Monday, 29 October 2012

Freydís Eiríksdóttir, Viking Warrior

A recent study of Viking burials in Britain showed that there were a lot more female Vikings in invasion forces than scholars have given credit for over the years.  In fact, it's now estimated that the invading forces to Britain may have been between 33-50% female.  The reason for this change of heart is that archeologists have started analysing the skeletons found in burials, as well as the grave goods, rather than judging gender on the grave goods only.  In the past, a burial with a brooch was thought to be female; with a sword, it was thought to be male; with both, it was a male burial with a female offering.  The new study shows that no, those were women with swords and brooches -- after all, what Viking warrior woman would go to settle somewhere without her sword and her jewelry?

Sure, that sounds like jest, but I find it hardly surprising in a lot of ways.  I know I can fight with a sword and shield; I also know that there's no way I'd want my other half to go off to colonise another country without me.  And dammit, I'd want my brooches and my sword, especially if the brooches were being used to hold my clothes on.  Which they were:

10th Century Woman's Oval Brooches found in Suffolk, England.  British Museum.  Viking Bling!

Revival clothing -- brooches in place!  (Link: )

So, back to Freydís Eiríksdóttir, one of a potentially more prevalent breed.  She was the daughter of Eric the Red and one of those colonists to go to Vinland -- that part of Canada that her brother, Lief Eiríksson, discovered.

She went out there in the early 11th Century with her husband.  The natives, called Skraelings in the Sagas, seemed to be interested in trade at first.  The Skraelings tolerated the Viking squatters and traded animal furs for strips of red fabric as the natives had no method of creating red fabric dyes at that time.  As the Viking settlers ran out of cloth, the natives still wanted to trade, but the Vikings had nothing left -- except cow's milk.

Cue the cultural misunderstanding that is lactose intolerance.  The Skraelings believed they'd been poisoned and this soured relations between the people for several years.  This became compounded by a bull escaping and roaring around the locality before the Vikings could get it back into it's pen.  The Skraelings ran, terrified by the monster and weren't seen for three weeks, when they returned in force.

 Although I'm fairly certain they didn't know about lactose intolerance during this time period, the saga of Erik the Red was written down between 1387 - 1394.  This is what it looks like -- The Flateyjarbók (The Flatley Book).

They rowed up the river, outnumbering the Vikings, brandishing their staves and howling.  The Vikings stood their ground.  They bared shields on the shoreline and prepared for battle.  However, the Skraelings had slings and pole weapons that flung projectiles that caused terrible damage and made terrifying noises when they struck the shore.  The Vikings had no reach; they were outnumbered and were fighting a battle on all sides.  They did the only sensible thing -- they tried to use geography.  They retreated, pulling the battle into "certain crags", creating a bottleneck and forcing fighting from only one or two positions and reducing enemy contact, despite being outnumbered.

Sadly, Freydís Eiríksdóttir was in the camp and heavily pregnant.  She couldn't keep up with the retreat.  As she saw the way the battle was retreating, she called out:

"Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon, I think I could fight better than any of you."  (Saga of Erik the Red)

She was left behind, so she tried to catch up to them through the woods.  All she found was the body of a fellow Viking, Thorbrand, with a stone lodged in his skull... but he'd been carrying a sword.  She grabbed the sword, stopped running and prepared to defend herself.  As the Skraelings came upon her, she let out a battle cry, bared her breast and struck it with the flat of the sword.  The Skraelings fled, likely terrified of the fierce, definitely female and definitely pregnant being in front of them.  I can't say I blame them as an armed, angry, topless pregnant Viking woman fighting for survival would be a truly terrifying opponent.

Freydís Eiríksdóttir:  Officially a better fighter than any of the chaps in the above picture from The Flatley Book.  Even though they weren't even in the same saga.

The Viking men came back after the Skraelings fled, praising her for her battle zeal, though I'm fairly sure she was thinking "what choice did I have?".  Two Vikings and four Skraelings died in the battle, which were certainly not the last deaths on either side.

After this point, Freydís was known for a level of bravery -- until more expeditions went out.  The second expedition had two boats, with one of them sinking in bad weather.  There was no loss of life; however, that meant there were two crews on one ship and half the provisions.  In a fit of cold logic, she ordered everyone on the first ship to kill everyone who'd been on the second.  They complied, but the men refused to kill unarmed women.  Of course, Freydís had no problem with that and cut the heads off the five women on the second boat.  Grim.  They reached land.  They fought the natives.  They left again.  The sagas do not state whether or not anyone starved to death; for that kind of sacrifice, you have to hope not.

