Who Runs the Place?: Holy Roman Empire 2.0 Edition

The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, ran the empire. No one contested that, or if they did, apparently it wasn’t for long. He had, let us say, a dominant personality and decisive way of settling inter-personal disputes. However, after his great-grandsons divided the empire (the Franks had partiable inheritance, so each male had to get land), the role of the emperor dwindled as more powerful nobles gained territory and control, and the internal politics of Rome started to resemble a Mafia soap opera. It took the Ottonians, and what I half-jokingly call Holy Roman Empire 2.0 for the emperor to return to a place of political prominence and authority, and even then he had a lot of challenges from nobles who preferred their feudal overlord to stay both weak and far away.

With the Ottonians came several changes. The kings of France, or rather the Frankish kings, had grown strong enough that they stood on their own, outside the empire. The Ottonians were from the German-speaking lands, and their power base was the middle Rhine Valley, the Main River lands, and over around the Harz Mountains. Like Charlemagne and his successors, the Ottonians moved around a lot, but their “base of operations” was in Goslar, in the mountains to the east, where the newly-converted Saxons and the Slavs resisted imperial rule. The east had no memory of Roman leadership, not really. The Romans never stayed very far north of the Danube, and the Slavic tribes had pushed the Germanic peoples west and either north or south in the 600s-700s, as best we can tell. Or they intermingled with them (Austria, Hungary, Croatia). So the empire now faced east as much as south, fighting and establishing diplomatic ties, and fighting with, the Slavs and Saxons, and starting to move civilization north, into the wet, cold areas of what is now Lower Saxony, Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein, and Mecklenberg-Vorpom. And parts of modern Poland.

Because the emperors were always on the move, more or less, and occasionally had to go down to Rome to settle things at least temporarily, the local nobles and imperial servants were tasked with running things on a daily basis, and had to be the first on scene when, oh, the eastern Saxons decided to revert to paganism and attack someone (not always in that order), or the Magyars invaded, or the Byzantine Empire deflected someone north and west. Also, most of the nobles were related through marriage or ancestry, and at any time, several had possible claims on deserving the title of Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation. Depending on the personality of the emperor and which nobles had risen to power, this could lead to collisions, or to cooperation. Occasionally, the popes would wade into the fray, as Gregory VII did with Henry IV in 1075-76.

After the Ottonians came the Salians, another dynasty from the Rhine Valley, of whom Henry IV is the most famous, although he’d probably have happily relinquished that distinction. He ended up fighting with the major nobles, his son, the pope twice, and pretty much everyone else. Conflict management and resolution was not one of his strong suits. All this is a bit of a fog for most English-speakers, because we tend to focus on what was going on in Britain at the time – the Norman Conquest and other minor excitements. Also going on was the conversion of Poland to Catholicism, more or less*. Poland became Catholic as opposed to Orthodox, but because they were officially brought into Christendom directly by a Papal missionary from Bohemia, instead of from one of the Holy Roman Empire’s bishops, they were not considered part of the Holy Roman Empire’s lands. The relationship with the Emperor varied from “great friends” to “here we go again, call out the army.”

The emperor was supposed to be a neutral party above the nobles, someone who could mediate, settle arguments before they got out of hand, and who could balance the demands of the free cities with those of ecclesiastic nobles (like the Archbishop of Mainz) and the secular nobles (Saxony, Austria, Bavaria, Swabia, and so on.) He was also tasked with defending Rome and the pope (not always the same thing). Again, since the emperor was always on the move, and sometimes south of the Alps, that left a lot of wiggle room if a noble got ambitious.

Enter two real characters in every sense of the word. Frederick von Staufen and Heinrich of Saxony had nearly equal claims to the imperial throne. Heinrich came from the Welf family, Frederick from the Staufers**. They were almost the same age, and both tended to be, let us say, pugnacious. Frederick of the Red Beard (Barbarossa) ended up on the throne, and Heinrich swore feudal vows of vassalage, promising to help the emperor if needed and to obey – mostly. Their first collision came fairly early, when Frederick had Heinrich’s first marriage annulled after several years, in part because the property owned by the bride’s family surrounded Frederick’s own home base. Heinrich agreed, but he was not entirely pleased. He married the daughter of Henry II of England, which was OK. Yes, that Henry II. Family get-togethers must have been entertaining to watch from outside stabbing range.

