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”

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.

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.

Women in Renaissance Portraiture (Extended Edition)

For centuries the depiction of women was kept within the confines of religious, and moral, ideological imagery until the Italian Renaissance swept up the fifteenth century to enhance and entrance the majority of the elite classes in Europe. Christianity had hindered female progress with images that encompassed the traditional values of being a woman while also aligning women as virtuous Holy Mother Mary or as demonic witches who seek to seduce men for their own gain. Portraiture for one did not include women unless they were of the supreme elite. Prior to the fifteenth century when the International Gothic movement held Europe women were painted as ethereal ‘s’ shaped figures with faces indistinguishable from each other. Portrayal of men as kings, warriors and soldiers exist in huge quantities dating back to the Ancient Greek and even further, and you are much more likely to have a visual facial representation appear to be identifiable. On the other hand women, much like their opinions and voice, as much less easily allocated to a specific woman and are less frequently found amongst historical records or art. This post will focus especially on the image of women in the Renaissance since this is a time when female representation, specifically portraits, almost treble in number.

First, we must look at why the Renaissance was such a phenomenon. The fifteenth century saw a huge upheaval in socio-political order allowing for a rise in merchant classes to gain wealth and prestige. Naturally they would want to spend this money and they did abundantly. The merchant classes were the middle ground between men at the bottom of their ladder looking to make a fortune through trade and the aristocracy who rule the land from their royal or ducal coroneted thrones. The merchants wished to emulate the aristocracy in order to make the move upwards a smoother hill to climb and this included copying and influencing the arts. Up until this point in history portraits were saved for the wealthy and powerful royals who needed to be remembered in posterity for the skilled kingship but for their image. But these new found rich men of the Renaissance also wanted to gain long galleries that contained images of their family to be seen for generations to come. All of sudden portraits of men holding the symbol of their guild start to pop up, for example the early Medici clan, alongside their aristocratic brides to signal their rise to greatness if a great lord would permit such a marriage. This was all in honour of conspicuous consumption, the merchants wanted to build and design like stamping their name across it. This is why so many churches were built in Italy with their leading families name and heraldry printed on the front starting being formed, as this was the most the church would allow before extolling the sins of pride, greed or vanity. Portraits were useful, they provided a visual image of someone before a marriage, adorned the walls of a newly gilded home and commemorated those that came before. Here is why the male family leaders starting painting their wives and daughters. It exuded wealth, power and the rise in social status. There is a snag to this growth in female imagery, they are highly idealised. The Northern Renaissance that occurred in the later fifteenth century across the Netherlands depicted men and women in a warts and all concept – nothing was hidden or edited to suit the sitter. However the beginnings of the Renaissance in Italy women were airbrushed to suit the ideals of the time.

Renaissance portraits of women generally intended to convey beauty and the social role of women. 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. Much of the time women were painted within the domestic sphere of the home, this included them being hard at work sewing or spinning, or rearing their many expected children.

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.

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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Guanche – The People of the Canary Islands

Today we travel to a part of Spain that many people know mostly due to its touristic value: the Canary Island. However, this archipelago is the home to a usually forgotten and mysterious people – The Guanche. The are plenty of conspiracy theories as to where the Guanche came from and what was their involvement with the bizarre pyramids around Tenerife. However, recent archaeological and scientifical research are helping us understand the origins of these people and their role in the history of the islands. According to a study published in 2004 in the European Journal of Human Genetics, the Guanche are most likely related to the Berbers settle in the area of Morocco and other parts of northern Africa. This is also backed up by the similarities between Guanche language and Berber dialects from the area of the Atlas mountains. Nevertheless, further DNA analysis has shown that the Guanches may in fact be the result of an aboriginal tribe, natural to the islands, and their mix to the nomad tribes from the Sahara. The study even contemplates the idea that perhaps the Guanche DNA sequence mutated due to the settlement of the tribes in the islands affected by the new environment they were exposed to. However Spanish scholars from the University of La Laguna (Tenerife) believe it is likely the original population of the islands was of Punic-Phoenician ascendency. Yet others like Professor D. Juan Álvarez Delgado are inclined to believe that the islands became first inhabited when prisoners from the Numidian kingdom were abandoned in this location during the 1st century BC. But in any case, their actual geographical genesis is fairly complicated to identify. This cast shadow over our understanding of the Guanche identity and cultural traditions from an archaeological and ethnographic point of view.

