Five Medieval Tales

Via Medievalists, a set of charming (or not) stories from the Middle Ages.

The first story may strike a contemporary reader as grotesque, not merely for the cannibalism but for the prospect of having your actual heart cut out and sent to someone you love. Yet this practice was regarded not as grotesque but rather intensely romantic, in the old sense of the word, in the High Middle Ages. Robert the Bruce had his heart removed after his death and sent on Crusade, as his heart had always longed to go, but his duty to Scotland kept him from it. His greatest friend carried the heart, and died crusading against the Moors in Spain.

Story number four may or may not be practical, but it is a common story. The Icelandic Heimskringla has Harald Hardrada, the Thunderbolt of the North, carrying out a similar plan to destroy a city in Sicily while campaigning in the mercenary service of the lords of Byzantium. In that case they supposedly gathered up flying birds and set them ablaze, causing them to fly home in a panic to their nests within the walls of the city.

As for the third tale, just last night I finished the chapter of Barnaby Rogerson's The Last Crusaders that deals with the Portuguese kings. This sort of deep love attachment and flamboyance sounds very much in character for the family. That, by the way, is proving to be an entertaining history. I recommend it.


douglas said...

Seems to me the avian arson plan could work if you tied material to the birds, a ribbon or cord or fuse, and lit that and sent them on their way. Sounds like a pretty effective weapon, if a bit indiscriminate.

Grim said...

"Discriminate" is a legitimate medieval just-war concept, but Harald Hardrada was a little early for it. He was a Christian, though -- his family were partisans of St. Olav's, who as King Olav Digre had converted Norway by fire and sword. After Olav's death at Stiklastadr, Hardrada ended up in Russia and then followed the river south to Constantinople. There he joined, and came to command, the Varangian Guard -- that elite mercenary band of "Rus" (including many Norse) who were employed by the Byzantine emperors. He fought across the Middle East and in Sicily against Islamic foes, before returning home to win the throne of Norway by his own hand.

He died three days before the Battle of Hastings, at the hand of Harold Godwinson, the King of England. Most people don't realize that just three days before he lost to William the Conqueror, Harold and his army had fought a terrible battle against a might Viking force led by this giant of a man. Then they had to force march back to the south of England, where they encountered the Norman invasion.

MikeD said...

Apparently, the US found some inspiration from old Harold: