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.

Conflicts with Funny Names

Today I bring you an idea I borrowed from a history magazine I found at work (I am not sure if it was BBC history or History Extra, but it must have been one or the other). There were a few pages dedicated to  armed conflicts with some pretty silly or bizarre names. Now their list was pretty extensive, and in no means I have time to cover that amount of stuff in here. So instead I had a look at some of the issues that I found more interesting, and tried to keep them varied in terms of geographical location as well as historical period. So here it goes to a collection of pretty random war names.

War of the Bucket: sometimes also referred to as the War of the Oaken Bucket; a bellicose dispute between Bologna and Modena. The year was 1325 and the area where the vast majority of the conflict actually develops, is in the district of Emilia. It all started with some troops from Modena pilfered a bucket from a well belonging to the Bologna city walls. And you would think: all that fuss for a blooming bucket?! Well my friends, in case you are not up to speed with the Italian politics of the period, this was obviously not just about the bucket, but about the fact that Modena and Bologna where on opposite sides of the power struggle between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. Bologna, as a supporter of the Pope was part of the Guelfs, whilst Modena sided with the HRE and the Ghibellines. In short, the outcome of this not so silly war was a victory for Modena, despite the 30000 soldiers that Bologna sent to confront their enemy. And what happened to the bucket? In case you are interested, this is apparently still displayed at Modena’s city hall – just out of spite.

Football War: this was a relatively recent conflict between El Salvador and Honduras. It is often referred to as well as the Soccer War or the 100 Hours War due to its duration – whether that makes it qualify as a war or not… And it is all because of football; indeed. It started in 1969 during the world cup qualifier match for the 1970 FIFA competition between these two nations. And was this really about football? Well, just like with the bucket; not quite that simple I am afraid. Issues rise up regarding immigration due to disputed border and land ownership which affected the mix population of Hondurans and Salvadorans in the area, the latter being effectively kicked out of the country in 1967. So y the time the match comes up, people in Honduras were concerned there were Salvadorans crossing the border not just for the sake of the match, but to stay. A series of nationalistic riots pushed the military to get involved, to the point that the Honduran government was sincerely concerned there would be a trespassing on behalf of the Salvadoran army which eventually happened. For the  over 100 hours that the conflict lasted, the number of casualties added up to around 3000 deaths, most of which were Honduran civilians.

The Flagstaff War: British v Maori. This is the conflict that in fact relates to Hone Heke’s rebellion. After a somewhat peaceful coexistence between the inhabitants of New Zealand and the newcomer British Empire, Heke instigated the war against their new friends due to many things, but I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back was the fact that the British transferred their capital to Auckland from Okiato. This resulted in dramatic economic loses for Heke and his fellowmen. Thus, they decided to take their anger out on the British flag on Maiki Hill, which was chopped down repeatedly in 1844. This caused severe grievances as the British would keep on putting it back on the ground, and Heke and his people kept on cutting it down. The last time this stand-off was performed, it actually ended in violence with the death of one of the keepers of the flag. Leading to several battles; the entire conflict becoming a stalemate, which nonetheless has mostly been presented as a British victory as it meant grounds for reconciliation with Heke and the rest of the Maori communities…

Potato War/Plumfuss (1778-9). This was a conflict involving Austria against Prussia, with the special and additional mentions of Bavaria and Saxony. During the Bavarian War of Succession there was an attempt made by the alliance of Prussia and Saxony to stop the Hapsburg control over the region of Bavaria. As a result the fight entangles into a series of skirmishes. However, although the conflict was not so terrible there were thousands of death due to starvation as the result of  the raiding and pillaging soldiers who spoilt the vast majority of the food supplies. So, yes, perhaps this one war and its funny name have a higher affiliation in terms of terminology than the others. And the reason for the variance between potato and plum? It is a German thing: the Prussians and Saxons referred to it as the Kartoffelkrieg (Kartoffel being potato, krieg: war), whilst the Austrians used the term zwetschgenrummel (zwetschgen – plum, rummel – hustle). So it really depends on which side of the war your stand with this one.