She then led a third expedition herself, partnering up with two brothers and her husband.  She was pretty manipulative and made sure she and her husband got the bigger boat, as well as hiding five more men on her boat than she'd agreed with the brothers.  The brothers fell out with her to the point that two camps were formed once they'd reached Vinland.  She then swore that the brothers assaulted her, so the men of her camp attacked and killed everyone in the other camp, except, again, the men refused to kill unarmed women.  She and her axe saw to it that the women were killed.  She then bade that no one tell of what happened on their return home.

She allegedly lived to an old age, dying of natural causes; a rich outcast, but an outcast, nevertheless.  Now, I'm aware that this saga wasn't written with all the facts of each situation.  I'm aware that winners write the histories and the outcasts are never the winners.  I still can't help but hope that bad press is the major source for the last two paragraphs, but I doubt it is.  Why couldn't she stay the badass Viking warrior that took on the Skraelings whilst she was pregnant?   Then again, badass Viking warriors are rarely known for their mercy...

More Female Viking Invaders Than Previously Thought Sources here.
And here.
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Friday, 26 October 2012

Canterbury Tales

I had one of the pages from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales appear in my feed, so it's compelled me to go off and do more research as the artwork is truly stunning.  It's odd; I remember being in class reading through it all in 11th Grade AP English, being actually quite bored by it, but I think that part of the problem was that we were focusing solely on the stories, not the art or the social importance of the piece.  I'm a bit sad that I decided that "Mr. Cliff and his notes" would be an awesome shortcut, but then again, what do you know when you're 16, you're in High School, and your love of your life has just broken up with you after three months?  How times change...

Anyhow, here are some awesome pictures I've dug up from various places online.  The first page of the tales is quite gorgeous and actually, very readable given it's in archaic English:

"Ere begynneth the book of tales of Canterburye compiled by Geffraie Chaucer of Brytayne chef poete"

Although Chaucer wrote his tales between 1387 and 1400, this is a copy of his tales made around 1450.  Sadly, according to the British Library, no copies exist today that Chaucer wrote himself.  However, the fact that at least 80 copies from the 15th century do still exist points to his works being incredibly popular.

They were popular for many reasons.  Firstly, he wrote about a cross-section of society from dyers to nuns and it was a work of social commentary, which always grabs attention.  He also chose to write the stories in English, which was pretty rare in England at that time.  The ruling classes spoke French seeing as the Normans had invaded a few centuries before, with the normal, everyday classes speaking English.  This is probably another reason it was popular -- it was actually the language many people spoke.

A picture of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript.  "Heere Bigynneth Chaucers Tale of Melibee" 

That's not to say that people were particularly literate, but that is to say that English was a popular spoken language in England (who'd've thought it?).  As this was one of the first times that the English language had been written down for this purpose post-invasion, Chaucer also got a chance to sculpt it and capture it, showing that different classes spoke in different manners.  What I really like though is the portraits of some of the people telling the tales.  The Prioress, for example is really quite a beautiful illumination:

I also like the Ellesmere version of the Man of Law, however it's smudged now, sadly:

I still find it beautiful.  I think I'm going to end up doing a few posts about this one...

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Thursday, 25 October 2012

De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus

Sometimes you see something interesting that leads you down a path of research that you didn't intend.  This totally happened today and I ended up googling De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus (On The Art of Hunting with Birds), a medieval treatise on ornithology and falconry.  Written in the 1240s by Frederick II of Sicily, it now exists in two forms as the original was lost in 1248 during the siege of Parma.  One form is a six-book version, the other is a two book version, which is an illuminated manuscript.

And it is gorgeous:

Sure, that's not necessarily one of the more spectacular illuminations in terms of medieval bling, but what I'm taken by is the sheer simplicity as well as the really nice layout.  That is a work of talent.  It also shows some of the hawking pouches that I make, which is nice too.

The book itself contains around 500 illustrations of about 80 different species of bird, some in flight:

Some being attended by falconers:

Some in the middle of eating the ears off a rabbit:

(Thank you, Wikipedia!)

