September 20, 1066 Fulford Gate

Believing they had come to accept submission, the Norwegians must have looked at the horizon and wondered, how a peace party could raise that much dust.  This was no peace party. 

Edward the Confessor, King of England, went into a coma in December 1065, having expressed no clear preference for a successor. Edward died on January 5 after briefly regaining consciousness, and commending his wife and kingdom to the protection of Harold, second son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir.

The Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t normally pick their own successors, but their wishes carried import. Nobles of the Witenagemot, the early Anglo-Saxon predecessor to the modern parliament, were in Westminster to observe the Feast of the Epiphany. Convening the following day, the council elected Harold Godwinson, crowning him King Harold II on January 6.

For some, Harold’s quick ascension was a matter of administrative convenience and good fortune, that everyone just happened to be at the right place, at the right time. Others saw shades of conspiracy. A brazen usurpation of the throne. Edward’s death touched off a succession crisis which would change the course of western history.

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H/T By Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia

Harold’s younger brother Tostig, third son of Godwin, was himself a powerful Earl of Northumbria, and thoroughly detested by his fellow northern Earls. Tostig was deposed and outlawed by King Edward in October 1065, with support from much of the local ruling class as well as that of his own brother, Harold.

King Edward’s death a short two months later, left the exile believing he had his own claim to the throne. Tostig’s ambition and animosity for his brother, would prove fatal to them both.

After a series of inconclusive springtime raids, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “The Bastard”, looking for military support. William had his own claim to the English throne, and had already declared his intention to take it. The Norman Duke had little use for King Harold’s younger brother, so Tostig sought the assistance of King Harald of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada (“harðráði” in the Old Norse), the name translating as”hard ruler”.

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Harald Hardrada. The Last Great Viking

Tostig sailed for England with King Harald and a mighty force of some 10,000 Viking warriors, arriving in September, 1066.  Six thousand were deployed on September 20, to meet 5,000 defenders on the outskirts of the village of Fulford, near the city of York.  Leading the defenders were those same two brothers, Edwin of Mercia, and Morcar of Northumbria.

The Anglo-Saxons were first to strike, advancing on a weaker section of the Norwegian line and driving Harald’s vikings into a marsh. With fresh invaders hurrying to the scene, the tide turned as the English charge found itself cut off and under attack, wedged between the soft ground of the marsh and the banks of an adjoining river. The encounter at Fulford Gate was a disaster. A comprehensive defeat for the English side and it was over, in an hour. On this day in 1066, two of the seven Great Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, were decimated.

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Perhaps not wanting to have his capital city looted, Tostig agreed to take a number of hostages, and retired seven miles south to Stamford Bridge to await formal capitulation.  Harald went along with the plan, believing he had nothing further to fear from the English.

Meanwhile, King Harold awaited with an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy.  Hearing of the events at Fulford, Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night and covering 190 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking force waiting at Stamford Bridge.

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The new Stamford Bridge over the River Derwent, built in 1727

Believing they had come to accept submission, the Norwegians must have looked at the horizon and wondered, how a peace party could raise that much dust. This was no peace party. With their forces spread out and separated on opposite sides of the River Derwent, Harald Hardrada and his ally Tostig now faced a new army.

At the height of the battle, one Berserker stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge, wielding the great two-handed Dane Axe.  Alone and surrounded, this giant of a man slew something like 40 English soldiers when one of Harold’s soldiers floated himself under the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.

Stamford Bridge

The savagery of the battle at Stamford Bridge, can only be imagined. Before the age of industrialized warfare, every wound was personally administered with sword, axe or mace. Before it was over some 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers lay dead, about a third of his entire force. Two-thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died at Stamford Bridge, about 6,000 including Harald himself and the would-be King, Tostig Godwinson.

So many died in that small area that, 50 years later, the site was said to have been white with the sun bleached bones of the slain. Of 300 ships arriving that September, the battered remnants of Harald’s Viking army sailed away in only 24.

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Stamford Bridge is often described as the end of the Viking invasions of England, but that isn’t quite so. There would be others, but none so powerful as this. The Last of the Great Viking chieftains, was dead.

The Norman landing King Harold awaited took place three days later at Pevensey Harbor, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest. The Anglo Saxon army would march yet again, meeting the Norman invader on October 14 near the East Sussex town of Hastings. King Harold II was killed that day, felled with an arrow in his eye. He was the Last of the Anglo Saxon Kings.

Twenty years later, William “The Conqueror” would commission the comprehensive inventory of his new Kingdom, the “Domesday Book“.

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Alternate histories are fraught with peril. It’s hard to tell the story of events, which never occurred. Even so, I have to wonder. Some of the best men in England were killed under King Harold‘s banner in 1066, in the clash at Stamford Bridge. Surely every last man among them faced some degree of exhaustion to say nothing of wounds, the day they faced Duke William’s Norman force on that Hastings hillside.

Those who survived Stamford Bridge performed a round-trip march of some 380-miles, in the three weeks since Fulford.

Those three weeks in 1066 altered the next 1,000 years of British history and with it, her former colonies in America. How different were those last thousand years, but for this one day’s conflict at a place called Fulford Gate.

June 24, 1535 Doctrinal Differences

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations.


A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly disputation.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Alarmed at the preacher’s growing influence, church authorities banned Rothmann from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February 1532 and installed Rothmann, as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time would be very different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on June 25, 1535, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two, be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Their hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages, were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only, by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.

February 10, 1258 The Fall of Baghdad

Imagine an army of circus riders, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad.

