Creating Legacies In Gothic House Design, 1750–1850

An individual’s home is often central to the manifestation of personal identity. Among the English elite of eighteenth-century England, this was especially true. During this period country houses were not private spaces, and house visiting meant that the home became an important medium for display of the family, open to the judgement of observers. However, this could be utilised to create personal legacies. Common themes during this period were the emphasis on family genealogy, the expression of the self, and a return to a ‘golden age’ of English history. In doing so, house and garden designs simultaneously appealed to established legacies and created new ones, securing the owner’s position within society: socially, politically and culturally.

Central to designs was the theme of nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ in England’s history. Looking back to a time of castles and knights, when religion and social structure held an important place in society, medieval England became an iconic period for certain individuals. The use of castle features created a historical narrative which linked contemporary elites with a past ruling class, more acceptable to the middling classes of the period. Some historians have identified the rise of the English middle classes in the eighteenth century, who threatened the position of the upper classes; threat became a reality during the French Revolution when elite individuals realised that they had to appeal to the wider population to maintain their position in society. Sculptures and deities which accompanied Classicism were mocked for being too luxurious and criticised as foreign symbols of authority. In contrast, gothic style was associated with the hospitable ‘old-English gentleman’, an acceptable ruling class in keeping with the principles of the Georgian middle classes. Gothic designs inspired by castles and cathedrals were incorporated into the homes of Englishmen in a modern way; Horace Walpole used cathedral motifs in furniture and over internal doorways of his, rather fantastical, Strawberry Hill.

Image: Rictor Norton & David Allen

The country house was the seat of the elite family and centre of their power. In the houses situated on these estates it was important to reinforce the family’s place as leaders of society. At Castle Howard the grounds, surrounded by medieval style battlements, situated the family legacy in the English ‘golden age’ and justifying their present position. This was even more important for families who were newly risen through mercantile wealth, and for individuals such as Walpole who wanted to salvage a reputation – as a younger son who would not inherit the family legacy. Walpole never had children, so leaving a monument such as Strawberry Hill was intended to be, successfully so, a reminder to posterity of himself and his achievements. Walpole founded Strawberry Hill on a long genealogy, returning to a more desirable ancestry in the medieval past. He continuously referred to it as ‘the castle of my ancestors’. The architecture of Strawberry Hill features heraldry of three aspects of his heritage; the Walpole, Shorter and Robsart crests feature in prominent locations throughout the house, such as above the entrance doorway. The library is an important room for the creation of Walpole’s legacy. Here he ties together the different elements of the past he has invented for his family and self though gothic architecture and interior design, heraldry and display of collections of antiques. These designs also supported Walpole’s image as a gothic novelist.

The narrative of the Gothic age was especially evocative of a liberal past. Remembered for the Magna Carta and the establishment of English parliament, the medieval period was identified as an age of liberty. Walpole displayed a copy of the Magna Carta in his house alongside the death warrant for Charles I. Both were seen as significant events in English history which led to the creation of the much revered English Constitution and parliamentary system. By representing this history in their homes, Whig politicians emphasised their standing as protectors of ‘the people’, the Constitution, and liberty. The Temple of the Four Winds at Castle Howard also represents Whig political ideas of progress and prosperity; the temple looks over to the surrounding countryside where the viewer can enjoy aesthetics of the view but also contemplate the agricultural progress going on around them. On the other hand, Tory supporters emphasised their affinity with the old Stewart line. Lord Scarsdale created the narrative of the Curzon Family as eminent Tories by displaying family portraits alongside prominent Stewart figure, linking the two histories. Thus we see how elite individuals could create narratives steeped in history but linked to their current beliefs.

Crucially, all themes of gothic design were rooted in a certain view of England. It is significant that during this period we see a move away from foreign classical designs and more emphasis on England’s place in history and culture. It could be argued that in doing so, England was given a position among and equal to the great empires of Rome and Greece, legitimising its cultural and political standing in the world, and in turn, those individuals who connected themselves with it. William Stuckley, a leading figure in this period, promoted England’s ancient history; in his garden, he re-created miniature versions of Stonehenge and Avebury. These scenes were meant to evoke contemplation of spirituality and English history. Stuckley made connections between the tree lined ‘Groves’ in which Druids worshipped, and the arching design of gothic cathedrals which resembled tree branches crossing overhead. By creating Druidic site in their gardens, individuals were aligning their own legacy with an ancient and more spiritual English past. Grottos, woods and hermitages became standard features of gardens.

Therefore, we have seen how important it was for elite individuals to refer to certain English legacies in order to create their own. In doing so, they defended their social and political status during a period of tension.

War Stories: Inspired by my Grandma

We got to stay up later in the summer. Long days chasing each other round the fields and evenings in a quiet corner of the pub playing rummy; shared half pints of shandy; treasures of speckled eggs from the chickens. Falling in long grass and ricocheting off the rope swing over the river.

