From Rome to the Middle Ages and Back

So, after getting rained on and windblown at Vindolanda and the Sill, it was time for a museum. So the day started at the Roman Army Museum. The landscape around is pasture, some cultivated fields, and woodlots, and Hadrian’s Wall is not far from the museum building.

See the thing in the case behind his foot? We will come back to that.

The museum is a military history and organization museum, so if you know nothing about the Roman Empire, or the military, you would probably be a bit at sea. If you have some basic knowledge, it is a great look at how the auxiliary troops functioned, their organization, equipment, and what the Roman Army did in Britain. It was also full of waves of kids, which is good. Unless you are trying to read displays around (or in this case over) them.

Not quite as comfortable to carry as a backpack, but it worked.

The museum was put together by archaeologists and historians, with the help of reenactors. There are a lot of people who “do” Roman military life on weekends, and they test out the different ideas about how armor, tools, and other things worked. (I almost, almost got a monograph about Roman artillery on the frontier, but the weight of the book dissuaded me. But it looked soooooo interesting!) You go through the introductory area, which is about the organization and staffing of an auxiliary unit as compared to the standard Legion (smaller, different command structure, more variety in the type of soldiers in the unit). The museum is based on the career of an actual historical person, a young man from what is now Hungary who joined up, served on the Wall, and lived to retire back to Dacia with citizenship, a pension, and a family.

There’s a neat video about both Hadrian’s Wall, and about the soldiers who served there. They get the “joys” of military life, including being on night watch on the wall in winter, with a R&R camp behind the Wall in sight, while the protagonist is “standing here, on watch, with . . . Sevirus.” Sevirus is not the sharpest spatha in the armory.

Hey, Centurion, I found the Picts!

One of the really amazing things about Vindolanda and a few other sites was what got preserved in the water-logged depths of the moat/garbage dump. For example, ever wonder about the crests on top of the helmets? I always assumed that they were all horsehair. Not so.

It is made from a type of hair moss, a plant with long filaments that were used instead of horse hair for crests, and for wigs. This is the only example that I’ve ever seen.
One of several working models of Roman artillery. There was also a very nice obituary for the dedicated gent who did so much of the research into how these things might have worked, and how they didn’t work. He’d passed away recently. He wasn’t a professional archaeologist, but one of the dedicated amateurs who love figuring things out.

From here, we drove to Durham. The route runs along the crest of a ridge, giving you wonderful views of the land to the north and south. The clouds were breaking up, or at least thinning, so long strands of light shone down through the grey skies. The driver had Classic FM on the radio, quietly, and I realized it was playing “The Lark in Clear Air” by Ralph Vaughn Williams. There I was, in a beautiful English landscape, listening to one of my favorite English Romantic composers. It doesn’t get much better than that. Then the radio cued up “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. That also fit, since it is used at Remembrance Day ceremonies. It might have gotten a bit dusty for a moment in the Range Rover.

Outside the museum. Some things have not changed for two thousand years . . .
They shall not grow old as we grow old . . . The War Memorial Chapel/ Durham Light Infantry Chapel at Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral is on top of a steep hill, beside a castle, overlooking a river and road junction. It is built on older foundations, possibly going back to pagan (that’s uncertain, but would fit the pattern), and the shrine of St. Cuthbert goes to the 900s. His relics were originally elsewhere, but there was a little Viking problem, so he was moved inland. St. Oswald’s head was later found with St. Cuthbert, to the mild surprise of some people. The church we see today was started as Romanesque, and completed between 1093 and 1133. It was later modified to have Gothic elements as well. Among other things, it has the oldest surviving stone vaulted ceiling that we know of.

Durham also has some of the very few medieval church paintings still extant, as you can see below. Oliver Cromwell and his supporters are credited/blamed with doing in all the other medieval art. This is in the Lady Chapel, where the Venerable Bede is also buried. (He’s now St. Bede of Jarrow, but everyone still calls him Venerable Bede.)

As you go around the interior of the cathedral, there are a series of history panels, half pre-Norman and half Norman. It is wonderful to compare and contrast the accounts of events and people. And then there’s St. Oswald. Although they overlapped to a small extent, there wasn’t a direct link between St. Cuthbert (634ish-687) and St. Oswald (604ish-642). St. Oswald was a Northumbrian (Anglian or Saxon) king who converted to Christianity, beat up on pagans, and died in battle in 642. There is a summary of the saint’s life available for those who are unfamiliar with him. The author was/is uncomfortable with the idea of a warrior saint who converted people by defeating them in battle. I was somewhat—not amused exactly, but—puzzled perhaps by the author’s difficulty. It was a different time, a different place, and the local people felt that Oswald was a good example and miracle worker, so they honored him, as did the local church. *shrug*

Did I mention the Gothic part of the cathedral? This is from the choir, shooting toward the Lady Chapel. Note travelers* for scale.

The Chapel of the Nine Altars is behind the shrine of St. Cuthbert, and has altars to Northumbrian saints, including active altars for Margaret of Scotland, Hilde of Whitby, and Aidan, with space remaining for others. There’s also a tiny little architectural oopsie in one corner . . .

