Ok – I admit that I was trying to find pictures of Warwick Castle and St Mary’s Church Warwick but as regular followers of my blog are aware I had something of a catastrophe with my photos so its not necessarily straight forward – so when I looked at this batch from Oxfordshire and immediately knew what they were I thought I would blog about them even though megalithic monuments are well outside my usual remit – but then who doesn’t like a stone circle in the landscape? The stone circle known as The King’s Men has stood since 2,500 BC give or take a few years. Its made from local limestone and is very heavily weathered. Don’t try and count them, they are apparently uncountable. Essentially the aim is to count the stones three times and reach the same total on each occasion – if you can do this then you shall have your heart’s desire but be warned supernatural forces will prevent you from making an accurate count.
The King Stone stands on its own and is probably a burial marker rather than having an association with The King’s Men stone circle. It’s also 1000 years younger. It’s been suggested that the name for the stone originates in Anglo Saxon times when it was used as a meeting place but it’s a matter for speculation rather than fact – though the archeology of the area does reveal an Anglo-Saxon cemetery nearby.
Oldest by far are the so-called Whispering Knights which stand away from the stone circle. The whispering knight are a dolmen burial chamber with a fallen cap stone. The portal description is because the standing stones look like a giant doorway.
And if you like your legends – the king and his courtiers were turned to stone by a witch – who was presumably having a bad day. She encountered the king and his court and informed him that if he could take seven strides and see Long Compton that he would be King of England. As he made his seventh stride a ridge rose up obscuring his view – and the witch turned them into stone. The little group of whispering knights were supposed to have been plotting some kind of treachery when they were caught by the spell. And the witch? Well she apparently turned into an elder tree. If the tree is cut down the spell will be broken.
This post is by way of a Christmas warm up. Many of England’s medieval kings had exotic animals given to them, stories about animals abounded as new lands were explored and in Christian Europe, it was believed that the natural world was ordered by God to instruct people on a good life, proper behaviour and to reinforce Biblical knowledge – all anyone needed to do was to interpret the behaviour. Essentially the whole of creation was viewed as an allegory. Inevitably the idea was pinched from the greeks. But what the medieval world ended up with was a set of texts that combined zoology with religion – with a spot of mythology…unicorns for instance feature in many medieval bestiaries but in reality an elephant was as strange as a unicorn or a dragon. And just for good measure there was almost a game of Chinese whispers played between explorers, writers and illustrators of the bestiary – resulting in some very strange looking creatures including an ostrich with hooves.
So – lets make a start – eagles are the kings of the birds in the same way that the lion is the king of the beasts (natural order – you need to know your place) Eagles look to the sun to renew their youthfulness. People should look to God for their restoration. Equally sea eagles take dramatic plunges in search of food – they’re just like Adam and Eve falling from grace. I rather like these three eagles as they seem to be smiling.
More in December including Pope Leo X’s white elephant, King John’s zoo and King Henry I’s porcupine…
It seems a strange choice for a post in the midst of a series lingering on the Scottish Wars of Independence. However, today my mind turned to Sir Andrew de Harcla or Harclay, earl of Carlisle. He started off life as a younger son who rose to the position of earl thanks to his military skills. He defended Carlisle in 1315 against Robert the Bruce and in 1322 bested the Earl of Lancaster at the Battle of Boroughbridge. But at the end of the year, Andrew made an agreement with the Scots and was consequently executed as a traitor by King Edward II. His life is an excellent example of the twists and turns of Fortune’s Wheel. Fortuna can carry you upwards but a turn of the wheel can see you heading in the opposite direction just as quickly.
The Wheel of Fortune or Rota Fortunae evolved from the Roman goddess Fortuna who was more associated with a cornucopia than a wheel. I’ve posted about it before https://thehistoryjar.com/2021/02/16/the-wheel-of-fortune/ but I keep coping back to it. I think because I love the various illuminations and it can be found in both Chaucer and Shakespeare. Inevitably the Church did not approve of Roman goddesses .
And having just completed the manuscript for medieval mistresses, I cannot help but notice that the images always depict men striving to achieve their worldly ambitions whilst Fortuna, a woman, spins the wheel. I was less amused to discover that to the medieval mind women were changeable by nature so it was only to be expected that one minute you had achieved the apex of the wheel only to be thrown down again.
The wheel of fortune or rota fortunae features in Chaucer’s writing and in Shakespeare’s. Both Hamlet and Lear have something to say on the topic.
Dating from Classical times the goddess Fortuna is pictured blindfolded with a cornucopia in one hand and a wheel or a rudder in the other. The original concept of the wheel or even sphere was linked to the astrological frame in which the signs of the zodiac were placed. Boethius, writing in the sixth century, extended the idea. The problem with Fate was that it was pagan and the Church didn’t necessarily approve.
But by the medieval period the rota fortunae was being used to remind people that it was probably best to concentrate of God and the hereafter rather than earthly things because Fortuna can bring luck, fortune and power or can remove all those things at a slip of the wheel and because everyone is bound to their wheel they have no choice but to accept what Fate throws at them. Fortuna isn’t being capricious – she’s more of a Heavenly enforcer. It is God’s will whether your business venture is successful, whether there is a famine, whether you suddenly find yourself being usurped from your throne.