The summer of 1940 was different though, and one I’ll never forget. Every mention of it, all those awful documentaries and interjections on the wireless that brandished the men’s ‘constant cheer and unbreakable spirit’ do no service to the mess of that night. The most broken things I ever saw, I saw on 31 May 1940.

We all went to bed early that night. The late summer sunshine was peeping through the slits in the blackout curtain, and I was uncomfortably awake, staring at the ceiling and angry at the game of rummy I had just lost.

Pa came in to say goodnight, but his face was traced with fright. There was a ghost of something fearful behind his unsmiling eyes.

‘Don’t come out of your room tonight, Susan.’ What a silly thing to say! I didn’t sleep walk; I never crept out of my window for midnight play dates. I nodded, and returned to calculating my next rummy victory.

But when I awoke to an uncomfortable darkness and the sound of thumping outside my door, Pa’s words came back to me. Grunts from outside. Mainly curious and vaguely terrified, I slinked out of the covers and tiptoed across the room, careful not to trip on my schoolbooks, hair clips and lace-ups dotted around the room. Inching open the bedroom door, I caught the gaze of a dark, exhausted eye. And another. The landing became a mass of dark eyes – of exhausted, empty, soulless eyes. Their corresponding mouths, and faces, and bodies were there too, limp limbs lying across each step on the stairs. The landing and the stairs – and the box room, I saw as I peered through the open doorway – were one mass of human beings: tired, bloodied, and battle-stained. They were a carpet of soldiers leading down to the hall, groaning, snoring.

They were the rescued BEF of Dunkirk, and they were broken. On the wireless the next day came the reports of the tiny fishing boats that had gone out to save them. When I came down for breakfast the next morning, they were already gone.

Historical Note

My Grandma had many tales from ‘the war’ (World War Two), and one of them was of how she awoke in the night to find the BEF, rescued from Dunkirk, sleeping on the landing of her father’s pub in Midsomer Norton, Somerset. Why or how they had arrived there, a large distance away from Dover, I do not know. As she got older, my Grandma’s memory faded, but her recollection of Dunkirk seemed to grow ever stronger.  The impression of the exhausted soldiers returned again and again to our dinner table, even when my Grandma struggled to recollect what she had done the previous day.

From Oral to Written Folklore: The Evolution and Reception of the Icelandic Saga

The Icelandic Sagas are more than stories about a heroic age of kings, of trolls and witches, and magical phenomenon unseen by our modern eyes. They offer a complex resource of what early settlers of the island deemed important to their heritage. Since the thirteenth century, scholars have attempted to understand the departure from the oral tradition of storytelling to the more advanced written tradition, attempting in the main, to identify whether or not the sagas were altered with the corresponding advent of Christianity. By the time of the Renaissance, the sagas had become a focus for criticism from learned men of Scandinavia and Denmark. Skepticism towards the written sagas only increased by the end of the eighteenth century. Modern scholars are still stumped by the question of the sagas’ authenticity after the use of letters was introduced in the twelfth century. The question still remains today: how much of the sagas are preserved in their original preliterate wording and content, and can scholars rely on the sagas as historical records?

Before examining the history of the sagas’ narrative format, and the consequential critical historiography in the following centuries later, it is necessary to define the roots and the raison d’être of the Icelandic sagas. The sagas are essentially Viking stories depicting the lives of the early settlers who immigrated to Iceland from Norway sometime in the ninth century, most likely around the year AD874. At this time, Vikings were still enjoying their golden age of prosperity in Northern Europe whilst Christianity and Paganism were in the throes of war for religious supremacy. The island at this time consisted only of a few rural and widely spread out farmsteads with no towns or villages. By the year 1100, about 4,500 farmers lived in Iceland, the majority of the population. Dark, bitterly cold and dull conditions welcomed the early arrivals from Norway, leading W.A. Craigie to conclude that:

“It was a source of pride to recall and recount the names and exploits of the famous men to whom they were related; and an immense quantity of old lore, reaching back into early prehistoric times, was thus carried out to Iceland, and preserved there after it had been forgotten in the place of its origin.”

The sagas had other purposes as well. They provided medieval Icelanders an understand of the world of violence by offering tales about romantic heroes worthy of any Arthurian legend. Popular themes in the sagas included wealth and prestige (such as in the Bandamanna Saga); obligations to others; magical creatures including giants and trolls; the gods of old; genealogical history; societal and familial inter-feuding; tales of distant Norwegian kings and courageous heroes (such as Sigurd the Volsung); and epic travel tales to faraway places like Vinland, as told in the Grœnlendinga Saga. The sagas also provided a binding cultural experience for the few medieval settlers, while also serving as educational and moral guidelines in the new environment. Just as films offer an escape from the trials of our world today, the sagas provided joy and escapism for the listeners and were often recited at weddings, games, and celebratory feasts. Perhaps most significant, the people of the day considered them to be valid histories, therefore worthy of handing down orally from generation to generation. This would later become extremely important for scholars hoping to distinguish between factual history and cultural/personally embroidered fictitious elements.

Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the sagas were composed orally (this is often referred to as the Saga Age). Poets would string together scenes to speak aloud to eager listeners, just as actors portray different scenes in a play. The word saga translates as ‘something said’, an indication in itself of the long standing oral tradition in Icelandic folklore. There is a personal voice in the narrations, evidenced by the storytellers’ subjective references to local people and regional events. Naming specific natural disasters, for example, created familiarity for listeners, associating them to well-known cultural episodes or to their own eyewitness experiences. As such, the sagas were a private social event within different communities in Iceland. They were a way of preserving a settlement’s own unique cultural past. Stephen P. Leonard views them as a way of ‘ensuring that an awareness of the intimate social cohesion required of a small society was effectively passed on to the next generation’.

However, due to the localised content of the sagas, they became somewhat biased, culturally specific, and highly personalised through collective social memory, which would only faintly remain intact in the written form several centuries later. The facts became less important than the interpretation of them. Although now considered possibly inaccurate as historical records, the sagas serve as an indication as to what sort of values were most important in the medieval Icelandic societies. As historian Barbara Allen recognised, the oral tradition was a selective characterisation of the past, rather than a generalised historical record: in oral epic poetry, the settings for the stories may be the clash of armies and the working out of national destinies, but the focus is always on the individual hero and his exploits.

The emphasis on the mythical and mysterious seemingly ancient past gave the sagas a certain archaic allure. It was as if the sagas were the last remaining relics of a dying age, cast down by generations of storytellers who dedicated themselves to memorising the tales of their forefathers. It was this fascination that kept the stories alive, until finally they were permanently preserved by a generation with ink and parchment. This, consequently, was the point at which the sagas became depersonalised and generalised. The use of letters was introduced to Iceland through the medieval monasteries at some point during the twelfth century. This was evident through the writings of western Icelanders including Snorri Sturluson (AD1179–1241), and Ari Thorgilsson (AD1067–1148). The latter was the author of the Íslendingabók, an account of the history of the island’s settlement. These men did not shun the sagas, but instead fully embraced them as a celebratory piece of heritage, and soon set to work writing them down.

However, these early scribes, as priests in the new ecclesiastical environment, would have understood writing in much the same way as monks scrawling Latin records for the church. They were instructed in the annalistic tradition, a highly impersonal and non-descriptive written format more attuned to historical chronicling. Thus, the sagas, once set down, lost their sense of personal narration and much of their pagan influence. An attempt was made to write them in such a way that they would be both objective and historical, rather than fictitious, dramatic or representative of individual societies. The essential difference was that the individual, the storyteller and the listener no longer mattered conceptually in this early written form.

The spoken versions of the sagas were officially lost once the vellum manuscripts took precedence as collective memory was no longer necessary to preserve the stories. Thus, the original details were often sacrificed in return. By the start of the 1300s, saga writing had come to a sudden end and for nearly two centuries they were left untouched, untold and unread. However, a new era was dawning. The advent and influence of Italian humanism and the growing antiquarian interest of the European Renaissance brought the sagas into the limelight once again. Accompanying the limelight was waves of criticism by new Scandinavian scholars who began questioning the validity of the written forms. The sagas became a major study in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, serving as references for written projects such as the Historia Norwegiæ (c. 1510). They resurfaced amid research to trace the genealogical studies of the Scandinavian and Gothic peoples with scholars finding the sagas particularly useful for mapping the general diasporic trends of the Vikings and their near-ancient predecessors. Sixteenth-century scholars in Denmark were especially intrigued by the sagas and, according to Theodore M. Andersson, considered Iceland an ‘untapped reservoir of Norse history which would serve to supplement Saxon history’. Thus, translation projects started centered in Copenhagen. They including studies by Thormodus Torfæus (AD16361719), whose work would be highly respected for its defense of the oral tradition in a pre-Christianised and pre-literate civilisation. In a world without letters, he believed, the memory had to suffice for retaining knowledge and the early Icelanders made themselves adept at remembering their ancestors through repeated recitation due to lack of a written substitute.

Swedish scholars of the Enlightenment also contributed further theories and studies of the sagas. Olof Rudbeck’s Atlantica (a controversial work spanning from AD1679 to1702) was the first to confidently propose that the sagas had originated in the oral tradition, going so far as to give a full defence of the validity of spoken history beginning with Herodotus – the father of historical practice. This was a groundbreaking contribution to the studies of Icelandic culture for it addressed an early medieval heritage which had little archaeological remains to otherwise speak for it. However, the idea of the spoken tradition in the history of the Icelandic saga began what would be an unrelenting debate for the next several centuries. The sagas themselves were no longer in question, but rather the medium of their genesis: were they verbally composed and then written, or did they come about after letters were introduced? Was there an oral tradition at all? The subsequent historiography became ever more critical in the eighteenth century. In 1755 the notorious Swiss critic Paul Henri Mallet famously wrote ‘Ces annales ne sont pas d’une grande antiquité’ arguing that the sagas came about well after the belief in Odin had ended. Mallet found numerous supporters later in the early Romantic period, including the German historian Christian Friedrich Rühs, who also believed the sagas were written in the late Middle Ages bearing no narrative evidence of a spoken past.

Historical accuracy in the stories is yet another topic for dispute. Some argue in favour of the oral tradition and collective public memory whilst others assert that historical facts could not survive for over 150 years by word of mouth. Many of the leading folklorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries considered the sagas a potential key to understanding the past, culturally if not historically, and that all myths have some shred of validity which spark the story. The Enlightenment advocated the skepticism towards the historical accuracy of the sagas. Some scholars, including Rühs, began reading the sagas as myths and fiction than as actual dependable records of the past. This later ignited the new interest in Icelandic stories during the era of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. This renewed interest in folklore, and the sagas as they were originally told in the days before ink and parchment, were focused on their literary and entertainment value rather than their historic.

As with all history, the further one gets from the source, the more difficult it is to be assured of verifiable fact. In the twenty first century, theories still differ between how much the sagas suggest an oral tradition steeped in historical accuracy against a written tradition filled with literary elements. Most likely the sagas consist of attributes from both narrative forms. The only evidence which all scholars agree upon is that the sagas were a common European creation of the Middle Ages used to showcase the cultural and social values of a civilization shrouded in a fantastic and perpetual mystery.

Image: Joanídea Sodret


Allen, Barbara, ‘The Personal Point of View in Orally Communicated History’, Western Folklore, 38, (1979), pp. 110-118.

Andersson, Theodore M., The Problem of Icelandic Saga Origins: A Historical Survey (New Haven, 1964).

Byock, Jesse L., ‘Saga Form, Oral Prehistory, and the Icelandic Social Context’, New Literary History, 16 (1984), pp. 153-173.

Chesnutt, Michael, ‘Orality in a NorseIcelandic Perspective’, Oral Tradition, 18 (2004), pp. 197-199.

Craigie, W. A., The Icelandic Sagas (Cambridge, 1913).

Dodsworth, J. B., ‘Review’, The Modern Language Review, 61 (1966), p. 351.

Edwards, Paul and Hermann, Palsson, Legendary Fiction in Medieval Iceland (Reykjavik, 1971).

Leonard, Stephen Pax., Faroese Skjaldur: An Endangered Oral Tradition of the North Atlantic, (Cambridge, 2010).

Myers, Ben, ‘The Icelandic Sagas: Europe’s Most Important Book?’, The Guardian, October 3, 2008, <>.

Niles, John. D., ‘Review’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 108 (2009), pp.378-380.

Orning, Hans Jacob, ‘The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280)’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 34 (2009), pp. 93-97.

Fertility in the Early Middle Ages: The Dangers of Folklore

What did an early medieval bishop see when he looked up at the stars? In tenth-century Italy Atto of Vercelli saw divine fingerprints.

God had arranged constellations in the heavens, he explained in a sermon, for our benefit on earth. Stars help us to mark the passing of time, to map journeys over sea or land. When Atto looked back down from heavenly bodies to those who gazed at them, however, he glimpsed a more troubling spectacle. Astrologers claimed to predict the future through the stars. They could foretell births and arrange suitable marriages. Countless couples carefully attuned their sex lives to the rhythms of stars and other signs in the hope of conceiving a child. Or so Atto said. His real point was to discredit such ideas. Was anyone really claiming, he asked sarcastically, to have gotten a child by observing the stars?

Perhaps coordinating moments of intimacy with the movements of the immense night sky formed part of fertility lore in the early middle ages. Scattered across an array of early medieval texts are what look like other tiny glimpses into this lore: fertility boosting herbs administered in drinks or pessaries; amulets, charms and prayers for conceiving children; special sites, from shrines to springs, tinged with the aura of fecundity; and much else besides.

In the Etymologies, a hugely popular proto-encyclopaedia widely read for centuries, Isidore of Seville (d. 636) wrote of waters in Campania which cured infertile women and insane men, and two springs in Sicily which rendered, respectively, the sterile fertile and the fertile sterile. (Anyone interested in tracking down the Greek fountain in Boeotia which boosts memory should beware; another fountain there induces forgetfulness). A more unusual Old English text in an eleventh-century manuscript carefully described omens in pregnancy. Want to find out if a child will be a boy or girl? A pregnant woman should be offered a lily and a rose. If she takes the lily, she will bear a boy; and if she takes the rose, she will bear a girl. And no nuts or acorns or fresh fruit from the fourth month or the child could end up being ‘foolish’. And so on.

It is tempting to scour texts for these references and to gather them into a compendium of early medieval folk beliefs and practices surrounding reproduction. The constellations of fertility lore would make for quite a spectacle. But the panoramic view is misleading. It smudges the boundaries of place and time. Taking small snippets from everywhere amounts to a bigger picture of nowhere in particular. This is one of the dangers of folklore.