The far north of the German lands, notably along the Baltic and eastern North Sea, and been depopulated by the Northern Crusades, and years of Viking raids. Heinrich turned his attention north, and while Frederick was going to Jerusalem and doing things in Italy and elsewhere as well as in the German lands, Heinrich refounded Lübeck, founded Luneberg and Braunschweig, and encouraged other settlements to expand. He established Braunschwig (Brunswick) as his main base. Once or twice, Frederick deputized Heinrich to deal with things while Frederick was tied up in Italy or dealing with Seljuk problems. However, Heinrich grew very powerful, and rather independent. Eventually the two collided. Heinrich lost and for a while ended up in Normandy, acting as diplomat and ambassador for his father-in-law. One can imagine the imperial court getting a little tense when Heinrich came back with diplomatic papers. Heinrich ended up outliving Frederick, then defeating Frederick’s son in battle and retiring to Braunschweig where, to the surprise of everyone, he died of old age.

Heinrich wasn’t the only noble to collide with the emperor. But most others don’t have summer pageants dedicated to the fight. Given Frederick Barbarossa’s personality, and the times he lived in, someone probably would have poked him the wrong way. Rudolph “the Founder” von Habsburg would butt heads with several people, and would resort to dirty tricks to defeat the prince of Bohemia. (Dirty tricks meaning having a rested reserve launch, surround, and beat up on the Bohemians. That was frowned upon by the rules of chivalry. Rudolph was a pragmatist, and a survivor, and didn’t really care.)

First among equals, sword of the Church (sometimes), keeper of order, settler of disputes, and feudal overlord of the lands north of the Alps. The Holy Roman Emperors walked a bit of a tightrope, and it’s probably more surprising that they didn’t have more, greater conflicts with the other men of the empire.

* Parts of Poland remained pagan, or kept lapsing back into paganism, until at least the late 1100s. Then the union with (pagan at first) Lithuania distracted the missionary priests.

**If you are thinking “Welf sounds like Guelph as in Guelphs and Ghibillines in Italy, Dante’s mess” you are correct. In English, we used to say “Staufen” for the family, but the Germans started moving toward “Staufer” for the larger group and “Staufen” for one later branch, as in “von Hohen-Staufen.” English-writers have picked up that usage.

Fort of the Spear Shafts

Dunpelder was the old name, the Cumbric name. Later people call it Traprain Law, Trefpren or Trefbryn, “hill by the farm of the tree” or “hill by the farm of the hill.” The older name means “fort of the spear shafts,” which tells you exactly what held pride of place atop the isolated, flat-topped hill. The hill, situated on a ridge, dominates the valley and land around it. The instant I saw it from the highway, I knew exactly what it had to be. And I became excited.

The hill, like a few others scattered around the edges of the Firth of Forth, is a laccolith, a bubble of magma that didn’t quite become a volcano. The core of the hill is made of phonolite*, a rather unusual-for-Scotland igneous rock. Part of the hill has been quarried away, and although you can, in theory, hike or climb up and down that side of the hill. it’s not smart unless you have a friend or two, ropes, and rock-climbing gear. The magma intruded during the Carboniferous, 358 MYA to 298 MYA, or the start of the Permian. Come the Ice Ages, the lump eroded to a crag-and-tail formation, similar to Edinburgh Castle’s rock and the lump in Sterling now crowned with the Wallace monument. The Law is about 360 feet tall, 720 feet above sea level, so not enormous but quite respectable, with relatively steep sides. Keep that in mind . . .