The occupation of the islands by the Guanches is another matter that historians face. It is recorded by Pliny the Elder that the archipelago was not inhabited when the expedition of Hanno the Navigator visited the islands in the 5th Century BC. However, Pliny does advise that the Carthaginians did see ruins in the landscape, so this may suggest there were other people populating the islands before the Guanche settled there. Moreover, it seems that depending on the island, the name of this aboriginal people changed – Guanche is supposed to refer only to the inhabitants of Tenerife, while we have other names such as Gomeros for those living in La Gomera, or Canarii for those of Gran Canaria. Where all these people Guanche or of Guanche ethnic? Did the different names relate to the island they inhabited or to their ethnic background? This is almost impossible to determine. In any case we do know that the Canary Islands were well-known to their European and African neighbours – the Romans traded there with the locals and gave the islands individual names, and many Arab navigators and travellers visited this location during the early Middle Ages. From a historical point of view, the brutal invasion of the islands during the 15th century by the Spanish army does certainly make things complicated. Although some artefacts survive in the African continent, most of them could be related to Berber communities, so it is difficult to establish whether they are purely of Guanche origin, a mix, or neither. By 1496, Spain imposed its definitive rule over the archipelago, defeating for good the reminiscence of the Guanche opposition and absorbing them into their social structure. We know the Guanche did not easily let the Spaniards in as this is commemorate in several statues around the islands. Particularly this is symbolised by the statues of Bencomo – principal caudillo Guanche of the resistance. Although many cultural traditions remain, these are now mingled with customs from insular Iberia, so it is difficult to establish where the Guanche synergy begins and where the Spanish influence ends.

However there are a few things that remain from Guanche culture known to us. Of particular interest is their religious practices. It seems the Guanche culture had its own deities and they all varied from one island to another, although the concepts for each major god remain unchanged. Achaman was the supreme deity for the inhabitants of Tenerife, and he was ruler of the skies and thunder. This figure was replicated in the other islands under the names of Acoran (Gran Canaria), Abora (La Palma), Orahan (Gomera), Eraorahan (El Hierro). There was also a malign deity that inhabited the insides of the volcano Teide called Guayota. According to the legend, Guayota captured the god Magec – Sun deity – and the Guanches implored Achaman to rescue him and after a long battle Achaman prevailed and rescued Magec. As a punishment he trapped Guayota inside the Teide. Ever since the eruptions were interpreted by the inhabitants of the islands as the god trying to escape. There is a reminisce to the god Magec in the modern culture of Tenerife and the islands with the figure of the mago – which is the name people of higher social status gave to the peasants who worshipped Magec praying for good harvests.

There is one further aspect that has brought mysterious allegations around the Guanche people, which is the discovery of the pyramids investigated by Thor Heyerdahl at Guimar. Heyerdahl maintained that these were erected by the old Guanche population and that they were some sort of ritual site, which many conspiracy theorist have associated with similar builds in Meso and South America. However archaeological surveys from the 1990s seem to point out that these were constructed in the 19th century for agricultural purposes like the modern terrazas used all across the Canary Islands. However there is still room for interpretation and not all scholars are convinced by either theory.

Perhaps we have not learnt all that much about the Guanche people – or at least not as much as I would like. But here is to a little introduction to the known facts of this culture and to shedding some light on a part of Spanish history which is usually not mentioned in schools, gran narratives or known to the ordinary man. Hopefully the new scholarships of the 21st century will bring forward new hypothesis and discoveries on these people.

TANNENBERG 1410

I found myself doing some research on the battle of Tannenberg 1410, a little while after its anniversary in 2010. I coursed a module on the Crusades as a university student and this is a topic I came across. Needless to say, I am not a military historian – but I thought this conflict in the Baltic, which is in essence one of the largest battles in medieval European history deserved some attention here in the blog. So today we will go for a flash back 605 years into the past to what currently is modern-day Poland.