Frederick wrote this book with the intention of sharing some of his scientific knowledge in terms of breeding and handling.  He did experimentation with eggs and how they hatched.  He also wrote "Whoever wants to learn the art of hunting with birds to be able to feed them, keep them, tame them, take them, teach them to hunt other birds sent them to hunt and, if necessary, treat, must unite, the quality which will be indicated, science (the theoretical and practical knowledge) contained in this work."  He was a big believer in doing things right.

I've not been able to find any single place online that holds all the illustrations, nor anywhere that holds a translation, sadly.  However, there is a Latin copy of just the text here:, although my basic High School Latin fails after a sentence and a half, sadly.  Still, if anyone would like to spend out on a translated copy, there's one available on Amazon with the original pictures too.  It's 768 pages long and quite some money:

I know it's expensive, but I'm still not convinced that it's not worth it.  I should probably go have a word with myself about that...  
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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Medieval Limp Bindings

I work as a lecturer in Graphic Design and as such I have an interest in different methods of publication and book binding.  During research, I came across some beautiful examples of medieval limp binding, a method of binding a manuscript to a limp cover of vellum  or similar material in order to provide a lightweight cover.

It's pretty hard to know how often this binding was used for definite as the style is generally seen as being cheaper and more ephemeral than other "proper" bindings.  We do know that limp binding was used in the 14th & 15th centuries and that it became a quite popular style in the 16th century, with some library collections having over 50% of their works bound in this fashion thanks to the efforts of scholar-publishers.  By the 17th century, however, the style was in decline.  I've yet to find a reason as to why, but one can speculate that changing print processes were likely having an effect on book production and binding methods.

Still, it's a nice little style of book to make and one of the easier binding techniques for documents, perfect for your average SCA/re-enactor/LARPer types.  I've made a couple in the past but have never been hugely pleased with the results due to the paper stock and the leather being a wee bit too limp, so looking at these older manuscripts is giving me a shove to make nicer feeling books with better stock and better leather.

One of the examples that stood out for me was a limp binding with a linen cloth cover, held by the National Library of Sweden.

It's a document from 1451-1452, which is simply referred to as the Vadstena Observance.  Vadstena was a monastery so it's fairly safe to say that this is a religious document.  It has three seals -- but unfortunately the information at source is pretty lacking (source is here).  The inside is pretty stunning though, given that it's a limp bound manuscript, bound only in linen:

It's a simple way of binding things.  I can't help but feel that these books are meant for use; a copy meant for wear, rather than a library reference, which would be the grander version of the manuscript that you'd want to keep nice.  Some of the records from 14th and 15th century convent libraries certainly agree as most of these books were in the hands of the nuns, with only 9% of the books in the library being limp bound.  That doesn't mean these books weren't of value though.  They still contained information and have even been documented as being taken as part of the spoils of war, such as this one:

It's not much to look at, until you look at the reinforced leather spine:

...and of course, the manuscript itself:

It's also in the National Library of Sweden, listed as being from 1398.  They believe it was part of the spoils of the sacking of Prague in 1648.  I just wish I knew what it said...

In doing the research for this entry, I also found a really cool little website by a lady who is putting the limp binding technique into practice based on actual historic pieces.  She's a few interesting comments on putting the theory into practice.  I also came across, which is a site that sells manuscripts privately.  My favourite of their current stock is a processional with musical notation from Northern Italy, made between 1450-1500.  The exterior is just plain vellum with no design, saving for some gilt lettering down the spine that reads "Uffiziolo Francescano, sec. XV."  The interior, however, is gorgeous:

This processional contains multiple forms of burial services for friars, the laity and also for children.  Because everything is in the masculine form, it's believed it was created as a book for use by Franciscan friars.  It is a working book, not a reference book.

Either way, it took someone of talent to put something like this together.

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Monday, 15 October 2012

Madonna of Mercy with Kneeling Friars

I'm usually not one for the big religious medieval scriptures as they don't show much in the way of fashion of the time usually, however, today this caught my eye:

It caught my eye because of it's vibrancy and it's use of the fish to for the letter S.  This piece is called Madonna of Mercy with Kneeling Friars.  It was created around 1424 by a chap named Fra Angelico (the Angelic Brother), who also went by the name Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John of Fiesole).  He was born in the Italian town of Fiesole and by the age of 13 he was already in the Dominican Friary of Cortona, painting frescoes which have all now been destroyed.  He did this piece when he was 29ish, having studied illuminations from a really, really young age.  This piece is an illumination from Messale 558 -- a book of hymns for Mass that also contained the liturggies for the feast days of several saints.