 

How to Prevent and Cure the Black Death

We have talked previously in a few occasions in W.U Hstry about the Black Death. However we have not dedicated much time to talk about the medical side of things, particularly how people dealt with it. Therefore, today we will have a look at the ways in which medieval society tried to get rid of the plague before it got to them, as well as how they tried to fight it once they were already infected. The treatment of the Black Death consisted of many diverse types. Some of them made logical sense such as cleaning the streets of all human and animal waste and this waste being taken by a cart to a field outside of the village and burnt. Furthermore, all bodies were required to be buried in deep pits outside of the village and their clothes burnt. However, some of the other treatments were a bit more…well, see for yourselves:

-Nice smells: if you had not contracted the plague just yet, then you ought to be surrounding yourself by “nice smells”. Yes, it was wholeheartedly advised that people would carry flowers or herbs with them in their jackets pockets, or somewhere by their faces so the air they smell would be pleasant. This was suggested as they believed that the illness was transmitted through the airways. You know that rhyme, Ring a Ring O Roses? Supposedly the song could have dated to old times, and it seems likely it could have sparked during any of the many plague infestations known to have taken place in Europe. However, as an interesting counterpart to the recommendation of carrying nice smells, many people in Europe actually moved and lived in the sewers!  The same believe of the air transmitted disease caused the opposite effect, if it smells bad in the sewers already, for sure it couldn’t get any worse…!

-Crushed emeralds: this would have only worked if you were wealthy, of course. (And I mean would have worked in the sense of, only in that way you would have been able to access emeralds, of course). Apparently, emeralds were smashed into a super fine powder that then would be mixed with food or drinks, just like you do nowadays with your vitamin supplements. I would have quite literally felt like swallowing glass, and it would have been as likely to kill you as it could have prevented the disease.

That goes as far as preventing the illness. Now if you are already ill, you might as well try some of these remedies as suggested by expert Johny Wilkes…:

-Blood letting: everything was fixed in medieval times (and even sometimes well into the modern period) by drawing some blood. Practitioner will apply leeches to cause the bleeding, but sometimes they will use the more brutal way of cutting off skin and draining the blood from the open wound into a bowl.

-Live chicken: there was an English doctor, by the name of Thomas Vicary, who suggested that a live chicken, should be tied to a sick persons body so it would be touching the buboes. But there was one condition: the chicken needed to have its bottom shaved! In this was it was believed that the infection would pass from the human to the chicken.

-Cover your buboes with a variety of the following: many things were supposedly good for the oozing sores. For example, it was believed that treacle would hep the sores..but only if it was at least 10 years old?! Other things perhaps are less unheard off, and seen as common treatment for other wounds. Urine was advised because of its ammonia content. In addition, a good rub of tree resin, flower roots and faeces would also help the buboes.

As ridiculous as any of these measures may seem, what we need to understand is that the great lack of knowledge about of the plague drove people to try pretty much anything as a remedy. Those who were desperate would be willing to even drink highly poisonous stuff such as arsenic or mercury. Some thought that by constantly sitting in the warmth by a fire the illness would leave them be. Others thought that abstinence was the best cure – after all this was sent by the wrath of God for their sins, right? – so people would stop eating meat, or having sex. Absolutely anything could appeal to the tormented minds of those living under such precarious circumstances.

In many ways, the Black Death led to the collapse of medieval medicine, however because of this failure came the renewal and first steps towards modern medicine. Public health measures were established to cope with epidemics, many of which are still in use today to control infectious diseases. The rise of modern science and medicine helped the future generations to understand the issues implicated in dealing with diseases in places of high concentration of the population such as towns and cities, and put emphasis in the idea of personal hygiene and public well-being. Interestingly enough, we are still trying to understand truly what the epidemic of the 14th century was – as not all historians and scholars in the subject agree that it was bubonic plague or just such thing. And here is some food for thought: as citizens of the 21st century we still probably look at these treatments as outrageous. However, if an epidemic of such scale was to hit our society, don’t you think that in the face of such brutality and despair some may still try such things? Perhaps we should stop accusing our forebeards of being under developed and stupid…Just trying to survive at the best they could with the resources they had.

Girona: Travel guide, Medieval past & Sightseeing

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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.

 

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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.

