The History Boys

I’ve been watching the BBC’s astonishingly good productions of Shakespeare’s History Plays (which if you’re not watching, and you can, you really should) and they prompted me to comment on my assorted historical crushes on Twitter. The response to this – from a couple of different people – was that they’re all a bit, well… battlefield-y. (In fact, one comment was that there was a theme of “spur-winning”).

This is me we’re talking about, after all. And, given the four years spent reading assorted medieval stuff, there’s plenty of battlefield action to choose from. So here, in no particular order, are the History Boys.

(I should also add that these are entirely biased sketches, and gloriously coloured by my own opinions. I have wildly overlooked Actual Historical Facts in favour of being generally impressed by this lot. So you can take anything I say with a reasonably large pinch of salt…)



Postcards from the Edge

My friend Will Hill went off on a big American road trip last year, and while this still leaves me gnawing my knuckles in envy, he’s written an amazing blog post on one part of his trip, over on his blog: his visit to (or as close to it as he could get!) Area 51.

So if you’ve ever wondered just what Dreamland really looks like, head over and have a read…

Death’s Head Cha-Cha-Cha

Winner of today’s “ZOMG, that’s the most terrifying thing I’ve seen since I looked in the mirror first thing” prize is this:

Yes, it looks a bit like a skull, which is quite scary enough.

However, it’s even scarier than you think: that’s a photo of a nuclear explosion, one millisecond after detonation.

I’m pretty convinced that this is as close to it as I ever want to get.

According to the Gizmodo article which brings us this horror, this fireball is 60-some feet high, and was taken in the Nevada desert in the 1950s.

On a slightly lighter (if no less morbid) note, I recently discovered a brilliant procrastination site: 350 Ways to Die. While none of them are particularly helpful for dealing with the asshat who threw up on my doorstep over the weekend (and, believe me, I’ve got special plans for them if ever I catch them…) the site contains lists of unusual ways that people have met their ends throughout history. Some of them are less than sensible, and some of them are simply sad. All claim to be true.

One of my favourites is this one:

Sigurd I of Orkney was a successful soldier who conquered most of northern Scotland in the 9th century. Following a fever-pitched victory in A.D. 892 against Maelbrigte of Moray and his army, Sigurd decapitated Maelbrigte and stuck his opponent’s head on his saddle as a trophy. As Sigurd rode with his trophy head, his leg kept rubbing against his foe’s choppers. The teeth opened a cut on Sigurd’s leg that became infected and led to blood poisoning. Sigurd died shortly thereafter.
Publications International, Ltd.

Just because.

There’s also cases of suicide by tree and death by bestiality.

The site’s clearly a work in progress, as it has space for more articles than are listed – but if you know of a story that should be on there, they also have a submission form so you can get in touch…

There’s Something About Michael…

Today, interestingly enough, is Michaelmas, the feast day of the archangel Michael.

He’s my favourite. Well, one of them. Yes, I’m allowed to have favourite angels.


Essentially being the alpha-angel, legend and scripture between them record a long list of his attributes.

For instance, we all know that Michael is the one who defeated Lucifer – but did you know that when he weeps, his tears turn to gemstones? (Or, slightly more alarmingly, cherubim?)

He’s connected to knowledge, to light, patience and repentance; righteousness, mercy and sanctification. He assisted in the burial of Moses and depending on who you’re reading, technically it’s Michael who holds the keys to the gates of Heaven… and not St Peter.

That last one does rather make sense: if you’re going to have a bouncer on the door, you want someone who’s not afraid of a fight. And preferably carries a sword.

I’ve collected images and descriptions of Michael for a while now – but my favourite comes from Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion & Ethics, where he’s described in one early tradition as having wings the colour of “green emerald”, as well as being covered “with saffron hairs, each of them containing a million faces and mouths and as many tongues”. You can see why most people opt for the more familiar armour / sword portrayal, can’t you?

Once, he was also associated (benevolently) with death: he was the one who would lead the souls of the faithful into Heaven – and perhaps this is why he is sometimes also referred to as the angel who foretells Mary’s death.