Because it was so unusual, and has a truly commanding view of the mouth of the Firth as well as inland, it has been used by people for a very, very long time. The most famous layer is an Iron Age (pre-Roman) fort attributed to the Votadini tribe. Apparently they got along with the Romans, and a hoard of 44 pounds(!) of Roman “hack-silver” was found on the Law in 1919. This is silver that was broken up and given away by the pound in order to reward [bribe] tribes to be friends of the Romans. The hill was abandoned in the 500s or so, and there is some thought that the people moved to Dun Eiden, or the Burgh of Eiden. The local people still sometimes call the hill “Dunpelder.” Dun means fort, pelder is related to the Cyrmic (Welsh) word for “spear shaft.”

The hill today is out in the very rural countryside of East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. The weather was mild with good visibility below a broken overcast and a nice westerly wind. Great weather for climbing up a steep, grassy hill. I bounced out of the car, sorted out the gate’s complicated latch and three-step entry process, and strode west along the base of the hill. Everyone else followed at a more dignified pace. The trail starts pretty flat and gentle, winds back and forth up the west end of the Law, and then doubles back. That’s where it starts to get steep. I’d guess a 10-15% grade. If the grass had been damp, it would have been very entertaining for the people watching me. As it was I probably sounded like a small steam-engine, huffing and puffing.

I think I can, I think I can . . .

This is where the story gets odd. As you would expect on a week-day with school still in session, the place was not busy. A family with a 4-5 year old was coming down after a lunch picnic, and I met a very fit lady hiker once I reached the top. Otherwise? Just me, the ravens and other birds, and the wind. The rest of the group looked at the first really steep slope and decided that staying on more level terrain was the better part of valor. Two and a half weeks before, I would have agreed with them, because I was so out of shape it’s embarrassing. On that day? No. I charged up the slope.

Why the rush? Because something was calling me. For lack of a better word, I felt like something wonderful waited for me and wanted me to come up and look around. There was a sort of euphoria that got stronger and stronger as I trotted up the slope and passed the remains of the prehistoric turf wall that formed one of the defenses of the hill-fort proper. Everything was right – the wind, the birds, the land around me. I didn’t get the mild to strong negative sensations I encountered at the Varus battlefield in Germany, or at the neolithic sites in the Kilmartin Glen. No, the Law liked me. Which sounds terribly strange, and doesn’t really get the feelings across, but it’s as close as I can come.

Half-way up or so, looking north. Did I mention that the Law dominates the landscape?

I’m sure some of it was the sheer pleasure of actually being physically able to climb the Law. I didn’t gasp or ache like I had back at Hadrian’s Wall, even though the slope was almost as steep. I literally trotted up the 360 feet or so of vertical elevation. I’d plodded, with multiple stops, up the Sill. The adrenaline was running, and had been since I launched from the car. Which, again, had not happened before.

The wind gusted around the hill, stirring the pony-cropped grasses and making the wild-flowers dance. Ravens glided below me, catching the wind as they launched from nests in the quarry face at the east end of the Law. Unseen songbirds chirped and warbled as well. To the west, I could see the blue-distant hills beyond Edinburgh, a dark, rumpled line separating the lush, grassy landscape around me from the blue and white sky. To the north, another Law stood between Traprain and the Firth, with more uplands lumping in an indigo line just beyond the shimmering, pale blue line of the Firth of Forth. The sky blended into the water as I looked east, the North Sea swallowing the horizon, quiet and mild for the moment. I smelled grass, and “clean,” no dust or smoke or other things. Bird song, raven caws, and the rush of the wind alone filled my ears. I walked above traffic noise, and soon above the ravens as well. My breathing, the birds, and the wind were the only sounds in the world.

Just outside the ghost of the old turf wall.

And so I reached the crest.