Um, Aethelwulf, something looks a little off here . . .

The floor of my choir loft is not this nice. [Pouts in Chorister] Neither is the seating.

Down in the main market square. Down is the operative word. The hill is steep.

On the way back to Hexham we visited the foundations of a Roman bridge and small army camp. We had the place to ourselves, since it was 45 minutes to closing time, chilly, and damp. The lady in the tea shop was glad of company and quite chatty about her old house (1600s-1700s), restoring it, the bits of Hadrian’s Wall in her back pasture, and so on. It was about 60 F, breezy, and damp, and hot tea was very, very good. Oh, and the RAF did low-level training overhead. As in 500 feet and below.

It was a good day.

*Travelers, per Alex, our driver and arranger-of-logistics, are people who go places to learn new things, who are curious, and who can roll with changes and complications. “Tourrists,” hissed with a considerable amount of venom, are the problem people who, oh, complain about being interrupted once an hour in York Minster by the chaplain asking for quiet while he offers the prayer of the hour. “Why are they praying here?” was the dead-serious demand. No, I did not turn around and whap the individual with a Psalter. Or the people who can’t/won’t understand why an early-medieval castle doesn’t have an elevator, and get unhappy about that, despite all the signs and warnings and the nice lady at the gate warning people about it being stairs or nothing. *Facepaw*

12 thoughts on “From Rome to the Middle Ages and Back

  1. The idiots likely imagined that it would be easy to put elevators into old castles. 😡

  2. The dreaded T-word, not used in polite company.

    Sounds like a splendid interlude. It’s interesting to trace a lot of the Scottish and Northern English monasteries and conversion back through Iona. Good thing that Columcille lost his copyright infringement arfument.

  3. Do you recall any details of the “monograph about Roman artillery on the frontier”, because it sounds interesting to me too?

    You are very much correct that there are “very few medieval church paintings still extant”, though my (admittedly ill informed) guess is that this destruction mostly happened in the reformation, and is thus one of the few things for which Cromwell cannot be blamed. Whilst survivors are uncommon there is a very nice example a couple of miles from my home: google “Chaldon Church Murals” for some beautiful images of a doom mural. Unfortunately our parish church cannot boast of anything like this, and though the old church dates back to the 11th century, most of the floor area is much more recent due to a large expansion to cope with all the new housing built between the wars.

    • I suspect you are correct about when the paintings were removed/damaged. The docent gave the Cromwellians the blame, so perhaps the local congregation had preserved the art in the Lady Chapel (paid inspectors to ignore it?) until then. Or Cromwell is a convenient scapegoat, since the Roundheads did go after statues in some places (according to what I was told while at Ely Cathedral).

      I did a little poking around, and I think the book is _Roman Imperial Artillery_ by Alan Wilkins. His site has a long list of other references, monographs, articles, and studies as well.

      • Many thanks for the information and link for the book. When I looked at the list of references you mention I realised that the first entry has been sitting on my bookshelves since I bought it back in 1969. Unfortunately, I did not buy the companion “technical treatises” volume whilst it was still in print, so It looks like I’m going to have to put in an order for Mr Wilkins book, even though my history bookshelves are already overflowing.

        As for when the paintings were “removed/damaged” I could equally well be wrong. The survivors I’ve read up on were all whitewased, but the timing is not specific, typically saying “in the reformation” which is rather vague and presumably means from the reign of Edward the 6th onwards. However, for our local mural the Church’s website suggest that it might have been iin the Commonwealth, but that the timing is not really known. Make of this what you will …

  4. One can only wonder what they said about the lack of bathrooms… sigh Lovely pics though! Thank you!

  5. I have to look up the reference. Charles II had a small barrel church with illuminated ceiling built in the vicinity of Perth. It was away from town and castle, and survived.

  6. I love the distinction between “traveller” and “tourist”! So much so, I intend to start using it!

  7. On the display with the horse: would the band behind the horse’s legs have impaired it in any way?

    The SPQR plaque, however modern the form of its message, really does remind us how much of our history rides, one way or the other, on the masters of those seven hills.

    • No, the breeching won’t affect the horse’s gaits, or its ability to kick. You see it more on mules than on horses, because breeching keeps the saddle from sliding forward when riding downhill, or on horses (and mules) with narrow shoulders. Packsaddles almost always have breeching or a crupper (strap under the top [head] of the tail). They are less common on most every-day riding saddles.

  8. St. King Oswald is cool! He’s a great saint! And “Heavenfield” and “Maserfield” are such great names for battles.

    And honestly, the Dal RIada guys and the Iona monastery guys would have been more in favor of kings going out and smiting folks than a lot of people today who don’t want to think about it.

    • Yes. The “poor peaceful pagans just wanting to be left alone” folks seem to skip over the part where the non-Christians started the fight, or were chasing out people who had converted to Christianity. (Which, given that deity = tribal alliance = loyalty to government, is sort of understandable.)

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