Matter of Epic or Romance: Comparing Castles in the UK and Latvia

As all my attention is given to an article about medieval hillforts and stone castles in Latvia which I am currently preparing, I could not but glance back to my early musings on Daugmale hillfort – and a castle in Bangor, which I once visited in very romantic circumstances


On Easter Monday, me and my husband visited Ynys Mon, or Anglesey as the Saesneg call it, on a pilgrimage.
The goal of our pilgrimage was the sacred well at which St. Seiriol, a Welsh 6-th century royal hermit once lived. Later the place became a local centre of worship, with two Celtic crosses; the crosses are still there, presently placed inside the later church building, though originally they would have stood in the open. In the twelfth century, the Celtic monastery became reorganised as a Norman Augustinian monastery. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the place into the hands of a local family, who built a dovecot and a deer park next to the priory and the church buildings. In the eighteenth century, some enthusiasts of the Celtic revival added a brick structure over the well at which side St. Seiriol would have lived. The Penmon priory is thus…

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Horseback Archery In Korea: A Traditional Sport.

Over the past couple of decades archery from the back of a horse has seen a revival as a sport and recreational activity. Countries all around the world, both those with and without a tradit…

Source: Horseback Archery In Korea: A Traditional Sport.

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Hillforts in Latvia

Today is the ‘Birthday of Latvia’, as my little son proudly announced to me coming from the kindergarten. Moreover, I was putting some spit and polish on my article about medieval castles in Latvia, so I found a collection of maps listing Latvian hillforts particularly useful.

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Medieval Welsh Horses Had Weird Names

While preparing my article on the early editions of the Welsh Arthurian material, I came across a passage from Loth’s French translation of the Welsh triads. And the first triads were, who would guess it, about horses.

Here they are, Horse triads from the Black Book of Caermarthen:

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Medieval Horses Love Water!

November has come, with its dull winter days, the first snow and cold, wet horses. Apparently, it was no problem in the fifteenth-century France, where the calendar page from the spectacular Bedford Hours show a horse splashing in a fountain:


Perseus and Pegasus, the Bedford Hours

Calendar page for November from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410–1430, Add MS 18850, f. 11r


All right, that’s Perseus and Pegasus, so they are supposed to be there. Still, to me, the picture looks very realistic, minus the wings, which appear very haphazardly slapped upon the white horse, anyway. Maybe the knight is going for a dress-up party? It’s Halloween, after all…

Still, I wonder whether they would be splashing in the water in November – might be a bit too cold for this kind of fun. I am not sure the knight looks very keen on it, nd even the horse seems slightly hesitant, probing the water with its hoof.

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What did medieval people know about Hungary?

What do the Old Norse sagas, the chronicle narrative of Jean Froissart and the Old Serbian annals have in common? How about the Dominican collection of pious exempla by Jacobus de Cessolis, Liber de moribus? Well, to give you yet another clue, think of the late French Arthurian romance of Melyador and the anonymous fifteenth-century Middle English metrical romance Capystranus. Still no nearer to the answer? Hungary and the Hungarians! Surprising as it may sound, Hungary makes a frequent and variegated appearance in a variety of medieval narrative sources across Europe, from Iceland to Italy, not to mention Germany, France, England and such close neighbours as Poland and Serbia.

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Be the Superhuman!

In the wake of the Paralympic Games in Rio, I wanted revisit the issue of athleticism for the (dis?)abled. In my previous post, I juxtaposed the video of Paralympic dressage with a quotation from Dom Duarte I’s treatise on horse-riding, where he argued that no apparent physical impediment should prevent anyone from becoming a reasonably good rider. Indeed, we see in the video extremely handicapped people who control the horses much better than most amateurs and look much more elegantly on horseback than any bunch of ordinary students at a riding school. And yet, these people are amateurs, too, for most paralympic athletes have daytime or part-time jobs and are not paid or are paid very little for being athletes.

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Not Fit to Ride? Watch Paradressage

In the fifteenth century, Dom Duarte I of Portugal wrote:

… some people think they cannot be good riders because of weakness, old age, or obesity, and therefore lose the will and give up learning what they need in order to attain knowledge. They are manifestly quite wrong in this, and in many other good things that they lose because of this despair, when they could acquire them if they had good hope. Those who feel this way ought to dismiss this belief. They should reflect that they feel badly because they don’t think they can acquire this art; but if it is due to weakness or age or some other thing, they could easily find others who are weaker and older but are quite good riders. Likewise with the other shortcomings: most people can recognize that, even if we have them, we can find others who have them to the same degree or greater, yet are not prevented from having considerable skill in riding. And when we see  that people  of equal or greater shortcomings acquire this art and practice it quite adequately, we should readily recognize that, if we have will and knowledge, the ability will not fail us, since people can do it who have less aptitude than ourselves. I truly think that if everyone believed this, few people would fail to become reasonably good riders for lack of physical aptitude.