For someone expecting to find a reconstruction of a fort or something like that, the top would be a disappointment. I was thrilled. The foundations of the Iron Age fort are just visible through the grass, not far from a “wind cairn.” If you don’t know what you are looking at, it would be easy to mistake the ring of dry-stone wall**, not quite waist high on me, for the ruins. Instead, the lower, grass and woody-shrub covered oval of dirt and white rocks marks the ancient fort. Here, people feasted and planned for war, here chieftains received embassies and raised families, here people fled to for protection in times of danger, perhaps. The semi-wild ponies that crop the grasses and mug visitors for treats remained elsewhere that day, so I roamed unpestered. The wind made the plants and grasses dance, bowing to the east. It felt good, happy, welcoming. As if I belonged there.

The Iron Age fort, looking west toward Edinburgh.
The wind cairn and the North Sea.
The fort, and the Firth of Forth.

When I got ready to hike down, nothing urged me to linger. Whatever I sensed, it didn’t try to lure me or bother me, it didn’t whisper to me to stay. I stayed very happy, content, full of delight and joy . . . And wary of turning an ankle, because I wasn’t wearing proper hiking boots, and did NOT want to misstep on the way down. Down is always more of a challenge than up, at least for me. Gravity has never been my friend.

Of all the places I went, monuments I visited, ancient ruins and remnants I circled, Traprain Law . . . It moved me, touched me in a way I feel a bit sheepish trying to explain. That afternoon . . . was the happiest, most joy-full I felt on the entire trip. I’ve not had that sensation in a very long time. Wonder, excitement, mild awe, all the feelings that blend together into joy, a deep joy that lingered well into the evening. It almost felt . . . Almost as if that hike, and staring around from the top of the hill, was the whole point of the trip. Which makes absolutely no sense at all, but that’s the closest I can come to explaining what went through me as I stood atop that wind-washed hill, staring out at the North Sea as ravens and hooded crows glided below me.

*The name comes from the fact that some forms of it making a ringing sound when tapped with a rock hammer. It’s rare because you need a mantle plume or other hard-core hotspot to create. It has no crystals in it per se because of the lack of silica.

** Wind-cairns are to protect hikers caught in storms and so on. I can well believe that being atop the Law in any sort of rough weather could become dangerous very quickly.

Assorted Critters

A wild boar made of parts and pieces and guarding the door to a restaurant in Broderick.
The older version, from around AD 400-800 CE. National Museum of Scotland. You can get coasters with this design on them.

Not all critters are so benign:

Apparently the squirrels at Loch Lomond don’t like BBQ. Or maybe they do . . .

The Oban Pier-cat cleaning up after the fishmongers. The water had been ice around the fresh fish. Pier-cat also mooched from folks at the pubs on the pier.

The Queen’s Garden inside Sterling Castle.

The Picts seem to have venerated, and possibly sacrificed, bulls. National Museum of Scotland.

Badger, badger, badger . . . A sporran at the regimental museum in Sterling Castle.
Pinch of snuff, sir? The entire head is the snuff box. Regimental museum, Sterling Castle.

Matrilineal, Patriarchal, Matrilocal, and Messy

So, how does succession, inheritance, and other stuff work out in a society? There are almost as many answers as there are societies, and some people like to imagine a time, way back when, that society was matrilineal, matriarchal, and so on. Anthropologists are still looking for that one. However, the British Isles had groups that were matrilineal and matrilocal, but patriarchal. Or at least, their leadership was.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Picts, the Celtic* people of the eastern half of what is now Scotland, north of roughly the Edinburgh-Glasgow line. Roughly. Borders were fluid, especially after Rome abandoned Hadrian’s wall. The Picts had no writing (or so people thought), and until the creation of the Pictish King List in around AD 724 CE or so, we don’t have any records that are not written by outsiders. According to Bede of Jarrow, writing in the early 700s, and Gildas (mid 500s), the Picts and the Gaels of Dal Riata swept down across Hadrian’s Wall as soon as the Roman Army departed, looting, burning, and generally terrorizing the other Britons**. Gildas says that this was because the Britons had gotten immoral and a few had backslid into paganism. Bede says that missionaries, notably St. Ninian, had been at work up in the area in the 200s, but obviously “their dippin’ didn’t take” as my maternal grandmother would have said. The Irish annals talk about the Picts when they discuss Dal Riata and the other Hiberno-Scottish groups.