This battle of Tannenberg, took place in a field between the adjoining villages of Grinwald and Tannenberg in 1410. As part of the later crusading movement, it has to be considered that the issue was not any more the reconquest of the Holy Land, but fighting the pagans across Europe, which was just as bad a threat to Christendom. The Teutonic Knights took it in their hands to dispatch justice in the name of God for this purpose. They targeted Lithuania because of various reasons. First of all, because most of the territory remained pagan, and the few people who were Christianised were Orthodox. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the Order, in 1386 a marriage between the royal families of Poland and Lithuania took place which lead to an alliance between the Order’s neighbouring states, and the Lithuanian conversion to Christianity. Yes, in case you were not aware, the Teutonic Knights decided that the best way to fight the enemy was to install themselves by the enemy, so in the Baltic, surrounding themselves by pagans and enemies… It is not clear if the acts of the Order were truly based on the fear of this alliance, greed for the neighbouring lands of their estate, or was just something to add to their wish for crusade. So, they decided with their upper hand that this alliance was just a joke and a pretended conversion to the true faith, therefore they needed to monitor and be cautious of what could come of this Polish-Lithuanian conjunction. And things eventually kicked off when trouble arose in Samogitia.

Samogitia had always been a problematic area. The territory lay in western Lithuania, just between the Teutonic lands of Prussia and Livonia, and rebellion against the Order’s influence was something common. But that time the Teutonic Knights went too far. At the beginning of the 15th century, Lithuania suffered from famine, particularly in the Samogitian lands. Poland sent supplies to this area, but they were seized by the Order, because their spies had evidences to think that they were actually transporting weapons rather than food and that the Lithuanian Duke wanted the Samogitians to rebel and exterminate the Order. This would not be something that the Duke would take kindly, and in a way he did the Order a favour by declaring war against them – Although they put that on hold due to an armistice that would expire the 24th of June (1410). In addition, the Order decided to capture the Lithuanian ruler, as they thought the truce would not apply him…Obviously violating the truce agreement, much to the anger of both factions. The resolution to this situation is what the events of the 15th of July, in 1410, came to be at Tannenberg.

June was used basically for recruitment and war preparation, because of the armistice. The Polish troops would configure about 20000 of the soldiers that fought the war. The ‘Banner’, (family or district polish unit), was subdivided into between 50 to 120 ‘lances’ of 2 to 5 men, that will fight along mercenaries from Bohemia and Moravia. War-hammers, pikes and ‘war-flails’ were the foot soldiers weapons. Cavalry would be Lithuania’s contribution to the allied army, as well as some Tartar and Russian troops. The Teutonic lines would count with not so many knights, but secular members of the Order, Prussian, Bohemian and Italian mercenaries, as well as other fellow crusaders. Once the truce was over, the action began. The 1st of July the Lithuanian and Polish armies gathered at Czerwinsk while the Order advanced to the site of Kauernick. Little victories were achieved by the allied forces on the 9th at the assault of Lautenburg, and the 13th when Gildenburg was captured and raided. Finally, the two armies will meet at Tannenberg-Grunwald-Zalgiris. (…Not enough with one name for a battle…).

The morning of the 15th of July was very eventful. Hours before the battle, the leader of the combined Polish-Lithuanian armies, King Wladislaw Jagiello, was praying when he was interrupted, several times, to be informed that the enemy had reached the place and was prepared for battle. Once both armies were settled in the battle field,  the Grand Master of the Order, Ulrich Von Jungingen, supposedly sent two swords to Jagiello and Vytautas (the Lithuanian Duke) to serve them in the battle, as they were destined to face each others during the battle. So, the fight started and the blood of both Christian crusaders and ‘miscreants-Saracens’ was spilt throughout the field. Apparently some controversial event stook place during the battle. There was a retreat of the Lithuanian ranks, which is still debated if it was due to panic or a Tartar strategy, to distract some of the Teutonic troops. Then, Jagiello was injured, but somehow saved by the Lithuanians, who came back and attacked the rear ranks of the Order. It seems that with this come back, the Teutonic troops were severely damaged, and in fact, Von Jungingen was killed, which lead to the demoralisation and escape of his knights. Thus, victory was proclaimed to the allied forces of Lithuania and Poland, and so they marched on to Marienburg (headquarters of the Order), which eventually would fall and with it, so would the Knights. In the process, Poland and Lithuania gained new territories which contributed to the assertion of their power in Central-Eastern Europe. Things got pretty ugly for the  Order. They became subjugated to the will of German princess, as they failed miserably in their mission, and their status as crusading order was next to nothing.