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What is an Illuminated Charter?

What is a charter? What is an illuminated charter? On several occasions during the Illuminated Charters workshop, we faced the issue of definition. The project website, of course, provides a definition, outlining the legal nature of the document in question and excluding cartularies from analysis:

Charters are originals of legal documents which follow specific internal and external criteria. Chartularies, even so often richly illuminated, do not stand at our focus.

Illuminiated charters in the broadest sense are charters with drawn (graphic) or painted elements beside the context script.

The website, helpfully, distinguishes between three levels of illumination:

  • Charters with figural (depictive) decoration which is historiated
  • Charters with drawn (graphic) decoration or display scripts with decorative character,
  • Graphic means of authentication

Illuminated indulgence at the State Archives in Vienna

However, it seems that each national tradition of scholarship has their own approaches. Thus, one possibility may be to include everything produced in the chancery into the category of charters. Another approach would be to limit the scope of inquiry based on formal features: a document on one page, with signatures or other subscriptions, sealed or having place for a seal. Yet a third possibility is to make the analysis functional: as advised by a certain lawyer, a legal document would be any document that would result in certain action, the imposition of legal obligation, etc. In particular, indulgencies, though envisaging a contract of non-material kind, fit the functional definition well.

Not content with the conclusion of the day, I turned to literature, and found the matter well discussed by Karl Heidecker in the ‘Introduction’ to Charter and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, ed. by Karl Heidecker (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), pp. 1-12

According to Heidecker, the German term Urkunde, often translated in English as ‘charter’ has been defined, classically, by Harry Bresslau as ‘written declarations meant to serve as evidence of actions of a legal kind, recorded in specific forms, which are, however, changing according to the various persons, times, places and topics concerned’ (2; translation from Harry Bresslau, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1889), p. 1). Further on Heidecker explains that

‘Charters, as defined by Bresslau, as a genre have the advantage that they have been written during the entire Middle Ages and have touched the lives of many social groups. Charters are not only written texts but also material things. Their texts are written down, preserved, copied (and often rewritten in the process), and used in many ways by different people.’ (4)

Front CoverThus, Heidecker proposes a wide, multidisciplinary approach, that would examine not only the text, but also the physical make-up of the charter and their effects. This is in contrast with the earlier tendencies in diplomatics, which tended to focus on the text, with little or no attention given to the paleographic and artistic features of the documents, as argued by Olivier Guyotjeanin in his overview of diplomatic studies from the eighteenth century onwards (The Diplomatist and Illuminated Documents). According to Guyotjeanin, due to their training, diplomatists were not well placed to examine and analyse the place of image in the document. In the manuals on diplomacy between 1830s and 1930s, with few exceptions, little was said on the decorative aspects of documents. The first to note the place of illustration in charters in Arthur Giry in his Manuel de diplomatique (Paris, 1894, reprinted Geneva, 1975, pp. 504-506). A generation later, Alain de Boüard, Manuel de diplomatique francaise et pontificale, alludes to decoration among his notes on palaeography, and comments mostly on the colour of ink – blue, red, or black.

In fact, as Guyotjeanin has stressed, research into the visual features of charters, and examples from elsewhere in Europe, gradually developed from the 1980s onwards. The works of Ghislain Brunel (study of Charles V’s ordinance on the age of majority of the dauphin, the initial of which is decorated with two dolphins), Jéhanno, Benoît Grévin, Elizabeth Danbury as well as the volume edited by Ghislain Brunel and Marc Smith (acts from the Journée d’études of 15 May 2011) add to the scholarship of charter decoration.

The question of what can be considered as illuminative and decorative elements, how to identify and classify them, are equally essential, and were treated in other contributions at the conference on Illuminated Charters. However, I would say that everything which is not strictly functional is decorative, and, if it strikes the viewer’s eye, the aims of the charter decorator and the patron under whose guidance the charter was produced have been reached.

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Illuminated Charters and Digital Humanities – A Conference Report

In the beautiful heart of the city of Vienna, in a magnificent building housing the State Archives (Wien, Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv) next to the Imperial Palace, a diverse gathering of academics held their mysterious conference concerning medieval Illuminated Charters. The issue must have indeed been fascinating, if the group chose to barter the sunny exuberance and unexpected 28 C heat of autumn days (12 -14 September 2016) in the alleys of the nearby park for a spacious white room illuminated by the self-same sunbeams and the dim image of the overhead in front.

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