Following the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of greater Syria, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur established a new capital on the banks of the Tigris River, occupied by a Persian village called Baghdad. Mansur’s grandson Harun al-Rashid subsidized the work of scientists, religious scholars, poets and artists who converged into the city. Books and manuscripts were written on paper, a new technology imported from China, and bound, in finest leathers. No fewer than 36 public libraries were built in addition to the grand library, the ‘house of Wisdom”. Baghdad became a center for learning in the medieval world, unusual for the time, most of its citizens, were literate.

Over the next 200 years, local conflicts reduced Abbasid control over much of the vast Islamic empire, to a mostly religious and ceremonial role. But for Baghdad itself, which continued to grow into the center of science, culture and philosophy western writers would later call, the Golden Age of Islam.

Meanwhile far to the east, a boy was born to the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many inhabitants went about clad in the skins, of field mice. acts of violence would be met with retribution and response between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

By 1197, that boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia to become the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe. One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet. His name was Temujin, known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

Fun fact: Genghis Khan is often depicted with Asian features, though history fails to record of what the man actually looked like. He never let anyone paint his likeness. The Eurasian Steppe was a major crossroad before written history with genetic makeup as diverse, as any on the planet. There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes, or maybe blue. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongol conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors were one of the deadliest episodes, in world history. Between 1206 and 1405, victims are estimated to number between 20 and 57 million. This at a time when the world’s population, was around 450 million. In 1221, Mongol armies carried out one of the bloodiest massacres in history in the old city of Urgench, in modern Turkmenistan. An army of two tumens (20,000) was ordered to murder 24 people, per man. In 1241, five separate Mongol armies invaded Hungary, the main armies under Subutai and Batu Khan. When it was over a third to one-half of the Hungarian population, had ceased to exist.

Let it be said that Batu was also known as Sain Khan, Mongolian for “Good Khan”.

According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan and his son and successor, Ögedei, ordered Chormaqan to attack Baghdad, in 1236. The general made it as far as Irbil about 200 miles from Baghdad, but the mongols would return. Just about, every year. Muslim armies were at times successful against such invasions and at other times, not. By 1241, the Caliph had had enough and began the annual payment of tribute.

That lasted five years. Baghdad sent emissaries to the coronation of Güyük Khan as khagan (Great Khan) in 1246 and that of Möngke Khan, in 1251. Güyük expected full submission and demanded the presence of Caliph Al-Musta’sim in Karakorum, the capital of the Mongolian empire.

Imagine an army of circus riders, armed a minimum of 60 arrows apiece. Laminate composite bows combined the compression of horn with the elongation of sinew to develop draw weights up to 160-pounds. Each was capable of hitting a bird in flight. Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, even to the rear. Each rider has no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop to keep his horses fresh.  In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more. 

Since 1092 the charismatic and reclusive Hasan-i Sabbah and his successors kept far more powerful adversaries in their place using a secretive, elite band of fida’in adherents to the Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam. Great figures Muslim and Christian alike feared the secretive Hashashin (assassins) of the Alamut valley. The great Saladin himself was not safe from these people. The Muslim military leader awoke on this day in 1176 to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake. The message was clear. Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect. There would be no more such attempts on the General’s life.

The Grand Master of the Assassins even tried to assassinate Möngke Khan and the Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire, Kitbuqa Noyan. It was a bad idea.

In 1253, Noyan was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses. Möngke’s brother Hulagu conscripted one in every ten military age males in the entire empire and rode out in 1255, at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen. Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who opposed them.

Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment. Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.

As Khan, Möngke wanted full submission from several Muslim states, including the caliphate. Hulagu sent word to Baghdad, demanding submission. Musta’sim must have gotten some bad advice. Convinced the Muslim world would rise up against the invader, the caliph sent word. They could all go back where they came from.

A force of some 120,000 Mongol, Turkic and Manchurian cavalry arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad on January 29, 1258. 1,000 Chinese siege engineers joined in along with a force of Armenian and Georgian Christians, bent on revenge for raids carried out against the homeland.

20,000 Muslim horsemen sent out to do battle were crushed while Mongol sappers breached dikes along the Tigris, trapping Abbasid forces outside the city.

The mongol army constructed a palisade and a ditch around the city. Seige engines and catapults pounded the walls. By February 5, Hulagu’s forces had seized much of the defenses. Al-Musta’sim attempted to parlay but it was too late for that. 3,000 of Baghdad’s “notables” then attempted to negotiate. Every one of them were slaughtered.

The city surrendered on February 10, 1258. Mongols held back at last entering the city, on February 13.

To the modern reader, the ‘bloodiest day in human history” conjures images of modern warfare. The industrialized warfare of the Somme. Stalingrad. The homicidal regimes of Adolf Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin. Maybe so but many events in this parade of horribles unfolded over weeks, or months, or years.

A million people live in Baghdad on February 28, 1258. The orgy of killing that began on February saw no fewer than 90,000 killed one at a time, with edged or pointed weapons. Some estimates run to several times that number.

Hulagu’s Nestorian Christian wife Dokuz Khatun persuaded him to spare Baghdad’s Christians. All others, men, women and children, were slaughtered. The largest collection of books on the planet were torn to shreds, their leather jackets used for sandals and pages thrown in the river. They say the Tigris ran red with the blood of the slain, and black with the ink from all those books.