Chief of the order of the virtues, chief of the archangels, prince of the presence and ruler of the 4th Heaven: with a list of titles like that, he must have one hell of a business card.

Happy Michaelmas.

Bread of Heaven?

Here’s something new and exciting I learned about this week: funeral biscuits. Well, when I say new and exciting, I mean that it’s something I’d never come across before, and the concept is a fascinating one.

I stumbled across a mention of “arval bread” in relation to biscuits either eaten at, or after a funeral (it was all a little vague)–or in some cases, given out beforehand as a sort of invitation–and, because I’m a nosey old soul, I had a poke around the internet to see what it could tell me.

Arval bread is, in fact, quite often a kind of biscuit, particularly associated with Yorkshire funeral customs in the 18th & 19th Centuries. The biscuits were small, usually flavoured with caraway or molasses, and wrapped in paper (sometimes printed with lines from a hymn or Psalm) and sealed with black wax. The specific recipes used varied wildly, even from town to town, as did the time & method of distribution. In some cases, the biscuits were more like small cakes; in others they resemble shortbread or oatcakes, stamped with cherubs, hearts, crosses or death-heads, and were served with a type of sweetened spiced (and occasionally “burned”) wine.  All the combinations, however, connect to ancient funeral practices found on the Continent.

The term “arval” appears to stem from the Nordic tradition of providing  “averil”, or “heir-ale” at a funeral, toasting the eldest male and heir to the household or title as he took possession of his inheritance.

In the Germany of the Middle Ages, there was a slightly different tradition: that of the “corpse cake”. Here, mourners would gather at the home of the deceased for the laying out of the body, and the traditional wake (which, of course, was once a vigil lasting the night before the funeral). Once the corpse had been washed and arranged, a dough was prepared and then placed on the linen-covered corpse’s chest and left to rise. It was believed that the dough would absorb some of the deceased’s qualities, which would in turn be passed on to the mourners when they ate the bread, recalling both the superstition of sin-eating, and the ritual of ceremonial cannabalism.

The tradition spread to the US with settlers: recipes from Dutch communities in the Hudson River Valley (a place with a reputation for the gothic, thanks to Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow“) survive, and describe the preparation of “doot coekjes” or “death cookies”.

With the progression of the Victorian Age, funerals–like weddings–became a commercial enterprise, and just as wedding cakes were big business, so were funeral biscuits. However, unlike wedding cakes, the funeral biscuit began, appropriately, to die out, and “averils” became entire meals: funeral feasts and teas… which have, in turn, become the modern wakes we recognise today.

(The accompanying picture, by the way, is of funeral biscuits reproduced by Historic Faux Foods: a research project which aims to accurately reproduce historical foods & room settings for museums and other exhibitions). You can find bits on funeral biscuits here, here and here; as well as a fascinating blog post about funeral food, which goes on to talk about Southern funeral cooking, and which can be found here.

The Legend of Bleeding Heart Yard

One of my favourite London street names is “Bleeding Heart Yard”. It’s just off Hatton Garden, right at the edge of the City of London – and not far from the Barbican, where I used to live. Its unusual name stems from a particularly grim London legend.

The land was given to Sir Christopher Hatton by Elizabeth I. When he married, his wife’s dances became a high-point of the social season. One night, as a great ball was in progress, a black-robed man with a twisted hand threw open the doors to the ballroom and walked among the dancers until he found Lady Hatton; first, sweeping her into a dance, then leading her from the room.

Suddenly, there was a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning… and the assembled company heard a piercing scream from outside. Rushing to the aid of their hostess, the party were able to find no trace of her… except for her still-beating heart in the courtyard.

Lady Hatton, so the legend goes, chose to dance with the devil – and paid for it with her soul.


Heart Burials

Here’s an interesting thing: the last heir of the Habsburg Empire (who relinquished his claim in 1961) has been buried in Vienna.

At least, most of him has.

In line with Habsburg family tradition, his heart will be buried in an abbey just outside Budapest.