The concept of destiny is an important one in the medieval and Tudor world views. It is linked also to the concept of the Great Chain of Being – everything has it’s place and shouldn’t try to step out from the place that God has allotted. Another way of describing the Great Chain of Being is to call it Divine Order. Essentially the more “spirt” something has the closer it is to God so therefore the higher up the Great Chain of Being it is – ladies you will no doubt be delighted to know that we’re lower down the chain than men. You are where you are in a rigid social hierarchy because God wants it that way – so please don’t revolt because if you do the Divine Order will be upset and this will reflect across the universe…there will be storms and floods and strange and monstrous happenings.
So – we’ve all been given a place in the universe based on the Great Chain of Being. Our destinies are in the stars and allotted to us when we’re born – remember horoscopes are cast as part of the medical process and Books of Hours contain dates which are more auspicious than others for things like moving house, having blood taken and going on journeys. The wheel of fortune is in the background as the main controlling force in life – explaining all life’s successes and adversities, joys and tragedies. It helped explain all those things for which there seemed to be no explanation.
Of course the Renaissance and the concept of humanism sees things a bit differently.
Radding, Charles M. “Fortune and Her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol.” Mediaevistik, vol. 5, 1992, pp. 127–138. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42584434. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.
Freya, the Norse goddess, was the goddess of fertility. Traditionally Friday is named after her. The midwinter festival celebrated by the Norse incorporated Mother’s Night – the feminine festival that Bede definitely disapproved. And how does this get us to ham?
Well, Freya rode a boar with golden bristles when she wasn’t using her other method of transport – a chariot pulled by two black cats. Pigs were sacred to her and yes we have arrived at feasting and pork.
From there it is a short step to the medieval boar’s head and with a hop and a skip you have arrived at glazed ham.
Let’s try and be a little practical here. In rural communities many families kept a pig – did you ever read the Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden? It could be fed from household scraps rather than requiring an expensive diet, acorns could be foraged. Even during World War Two people were encouraged to keep a pig.
So it really isn’t such a step to see how practicality and a tradition of pork on the festive table gives us a glazed ham. Now where is my recipe book? And how long will it take two people to eat a ham that can feed ten people comfortably for two days…
St. Martin’s Day falls on the 11th of November. Martinmas, or Martlemas, celebrates the feast of St. Martin of Tours. It was on this date that the agricultural work of the year came to it’s fruition. Pigs and cattle that could not be overwintered were slaughtered. Geese were sent to market. The sowing of autumn wheat was now complete. New wine could be tasted. Farm labours moved on and sought new work at fairs.
It is about this time of the year that the so-called “Goose fairs” are held before being known as goose fairs many were called Martinmas Fairs. Lenton Priory in Nottinghamshire was granted the right to hold a fair at this time of the year by Henry II.
It was also supposed to heal the preparations for Christmas – which did not involve as many festive meals as possible and a mad dash to the shops. It was supposed to be a period of fasting that lasted 40 days. It was called “Quadragesima Sancti Martini“,
Over time that changed and then during the seventeenth century was got rid of by the Commonwealth. In all fairness they had a point. The Anglo-Saxons called November “Blot Monath” Bede explained that it was so called because the cattle that could not be kept over winter were slaughtered in part of a sacrifice to the gods.
St Martin’s symbol was a goose – the former Roman soldier didn’t want to be a bishop so he hid in a goose shed but their honking gave him away. It became part of the feasts traditions to eat a goose on his feast day. In 1455, the physician, Johannes Hartlieb, wrote –
‘When the goose has been eaten on St Martin’s Day the oldest and wisest keeps the breast-bone and, allowing it to dry until the morning, examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet, and are so confident in their prediction that they will wager their goods and chattels on its accuracy.’
According to weather folklore, if you haven’t got a handy goose wishbone, the weather on Christmas day will be the opposite of what it is at martinmas – so if muddy on the 11th November it will be icy on December 25th and vice versa.
Prior to adopting Christianity – which was between the eleventh and twelfth centuries (the Swedes were a bit slow to adopt the “White Christ”) -Vikings held a range of seasonal feasts such as Jul in the winter ( Jolnir was one of Odin’s many names) and harvest festivals such as Mabon.
Adam of Bremen describes a festival that took place at Uppsala in Sweden once every nine years at the vernal equinox (the start of Spring) that involved sacrificing nine of every kind of male animal – and yes he does mention human sacrifice.
Major festivals involved feasting for twelve days and for those of you looking for an excuse to get the Christmas decorations out early many Germanic peoples celebrated a form of winter festival that fell somewhere between the middle of November and early January – quick break out the mead! It was King Haakon 1 of Norway who scheduled the winter holiday in the middle of the tenth century to coincide with Christmas, plied everyone with much ale across the celebration and ensured that there was lots of preaching resulting in some festive conversions to Christianity. It wasn’t entirely a smooth transition as the historic painting by Arbo demonstrates. Haakon, a Christian, first had to resist his people’s determination that he should celebrate Jol in the old style with a sacrifice.