This was all carried out in front of Caliph Al-Musta’sim. His family was murdered save for a son brought back to Mongolia and a daughter taken as concubine, to Hulagu.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

So many people died in the sack of Baghdad, there was no longer labor to maintain agricultural systems. Irrigation canals not destroyed in the assault, broke down and silted up. Generations would come and go before the city regained anything close, to its former population. That center of learning in the medieval world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, was gone forever.

January 26, 897 The Cadaver Synod

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…his predecessor’s deceased predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

Sometime down the road, future historians will remember this month for things that none of us ever thought we’d see. Concertina wire surrounds our nation’s capitol. Soldiers fill the streets of Washington as we are left to wonder.

Did somebody put Idi Amin in charge?

With so many needs to be met by the people we put in office, we get the bizarre spectacle of an “impeachment” and removal of a private citizen, who already left. The whole procedure is so outlandish the constitutionally mandated presiding officer, declines to show up. You would think these people have nothing better to do.

Someone once said “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, knew what they were talking about.

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…the dead guy who came before his predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

According to Catholic church doctrine, the Pontifex maximus sits at the head of the church from the time of Peter, to the present day. Today, the Cardinals meet in secret conclave to elect the bishop of Rome, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century the Papacy was often as political, as any public office.

The Popes of the early middle ages were heavily involved in secular affairs. They were chosen by predecessors, popular acclaim, family connection or simony (the purchase of ecclesiastical office). It was inevitable that some would be…umm…less than pious men.

Relations between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire were particularly incestuous. First appearing on the scene in 754 after Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin III “The Short” “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans), emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were known to select Popes and Popes, emperors.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once quipped: “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

Formosus became Cardinal of Porto in 864 and representative of the Pope in Bulgaria, two years later. Many considered the man to be a candidate for the papacy, as early as 872.

That was the year, political issues caused Formosus to beat a hasty retreat from Rome.

Anyone ascending the heights of such a system was bound to have powerful allies. And powerful adversaries. The Cardinal’s enemies, pounced. Pope John VIII ordered Formosus defrocked and excommunicated.

Excommunication might seem a real career killer in his line of work but the sanction was lifted, in 878. Formosus could never return to Rome or resume his priestly functions, but that too was restored, five years later. In 891, Formosus was unanimously elected Pontiff to succeed Pope Stephen V.

Formosus served in a time of great political upheaval. There were problems with Saracens. Power struggles within the eastern church, in Constantinople. The Frankish kingdoms were in a state of upheaval and, worst of all, Formosus supported the German king Arnulf for succession to Holy Roman Emperor, over emperor Guido III of the powerful clan of Spoleto.

Pope Formosus died of natural causes on April 4, 896. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who lived for 15 days. Some say Boniface died of gout, others that he was poisoned by supporters of his successor, Steven VI.

Even by Medieval standards, Pope Stephen VI must have been some piece of work. In January 897, Stephen had Formosus dug out of the ground, dressed in papal vestments and put on trial.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not

With the corpse propped up on a throne, the outcome was never in doubt. A church deacon attempted to speak for the defendant while Stephen himself shrieked at the corpse, rehashing the old charges of John VIII.

Unsurprisingly, the dead man was convicted. Stripped of his robes, Formosus was clad in the garb of a layman. His papacy was annulled, ordinations cancelled and the three “blessing fingers” of his right hand, hacked off.

The body was buried in a pauper’s grave but even now the revenge of Stephen VI, was unsated. The Pope ordered Formosus dug up yet again and thrown into the Tiber River.

The episode led to widespread outrage, possibly at the behest of Stephen’s enemies. The Pope was incarcerated in the Summer of 897 and strangled, while still in prison.

The cadaver synod ushered in 100 years of corruption of the Holy See known by some as the “Saeculum obscurum” – the Dark Age/Century, and by others, the “Pornocracy”.

Fast forward 39-score and one and it’s January 26, 1661. Four days from now, January 30, the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, one-time “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland” would be dug up and “executed”, by decapitation. The body was hung up in chains while his head was mounted on a pike, outside Westminster hall. That thing stayed there, for 24 years. Sold and sold again, Cromwell’s head would at last go to its final rest some 299 years later. In 1960.

History rhymes, indeed.

March 19, 1227 The Catapocalypse

The effect of the papal Bull, was as a commandment.  “Thou shalt not suffer a cat, to live”.

In the early 1330s, a deadly plague broke out on the steppes of Mongolia. The gram-negative bacterium Yersinia Pestis preyed heavily on rodents, whose fleas would transmit the disease to people, the infection then rapidly spreading to others. High fever would precede the appearance of “buboes”, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, especially in the armpit, neck and groin. Spots appeared on the skin turning from red to black, often accompanied by necrosis and gangrene in the nose, lips, fingers and toes.

In some cases, bubonic plague will progress from the lymphatic system to the lungs, resulting in pneumonic plague. Y. Pestis can progress to the blood system as well, a condition known as septicemic plague. In medieval times, septicemic mortality rates ran as high as 98%-100%.

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H/T Historythings.com

Plague broke out among a besieging force of Mongols on the Black Sea city of Caffa, in 1346. Italian merchants fled with their ships in the Spring of 1347, carrying in their holds an untold number of rats and the fleas which came with them.

The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

This was the experience of individual sufferers.  So, what allowed the pandemic to spread with such rapidity?

The story begins one-hundred years earlier.  On this day in 1227, eighty-year-old Cardinal Ugolino di Conti was elected Supreme Pontiff, taking the name Pope Gregory IX.  Gregory’s papal ordination came at a time of spreading heresy, the earliest reverberations of what came to be known some three hundred years late, as the Protestant Reformation.