One of the questions that came up about the Picts was their system of government. There are few contrarians who argue that the Picts had a diffuse, family-based, semi-egalitarian matrilineal government that worked very well until the Christians, especially the Roman Christians after 640, introduced a much more centralized and unequal political system. Most historians that I’ve read argue for a series of lords, low kings, and a high king who was chosen for partly competence rather than strictly by inheritance. However, the king had to come from a certain family line, or from one of a small group of families—again, the sources are unclear. The system was matrilineal and matrilocal.

The Pictish king lists don’t show a son consistently succeeding his father until the later 800s. Before that, it was the son of the previous high king’s sister. And she might marry a Saxon, or Briton, or Gael. The outsider lived with his wife, and his sons and daughters were raised as Picts. This also led a few people to argue that the Picts had been matriarchal at some point in the distant past, until [Indo-Europeans/Christianity] ruined everything. Actually, that system was common in the British Isles, and you find it in the Welsh Mabinogi, the Irish Annals, and other places. The Picts emphasized the female line of descent because it made sense. In times of trouble, the odds of knowing who the mother was were very high. Knowing the father might be a bit more difficult. And women pass culture and religion to their children from a very young age.

However, the Picts, like the Britons and Gaels of the west, were patriarchal. At least by the time of the Roman observers and later, males governed. Only a very few women are named in the king lists, and those are women who are married to a king.

*The Gaels of Dal Riata spoke a dialect related to Irish. The Picts spoke a dialect related to Brythonic (original “English Celtic” so to speak), Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. All are Celtic, but the two are not really mutually intelligible.

**Whether the people of Dal Riata were 100% Irish, or were Irish nobles with a larger Briton or Pictish subservient population, or if they happened to have come over from Ireland at some point in the distant past and kept their dialect of Celtic, seems to be a topic of endless debate among historians and archaeologists.

Display ALL the Things!: Natural History Museums

Because why not?

The old Victorian-style natural history museums are my idea of a Cabinet of Curiosities done right. You have a magnificent semi-jumble of bones, cultural artifacts, rocks and minerals, taxidermied animals and fish, machines and clocks, furnishings, and so on, under one roof, somewhat jammed together. The old museums were a tribute to whatever the donor or curator thought was interesting, or worth studying and collecting. They were NOT models of modern museology and interpretation. Which isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. I don’t like sterile museums. Or preachy ones.

So, when the natural history and science museum in Edinburgh, Scotland came due for a much needed refurbishment and modernization, Grand Plans were made for a proper, modern, and [based on what I read in the early official statements] terribly politically correct museum. And the public said, “Ah, no, we want a nice, modern museum that is still fun. And keep the whale hanging from the ceiling.”

Keep. The. Whale. The museum in the 1880s. Creative Commons Fair use. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmuseumsscotland/6217239962

When you walk into the natural history side of the National Museum of Scotland, you enter a wonderful Victorian steel Gothic monument to knowledge, that is now thematic, beautifully laid out, and wonderful fun to browse.

Any old Africa-hand’s nightmare: looking up and seeing a fully-loaded hippo flying overhead . . .

The National Museum of Scotland, like Gaul, in tres partes divisi est. I spent most of the day on the history side and only got through two of four floors (and I could have spent a h-ll of a lot more time in the prehistory section.) In the middle is science and technology, with old and new equipment and vehicles, computers, and lots of hands-on tech for kids. The third section and oldest is the natural history and anthropology side. I only “did” the ground floor critters stuff, because I was running out of time. You could easily spend two days in the full museum, or just in the history side alone if you are like me. (As a docent in York observed, “Oh, you’re one of those who read all the tags. Allow two hours, then.” He’d told the people ahead of me that they needed at most half an hour.)

Banzai! The last thing a mouse ever sees . . . (Or the user of an older version of Firefox . . .)