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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

 

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Revisiting Burckhardt’s Italian Despot – The Este and Borgia Families

Once again, I have found myself revisiting some old research. You may know already that around 2010 I was particularly keen on the Renaissance  – repressed art historian at the core, what could you expect? Having spent some time analysing the different Italian factions of this period, I came across Buckhardt – as you should if you are looking into this topic!- and ended doing some research on some of the most prominent Italian families and their rulers. Therefore, today I will revisit my early ideas as a student of the Italian magnates and their power politics.

Jacob Burckhardt presents his model of Italian despot in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. According to him, the despotism in Italy was different from the system of tyrannies established in these states during the 13th and early 14th centuries. “The earliest firm tyrannies in important towns were achieved by feudatories who owed their position in part to alliances with Frederick II” – he says very eloquently. However with the Renaissance changes these dynamics. The despots were meant to seek for fame, have passion for arts and count scholars in their courts to give their like the other European princes. Theirs was an absolute power over their realm,  but their situation was delicate; the rule of a despot was brief. It was easy to make enemies, and family interests could be either one’s salvation or condemnation. For reasons I cannot fully remember, my investigation then went to focus on two main families, d’Este and the Borgia. So the following lines will try to compare their strategies as families, and how this is reflected by their leaders.

D’Este

They controlled a considerably big area configured by the cities of Modena, Reggio, Rovigo and Ferrara, which would be the capital of their realm. Their interest in this region grew since 1185 when Azzo d’Este married Machellesa degli Adelardi, who was the heiress of her family’s properties there. The Este developed good diplomatic skills and administrative bureaucracy which, in addition to the control of rural-agrarian economy instead of commerce, gave them a lot of power, as well as a firm grip over the rich people in their land. Furthermore, they also knew that maintaining the public order and making their citizens happy was a major issue, crucial indeed to avoid rebellions. Due to this The Este cared for the food supply, flood control and irrigation, as well as for the provision of an effective judicial system, religious and philanthropic works and entertainment of their areas of influence. The family found a strong leader in  Ercole d’Este Following Buckhardt’s teaching, it appears that he possessed many of the characteristics that later on Machiavelli would appoint in Il Principe. He was well-known for using his family members for representation, alliance and marriage, which made him a very well-connected and supported ruler.

The Este were remarkable in the flourishing art patronage of the Renaissance and for this reason their main competition were the Medicci.  Ercole’s role in this is particularly important as he promoted the revival of classical theatre, and supported the Boiardo’s poetry, and focussed on creating a magnificent ducal capital. In addition, the family also had ties with the church. In fact, Borso d’Este played a major role in the patronage of the Carthusian order in Ferrara. I guess it could be said that the spirit of the Este family based on strong family unity, patronage of the arts and religion is encompassed in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which became their burial site.

The Borgia

The Borgia’s success was mainly due to the links they established within the church, and it is precisely Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, who made them powerful. But the Borgia’s control was flawed in nature. Although it is true that the  Papal States had become a vast thanks to Alexander and his son, Cesare, the authority that the pope had varied from one city to another. Religion was at the stakes – The Reformation drew near. Meanwhile, the Borgia aimed for a centralised government, especially outside the Romagna, which they had recently conquered. This centralisation was based mostly on their ability to amass large quantities of money. Alexander managed to collect large amounts of wealth due to new taxes, heavy tithe rates, retributions from cardinals, etc. Violence was also their friend. Conquering the Romagna was no easy task, but with Alexander’s money, Cesare managed to rise an army capable of great military success. The militia from this area was meant to be an instrument of unification and a demonstration of local support, but it rather looked like forceful conscription in the modern sense. And so, the problems began…the French invasions, the rebellion in Umbria, the problematic pilgrims of the 1500 Jubilee…And yet, the crusade against the Turks was somewhat successfull.Art patronage does not seem one of their main concerns. It is known that the Pope Calixtus III, the first Borgia pope, had no dedication to art patronage rather that the eventual reconstruction of ruined churches[28], while Alexander seemed more dedicated to his iconographic project of the Virgin. So this makes one wonder, if the Borgia cause was a family business, or rather a means to complete individual pretensions. Some scholars support the idea that both Alexander and Cesare used Lucrezia Borgia (daughter and sister respectively) for their political gains through arranged marriages. Yet after two troublesome relationships, the woman ends up married to Alfonso d’Este, much to her interest rather than that of her relatives – by this union she would become duchess of Este, not just the daughter of the Pope…Alexander, and so Cesare, had been more identified in the way of a ruler of the Middle Ages rather than of the Renaissance. Despite the presence of remarkable people in their court such as Machiavelli or Leonardo Da Vinci, they seem to lack the “renaissance” experienced elsewhere in Italy. The way they took control and power seemed ruthless and aggressive. They were more alike with the so-called tyrants than despots per se.