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Pope Gregory IX, H/T Historythings.com

The Waldenses, founded in 1170 by Peter Waldo, claimed that individuals could commune with directly with God. Other sects such as the Cathars followed similar beliefs. Such heresies challenged the authority of the One True Church, and could not be left unchecked.

Today, Gregory is best remembered for his organization of Canon law, the formalization of practices later forming the basis of the medieval inquisition. At the time, a more immediate problem was the rise of what were seen as satanic cults.

The German priest and nobleman Conrad of Marburg was an early leader in the persecution of heretics, claiming to have rooted out a number of Luciferian cults around the cities of Mainz and Hildesheim. The first Bull of the new papacy, the Vox in Rama, beseeched the bishops to come to Conrad’s aid, and went on to describe in some detail, the depraved rituals of such cults.

The devil at the center of it all was a shadowy figure, half man and half cat.

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A witch and her cat. Weird Tales, Vol 36. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

From the mists of antiquity, the cat was worshiped as some kind of deity. The Vox reshaped the European view to where cats were now seen, as agents of hell.  The French theologian Alain de Lille piled on, falsely claiming the Cathar sect took its name from the animal and not the real source, the Greek katharoi or ‘pious ones’.

The effect was as a commandment.  “Thou shalt not suffer a cat, to live“.

The orgy of cruelty which followed, makes for some tough reading.  Cats were hurled from high cathedrals and set on fire, ritually tortured or summarily stomped or clubbed, to death.

In Denmark, the festival of Fastelavn held at the start of Lent, held that Spring would not come until evil, was banished from the land. Black cats were ritually beaten to death, to purge evil spirits. Cat killing became a folk practice all over Europe. During the festival of cats or Kattenstoet held in the Belgian city of Ypres, the custom was to hurl cats from the belfry of local churches, before setting them on fire. The hideous practice carried on until 1817 with live cats and continues to this day, only now, they’re stuffed.

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So it is that nature’s most efficient hunter of rodents was all but exterminated from the land, paving the way for the rat-borne apocalypse, to come.

One-third of the world’s population died in the rat-borne plague of 1347-’52.  It’s as if  over two billion were to sicken and die, today.

Feature image, top of page:  Hat tip historythings.com

 

A Trivial Matter
The term ‘Black Death’ was not adopted until some time later. For years, the plague was known as “the Pestilence” or simply “the Great Mortality”.

October 10, 732 The Hammer

Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer”.

In the early middle ages, the Mayor of the Palace of the Frankish Kingdom was the power behind the throne, King in all but name, controlling the royal treasury, dispensing patronage, and granting land and privileges in the name of a figurehead monarch.  In 688, Pepin of Herstal was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia; the Frankish domain occupying what is now northern France, Belgium and parts of Germany.

Pepin kept a mistress, a noblewoman named Alpaida, with whom he had two sons, Childebrand and Charles. The former went on to become Duke of Burgundy, best remembered for expelling the Saracens from France.  The latter went on become the founding father of the European Middle Ages.

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“St. Hubert of Liege offers his services to Pepin” – H/T Wikimedia

Pepin’s only legitimate male heir predeceased his father in 714, and touched off a succession crisis when he his 8-year-old grandson Theudoald, his True Successor. The child’s grandmother, Pepin’s wife Plectrude, threw Charles in prison to nullify any threat, but he escaped and rose to power in the Civil War which followed.

Charles proved himself a brilliant Military tactician when he crushed a far superior army at the Battle of Ambleve.  He returned victorious in 718, and then did something unusual for the time. He showed kindness to the woman responsible for his incarceration, and the boy for whom she had acted.

Charles-Martel-PicCharles consolidated his power in a series of wars between 718 and 732, subjugating Bavarians Allemanii, and pagan Saxons, and combining the formerly separate Kingdoms of Nuestria in the northwest of modern day France with that of Austrasia in the east.

At this time a storm was building to the west, in the form of the Muslim Emirate of Cordoba. The Umayyad Caliphate gained control of most of Hispania (Spain) beginning in 711, before invading eastward into Gaul. Umayyad forces suffered a setback in 721, when forces under Odo the Great, Duke of Acquitaine, broke the siege of Toulouse.

The Emir responded with a strong force out of Yemen, Syria and Morocco and, in 732, invaded again. This time, Odo was destroyed in a crushing defeat at the Battle of the River Garonne. So great was the slaughter of Christians that the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 said “God alone knows the number of the slain”.

Odo fled to Charles asking for help.  The table was set for one of the most decisive battles in world history.

The Umayyad Caliphate had recently defeated the two most powerful military forces of its time. The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as had the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.
Other than the Frankish Kingdom, no force existed, sufficient to stop the advance of the Caliphate. Historians believe that, if not for the Battle of Tours, the Islamic Conquest would have overrun Gaul and the rest of Western Europe, resulting in a single Caliphate stretching from the Sea of Japan to the English Channel.

Carolingian Empire Map

Estimates vary regarding the size of the two armies. The forces of Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi are estimated to have had 80,000 horse and foot soldiers on the day of battle. There were about 30,000 infantry on the Frankish side, and no cavalry.

Each of Charles’ tough, battle hardened soldiers wore up to 75lbs of armor. They’d been with him for years, and every one of them believed in his leadership. Outnumbered two to one, Charles had one decisive advantage.  He was able to choose the ground on which to give battle.