Haakon is also known as Haakon the Good. His father was Harold Fairhair. Harold sent Haakon to England where he was raised at the court of King Athelstan and pick dup Christianity along the way. The only problem with all of that is that the earliest written source that alludes to all of this is twelfth century. Haakon’s half brother was Eric Bloodaxe and in order to become king Haakon had to depose Eric which is why Eric ended up in Yorkshire or Jorvik.
But back to the Norse before Christianity – there is evidence to suggest that the midwinter feast was linked to the so-called Wild Hunt which turns up in many European pre-Christian religious beliefs where lost souls are hunted across the night sky. In the North of England the pack of other-worldly hounds that Odin uses for his hunt are called Gabriel hounds and their howling is an omen of death – cheery.
I think I’ll return to the Norse festival of drinking and feasting designed to bring back the sun – and that brings us to those wreaths we hang on our front doors. Really they should be much larger and should be rolled down a hill whilst on fire to encourage the return of the sun… please don’t try it at home.
Other traditions with a Norse flavour include the yule log (which was very clearly not a chocolate confection in its original guise); Yule goats – which we don’t have but Scandinavians do; Old Man Winter; trees and mistletoe balls.
The first of the History Jar Zoom classes on Christmas and the festive season through the centuries begins on Monday 9th November 3pm (Greenwich Meantime.) Please see the Zoom class page for details.
Royal mistresses since 1066, this week, if you please. We’ll leave Elizabeth I’s romantic attachments to one side and Queen Anne’s as well. Some monarchs are remarkably discreet, others less so. Henry VII for example was not known for his mistresses – but his account book reveals payment to “dancing girls” …they may just have been dancing. Other mistresses have achieved notoriety and in the case of Henry VIII’s mistresses, in many instances, the Crown itself. You may find yourself dealing with potentially bigamous monarchs as well this week. Good luck.
Myosotis is part of the borage family and there are various folk lore based stories for it’s name. One of them is based on courtly love. A knight was walking with his lady beside a river. Obviously when one goes courting it is essential to wear full armour – in this case the knight was very chivalrously carrying the lady’s flowers when he slipped and tumbled into the raging current – as he was swept away he threw her flowers to her crying “Forget me not!” And there you have it!
Courtly love is of course the medieval form of ritualised love expressed by a knight for a married lady who is outside his reach – so duty, honour, devotion and courtesy were all important as they were part of the chivalric code. Ideally a knight’s love should be unrequited. Lancelot and Guinevere became very popular at this time. For a more in-depth article about the literature of courtly love follow the link to the British Library:
By 1190 the monks of Glastonbury had cashed in on the popular stories of the knights of the Round Table with the discovery of the graves of King Arthur and his queen.
Courtly love became the rage in the twelfth century at the point where tournaments also became the height of fashion. The use of courtly love as a motif in England grew when Eleanor of Aquitaine became queen. It was William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor’s grandfather) who made it fashionable in 1101. Aquitainean troubadours carried songs of romance around Europe. It should be noted that William’s love was not unrequited – he appears to have been something of a serial seducer.
Henry of Bolingbroke adopted the forget-me-not as an emblem during his exile in 1398 when Richard II banished him from England for ten years. When his father John of Gaunt died the following year Richard turned the sentence into banishment for life – setting in motion the events that led to his usurpation.
Anyway, back to the forget-me-not, in medieval times if you got bitten by a dog or a snake you might be treated with forget-me-not. Gerard called it scorpion grass named due to the shape made by the curling bract of flowers.
Phillips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plantsin Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore. London: Robert Hale
Swabey F. (2004) Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love and the Troubadours
According to Gerard Solomn’s seal will mend a black eye within a coupe of days caused, and I quote, by “women wilfnulnes, in stumbling upon their haste husbands fists.” I make no comment other than to be grateful that Gerard’s humour would no longer be regarded as acceptable in any way shape or form. The roots of the plant will also help heal wounds and mend broken bones.
It took me years and years to find some Solomon’s seal of my own as wasn’t very popular in garden centres at that time. I assume because it grows in such profusion that those with the plant are more than happy to share it – the knack is to find a gardener with the aforementioned plant. Consequently I have been carefully to pot up some of the plant with each successive move I have made and there is always the concern that it won’t like it’s new home but it is currently spreading happily.
The plant is called Solomon’s seal after the marks on the root which are said according to folk lore to come from King Solomon’s seal when he first discovered the plant’s medicinal properties. Rather alarmingly the notes in my dictionary of plants inform me that the fumes that come from he brewed flowers were used to inspire painters and poets and keep evil spirits at bay. I shan’t be eating it anytime soon even if it a very useful medical plant, not least because my Alnwick Poison Garden guide observes that everything about the plant is toxic -it contains saponins and convallamarin demonstrating that medieval medicine really was a case of kill or cure.
Philips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants: in myth, legend, magic and lore. London: Robert Hale