Those small snippets merit closer inspection. At first sight, they may not yield much. Take Atto’s sermon. Retrieving any further details on how childless couples used stars and other signs in the quest for conception is impossible. Literally. Here, we can almost claim the dog ate our homework. The sole surviving manuscript of Atto’s sermon is mutilated – who’d have predicted? – right in the middle of the sentence on childless couples resorting to stars and signs. (It’s not even an intriguingly deliberate mutilation, which sometimes happens when later readers of manuscripts don’t like what they read; other chunks of text are missing in a disappointingly random pattern).

But, if we can’t find anything to add about childless couples at Vercelli, we can at least say a little more about who was preaching to them. In the early middle ages, authors of sermons and other pastoral texts plagiarised with abandon. They borrowed and recycled formulaic condemnations of all sorts of practices like augury, divination, astrology, use of amulets and charms, and more. As the sheer scale of repetition has become clearer and clearer historians have become increasingly wary of regarding preachers’ manuals as clear windows onto the beliefs and practices of their congregations.

This is why Atto’s sermon is intriguing. It is both typical and atypical. Not all authors of sermons leaned quite so heavily on older material. Atto’s critical dissection of fertility lore does not look like wholesale recycling of older tropes. There is little by way of precedent. In all likelihood, as a historian has recently (and, I think, rightly) concluded, Atto was addressing what some of his contemporaries thought and did.

More precisely, distorting and exaggerating what they did. Needless to say, the likes of Atto were not impartial observers who dutifully tell us about early medieval society as it really was. For example, in our sermon Atto sneeringly attributed belief in star signs to what he called rustici, country bumpkins. It may be tempting to conclude that it was rural peasants who tended to believe in this sort of stuff. Perhaps they did. But preachers often resorted to these smears precisely when their audience was anything but rustic. In preaching, the rustici label was often a rhetorical strategy specifically designed for criticising an urban (and even urbane) audience. Earlier in the sermon Atto outlined an intellectual genealogy of astrological beliefs originating in the imaginings of ‘ancients and pagans’. Superstitiones formed part of the preacher’s vocabulary and one literal meaning was survivals. To dress contemporary practices up as ancient aberrations which were now resurfacing was a preaching reflex conditioned for centuries before Atto spoke to his congregation in Vercelli.

In our broad-brush panorama of fertility lore, details from Atto’s sermon blend nicely into the warm pastel colours of beliefs as old as fields and forests. But, on closer inspection, perhaps we are being seduced by rhetoric. My point is not to endorse uber-scepticism over sounding out any beliefs and practices whatsoever beyond those of the loud minority that authored our texts. But if we can sound out beliefs and practices from Atto’s sermon, they might well be the beliefs and practices of the well-heeled in an Italian town, not peasants in the countryside. Atto does not offer us an internal perspective designed to explain astrology and its uses by the childless, but an external perspective designed to debunk. That’s why he associated it with rustici and ancient pagans. This, then, is another danger of folklore. Beneath the label folklore lie beliefs and practices that are distorted in the written record because authors deemed them dangerous or delusional, and many authors were more skilled at what they did than first meets the eye.

Historians and their different intellectual frameworks produce other distortions. Ancient and later medieval medicine produced treatises that theorized the causes of sterility and barrenness. Early medieval medicine did not. The dearth of theory makes early medieval medicine look rough and ready in comparison with what came before and after – and, indeed, in comparison with contemporary medicine further east in Byzantine and Islamic societies. This is one reason why few historians brave this field and why the best introduction to it is an article entitled ‘What’s wrong with early medieval medicine?’. It may also be a reason why early medieval medicine is so much more susceptible to being interpreted in terms of folklore.

Several medieval manuscripts contain a short gynaecological text listing pessaries and other remedies for women. Some of these remedies made use of plants like artemisia (incidentally, the plant also used to produce absinthe) or myrtle ‘so that a woman can conceive’. Another remedy took a different approach:

“So that a woman conceives even if she has never conceived. After a she-goat has given birth, before her kid … begins to suckle, milk [her] and make a small cheese from this and bind it in a small cloth hung from her left arm so the woman can carry it. But if she wants to go into a bath, she should carefully leave it at home. She should keep it with her at all other hours.”

Until not that long ago, this is the kind of detail that made a certain kind of medical historian fidgety. They would instinctively speak of primitivism and superstition, and voice disappointment that medicine, once vigorous and healthy in classical antiquity, had now been contaminated with new strains of folk medicine. Putting a more positive spin on it, perhaps we can try to imagine how such a remedy, an attempt to rub off animal fertility on humans, might have emanated from ordinary folk in a largely agrarian society.

Ironically, whether meant positively or negatively, this reading misconstrues learned culture for folk belief. The remedy originated in a work composed in late antiquity, a work which drew on older, classical medical traditions. (A possible Greek influence on its author recommended that goat’s milk should be the first thing a newborn sups on after recovering from birth). Nor, then, is the remedy early medieval; in fact, it mainly survives in later medieval manuscripts. Perhaps ideas found in texts such as these informed beliefs and practices outside learned circles. A recent study of medieval ideas surrounding impotence has highlighted various moments when learned authors tapped into popular culture. The interfaces between learned culture and folk practice deserve much more attention. But, far from giving us a direct glimpse of folk medicine in the early middle ages, the goat’s cheese remedy represents learned medical traditions across a longer time span.