So, upon reflecting on my work, this makes me know think that, although Buckhardt’s premises are a great basis to understand the Renaissance politics of Italy, his idea of the despot does not seem to find common ground among all these people. In addition, I do not think anymore that this is a particularly useful way of understanding the political dynamics of Italy in this period. The concept of the Italian despot seems to miss the wider picture in which these people developed their strategies that suited them best for the sake of competition and survival of their regime. Of course, this is based on just two families, but with a little research in the Medicci or the Sforza, one can only wonder if there was such a thing as the ultimate Italian despot, or rather a multiplying configuration of regional, powerful magnates driven by individual thought and family agendas.

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PS: for this I have quite an extensive bibliography of works that made me reconsider Buckhardt’s concept, and this is what my reassessment is based upon, but any comments are of course welcomed, as this is not even remotely my specialty nowadays…This is just a selection of those I perhaps found most interesting or useful/insightful.

Burckhardt, J., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (New York, 1960) – where you should start, preferably.

Tuohy, T., Herculean Ferrara: Ercole d’Este (1471-1505) and the Invention of a Ducal Capital, (Cambridge, 1995) – This is the real deal. Solid arguments, in-depth analysis, different perspectives on the argument.

Gundersheimer, L.W., Ferrara: a Style of a Renaissance Despotism, (Princeton; N.J, 1973) – perhaps a bit outdated now? But it does provide a nice complement to Tuohy from a more descriptive and traditional approach.

Mallet, M., The Borgias: Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Dynasty, (London, 1969) – Again, I know it’s an old book, but like Buckhardt, it does establish the grounds for the understanding of the Borgia enterprise.

Gwynne, N.M., The Truth about Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, (Sainte Croix du Mont, 2008) – quite blunt review of the Borgias, a bit sensationalist even I would say, but some interesting theories regarding personal identity and the Pope as both religious leader and head of family

Bradford, S., Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, (London, 2004) – perhaps too focussed on her amorous affairs than her actual identity and power. However, as a biographical piece it does comprise her entire life, and explores the ambiguities of her background as a “legitimate Borgia”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Medieval Graffiti: the boredom of choirboys?

From Winchester Cathedral to the Rosslyn Chapel, the walls of Britain’s religious houses echo with the voices of a long-dead past. But why is medieval graffiti so commonplace? And what does it mean for modern historians?

In a recent article for History Extra, Jessica Hope explores various meanings behind the countless examples of graffiti which cover the walls of Britain’s medieval churches. She writes with disappointment that past generations of historians too often overlooked the inscriptions and doodles, viewing them as little more than the ‘creations of bored choirboys’ and therefore unworthy of academic or scholarly surveyal. However, she goes on, paradoxically much of the graffiti actually dates back to ‘long before there actually were and choirboys to be found in the church.’ Indeed, in recent years, new large-scale surveys have revived interest in medieval graffiti and, unsatisfied with the crude suggestions of the past, many historians are now undertaking academic research to reveal the meaning of medieval graffiti once and for all.

An example of such research is the work of Matthew Champion, which draws on thousands of examples from surviving medieval churches across the width and breadth of Britain. He believes that while graffiti in the twenty-first century may be seen as ‘both destructive and anti-social, and certainly not something that should be either welcomed or encouraged in our parish churches,’ this appears to be a relatively modern attitude. Conversely, during the Middle Ages, graffiti appears to have been both accepted and acceptable, leaving many of our medieval churches ‘quite literally covered with inscriptions.’

Champion writes that the purpose of studying medieval graffiti is simply that it is so unlike any other form of historical research. He suggests that ‘If you walk into just about any one of the surviving medieval churches scattered across the British countryside, you will undoubtedly see a wealth of features surviving from the Middle Ages- stained glass windows, the sheen of alabaster monuments and the dull glow of memorial brasses set into the floor. However, almost without exception, all of these were created by or for the top five or ten percent of medieval society; the parish elite that could, quite simply, afford to have themselves memorialised.’ Where then, asks Champion, are the lower orders of medieval society? Where are the common people who for generations worshipped within the church walls? Where are the memorials to the simple commoners who paid for, and in many cases helped to construct, these monuments to their ‘betters’?