The Frankish army took to high ground between the villages of Tours and Poitiers, and drew itself into a great, bristling square formation to withstand the shock of the cavalry charge. For seven days, the two armies faced one another with little but skirmishes between them. Finally, the Emir could wait no longer. It was late in the year and his men were not equipped for a northern European winter. On the seventh day, estimated to be the 10th of October in the year 732, al Ghafiqi ordered his cavalry to charge.

History offers few instances when a medieval army was able to withstand the charge of cavalry, but Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men for years, and they were prepared. The Mozarabic Chronicle reports:

[I]n the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”

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Charles de Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732 depicts Charles Martel (mounted) facing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.

A few Umayyad troops succeeded in breaking into the square and went directly for Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when rumors went through the Muslim army that Charles’ men had broken into the Umayyad base camp. Afraid of having the loot they had plundered at Bordeaux taken from them, many broke off the battle to return to camp. Abdul Rahman tried to stop the retreat, when he was surrounded and killed.

Wary of a “feigned flight” attack, the Franks did not pursue, and resumed their phalanx. There they stood until the next day, until it was discovered that the Islamic host had fled in the night.

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Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer“.

New Umayyad assaults would threaten northern Europe in 736 and 739, until internal conflicts divided the Caliphate against itself.   Forces of the Ottoman Empire conquered the last vestige of the eastern Roman empire in 1453.  Ottomans attempted the conquest of Europe near a place called Lepanto in 1571 and twice more in 1529 and 1683, only to be stopped at the gates of Vienna. The threat was far from over in 732, but Christian Europe in the west would never again be so grievously challenged.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 7, 1191 Crusade

Richard Lion-heart no longer had the strength to challenge Saladin for Jerusalem.  Saladin, for his part, had serious morale problems, after repeated defeats at the hands of the Crusaders.

The Islamic Conquests began in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula. In the first 100 years of its existence, Islam established the largest pre-modern empire up to that time, stretching from the borders of China in the east, through India and Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Egypt, Sicily to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), in the west.

The Sasanid Empire in what is now Iran ceased to exist under the Muslim conquest, as did much of Byzantium, seat of the Roman Empire in the east. Europe itself narrowly escaped subjugation when Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the army of Abdul Rahman al Qafiqi at Poitiers (Tours) in October, 732.

islam-territoryEstimates suggest that the second of four major Caliphates, that of the Umayyad based in Damascus, Syria, was over 5 million square miles, larger than any modern state with the sole exception of the Russian Federation.

The First of the Christian Crusades was launched by Pope Urban II on November 27, 1095, in response to an appeal from Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who was requesting help in defending Constantinople against the invading Seljuq Turks.

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Such a request was nothing new.  The Reconquista in Spain had not yet reached the mid-point of its 781-year effort to overthrow Muslim rule, and European knights traveled to Spain on a regular basis to assist in the effort.

Once in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), the ancillary goal of freeing the holy city of Jerusalem itself and the Holy Land soon became the principal objective, as Jerusalem had by then been under Islamic rule for 461 years. Jerusalem was recaptured on July 15, 1099, following a siege of six weeks.

The County of Edessa was the first Crusader state to be created, and the first to go, falling in 1144 and leading to the second crusade. Mostly notable for its failures, the one major success of the second crusade was when it stopped on the way to the Holy Land, helping a much smaller Portuguese army overthrow Muslim rule in Lisbon. Two kings then marched two separate armies across Europe into Anatolia, only to be soundly defeated by the Turks.

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A Kurdish leader arose at this time to become Sultan, founding a dynasty which would last for eighty-nine years. His name was Salāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, better known as Saladin, a Sunni Muslim who rose to greatness in a Shi’ite world.

Saladin.jpgNo less a figure than Dante Alighieri counted Saladin a “virtuous pagan,” ranking among the likes of Hector, Aeneas, and Caesar.

While Christian leaders in the Middle East fell to squabbling among themselves, Saladin united Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Yemen and parts of North Africa under the Ayyūbid dynasty.

A crusader army some 20,000 strong was caught out in the open in the desert heat of Summer, near a pair of extinct volcanoes called the “Horns of Hattin”.  Parched with thirst, exhausted and demoralized, Muslim armies under Saladin captured or killed the vast majority of these Crusader forces on July 4, 1187, putting an end to Christian military power in the Middle East and opening the way to the recapture of every Crusader state, save one. Jerusalem itself fell on October 2.

Pope Urban III is said to have collapsed and died, upon hearing the news.

Within days of his election, Pope Henry VIII called for a third Crusade.  King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France were at war at this time, but that was set aside and the pair began preparations to reconquer the Holy Land.  An extremely unpopular tax of 10% on all revenues and movable goods was imposed by the Church, and enforced under pains of imprisonment or excommunication. This “Saladin Tithe” raised 100,000 marks of silver:  about 800,000 ounces.

third-crusade-1189-91The aging Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I “Barbarossa” (Red Beard), was the first to go, taking up the cross at Mainz Cathedral in March, 1188. Emperor Frederick drowned crossing the Saleph River in Asia Minor in June 1190, after which most of his army of 100,000 returned to Germany.

Henry II of England died in the meantime, leaving his son Richard I “Coeur de Lion” (Lion-heart) to lead the crusade with Philip in the summer of 1190.

Richard took time to conquer Sicily on the way to the Holy Lands, where King Tancred I was holding Richard’s sister Queen Joan, prisoner. He reached Cyprus that May, there pausing long enough to marry Berengaria of Navarre, thus alienating his alliance with the French King, who considered Richard betrothed to his half-sister, Alys.