In early medieval history, there is always a risk of setting the bar too high. That is, of assuming that the disgust or disinterest of sources largely written by elites creates a vast, unbridgeable distance from beliefs and practices of the non-elite. But there is also a risk of setting the bar too low. In trying to retrieve these beliefs and practices, the distortions of elitist texts can easily be mistaken for the real thing when refracted through the label ‘folklore’. If we want to begin to try to imagine how ordinary people made sense of their world, then we need to read the likes of Atto every bit as suspiciously as they read the beliefs and practices of their contemporaries.

Image: Judy Schmidt


Barney, Stephen (trans.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge, 2010).

Horden, Peregrine, ‘What’s wrong with early medieval medicine?’, Social History of Medicine, 24 (2011), pp.5-25.

Liuzza, Roy, Anglo-Saxon Prognostics: An Edition and Translation of Texts from London British Library, Ms Cotton Tiberius A.III (Cambridge, 2010).

Meens, Rob, ‘A preaching bishop: Atto of Vercelli and his sermon collection’, in M. Diesenberger et al. (eds), Sermo Doctorum: Compilers, Preachers, and their Audiences in the Early Medieval West (Turnhout, 2013), pp. 263-82.

Rider, Catherine, Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Rose, Valentin (ed.), Sorani Gynaeciorum vetus translatio Latina (Leipzig, 1893).

Fiction: Mouse Trap Farm

Dan Greenwood

Captain FAC Scrimger, 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment), just outside Yrpres: 25th April 1915.

‘SIR, the last ambulance has left for Wietje!’ a messenger called through the stable door.

Blast. I uttered a profanity and wiped my brow with the back of my hand, muddling blood and God-knows-what-else with the sweat and dirt that had accumulated over the last six hours. I dared not look up. I couldn’t look at the row of casualties coughing, bleeding, leaning against the stable walls. I couldn’t look any member of my beleaguered team in the eye at this point. I had no plans, no course of action, no thoughts. Just exhaustion. Reaching back to the heavy workshop table, I pulled myself in to look at the patient lying there. His abdomen was riddled with holes; my men, with frantic hands and scraps of shirt fabric and hessian sack, battled to stop the relentless flow of red. I pushed my already blood-soaked sleeve up and reached into the fray, feeling the hot spurts of blood under my fingers as I tried to think of a way to help the poor boy. For boy is all he was. Turning to look at his face, I could see the terror etched in the lines and wrinkles he was too young to have, the horror of war mirrored in his eyes; I could tell then those eyes did not see me back. I closed my eyes and shook my head, and as I did, it was as if all the guttural sounds of war returned to my ears. The smell of sweat, blood, ash, smoke and death returned to my nostrils, the vibration of distant shellfire rattled upwards through my feet; I swear I could almost taste the battle.

‘He’s gone,’ I whispered. The corporal next to me pushed me out of the way and clutched the boy’s face with both hands, then with a sudden gentleness, closed the two green eyes, those two, terrified eyes. The barn shook violently and dust cascaded down on us, the shellfire seeming closer than ever.

‘Heads down!’ the yell from across the farmyard.

Men dived in all directions as a shell smashed into the adjacent building. As I pushed myself up off the floor my ears were ringing, and I coughed and spluttered on the dusty air. I stumbled for the door of the stable and peered out into the chaos beyond: men scurrying frantically to collect their equipment in preparation to evacuate the farmyard. The barn next to the stable had been completely levelled by the most recent bombardment. We weren’t evacuating fast enough. I could see the men were shaken by the proximity of the shellfire, and were clearly flagging, emotionally and physically, from days of fighting and the ever-advancing enemy.

‘Ho!’ I grabbed a passing soldier, pulling him in to the stable wall, ‘Get behind the farmhouse; there’s a horse in the paddock there, I need him bridled and ready to move this cart, we have to get these casualties out of here.’ The man was trembling and staring straight past me, not hearing what I’d said.

‘Look at me. Look in my eyes,’ I said, gripping his shoulder.

The soldier was still quaking.

‘What’s your name, Private?’

‘John, sir.’

‘John, did you hear what I said? Go and ready that horse. We are getting the wounded into the cart, and we are walking up that road together, do you understand me?’

John stared at me, suddenly still.

‘We are all walking up that road together, and no one else is going to die today.’

‘Sir,’ John acknowledged, ‘Thank you, sir.’

He ran around to the south side of the farmhouse, and I turned back to face into the stable to see Corporal Anderson helping a bandaged soldier to his feet.

‘Corporal, help these men round to the cart behind the farmhouse, leave as soon as you are ready.’