Another page from this book shows the glorification of St. Dominic:

This is straight from wikipedia, so if you want a bigger picture (where you can even see the grain of the parchement), check it out here.  This is a page from the book which even has musical notation.  My favourite though has to be this one, which is simply called Blessed angelic annunciation:

It's my favourite one from the set I've seen online simply because of the scrollwork inside of the R.  That's a lot of work, a lot of patience, a lot of hours and a lot of talent. 

There's a set of four of his images from this book available at, which are all really high res and worth a look if you like illuminations.  I can't help but wonder how long it took him to put it all together though, even though the evidence shows that he had an assistant.  I should still think it took some time!

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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Aberdeen Beastiary

In doing some flicking through pictures of illuminated manuscripts online, I came across The Aberdeen Beastiary.  This manuscript was written in England around the year 1200 and is a really good example of a beastiary, containing excellent descriptions and sketches of the animals it describes.  It's written in Latin, but the nice thing about The Aberdeen Beastiary site is that the text has been translated into English and the original pages have been digitised so that it can be shared with folks like you and me.  The experts are not really sure of where the beastiary came from prior to the late 1500s, but they think it may have been created in the north-east midlands, with all drawings, including illuminations, done by the same hand.

What drew me in was this awesome picture of a bat (source:

In the manuscript, the bat is classed in with the birds because it flies, although the manuscript does mention that it's not really all that bird-like, having four feet and teeth "which you would not usually find in birds".  As the passage goes on, I get the impression that the writer even was beginning to doubt it's classification in with the birds, especially in light that the author acknowledges that bats give birth to live young and that they don't really have wings but skin stretched over wing-like bones.  The sketch is a little off anatomically, however, it's better than most of the bestiaries of the time in terms of accuracy.  I can understand the writer's quandary though, as well as sticking it in the winged creatures section. The Beastiary also notes some bat behaviour:

"There is one thing which these mean creatures do, however: they cling to each other and hang together from one place looking like a cluster of grapes, and if the last lets go, the whole group disintegrate; it a kind of act of love of a sort which is difficult to find among men."

The manuscript also contains pictures of the Phoenix:

With the following description:

"The phoenix is a bird of Arabia. Arabia can be understood as a plain, flat land. The plain is this world; Arabia is worldly life; Arabs, those who are of this world. The Arabs call a solitary man phoenix. Any righteous man is solitary, wholly removed from the cares of this world." (from  There is a massive allegorical Christ story at the source, which is an interesting read.

The book itself is a pleasure to flick through, with some fantastic stories about wildlife both real and mythological.  One of the stranger stories about an animal that actually exists is the lore around how to avoid being chased by a tiger if you steal it's cub.  The method of getting the tiger to stop chasing you is also helpfully pictured:

"The tigress, when she finds her lair empty by the theft of a cub, follows the tracks of the thief at once. When the thief sees that, even though he rides a swift horse, he is outrun by her speed, and that there is no means of escape at hand, he devises the following deception. When he sees the tigress drawing close, he throws down a glass sphere. The tigress is deceived by her own image in the glass and thinks it is her stolen cub. She abandons the chase, eager to gather up her young. Delayed by the illusion, she tries once again with all her might to overtake the rider and, urged on by her anger, quickly threatens the fleeing man. Again he holds up her pursuit by throwing down a sphere. The memory of the trick does not banish the mother's devotion. She turns over the empty likeness and settles down as if she were about to suckle her cub. And thus, trapped by the intensity of her sense of duty, she loses both her revenge and her child."
(, picture source:

I can't help but feel that it's a wonderful romantic story about the beast that the text previously refers to as "the arrow".  I also can't help but feel that the chap wouldn't have the problem had he not stolen a tiger's cub.  You do have to wonder where they got these ideas from though, you really do.  Still, it's a nice story that I hope didn't get anyone killed.