However, what I think is really important is that the battle of Tannenberg has remained in the memory of these people  ever since. And evidences of such a thing can be found through the 20th and 21st Centuries. During the First World War, in 1914, a battle was fought between the Germans and the Russians between the towns of Ortelsburg and Gildenburg. But it is known as the new battle of Tannenberg due to the use of German propaganda of the medieval battle, in order to re-establish their status and authority in this area. The Polish nationalism embraced the victory at Tannenberg so much that the in the area of Galicia, by 1910 there were around 60 towns and villages that had monuments commemorating the battle – most of them destroyed during the First and Second World Wars, and reconstructed during the 60s. Finally, the Bank of Lithuania had a very nice touch with the release of 3 commemorative coins, for the 600 anniversary of the battle. So perhaps the importance of Tannerberg 1410 goes beyond the new nation making and legitimisation in the Middle Ages. I remember asking myself: “was it actually that important?”. As a victory for the Polish-Lithuanian alliance, probably. As a crusade? Apart from a blatant failure, perhaps not so much. And this, of course, is if we even give it the benefit of the doubt in terms of crusading. After deep reflexion on the subject, it becomes evident that this was no crusade, but warmongering fuelled by the 15th centuries quarrels for power and self-assertion in Europe. Pretty much every European nation at the time had internal issues due to the still prolonged and devastating effect of the Black Death, as well as the worsening weather conditions probably due to the Little Ice Age. Once again, I am going to end in controversial terms and suggest that considering the events at Tannenberg as part of the crusading movement, is a narrowed academic way of judging the entire situation. I feel I never fully understood the importance of the conflict because I was studying it from the wrong perspective – I had no background in the socio-political-economic situations of the area, and I mostly had dealt with the Teutonic Knights as a crusader order, and not an identity of its own, with agendas to fulfill and acquisitions to obtain.

 

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.’

Icons of Danish Heritage (pt. 1) – Kronborg Castle

Right, I know, I have gone down the rabbit hole, I’m never getting out of Wonderland now, but…Denmark was truly excellent and full of amazing things to see and visit!! Therefore, I have decided to do this blog post about two of the most emblematic places in Zealand that I visited. I think both of them hold great historical value, because both sites are internationally renown, but also because they represent the importance of this country within Europe. In addition, I believe they also symbolise important moments in the history of the area. Kronborg and Trelleborg reflect strong places of power for Denmark. Therefore, let me give you a quick tour of these amazing locations.

Kronborg Castle: Royal Palace, Hamlet’s Home and Site of Legend:

Kronborg Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Copenhagen. The town where it is located, Helsingør, is small but cosy. Right by the coast, this is an important stop for many ferries, and the spot has always been important for shipping but also for international relations – from here you can easily get to the Swedish post of Helsingborg…The names are not that similar as a coincidence…There seems to have been a strong connection between the inhabitants of both places, and in fact toponymy science suggests that the Danish port became a way for the to control the strait between the two countries. Anyway, Helsingør is lovely, but the castle is even better.

Covering an area of 16000 squared metres (including attics and basements), the bastion appears like an arrow piercing the sea. The fortress has been dated back to the 1420s, when Eric of Pomerania ordered for it to be erected. Back then, Denmark owned portions of the south of Sweden. So it was very important to keep these key locations secure. Ever since, the Danish kings took care of the castle: King Christian III supplemented the wall with bastions in 1558-1559. However, the castle could have not become the astonishing site that it is nowadays without the imput of Frederick II (1574-1585). He was the one who rebuilt the medieval fortress, and got it to evolve into the diamond-shaped bastion that it is nowadays (I’ll tell you all about these fortresses some other time…got an upcoming blog post about this soon!). But in essence, you may be aware of the military revolution taking place in Europe during this period and the prowess of the Swedish army back then…Frederick knew he had to step up his game if he wanted to keep his coastal assets safe. So he hired Hans Hendrik van Paesschen for this pursuit. And it is due to this shape developed in the Renaissance that the castle took the name of Kronborg, meaning Crown Castle. Now you know a bit more of the history, let’s get to know the building.

The tour of the castle takes you through ten different areas of the castle that are open to visit. I’ll talk you through them.  You go in through the Dark Gate: from here you can see a long dark tunnel that used to lead to the original entrance of the castle located at the Four-Gate Courtyard. Then, you enter the courtyard, where the statues of Neptune and Mercury guard the entrance. This is an allegory to the nature of the edification of the palace, as these were regarded as the gods of the sea and trade respectively.

The Four-Gate Courtyard Entrance
The Four-Gate Courtyard Entrance

Finally we get to the Castle Courtyard, where the work of Frederick shines, and where one can admire the fantastic architectonic features of the Northern European Renaissance, which is fairly different from the examples in mainland Europe  and the Mediterranean.Charming, nonetheless. In the middle of the courtyard there is a modern fountain that was put there to replace the original one from 1583. Unfortunately the 16th century creation was spoiled in 1658 when the Swedes seized the castle. From the courtyard you get access to the inside of the palace. Ahead await now the Telegraph Tower, the Chapel, the Royal Apartments, the Ballroom, the Little Hall and the Trumpeter’s Tower.

The Telegraph Tower is a flat-roofed, squared building on the side of the castle that used to serve as a cannon tower. It seems once it had a dome and a spire, much more fitting of the style and taste of Frederick II, however this seems to have been destroyed and then reconstructed during the siege of Kronborg (1658). Kronborg has been victim of many incidents – not only war, but also fire. In 1629 a fire damaged the vast majority of the interior of the castle. One of the few survivors was the Chapel, consecrated just a few years earlier in 1582. The Royal Apartments suffered greatly. They were first built by Frederick II, but the fire ruined them. However king Christian IV has them recreated for the inhabitation fo the palace as a royal residence.

Royal Appartments
Royal Apartments

The Ballroom, is now decorated with paintings made originally for the Great Hall of Rosenborg Castle (Copenhagen 1618-1831). Yet I think they suit well what used to be the largest royal hall in all northern Europe! Its dimensions are 62 x 12 meters.

The Ballroom
The Ballroom

Then we move on to the Little Hall, were the 7 surviving tapestries with the portraits of a hundred of the Danish kings survive. These were commission in 1580, and only handful more remain our of the original 40 commended by the king, currently exposed at the Nationalmuseet. And finally, we reach the highest point at Kronborg – the Trumpeter’s Tower. The name is pretty self-explanatory, but in case there was any doubt, the 62 meter tall tower was used for the announcement or warning of fanfares by trumpeters. Impressively enough, the spire has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice.

Telegraph and Trumpeter's Tower
Telegraph and Trumpeter’s Tower

Of course, one can then understand that such an impressive building would have captivated the imagination of any artist, and this is in fact what inspired Shakespeare to set Hamlet in Denmark, at Kronborg, or better known to the English folk as Elsinore. Currently, the castle holds a couple of spare rooms with small exhibitions of Hamlet and its performance at the castle, as well as holding a portrait of the British author. But, hold that broody moment of to be or not to be… just until we get outside, and start wandering the Casemates…These used to be the soldiers’ quarters while at war. The dark and damp vaults could hold up to 1000 men, capable of holding a siege for 6 weeks. But if you thought this could not get more atmospheric…You were wrong. As you walk through the gloomy corridors, full of spiderwebs, dust and barely illuminated by oil lamps (yes, still functioning), we find the statue of the legendary Holger Danske. The epic statue in commemoration of the mythical hero, is located in the very same spot where legend has it he rested after walking all the way from France, where he had aided the French to keep the country safe by might only known to Arthurian knights.  According to legend, Holger is taken to Avalon by Morgan le Fay herself, and after his return from the mist, he rests at Kronborg, awaiting the day when his country will desperately need a hero of old. Holger, king under the mountain – almost in the same fashion custom to the dwarves of Erebor in Tolkien’s mythology…See a theme of English literature involving Kronborg? Interesting fact is that, during the Second World War, the largest resistance group in Denmark against the Nazis took their name after this legendary figure.

Holger Dansk
Holger Dansk

So if after this quick tour of the place the might and glory of Kronborg is not apparent to yourselves, then, I can only say, Go And See It For Yourself. Nevertheless, and in case you thought I went up to Kronborg just to see the castle…As it happens, during my visit a Renaissance fair was taking place in the ground of the palace. And of course, I took pictures. So with my photographs, I say farewell for now, but nor forever…Our next stop is Trelleborg where we will visit the roots of the power capable of erecting Kronborg, the Crown of the Baltic Sea.

Renaissance Fair Cavalry
Renaissance Fair Cavalry