While yes, occasionally these individuals do turn up in legal agreements, wills and major court rolls. However, that is only to say that such documents represent the times when those individuals came into contact with the authority of either the civil administration or the church. Certainly, they do not represent their everyday interactions with the church as either a building or an institution. Champion therefore argues that the voice of the people has ‘been muted and distorted by the conventions of the records themselves.’ In contrast, the graffiti has the potential to have been created by anyone and everyone; ‘from the lord of the manor and the parish priest, all the way down the social scale to the very lowliest of the congregation.’ They are, quite literally ‘the lost voices’ of the medieval church.

What then, asks Hope, are the newly rediscovered voices telling us? Champion suggests that to begin with, one must establish the differences between much of modern graffiti which ‘blights our bus shelters, underpasses and public toilets.’ Putting to one side street artists such as Banksy, modern graffiti tends to be largely territorial or memorial in nature. A simple ‘I was here’ or ‘this is mine/ours,’ for instance. This is in no way meaningless or invalid, but according to Champion it’s very different to the graffiti found in Britain’s medieval churches.

Recent research would indicate that, while there are numerous inscriptions which might be little more than a choirboy’s doodle, the vast majority of examples appear to be devotional or religious in nature. Champion writes that they are, in their simplest form, ‘prayers made solid in stone.’ In some cases they are exactly that – a Latin prayer etched deeply into the stonework, or a prayer for the safe return of a ship or good harvest, as well as prayers for the soul of a dead loved one. Other examples though are less easy to decipher. ‘Ritual protection marks,’ often known as ‘Witch Marks’ are common, designed to ward off daemons and the ever-present ‘evil eye.’ These are often found clustered around medieval fonts. Also common are elaborate crosses, cut deep into the arches, perhaps to ask for God’s blessing or in memory of vows taken.

The walls of our medieval churches, argues Hope, are full of minute testaments to faith and beliefs that once were commonplace. ‘They tell the story of life, love, hope and fear within the medieval parish; a record that depicts sudden death and the perils of the soul that, every day, were faced by our ancestors.’ Most of all though, she goes on, ‘these scratched mementoes by the long dead tell us about the people.’ A single church might hold any number of secrets. The church of St Mary’s at Troston in Suffolk, for instance, bears an elaborate compass-drawn design on the tower arch which dates back to the building and consecration of the church. While, further up the stonework is simply the name ‘John Abthorp,’ a lord of the manor in the late fifteenth century.

On the south side of the church, below a beautiful coat of arms, a more sinister piece of graffiti can be seen. It takes the form of a medieval shoe, however etched alongside the shoe, and partly obscuring it, is the head of a daemon. Such imagery was common in medieval churches, yet Champion deems the number of examples of daemons in the graffiti of St Mary’s noteworthy. Higher up the arch is a second daemon inscription, this time shown in profile with its gaping mouth full of sharpened teeth and a lolling tongue. Across this daemon’s head is a pentangle, scored deeply into the stonework where it has been gone over numerous times. The pentangle, a symbol of protection, sits in the centre of the daemon’s head- ‘quite literally pinning it to the wall and trapping the evil within,’ says Champion.

Such symbolism clearly carried important meanings for the individuals who created the graffiti, and it is worth noting that many of the more elaborate designs would have taken several hours to complete. This suggests that they could not have been carried out without the knowledge and at least tacit-approval of the local church. While some designs are clearly devotional in nature, we may never truly understand the reason why the lord of the manor left his name inscribed on the tower arch. Hope wonders, was he simply recording his presence, or maybe marking his territory? Was it even John Abthorp who carved his name into the stonework, or was it perhaps created by another person with ‘a deeper, darker purpose?’