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Richard “Lion-Heart”

Richard landed near Acre in June 1191 to find the city under Muslim occupation, and under siege by the forces of Guy de Lusignan, himself held under siege by the armies of Saladin.

The fall of Acre that July led to a number of meetings between Richard and Saladin’s brother Al-Adil, from which nothing resulted. The Crusaders lost all patience by August, believing Saladin to be dragging his feet, and decapitated 2,700 Muslim prisoners in full view of his army.  Saladin retaliated by murdering every Christian captive under his control.

If the Crusaders were to retake the holy city of Jerusalem, they first had to take and hold the strategically important port city of Jaffa, some 75 distant.

Richard’s personal courage and skill as a commander was on full display on the march south.  Ever mindful of the disaster at Hattin, Richard understood the need for water and the danger of heat exhaustion. The 10,000 infantry and 1,200 heavy cavalry of the Crusader army moved only in the cool hours of the early morning, the crossbowmen of the infantry corps on the landward side, with the allied fleet to their right providing resupply and succor for the wounded.

The hit & run tactics of Muslim archers were near-constant, the rearguard of the Knights Hospitaller forced to walk backward, to engage the adversary.  Any spaces in the line were quickly filled by Arab horsemen, who finished the stragglers with sword or with mace.  The Kurdish historian and eyewitness Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad described heavily armored knights on the march to Jaffa, seemingly unhurt despite multiple arrows, sticking out of their backs. The power of the Christian crossbow was another matter, striking down Arab horses and riders, with ease

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Richard Coeur de Lion on his way to Jerusalem

Harassing attacks gave way to pitched battle this day in 1191 near the ancient fortified city of Arsuf, proving Richard’s personal courage and skill as a commander, while putting a dent in Saladin’s reputation as the invincible warrior King.

The Latin history of the third crusade Itinerarium Regis Ricardi “There the king, the fierce, the extraordinary king, cut down the Turks in every direction, and none could escape the force of his arm, for wherever he turned, brandishing his sword, he carved a wide path for himself: and as he advanced and gave repeated strokes with his sword, cutting them down like a reaper with his sickle, the rest, warned by the sight of the dying, gave him more ample space, for the corpses of the dead Turks which lay on the face of the earth extended over half a mile.”

Two times Crusader armies came within sight of Jerusalem, never suspecting that, within the city, “Saracen” morale was so low that the city could have been theirs for the taking. Meanwhile, factions within the Crusader armies fell to bickering, with half wanting to push on to Jerusalem, the other wanting to attack Saladin’s base of power, in Mamluk Egypt.

In time, the Crusader and the Sultan came to hold a degree of respect for one another. Legend has it that, at one point in the fighting around Jaffa, Saladin even sent Richard a fresh horse, after one was killed beneath him. The pair even discussed marrying Joan off to Saladin’s brother, Al-Adil, with themselves becoming co-rulers in Jerusalem. The plan might’ve worked, too, until the Roman Church got wind and threatened excommunication if Richard carried it out.

I have not been able to learn what Joan herself, thought of the match.

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Time finally ran out for Richard and Saladin, both. The Christian army was decimated by disease. Fierce quarrels between German, English (Angevin) and French contingents threatened to break up the Crusader army.  Richard himself was gravely ill, near despair of ever regaining his health. On top of that, his little brother John was plotting against him, with the connivance of the French King Philip.

Richard Lion-heart no longer had the strength to challenge Saladin for Jerusalem.  Saladin, for his part, had serious morale problems, after repeated defeats at the hands of the Crusaders.

With Saladin’s brother Saif adDin acting as intermediary, the King and the Sultan concluded the Treaty of Jaffa in 1192. The fortifications at Ascalon were to be dismantled, in exchange for which Christians would continue to hold the coast from Jaffa to Tyre. Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands, while unarmed Christian pilgrims and traders would be guaranteed free passage to visit the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord in peace, without the exaction of tribute or tax. Further, Christian traders were permitted the possession objects for sale throughout the land, thus permitting such traders right of free commerce.

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Sultan Salāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb died of a fever the following March, and was buried in the garden outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.  Saladin’s kingdom and the Crusader states would remain at peace, for a period of three years.

Seven centuries later, German Emperor Wilhelm II donated a new marble sarcophagus, to the tomb of the Sultan who had reclaimed Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

Foul weather drove King Richard I ashore near Venice, where he was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria and handed over to German Emperor Henry VI and held for ransom. This time, the tithe would amount to 25%, raising about 1.2 million ounces of silver, and forever answering any questions as to what might constitute a “King’s Ransom”.

A bolt from a crossbow left Richard Coeur de Lion mortally wounded on April 6, 1199, while besieging the castle of Châlus, in central France. He was 41.

Richard was destined to be succeeded by his brother John, after all. John became such an unpopular King that his Nobles and their French and Scots allies forced him to sign the “Great Charter of the Liberties”, the Magna Carta, at a place called Runnymede.

Magna-Carta-signing

Nearly 600 years later, the document would influence early government in the thirteen American colonies and the formation of our own Constitutional Republic, but that must be a story for another day.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

August 1, 1086 The Doomsday Book

Edward the Confessor, King of England, died in January of 1066, without an heir to the throne. Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t generally pick their own successors, but several believed he had done just that .  Edward’s death touched off an international succession crisis.  The events of the following months, would change the course of history.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, died in January of 1066, without an heir to the throne. Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t generally pick their own successors, but several believed he had done just that .  Edward’s death touched off an international succession crisis.  The events of the following months, would change the course of history.

Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson was elected King by the Witenagemot, an early version of our own Town Meeting.  There were others with claims of their own.  One of these was Harold’s younger brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, whose animosity for his brother would prove fatal for them both.

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After conducting a few inconclusive raids in the spring of that year, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “the Bastard”, looking for help. William had openly declared his intention to take the English throne, and had no use for the King’s little brother.  Tostig then went to the King of Norway, King Harald III “Hardrada”, the name variously translated as “stern counsel”, or “hard ruler”.

Hardrada believed that he himself had claim to the English throne, and was dismayed at Godwinson’s succession.  The two sailed for England at the head of a powerful fleet of 300 Viking ships and an army of 10,000 warriors, meeting the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar in battle at Fulford Gate on September 20.

The battle was a comprehensive defeat for the English. When Harald came to Stamford Bridge a week later, it was in expectation of formal capitulation and tribute.

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Meanwhile, King Harold was at the head of an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy. My military friends will appreciate what happened next.  Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night and covering 190 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking army waiting at Stamford Bridge. The Vikings must have looked at the horizon and wondered how a peace party could raise that much dust, only to face the “gleam of handsome shields and white coats-of-mail”.

Thinking they were there to accept submission, Harald’s army had left half their numbers behind to watch the ships.  Worse still, many of Harald’s warriors had removed their heavy armor, and scattered over both sides of the River Derwent.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

The English army charged through the loose ranks of Norwegians, as the rest struggled to form the skjaldborg (shield wall) on the opposite bank.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one giant Viking warrior stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge. Swinging the great two handed Dane Axe, for a time this man held back the entire English army, crowding onto the narrow choke point.   40 English soldiers lay mangled and dead in heaps around this beast, when an English soldier moved beneath the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.

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The savagery of the battle can only be imagined. This was before the age of industrialized warfare, when every injury was personally administered with a bladed weapon of some kind. 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers would be dead before it was over, about a third of his force. Two thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died that day, about 6,000.  In the end, Harald Hardrada invoked his berserkergang (the state of going berserk), and waded into his foe, madly hacking and slashing all about him until an arrow found his throat.

Thus ends the tale of the last ‘Great Viking’.  Harald was dead, as was his ally Tostig, his reward, in the words of King Harold, “Seven feet of English soil, or as much more as he is taller than other men“.

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Of 300 ships that had arrived on the 20th, the battered remnants of the Viking army required only 24, to sail away.

Meanwhile, William was in final preparations for his own channel crossing, a voyage many considered unlikely at that late time of year.  The Norman landing Harold had been waiting for took place three days later, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest.

tumblr_la6h4gVLfh1qe23mao1_500A greatly diminished Anglo Saxon army marched south, meeting the Norman invader in October, 1066.  In an age of mechanized warfare, it is odd to think you could have been on a neighboring hill, and not heard a thing.  History changed that day, when King Harold took an arrow to the eye, at a place called Hastings.   The last of the Anglo Saxon Kings, was dead.  William was crowned King of England that December.  Henceforward and forever more, William the Bastard would be known as “William the Conqueror”.

Main rivals to the new King were now gone, but William wouldn’t be secure on his throne for another six years. Lands were confiscated from resisting members of the English elite and from lords who had fought and died in service to Harold.

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H/T By Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia

Such lands were enfeoffed, a process of the European middle ages through which land was granted in exchange for feudal allegiance, while the King retained ultimate title. Such confiscations led to revolts and further confiscations, as widows and daughters were forced into marriages with Norman barons.

Castles were built at an unprecedented rate, controlling military strongpoints across the land and, in the words of historian Robert Liddiard, “legitmizing a new elite”. Liddiard remarks that “to glance at the urban landscape of Norwich, Durham or Lincoln is to be forcibly reminded of the impact of the Norman invasion.”

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Beginning in 1085, seven or eight panels of commissioners fanned out across the land, taking sworn statements in every shire and village. Elaborate records were compiled of all lands and estates held by the King through his tenants, down to every agricultural plot and fishpond, and its value in pounds.

It was all done for purposes of taxation, particularly to see what was owed during the reign of Edward the Confessor. You can imagine how that went over but, as always, history is written by the victor.

So complete was the Norman conquest that William himself was able to spend three-quarters of his time, defending his interests in France. According to these records, no more than 5% of all lands remained in English hands by 1086.

While exact dates are subject to dispute, the major part of the “Great Survey” is traditionally held to have been bound and presented to King William on this day in 1086, in Salisbury.

1200px-Domesday-book-1804x972Late in the 12th century, King’s Treasurer Richard FitzNeal likened the Great Survey to the Book of Judgement, the book of “Domesday” (middle English for “Doomsday”), because its pronouncements were final and inviolate, as the Last day of Judgement.

Nothing even remotely similar to the “Domesday Book” would be attempted again, until 1873. For most English towns and villages (most but not all – no Domesday records are known to survive for London or Winchester), the Domesday book remains the starting point of history. The final and dispositive arbiter of lands and titles held, across the British Isles.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

June 24, 1374 The Madness of the Dance

Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

Amidst our people here is come
The madness of the dance.
In every town there now are some
Who fall upon a trance.
It drives them ever night and day,
They scarcely stop for breath,
Till some have dropped along the way
And some are met by death.
– Straussburgh Chronicle of Kleinkawel, 1625

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A legend of the medieval Christian church had it that, if anyone were to provoke the wrath of St. Vitus, the Sicilian saint martyred in 303AD, he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.  One of the first outbreaks of St. Vitus’ Dance, occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, Germany. 18 peasants disturbed a Christmas Eve service, singing and dancing around the church.