Burials in which the heart is interred separately from the body (or “heart burials”) aren’t all that unusual, historically-speaking. The Ancient Egyptians yanked all sorts of squishy bits out of bodies post-mortem and packed them into canopic jars–albeit for very different reasons. Medieval monarchs also received heart burials: supposedly, Richard and Henry I; Robert the Bruce and Eleanor I all rest in pieces.

From the 12th Century, the separate burial of a corpse’s heart and viscera (or intestines) was remarkably common for English & French aristocracy. As the medieval period progressed, heart burials increasingly ignored the intestines.

Often, hearts were buried at the place of death: a practical solution to the challenge of preserving a body, or were destined to be carried to a place of significance (as was often the case for Crusader Knights: some, who died in battle, asked for their hearts to return home. Others, dying at home many years later, might ask for their hearts to be buried in Jerusalem).

Special heart sepulchres would mark the burial place, while the hearts were buried inside visceral urns engraved with their own epitaphs, such as this play on Luke 12:34:

‘Ubi thesaurus meus, ibi cor meum’

Where my treasure is, there is my heart.

Aside from practical or sentimental reasons, medieval heart burials may be an expression of benefaction to a religious order – the case of a founder of an abbey or monastery, for example, may have donated their heart for burial. More than being a spiritual act, the creation of a bond between the order and the founder’s direct descendants helped to ensure their continued patronage.

But the best story about heart burials involves Thomas Hardy, whose body is interred as ashes in Westminster Abbey – but whose heart is buried in Dorset. Or possibly not. The story goes that following Hardy’s death, his doctor removed the heart and took it for safe-keeping until burial… but there is another version, in which the doctor puts the heart down for a moment… and it disappears. Suspicion falls (as it always does) on the cat. After a thorough search, the heart is nowhere to be found and instead, a pig’s heart is substituted for symbolic burial.

While it’s unlikely to be true, “The Cat Who Ate Hardy’s Heart” would make quite a story…

Welcome to Hell (ingly)

Last week, we bought a couple of new pictures for the house. One was something arty by way of a wooden staircase and a chandelier (Other Half’s choice), and mine was… well, it was this.

Hellingly Main Hall: photograph by Mike McLean

I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was very taken with it. A village hall, maybe? Some kind of theatre…?


An asylum.

Welcome to Hellingly.

Opened in 1903, it was designed by GT Hine – consultant to the Commissioners in Lunacy and asylum specialist (seriously, is there anything about that sentence you can’t love?). It remained in use until 1994, when the main building was vacated and decommissioned. Hine designed the hall as the centrepiece of the asylum, its heart, and even in its derelict state, it’s still possible to see the status it was awarded.

Since its closure, several of the associated outbuildings have remained in use: some are now privately owned, and some are retained by mental health services to house the criminally insane–but the main building has long fallen into disrepair. Frequent attacks by vandals and arsonists haven’t helped, and all that’s left is a shell.

Albeit a bloody creepy one…


You can learn more about Hellingly here, and here, as well as take a photographic tour on the Abandoned Britain site and read the account of a site visit by a UE group.

Pleasant dreams….


You remember how I like my abandoned places, don’t you? Well, it’s been a while… so here’s a new one. An old one. Oh, you get the idea.

In the early years of the 20th Century, diamond fever hit Namibia.

The gem-rush led to the establishment of Kolmanskop: built to support the mining community, it even had a ballroom, theatre, casino and – apparently – the first tram system in Africa.

But after the First World War, diamond sales lost their sparkle and the town was gradually abandoned.

By the 1950s, it had become a ghost town; swallowed by the desert sands.

Judging by these photos, not even diamonds are forever….

Like most ghost towns, Kolmanskop is hugely interesting – because it’s empty. The thing about these places is that they show us our world in negative: by our absence, they show us the spaces we should be filling, the lives we should be inhabiting. They’re places that wouldn’t be there without our intervention… and without us, they’re fading away, just like their residents did.

One day, there’ll be nothing but sand, and dust, and the memories of houses lost to the desert; the ghosts of buildings with nothing to haunt them but air. In the meantime, it’s strikingly, sadly beautiful.