A good museum teaches and entertains at the same time. I don’t want my visit to be a penitential experience where I am beat over the head about something-or-other. I get that at my place of worship, and occasionally at work. I want to learn, to see interesting stuff, and to enjoy my time there. Now, a fine art museum is somewhat more akin to worship for me, but even then I don’t want to be lectured about the Cause of the Day. I want to see the art, learn about it and the time and place where it was made and displayed, and to be able every so often to sit and just stare (or rest my feet and back).

This one was fun. Very fun.

Border Abbeys III: Kelso and Dryburgh

After poking around Melrose, we wandered west to visit Kelso and Dryburgh.

All you need is water, and acidic soil, and soft sunlight, and water, and . . .
Just growing beside a driveway in Melrose. SIGH.

So, the first stop was Kelso. Kelso is in town, and always has been, a bit like Jedburgh. It was founded in 1113 by King David I. They were Tironensians, named for their founding location of Tiron in France. They were new at the time, being a reformed Benedictine order founded in 1109. The monastic orders were undergoing a lot of reform, upgrades, changes, and “back to the Bible” movements, in part kicked into action by the founding of the Cistercians. The Tironensian Order was never all that common in Britain, especially compared to the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Cistercians, but David I and his successors approved of their Rule and goals, and gave them several properties in Scotland.

Located near the strategic fortress of Roxburgh, Kelso was the largest and wealthiest monastery in Scotland at one point. The Romanesque remains hint at the glory of the abbey, its wealth partly built on royal patronage and partly on sheep.

Unfortunately, Kelso, like Jedburgh and Riveaulx, sat on a popular invasion route, especially during the Scottish Wars of Independence. It was sacked in the 1290s and early 1300s, and again during Henry VIII’s “Rough Wooing” of a Scottish princess for his son Edward. Something about “I’ll keep burning, looting, and pillaging until you defeat me multiple times, or you give me your daughter.” The bulk of the abbey’s buildings were destroyed or severely damaged in 1545, and once the Reformation began, the Tironensian Order was no longer acknowledged in Scotland. The monks faded out and when the last ones died in 1586, the remains of the abbey were given to the local parish to use as a town church.

Towering Kelso.

As with other abbeys in Scotland, when the Reformation came, the abbey became a Protestant parish church, and served that function until the 1770s, when a new church was completed in 1773. The abbey became a quarry for local building needs, then was the focus of Romantic painters and writers until preservation began. This photo above is the only one I was able to get. The ruins and the park around them are off-limits because of the two years of no repairs, and the town is built close around the base. I’m more or less standing in the street for this shot, taken between passing cars.

Dryburgh Abbey is out in the country, with a very, very nice country hotel now next door. Dryburgh was Premonstratiensian, and was founded under the patronage of the Constable of Scotland in 1150. The monks moved in in 1152. Dryburgh was never as large or as wealthy as the other Border abbeys, and so looked and acted more like a typical monastery. It is near the River Tweed (and to my delight, a gent was fly-fishing in the Tweed when I poked my head around some trees to see the river.)

Sir Walter Scott and Douglas Haig are both buried here. You can see repair survey in progress.
As close as I could get.

A remote, rural setting was not enough to protect Dryburgh, and it too was hit by the English in 1322 (Edward II) and the 1380s, and 1544. In 1443, an accidental fire also did a great deal of damage. The abbey slid into decline until by 1584, only two brothers remained in the abbey. The church was taken over and sold. The landscape around it, and the Romantic ruins, were turned into a landscape park by David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan. Specimen trees dot the landscape, including the copper beech below:

There’s also a Sequoiah, but I couldn’t lean back far enough to get a picture.
A shady Scottish lane outside the abbey grounds.

The staff at Dryburgh were delightful people, and were quite happy to answer questions and to open up the shop once we knocked. Alas, my thoughts on the management of the property were far less pleasant, but that’s not the fault of the folks on the ground.

