jones looking for adventures that I am very unlikely to have in real life. Every archaeologist and history dreams (I Think…I Certainly Do!) of finding something forgotten and buried down into oblivion in the annals of our past. Now, I am in no position of doing great discoveries, so I only have left the stories of this places. And sometimes, a story is all you need…

XANADU

Xanadu, actually named Shangdu means upper capital. This was in fact the summer capital of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty. It used to be home to 100.000 people until its destruction by an invading army of the Ming dynasty. The razing of Xanadu took place during the reign of the last Yuan Emperor and Khagan of the Mongol Empire: Toghon Temur in 1369. Sadly, and due to very extreme deterioration, all we have left are just the bases of the outline of the walls. What is left of these measures 2200 square metres, and the layout goes a bit like this. The walls and measurements I have just given you are part of the outer city, then they would have had an inner city held within the walls, with a palace which would have been around 550m in length. You know…Small! In any case, the current location of this site is actually in Zhenglan Banner (Mongolia).

I know this seems like a bit of a pessimistic note to start this post on, but I wanted you to feel the devastation from the beginning. And then, hopefully you will understand why Xanadu was such a symbol and why it had to be destroyed as an act of war – I am sure in any case that’s what the Ming forces thought to themselves in the process of trashing the place, anyway. So, what else do we know about Xanadu?  The city’s original name was Kaiping and was designed by the Chinese architect and adviser Liu Bingzhong or Liu Kan for the Yuan dynasty. The project started in 1252 and finished by 1256. Just a decade after the works were finished the famous Venetian Marco Polo visited the renown city. He actually called it Chandu, or Xandu; in fact, it seems the name change to Shangdu happened in 1264, which would explain the vocabulary used by Marco Polo. In the Travels of Marco Polo (Book 1, chapter 61 specifically for Xanadu, read the rest just for fun!), he goes at great length to explain his adventures around the old region of Cathay, and we find extensive information on Xanadu as an imperial city. He describes it as being an opulent, remarkable city. The palace, he says, is built with marble, gilded decorations all over, and then, he also mentions a second palace, also known as the Cane Palace where the Khan lived alongside in the main marbled residence… I think the evidence speak for themselves. In essence, Xanadu was a massive hub connecting trade for China in the north of “Cathay”. However, as the Mongol domains expanded, its location lost importance as the capital of the kingdom, and instead it was refashioned as an imperial city of high status by the mid 14th century.

Well, curiously enough, the city regained its former name after the Ming destroyed and occupied the area of Xanadu: they torched the remains of Liu’s creation and renamed it Kaiping. The site remained unoccupied and uncared for hundreds of years. Luckily the UNESCO decided to finally inscribe it in the list of World Heritage as of 2012. Like many sites that are abandoned and left to fend for themselves much destruction has been done to the archaeological record by the locals. In fact, it is reported notoriously that a lot of the stone work and marble of the city was repurposed for houses more recently in the town of Dolon Nor. As of today, not much other than the outline of the walls is left, though and effort for restoration and preservation of the site has been carried out since 2002.

Now, you will be thinking, what specifically pushed the Ming forces to destroy such a city, when it was no longer the capital? Granted its status was indeed very high and it was still an important symbol of the Yuan dynasty, but the treatment it received was pretty harsh. Perhaps it will start making more sense if I told you that, the down fall of Xanadu came as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion. The roots of the rebellion were many, although they mostly had to do with the economic and environmental problems link together caused by the constant flooding of the Yellow River, bouts of the Black Death and the very high expenses required to maintain such a vast empire. Not a good scenario. It also helps knowing that the Red Turban army was formed by Guo Zixing and his followers were members of the White Lotus society

…And before you start thinking we are suddenly in a Wuxia movie, I will tell you what that means. The White Lotus crew were essentially a political and religious movement, with basis in Dharmic religions as well as Persian Gnosticism. With their strict codes of conduct that resonated with the issues described earlier that the empire was facing, they quickly started becoming the champions of the injustices performed by the Mongols in their own lands, and as every rebellious group they did part take and a few demonstrations. The Mongol administration pick on this quickly and proceeded to ban them, and thus the White Lotus became a secret society of sorts. What I haven’t told you yet is that the vast majority of the members of this organisation were Han Chinese, therefore causing complications here not just in terms of religiosity but also ethnicity and cultural status. The Yuan dynasty saw a variety of religions amongst their ranks, including an increase in the number of followers of Islam in China, whilst the state never officially converted to the doctrine this caused some social dissent. Kublai Khan himself eventually established Tibetan Buddhism as the de facto state religion. Nonetheless, he particularly favoured the Sakya sect; a move that he did in part to have an advantage in his conquest of the Tibet area. Sadly, as a result of this favouritism the rest of religious movements in the Mongol empire lost importance, which caused once again social anxieties amongst the people, particularly the ordinary folk. This only contributed more to the escalation of things if we consider that during Mongol rule the “Han” or the previous Jin dynasty were all divided as a separate class in their feudal system and the decorum that they had received in previous rule was dismissed. So, in essence, the Han Chinese were super bitter. As the Red Turban Rebellion gained momentum, the White Lotus society became an incredibly favourable basis for their desire to overthrow the established system, and from here on, the story is pretty obvious to follow: all you need is the numbers and will to raise in arms, and soon your have a whole bloody war. To their great advantage, the mid 14th century saw a moment of great instability amongst the Mongols who were too busy fighting themselves over a very far stretch territory. So, by the time the Ming forces made it to Xanadu, little was left of the former glory of the empire this wonderful city had helped to build. Razed to the ground as is raided by Genghis reborn himself, Xanadu crumbled and set itself to sleep.