Other examples of medieval graffiti are much less enigmatic, and all too easy to understand. At Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire, for instance, a tiny Latin inscription in the north aisle reads simply, ‘Here lies Margaret in her tenth year.’ An equally tragic tale is evident at the church in Kingston, Cambridgeshire, where a small inscription is cut neatly into the stonework. It only lists three names; ‘Cateryn Maddyngley, Jane Maddyngley and Amee Maddyngley.’ ‘Exactly how old they were,’ Hope resigns herself, ‘we may never know,’ but as they do not appear in the parish records, it suggests that all three were children or infants, and all were related by blood. The date following the names offers a further indication as to their fate — ‘1515,’ the year the Bubonic plague returned to London, the south-east, and Cambridgeshire. This outbreak also appears to have been extremely virulent. Cambridge University is known to have suspended all studies, and the courts and places of gathering were disbanded in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. It was, however, to little avail.

Hope writes that ‘part of the problem was that this outbreak came only a short time after the last major outbreak of the Sweating Sickness in 1507.’ Moreover, as was typical of this period, the years immediately after a major epidemic usually saw an increased birth rate, as families and communities tried to recover the losses of the previous pestilence. This meant that, in the case of the 1515 epidemic, when the plague began to spread across England, the country had a far higher population of infants than it might ordinarily – and unfortunately, these children appear to have fallen victim to the disease in their hundreds and thousands.  Across the country, so many infants died that they were hastily buried in unmarked graves with little or no time to memorialise or remember them. Hope writes that ‘In London, the hasty funeral processions, made up of only a few souls, walked the deserted streets; and in a small village in rural Cambridgeshire, a stolid tenant farmer quickly etched the names of his three dead children into the walls of his parish church.’

‘The simple inscription may well be the only mark those three young individuals left on this planet,’ writes Hope. ‘Sometimes the writing on the walls can break your heart.’

Medieval and Renaissance Plate Armour: How effective was it really?

A topic that I have seen a lot of misconceptions about in the past is the use and effectiveness of plate armour of the Late Medieval/Renaissance period. A lot of this comes in the form of tropes from movies, as well video games to some extent. Some examples show the armour to be completely useless, while others show it to be used strange ways and configurations.

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Introduction to Plate Armour

After the plate armour used in the Ancient and Classical periods (such as Roman lorica segmentata). It began to see widespread use again in the late 13th Century. These were mostly single plates used to protect joints and the shins over a mail hauberk. By the end of the 14th century, the full suit of armour had been developed. European leaders in armouring techniques were northern Italians and southern Germans. This led to the styles of Milanese from Milan, and Gothic from the Holy Roman Empire. England produced armour in Greenwich which developed its own unique style. Maximilian style armour immediately followed this in the early 16th century.

Protection

Obviously the point of armour is to protect the wearer from harm, and yet there are countless depictions of armour in films, television and other media of armour being barely any better that wearing nothing, or even worse when mobility is considered. So what sort of protection did the plate armour of this period provide? There is some very simple evidence that we can see first of all; the design of specific anti-armour weaponry. This includes warhammers, maces, poleaxes, and certain specific swords, crossbows and daggers. These weapons are all designed with the aim of two main approaches. First of all is to punch through armour using a high force of impact at a small point, such as with the spikes on warhammers and poleaxes, as well as heavy crossbows. Secondly, they could bypass the armour entirely by exploiting the gaps between plates, which would be what you would try to do with swords, rondel daggers, and spikes on the top of poleaxes or similar weapons. Furthermore, there are fighting techniques that were developed to be used in conjunction with these weapons against an armoured opponent. These can be seen in certain late-medieval combat treatises that depict armoured fighting. In these styles of combat, you are taught to rely on your armour to fully protect you from strikes you may receive from regular weapons (shown below), and when fighting an armoured enemy you should first aim to tire or weaken them by striking them with heavy blunt force or accurate thrusts to weaknesses, and then if possible to grapple them to the ground so you can finish them with a thrust through the visor or under the helmet to the throat with your rondel dagger.

These examples are quite convincing to me, but if you need more evidence, there have also been more scientific tests on the effectiveness of various weapons against various armours, and the metallurgy of medieval armour. You do need to be careful, however, to avoid the ‘tests’ you may see on some ‘historical’ documentaries’ you may find on TV, as they seem to think placing a solitary breastplate or thin piece of mail made of who-knows-what type of steel against a flat surface and shooting it with a modern bow is good enough. In real use, weapons and armour would behave far differently. First of all there would be movement, as the armoured man would most likely not stay still while you attack him, he would attempt to move and negate some of the force of a blow, or let it glance off at an angle. This is a very important point, as with all forms of armour, even modern tanks, the shape and angle of it makes up half of the protection value. The other half, comes from the quality of the materials. Generally the materials and construction of armour get better through time, especially when multiple layers are used, and the steel starts to be surface hardened. In some tests, it does very rarely occur that an arrow may pierce a piece of plate armour, but this in reality would barely even cause a wound in most cases, as underneath the breastplate for example, there is usually empty space, and then a layer of chain mail, and then a layer of thick padded gambeson.