(For those curious, the Wikip article about Dryburgh is less about the church than about the order and the politics of the time around the abbey. It’s not bad as Wikip goes, but I got the sense that Dryburgh was the excuse for the larger article. YMMV)

Sunday Snippet: North of the Wall

This is the start of a stand-alone (or two book set, not sure yet) story set in the Pictish lands and Dal Riata in the 400s or 500s.

Harrel stopped and listened. A fish-hunter glided overhead. Harrel “looked” and caught a glimpse of the way ahead through the bird’s eyes. White clumps and dark in green, paler green trees, no dim-eyes. Harrel sent silent thanks and a warning—feather hunters moved to the south, near the river. The pale-headed bird turned north and faded into the grey sky. Harrel resumed his search. The sheep were not far—far for a keen-eyed bird. For a man? He shrugged. At least the mist hadn’t killed the sheep this time.

Harrel walked with an easy stride along the track. Only he and Connal and a few women used the old, half-sunken ways, and even they went only after taking precautions. He touched the rowen sprig tucked into the sprig-slit on his hood. The way climbed up, onto harder ground, and he heard the sound of sheep. But were they the sheep of the family, or did others use these lands? He would know once he crossed the stream.

A set of edge stakes answered his question. Another family claimed the land by the old way. Evenly spaced, knee-high stakes marked off the edge of the pasture, separating grassy green from the wilder plants along the way. Ash wood, peeled and pale, to warn off the mist and the Old Folk both, Harrel noted. He nodded and continued along the old way. Not far for a sky hunter, but a ways for a man. Whoever – or whatever – had led the sheep away had moved swiftly. He shifted the straps on his bag. Or they had struck when Aelfie watched, the first watch of the night. That’s what he would have done. Two split-tailed dancers flew across the way. One stopped on the branch of an oak. The other continued on her way. Brown-caps, a yellow-throated weaver, and a morning-breaker all called from the woods on the left side of the road. The right side remained grass, as the fish-hunter’s eyes had shown. Harrel strode on.

“Mee-ee-eeh! Mee-ee-eeh!” a lamb bleated from behind a green wall of brush and young trees. Harrel moved more slowly, listening. he touched rowen once more, clearing his sight of any mistiness. Then he stepped to the side of the old way and removed his pack. He opened the top and pulled out two willow rods and two of hazel. Harrel eased the pack back onto his shoulders. An eater of the dead flew over. He looked. No tall-live moved or watched among the short-live. He thanked the bird and withdrew.

Harrel crossed the old way and found a well-trodden gap on the nettles and red-stem that grew on the grassy side of the way. He grasped one willow and one hazel rod in his left hand, tips down, and waved them back and forth with a flick of his wrist. A tiny wisp of mist floated up from the bare dirt and faded away. Had he not looked for it, he would never have seen it. Harrel walked ahead, moving with slow, quiet steps so he didn’t startle the sheep. They grazed, or nursed, and lay easily, chewing their cud. He glanced up. The sun would be between dawn and midday were the sky not so gray. All seemed well with the sheep as he walked among them, and none of the lambs showed signs of distress.

He climbed up the hill to near the crest. A burn flowed from between red and cream stones. No wonder the sheep acted sheep-like and quiet. No magic of bane could remain near the spring. He went to one knee in respect and dipped the tips of all four rods into the burn, just downstream of the pool. He moved them with the water’s flow, lifted them, then repeated the dipping twice more. then he took a bit of cake baked with honey from his pouch and set it in the grass in thanks.

Now he had only to gather the sheep, without a dog, and lead them back to the family. He began with the animals farthest uphill. Each one he brushed head to tail along the peak of the back with a pair of rods. Only once did anything happen. A stem and two leaves fell out of the wool of a second-lamb ewe. Yellow-cone, he saw, and nodded but took no other steps. Three hands of sheep later, he began urging them toward the gap in the plants. They all walked through. That . . . should not be. Sheep favored corner gates, not mid-field gates. He tucked the fact away, stowed the rods, and led the small flock back to the family.