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Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Medieval Leather Caskets

This beauty turned up in my feed today, from the Cleveland Museum of Art:

This is a gorgeous casket that dates between 1350-1400.  It's a French casket made of wood but decorated with iron mounts and incised leather.  Needless to say that as a leatherworker myself, I find it really interesting to see some of the techniques I use in my workshop now being put into practice by folks centuries before!  I've often thought about making something similar, but this is definitely giving me the shove to.

It's dimensions are h:  4 1/8" (10.5cm), w: 9 7/8" (25.2cm) d:  7 7/16" (19cm).  This particular box would have been commissioned by someone who had money -- probably aristocratic in nature.  It has a scene of romantic love stamped into the surface, which means it was likely given as a love token or betrothal gift.  The box features banderoles, with text written in Old French with mutual expressions of love.  On the lid of the box, the lady asks "Hold my heart".  The man on the lid replies "But you already have it".  On the front of the box, the man is shown holding a heart saying "have it once more".

These boxes were usually created for the secular market and used for storing personal items such as books, documents, letters or jewelry.  Often wooden cored boxes were guilded or covered with ivory or leather.  In Germany, they were referred to as "minnekastchen" or "minneskästchen".  Below is a similar minnekastchen  from Germany, dated between 1351-1375.

The picture is from, but it doesn't have a whole lot of info on the page.  It simply states that the box shows a man and a woman playing chess.  This box looks like it's been carved from wood with a cutaway wood layer over the top, which itself has been painted.  The site does, however, provide a closeup of the detail:

We can see in close up that both carry birds, which are noble signifiers, though I've no idea about the chap's strange green outfit.  Answers on a postcard, anyone?

Either way, these boxes are awesome little things.  If you'd like to read more about them, there's a really good site for it (with lots of pictures) over here:

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Monday, 8 October 2012

7th Century Saxon Gold Disc Pendant

These gold pendants came up in my Pinterest feed without much in the way of information, but a little digging within the pages of the British Museum website turned up a bit of info.  They were found in King's Field, Faversham, Kent (UK).  This is a site where the presence of royalty has been documented over many centuries -- Ethelbert had a residence there during his reign (560-616). The pendants are from around 600-650 AD, made of gold, glass and garnet.  The garnet in the piece on the right has an odd shape which suggests that it may have been "reclaimed" from another item and put into this one.  Reusing gold and gems was a pretty common practice, so it's possible that the gold was also reclaimed from another source.  The gems were likely originally from India or Bohemia.  Still, it was an expensive gem and the person who commissioned the pendant on the right was sparing no expense as it has a filigree border made to look like rope, which again, was a costly order.  This, my friends, was Early Anglo-Saxon bling:

This pendant would have been strung together with similar shaped pendants with gold or perhaps glass spacer beads.  To give you a sense of scale, it's 1" long (2.5cm) by 0.7" wide (1.75cm).  Similar opaque blue glass was found in the Sutton Hoo burial.

The raven pendant is similarly made of gold and garnet, with a diameter of 1.4" (3.45cm) and a height of 1.45" (3.65cm).  These pendants of gold and garnet and filigree were a female fashion, most often found in Kent, but finds have occurred as far north as Yorkshire. The raven pendant is a bit of an odd one though.  The filigree bands and the central ring are similar to Kentish disc brooches, but the central (missing) garnet, the garnets on the bird's heads and the birds themselves betray a Frankish influence.  Personally, I like to think that the curly hearts is a female indicator, but that's just me...

The bird's heads form a triskele and I really can't help but see them as ravens due to their hooked beaks.  Similar amulets have been found on the continent, but they tend to form swastikas.  It looks like the person who wore this pendant had a mixed background of both the continent and Britain.  They also had a lot of money and some great fashion sense (for a 7th century Anglo-Saxon).

If you're interested in reading more about Faversham, King's Field, or these pendants, here are my sources:
Faversham, King's Field:

The British Museum:
Oval Pendant:

Raven Pendant

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Very Pinteresting...

I often find things on Pinterest that I end up reading about at length out of sheer curiosity and then I shorten down into a pin.  Sometimes the info is already at the page source, but it's often not.  Having done this research, I end up with a lot of strange knowledge in my head for no reason other than curiosity.  Therefore, I have decided to create an outlet for that here.  The main theme really is "I found it interesting".  I find lots of things interesting.  Many of them are pretty.

As a final word on the matter, unless I specifically state that I took the picture, the picture is not mine and I can claim no rights to it.  All work will be referenced as best as is possible.