Furthermore, the type of arrow used would be important, as something with a broad head point would have little hope of doing anything to armour. Even with more effective types of arrow, if it only hits a smooth angled part of the armour, it will glance off. The main weakness against arrows would be the visor of the helmet, where although the arrow wouldn’t literally slip though the gap, but it would just have something to catch onto, and drive all the force of the shot into the opening, probably widening it and then entering the face. Therefore a knight would probably just lower their head in the hail of arrows, just as if it was rain.

“Did you hit me yet?”

Mobility

The second main principle of armour to consider is the mobility of it, including the weight, comfort, and range of motion. These factors are probably subject to even more misconception, thanks again to movies, mostly. The first thing to mention here is that obviously armour is going to have some negative effects on the mobility of its wearer, and with all armour there is always a compromise between mobility and protection. If you want to increase the protection, you have to either increase the thickness, or the size of a plate of metal, thus making it heavier, and more cumbersome for the wearer. You can see examples of this in action when you look at certain armours, as with some the pauldron of the forward facing shoulder would be larger, providing more protection, while the shoulder of the sword-arm would have a smaller pauldron, allowing for easier use of the weapon. a reasonable trade-off. So there are some points to certainly consider in the mobility of plate armour, it obviously doesn’t act like clothing, and some examples do restrict movement a fair amount, but these are either very poorly made, or are tournament armour, which is meant for jousting and provides a lot of protection, but would be useless to fight normally in.

However, as I said there are many misconceptions about plate armour surrounding this. One of the main ones, and perhaps quite understandable, is the weight. After all, it must be insanely heavy to wear a full suit of metal on your body! and with layers of chain underneath? Well full harness would probably weigh somewhere between 30-50 kg. This is actually pretty similar to the weight in gear modern soldiers have been carrying in march for years. There have been tests on the effects of this weight on the wearer in regards to their ability to move and march after wearing armour for long periods of time, but with armour you probably wouldn’t be wearing it to march in for long distances, unless you were particularly paranoid of being ambushed at any moment. Open battles in the medieval period were enough of a rare occurrence in war when compared with sieges, and were usually planned in advance, allowing you the time to equip yourself, so you wouldn’t be wearing your armour for overly long periods of time. When you were wearing your armour, you would of course be heavier, but with the weight evenly spread out all over your body it really doesn’t have the same effect as carrying 50 Kilos just from your shoulders.

So what about the ease of movement in armour? This is another case where the popular view is very wrong, with some believing that knights would not be able to get up if they fell on the ground, or even had to be hoisted into their saddles with cranes. A lot of this comes from misleading information from the 19th century, as a lot of historical misconceptions seem to. Well made plate armour would mostly allow for completely normal movement by the wearer, with the main restriction only being tilting of the neck in certain helmets. In fact, well articulated armour would allow for greater range of movement in most joints that the human body is capable of. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth  and sixteenth century armour as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armour can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.

Lastly, the main issue one may have while wearing a full suit of plate armour would be the visibility out of the visor. Certain helmets had larger openings which would make it easier to see, and most had visors or removable face plates. It is generally thought that visors would be kept down at range to protect from arrows, and then lifted when in close combat. However, this may not be as common as once believed, because when you can mostly rely on your armour to protect you from random attacks, you have less of a need to concentrate on parrying enemy blows, so you can just wade into combat and take down unarmored foes with little difficulty in most cases. This would favour you having the visor lowered to protect you, allowing just enough visibility to get by.

So after reading this I hope you find that you know more about armour and how it was used than you probably knew before. And if you still need convincing, you probably could have just skipped reading this whole thing and though about this instead: If plate armour wasn’t really damn good, then why would people continue to use, develop and spend fortunes on it for hundreds of years?

Sources

  1. Le combat en armure, Daniel Jaquet
  2. The Evolution of Arms and Armors During The Crusades 
  3. Knights in Shining Armor: Evolution of Armor during the Hundred Years War
  4. English Longbow Testing Against Various Armor circa 1400
  5. Some Aspects of the Metallurgy and Production of European Armor
  6. Limitations imposed by wearing armour on Medieval soldiers’ locomotor performance
  7. Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions
  8. Arms and Armor: A Farewell to Persistant Myths and Misconceptions

Women in Renaissance Portraiture

In the past, it seems to have been more common for demonology to be associated with women. This can be seen in the later Medieval period where women were seen as more prone to witchcraft than men. This is based on traditional beliefs of what was perceived as basic female nature, much of it being seen in Christianity. Trials of witchcraft promoted discussions of gender and influenced the visual arts, and in Renaissance graphic art, particularly in northern Europe, female sorcery was a popular theme.

However, Renaissance portraits of women generally intended to convey beauty and the social role of women instead. Portraits of men generally emphasized their social, political, or professional role, and these portraits were often stereotypically masculine. The function of portraits of male leaders was focussed on politics and their ideal portraits often served as some sort of ambassador of their status during their absence. This shows that men were defined by attributes of profession and social status. But female portraiture in Italian Renaissance art was not meant to be a direct representation of the individual. The purposes of most female portraiture include commemorative works, donor portraits, and images of ideal beauty. When used as a commemorative portrait, lineage and wealth were seen as the most important. Women were often painted in honour of marriage, shown by the age and costume of many subjects of portraits. Other than at the time of marriage, women were rarely seen on display as publicity was necessary to legitimize marriage during the period, and men wished to display wealth and prestige.

Many depictions of women were also seen in religious paintings as donors. In Northern Italian courts, donors were portrayed in finery to publicly advertise their wealth. In other courts of Italy, this practice was frowned upon, and female donors were pictured in dark attire with heads covered in white cloth. The costume of a woman in portrait marked their parental and marital identity, and because costume and jewellery conveyed such a large amount of information, artists often focused on the wardrobe as much as the woman, who was considered to be a piece of property herself anyway.

As said before, the women pictured in the portraits of the Italian Renaissance were not often portrayed as specific individuals but as generally ideal women who shared similar facial features with the subject of the portrait. Examples of desired physical traits include a high, round forehead, plucked eyebrows, blond hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, red lips, white teeth and dark eyes. This is shown in many portraits where they may memorialize different individual women, the images appear to differ only slightly, with many showing equal proportion and perfect symmetry in addition to the other features mentioned. In addition to physical beauty, women were expected to uphold the high moral standards of the time. The virtuous qualities most patrons and artists aimed to portray include humility, piety, charity, obedience, and chastity. The Italian phrase virtutem forma decorat, or ‘beauty adorns virtue,’ shows the common belief in Italian Renaissance society that ideal moral characteristics must be present for women to possess physical beauty, and therefore it was considered that outward appearance was a reflection of inner beauty.

Timur and Bayezid I: Vivaldi’s Turkish Delight

Today’s musical November post takes us back again to Italy, however this we will be promenading down the 18th century alongside the music of one of my favourite composers since I was a child: Antonio Vivaldi. My dad used to play a lot of classical music to me when I was little, and I grew big in my affection for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, being Autumn- fittingly enough- my chosen one. Nevertheless, I will be talking in here about a piece of his, which perhaps is a bit less known, which is the opera Bajazet. Bajazet, also known as Il Tamerlano was composed in 1735, and tells a story of love and war during the 14th century, with the stage for the action being Turkey and the Balkans area. From the musical point of view Bajazet is a very interesting piece of its period due to its arias. In the 18th century, it was quite a common practice to re-use areas from other operas and musical pieces, creating what is known as a pastiche: so a pick-and-mix of your suitable and favourites from other artists- a bit like creative plagiarism. This may sound bad, but it was quite common; not only Vivaldi but other great composers such as Handel used this technique in their work. However, this is not to say it was not an original piece- it was- and in fact Vivaldi himself did compose the arias for some of the characters in his opera, mainly those for Bajazet, Asteria and Idaspe.

Continue reading “Timur and Bayezid I: Vivaldi’s Turkish Delight”