‘Sir,’ Corporal Anderson stood up smartly. I smiled briefly. Corporal Anderson was invaluable in these situations, and I trusted him to get the wounded out of here without further input from me. Facing back into the farmyard, I took a deep breath:

‘Men! On me!’ The remaining twelve able-bodied soldiers gathered round, ‘Corporal Anderson is assisting the last of the wounded on to the cart-,’ I was stopped by the sound of shells crashing into the field just to the east of the farmyard, ‘-some urgency required?’ There were scattered chuckles at my sarcasm. ‘You are to escort the wounded to Wietje, where we are to be relieved. Double-time please.’ The men vocalised their understanding, and hurried off to help Corporal Anderson.

I ducked down and headed round the North side of the stable. In the distance I could see a line of bayonets, advancing slowly across the uneven field. Time to go. As I went to go back to the farmyard to leave with the cart, I noticed a figure slumped against the wall.

‘Captain MacDonald?!’ I called. A grunt in reply. I hurried over, to find his left leg covered in blood, a makeshift tourniquet fastened around his thigh. ‘We need to get you out of here, Mac!’ He looked up, with a face as white as a sheet.

‘Leave me Frank… I can’t walk.’

‘I promised the men earlier, Mac, we’re all walking out of here together, no-one else will die here today.’ I dropped my shoulder and, hauling Captain MacDonald up onto my back, set off into the farmyard. The farmhouse was ablaze now, and I could see the cart, a few hundred yards away down the Wietje road.

It was going to be a long walk.

Historical Note
Captain Francis Alexander Caron Scrimger received the Victoria Cross for his actions in assisting the wounded at ‘Mouse Trap Farm’, he carried Captain MacDonald onto the road and as far as he could physically manage, until they were aided and transported to Wietje. At times of heavy shelling, Captain Scrimger used his own body as a shield for Captain MacDonald. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Brigades were relieved by British units on 25 April, however on 26 April, the 2nd Brigade were ordered back to the line, which they did with depleted numbers and days of battle weariness. Nelson’s History of the War devotes a lengthy passage to the fine leadership of the Canadian officers.

Image: Bob Dilworth

Silence and Screams: The Interpretation of Punishment Devices In Museums

Wandering through the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I headed towards one of my favourite sections: crime and punishment in early modern Scotland. As I walked through the tranquil halls of the museum, observing the artefacts and reading the accompanying descriptions, it occurred to me how easy it is to forget that these items were once tools of torture and terror.

How should such artefacts – thumb screws, a scold’s bridle and The Maiden guillotine – be interpreted in museums? These are artefacts which symbolise the dark side to our society’s history and also remind the viewer of similar, still-existent practices today. How should such objects make the visitor feel, what thoughts should they provoke and how should museums handle the display of such artefacts?

Our society has a fascination with pain and terror in history. Many tourist attractions thrive on this interest: establishments like the Edinburgh Dungeons, the Amsterdam Torture Museum and the Prague Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments are major attractions. Yet these museums, and displays like those in the NMS, do not directly engage with the reality of historical torture devices.

The displays fail to express how horrific these machines really were. They remain disconnected from historic reality and the human capacity for terror is overlooked. Certainly the darkened rooms and eerie lighting of the Amsterdam and Prague torture museums help create a morbid, intimidating atmosphere, but visitors still view torture devices outside of their true context. Screams of terror, blood and damp of a dungeon are absent. Inside a glass cabinet, the devices become clean and distanced from their past use.

It is true that the imagination can work wonders: the imposing Maiden, dominating the NMS crime and punishment exhibit, cannot fail to invoke dread. Nevertheless, the official descriptions concentrate on the guillotine’s invention and the mechanics behind the machine, not its real use. Similarly, whilst the Edinburgh Dungeons dramatically re-enact gruesome history, the theatrical nature of the experience arguably detaches the visitor from any sense of historical reality. The Dungeons provide an exaggerated, entertaining view of history which induces thrills and fear, but inspires no serious meditation on historical experience.

The sanitised display of torture weapons does not give a real representation of the history. One could even argue that viewing these artefacts in such a casual and detached viewing is disrespectful towards those who suffered violent punishment. TripAdvisor reviews of the Prague Museum of Medieval Torture emphasise the museum’s ‘excellent displays’, ‘mind blowing’ effects and usefulness as an attraction to ‘dip into’ when the rain comes on. Rarely do these reviewers consider what the artefacts really tell us about the human capacity for terror and torture and the effect on the victims.

The solution to this conundrum is difficult. Should museum visitors be forced to directly consider objects of terror? Arguably this would be equally problematic; museums have to follow ethical codes and many visitors would find it too disturbing to consider these issues too deeply. Museums need to consider how to induce a greater understanding of the historical reality of torture devices, whilst still avoiding both theatrical exaggeration and dehumanisation of the experience. A visit to a museum should be equal parts a learning curve and enjoyable, and museums should ultimately seek to strike a balance between these two sides of the experience.

Image: Son of Groucho

Saudi Arabia and the Destruction of Islamic Cultural Heritage

Whilst the West despairs over the destruction of the Arch of Palmyra, the walls of Nineveh, and the lamassus of Nimrud by Islamic State, a second wave of cultural heritage destruction is sweeping across the Middle East almost unnoticed. The international media has devoted extensive coverage to the obliteration of museums and archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State fighters, but for the most part has failed to report on the countless monuments and artefacts destroyed every day by Saudi Arabia, both in its own country and, lately, in the Yemen.

In January 2002 Saudi Arabia demolished a 200-year-old Ottoman castle in Mecca in order to build a five-star hotel, residential complex and parking lot. The original fortress was built in 1780 by Ottoman Turks in order to protect the Ka’aba and other Islamic shrines in Mecca from bandits, including invading Wahhabi radicals – ironically the ultra-orthodox branch of Sunni Islam that now makes up the dominant minority in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis defended their actions by citing the understandable need to provide accommodation for the almost three million Muslim pilgrims who journey to Mecca every year, but Turkey, who viewed the destruction of the Ottoman Ajyad Fortress as ‘cultural genocide’ demanded a UNESCO intervention. This was unsuccessful and the castle was bulldozed.

The Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who saw the castle in 1814, described it as
‘a very large and massy structure, surrounded by thick walls and solid towers… It contains a large cistern and a small mosque; and might accommodate a garrison of about one thousand men. To Arabs it is an impregnable fortress… even against Europeans, it might offer some resistance.’
‘Large and massy’ the Ajyad Fortress may have been, but the new Abraj al Bait Royal Makkah Clock Tower complex towers over the Ka’aba like Godzilla considering a peanut.

The Ajyad Fortress is far from the only architectural casualty in Saudi Arabia. Experts at the Washington-based Gulf Institute have estimated that over 90 per cent of the archaeological treasures of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina have been demolished in the last two decades alone. This is all the more remarkable when you take into account that the vast majority of these sites are neither secular, pagan, Christian, nor Ottoman – they are early Islamic holy sites. For example, the house of Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife, has been bulldozed and replaced with public lavatories whilst the Prophet’s own birthplace is now a library, soon to be further damaged with the addition of underground parking. The human dangers of the extensive modernisation of Mecca were also made clear earlier this year when a construction crane collapsed into the Masjid al-Haram, killing an estimated 111 and injuring 394.

The destruction of early Islamic heritage by Saudi authorities is not even unique to sites popular with tourists and pilgrims, where the need for modern facilities could be argued to outweigh the preservation of historic buildings. For example, the Tomb of Eve, a debatable archaeological site in Jeddah, was sealed with concrete by religious authorities in 1975. Meanwhile, abject disregard for cultural heritage has spilled over intoYemen. Although Yemen was once part of the wealthy caravan kingdom of Sheba (home of the legendary queen), knowledge of Yemeni culture and history is sadly lacking around the world. Now it is in danger of being lost forever, as a coalition of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia – and with logistical support from the USA – has been waging war against a Shia rebel group who now controls the country’s capital, Sana’a. A UNESCO list of Yemeni protected areas has done little to minimise the destruction, particularly in the World Heritage Site of Sana’a old town. Elsewhere, the Great Dam of Marib, a 2,800-year-old marvel of engineering almost twice as long as the Hoover Dam, has been struck four times by missiles, whilst some of the oldest surviving fragments of the Koran are constantly in danger of being bombed. Forces fighting along Yemen’s southern coast have reputedly destroyed the 700-year-old Sheikh Omar Ali al-Saqaff mosque in Lahf, whilst earlier this year a Saudi airstrike destroyed the Dhamar Regional Museum. The museum held more than 150 ancient South Arabian inscriptions, including the oldest-known texts from the Yemeni highlands, plus an important fourth-century wooden minbar.

The Saudi destruction of historic sites is closely linked to Wahhabism, the Sunni branch of Islam, which rejects the ideas of bid’ah (innovation/reformation) and shirk (idolatry). Wahhabism advocates a pure Islam, dedicated only to Allah, and also denounces the veneration of saints, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, the use of ornamentation in mosques, prayer at tombs (including the tomb of the Prophet), and taking non-Muslims as friends. Wahhabism is part of the impetus behind Islamic State’s desire to erase all monuments, whether sacred or secular, from the map.

The West’s failure to raise any serious issue about the Saudi destruction of Islamic cultural heritage raises some serious questions. Do we only care about the ‘star’ attractions, big name archaeological sites that were popularised by western archaeologists from the time of the Enlightenment? Palmyra, Nimrud and Nineveh are known to most people with a smattering of classical education – or at least to those who have visited the British Museum. This attitude would explain why the western media has failed to headline the destruction of any of the Islamic historic sites and monuments mentioned above. Surely all these sites and their cultures are worthy of our recognition and safekeeping, or at least our outrage when they are wilfully destroyed or desecrated?  We are witnessing the obliteration of centuries of Islamic culture – a culture as deserving of our protection as any classical site endangered by Islamic State.

Image: Eric Vernier