In a story reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a large group of children jumped and danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237, a distance of some sixteen miles. In 1238, 200 people jumped, twitched and convulsed on a bridge over the River Meuse, until the span collapsed.

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A major outbreak St. Vitus’ Dance occurred on June 24, 1374. The population writhed and jerked through the streets of Aachen, screaming of visions and hallucinations until, one by one, each collapsed.  There, victims continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand.

dancing-plague1Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

This “choreomania”, more commonly referred to as dancing mania, spread throughout Europe, fanning out to Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren and Utrecht. Further outbreaks were reported in England and the Netherlands.

One Frau Troffea began to dance in a street in Strasbourg in July 1518, going at it somewhere between four to six days. 34 joined in by the end of a week.  Within the month there were 400 more. Many of this primarily female group actually danced themselves to death, succumbing to heart attack or stroke.  Others collapsed in exhaustion, their bloody feet no longer able to hold them up.

According to one report, the dancing plague was killing fifteen people every day.

Reactions varied. Some thought those suffering from dance mania were possessed by the devil, others by ‘hot blood’. Doctors were called, who advised that the Dance be allowed to run its course. Bands were hired and one town even built a dance floor, to contain the phenomenon.

There were no fewer than seven distinct outbreaks of the dancing plague during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar as late as 1840.

ErgotonRyeEven today there is little consensus about what caused the phenomenon. Some have blamed “St Anthony’s Fire”, a toxic and psychoactive fungus of the Claviceps genus, also known as ergot.  Often ingested with infected rye bread, symptoms of ergot poisoning are not unlike those of LSD, and include nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, spontaneous abortion, convulsions and gangrene resulting from severe vasoconstriction.

Many associate the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692 with ergot poisoning but, for others, such explanations are wanting.  Both the dancing episodes of earlier centuries and the witchcraft chapter involved lucid and deliberate action, far more than the convulsions and involuntary spasms associated with ergotism.

Others describe the Dancing Plague phenomenon as some kind of mass psychosis, brought on by the Bubonic Plague.  The Black Death, a pandemic which killed 75-100 million people around the earth, in a world with a population of 450 million.  The explanation seems as plausible as any.  The modern mind is incapable of understanding (at least mine is) what it is to live in a world where one in every four-to-five people on the planet is dead, killed by a horror not one of them understands.

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Long before germ theory was commonly understood, disease was thought to be borne of odors. Medieval plague doctors donned head-to-toe waxed canvas gowns and leather hats, with the distinctive beak-like mask filled with aromatic herbs.

Today, a calamity of such magnitude would kill over 1.5 Billion souls.

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June 21, 1633 And Yet, it Moves

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. After his conviction, the astronomer is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

Planet Earth exists at the center of the solar system, the sun and other celestial bodies revolving around it. That was the “geocentric” model of the solar system, from the time of antiquity.

The perspective was by no means unanimous.  The Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos put the Sun in the center of the universe, in the third century BC.  Later Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy agreed, refining Aristarchus’ methods to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate for the distance to the moon, but theirs remained the minority view.

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Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. H/T: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus parted ways with the orthodoxy of his time, describing a “heliocentric” model of the universe placing the sun at the center.  The Earth and other bodies, according to this model, revolved around the sun.

Copernicus resisted publishing his ideas until the end of his life, fearing to offend the religious sensibilities of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) as he awakened on his death bed from a stroke-induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes, and never opened them again.

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Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei came along, about a hundred years later. Galileo has been called the “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy”, his improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supporting the Copernican heliocentric view.

They also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Biblical references such as, “The Lord set the Earth on its Foundations; it can Never be Moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the Sun Rises and Sets and Returns to its Place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) were taken at the time as literal and immutable fact, becoming the basis for religious objection to the heliocentric model.

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Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial in 1633. The astronomer backpedaled before the Inquisition, but only to a point, testifying in his fourth deposition on this day in 1633, that “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. After his conviction, the astronomer is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

The Inquisition condemned the astronomer to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to house arrest at his villa in 1634, there to spend the rest of his life. Galileo Galilei, the Italian polymath who all but orchestrated the transition from late middle ages to  scientific Renaissance, died on January 8, 1642, desiring to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors.  His final wishes were ignored at the time, though they would be honored some ninety-five years later, when Galileo was re-interred in the basilica, in 1737.

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Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to a natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes, they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Such a custom seems ghoulish to us today, but the practice was was quite old by the 18th century.  Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, quite the opposite.  The Inquisition had judged the man an enemy of the church, a heretic.

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“A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body”. H/T New York Times

Possibly, the condition of Galileo’s body made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Be that as it may, Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737, the digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

The other two fingers and a tooth disappeared in 1905, leaving the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.  Locked in a glass case, the finger points upward, toward the sky.

23galileo2-cnd-popupSome 100 years later, two fingers and a tooth were purchased at auction, and have since rejoined their fellow digit at the Museo Galileo. To this day, these remain the only human body parts, in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instrumentation.

Nearly four-hundred years after his death, Galileo’s extremity points upward, toward the glory of the cosmos.  Either that, or the finger rises in eternal defiance, flipping the bird to the church which had condemned him.

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