The animals followed willingly, maybe even eagerly. Still, he walked with slow steps and stopped at each burn and grassy verge. Lambs could not be hurried. The sheep’s spirits would remember the injury and disrespect long after their minds forgot. None of what had driven them away remained on the animals so they did not need to be smudged or rolled before returning to the flock. The lambs nursed, or slept, at each stop as their dams chewed or grazed. One or two sipped from the burns. Again, all was as it should be except . . . They acted more as dogs than sheep. The oldest ewe gave him a sideways look from her blue-white eye. Had she seen their lifter? Or did something else cling to the sheep?

The sun had crossed the roof-peak of the sky and passed the point midway between noon and nightfall by the time he and the sheep returned to the family. One lamb had become foot sore. At the next stop, Harrel had found hoof-wort growing beside the stream. He’d picked it and had tucked springs between each lamb’s hoofs, and three of the ewes and hoggets as well. The foot-sore lamb he now carried over his shoulder, her dam following close behind.

He smelled the smoke of the fire. Brute barked once. Harrel stopped and waited. Alfie and Ian came to the edge of the road. “Good dog,” Ian said. Harrel walked on, leading the sheep to one of the fields. Connal lifted the gate and the others helped coax the animals in. Connal lowered the newly-woven willow panel into place.

“Mist trace or just old one?” Harrel asked.

A shrug. “Eluvie’s not sure, and the old one broke as I moved it. Bottom split. Had a new one almost ready.” Another shrug. Connal guarded his word-hoard closely. “Find aught?”

“Mist trace on the field edge, none on the sheep. The graze-field burn is white-headed. I dipped the rods before testing the sheep.” After a bit he added, “No claim on the graze-field. Claim on one down-way of it. I didn’t check for family sign.”

Connal shrugged again. The others would refuse to claim and move to land touched by the old way. Here, the road bent so only a small patch of scrub-wood touched the old way. Harrel alone gathered fuel from the waste-wood, but took nothing more save from the rowen if it sank roots into the edge of the old way. Nothing ill could tolerate rowen, and it never drew ill into itself.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

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*

Send Me A Sign!

Well, alrighty then!

I was about to give up on finding the start of the St. Cuthbert’s Way trail out of the town of Melrose, and jokingly said, “Lord, send me a sign.”

Guess what? You go down a short flight of cement steps and there’s another sign asking you to please scrape the mud off your boots rather than track it up the steps. And a metal boot-scraper provided. How wonderfully British!

Did I mention that the hill was a bit steep? This is roughly two-thirds of the way up the steps, before you get to the field trail, shooting down. My quads called me rude names.

It was a beautiful morning, about 55 degrees F with a light breeze. I was still warm by the time I reached a turn-around point. I had a set breakfast time, and didn’t want to go too far from Melrose. It was a great time to be out and about, with the birds starting to wake up but almost no traffic, aside from the gents checking on the cows and testing the moisture in the hay-meadow beside the trail. The hills across the valley have several view-points on them. The Eildon Hills have a very long history of human presence, as I mentioned on Monday. The hills themselves are laccoliths, igneous intrusions that pushed up into the Old Red Sandstone. They date to 352 million years ago, and include one small volcanic remnant. So of course I was going to climb them.

St. Cuthbert was a holy figure in the mid-600s in Scotland and Northumberland. He is associated with Lindesfarne, and was the abbot of Melrose for a while. He had a reputation for wise counsel and healing, and so was called to help the kings of Northumberland (Durham and surrounding areas, occasionally from Edinburgh as far south as York). He is often shown with otters. St. Cuthbert’s Way is a hiking/walking path from Melrose to Lindesfarne, including Dryburgh. The entire route is 62 miles, but parts are marked for local hiking. Like the path over the Eildon Hills.

Modern St. Cuthbert banner at his shrine in Durham Cathedral. The Vikings led to his being relocated.
St. Cuthbert and his otters. Creative Commons fair use. Original source: https://caelumetterra.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/st-cuthbert-and-the-otters/