Angels and Alligators

I had a holiday. An actual, honest-to-goodness holiday. It did, admittedly, only last five days and I managed to rack up several injuries while doing very little (including an ant bite and possibly the most ludicrous first-world wound ever: splinters of shells stuck in my finger and the tip of my thumb. Ouch, by the way) but it was a holiday.

I read books – not many, given the timeframe, but 2’s respectable: Dan Brown’s “Inferno” and Julia Wurz’s “SuperEgo” (the latter I enjoyed immensely; set in the world of F1, it’s a sort of Devil Wears Prada, but with wheels instead of heels. Marvellous.) and I went and looked at Stuff.

There was Mont St Michel (which I’ll save for another time, because I have SO many photos. Seriously. All the photos in the world. I don’t think there was a single stone of that place I didn’t point a camera at) which is one of my favourite places in the world. It’s extraordinary, looming up out of the water. Even when it’s packed with tourists (like me) which it inevitably is, it’s an incredible place.



Like I say: ALL the photos… so, another time.

As well as Mont St Michel, I went to the Scriptorial in nearby Avranches – which is a museum dedicated to the medieval manuscripts made by the monks of Mont St Michel. The French Revolution had a not-dissimilar effect to the English Reformation when it came to medieval libraries, but the Scriptorial is a new purpose-built home for the collection.

Only a few of the books – and what books – are on display at any one time, but they’re regularly rotated to ensure their continued survival. There’s something magical about the “Tresor” room where they’re kept: it’s circular, with the cases set around the walls and one in the centre – and almost entirely dark to protect the books, which have their own lighting. It’s also surprisingly noisy: a side-effect of the temperature & humidity control systems for the display cases. I was lucky enough to get in there by myself: just me and a bunch of 800 year old books… (and the fans, obviously). I had a “moment”. I really did.

The rest of the museum is dedicated to both the history of Mont St Michel itself, and the development of the art of manuscripts. There was a huge amount of information on calligraphy, on the materials used and what went into the different inks… everything connected to the creation of a medieval book. It’s an excellent museum, and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.

Not a million miles away is Dol de Bretagne, with its cathedral and Mont Dol (where the Archangel Michael is said to have defeated the devil, leaving claw marks across the top of the hill. This whole region is very much Michael’s manor) and Medievalys. Another museum: this one dedicated to the construction of cathedrals, taking the one right next door as its reference point.

One of the best things about this place was its layout: it was designed to follow the “idea” of a cathedral from foundation (the architect’s studio on the lowest level) through to construction (an exhibition on the design and the actual craftsmen involved on the middle floors) through to the symbolism of cathedrals on the top floor, which had frankly terrifyingly detailed descriptions of how to read a stained glass window, and absolutely amazing projections of art onto raked sand. You kind of had to see it. Again, if you’re ever in the region – go. It’s beautifully thought out and put together.



The cathedral of Dol de Bretagne itself is a massive, hulking thing: unusual in that it has a double well (one shaft outside the walls, and one inside, opening in the floor of one of the chapels). It also has a big, big chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael – as you might expect on his stomping ground.

And – just for a change – there was Alligator Bay. I have no idea why or how this ended up right at the foot of Mont St Michel, but there you go. It houses a lot of snakes and lizards (I discovered, climbing down a ladder between two glass cases of ENORMOUS snakes, that I’m not massively fond of them. Wish I’d known that at the top of the ladder…) and, yes, alligators. Lots of them. Including three albino alligators – of whom there are thought to be only 40 in the world. And who didn’t scare me anywhere near as much as the Mississippi alligators did.



Very big, and not at all like this…

Not even slightly.

Which does kind of make you wonder: are they absolutely sure it was the devil Michael fought on that rock – and not just Louis here out for a stroll…?


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…)


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…

Cat & Mouse

I can’t decide if it’s “Art”, a showpiece or just plain bonkers. Even so, it’s fabulous.

 I would, admittedly, need armour myself before I even contemplated putting my cat in the same room as one of these (when he was a kitten, we tried to put one of those cat-harness-and-leash things on him… Not good. Not good at all. Still, I recovered the sight in my left eye surprisingly quickly.) but aren’t these amazing?

Cat & Mouse armour

The medievalist in me is sitting here thinking: “Want”, and the crazy cat lady is sitting here thinking, “But would it stop the endless, endless shedding… or would he just start shedding tinfoil instead?” (Mind you, crazy cat lady may be confusing armoured cats with… I don’t know, cyborg cats. Which is a whole other level of cool-slash-terrifying…..)

Alice of Abergavenny

The lower border of the third panel of the Ros tapestry shows Alice - complete with axe - seeking revenge for her lover's killing.

I’m still thinking about comics–and how they relate to women, and how women relate to them. And, god help you all, I’ve been reading about it.

Now I’m looking for them, I’ve found some fantastic blogs, articles and general geekery on the subject online, which I’ll come back to tomorrow once I’ve had time to organise the links (there will be many).

In the meantime, how’s this for Fem-Rage? The story of Alice of Abergavenny.

Her Welsh-Norman lover took her with him during the Fitzgerald-led Norman invasion of Ireland in 1170 and although the Normans were massively outnumbered on landing, their tactics enabled them to kill 500 of their opponents and take 70 prisoners. Unfortunately for Alice’s Marcher Lord, the invaders also suffered casualties–and he was one of them.

Alice’s considered response was to pick up an axe, and to personally behead each one of the 70 prisoners in revenge.

You go girl…

The Head Collectors

There’s a wonderful news story on the BBC site today about the king’s head. After years of speculation, scientists now believe an embalmed head discovered in France is almost certainly that of Henri IV.

“The human head had a light brown colour, open mouth and partially closed eyes,” said the scientists, led by forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier. “The preservation was excellent, with all soft tissues and internal organs well conserved.”

King Henri IV was one of France’s favourite monarchs. He converted to Catholicism to end France’s wars of religion, declaring “Paris is worth a Mass”, but was later killed by a Catholic fundamentalist. He built the Pont Neuf bridge and the Place des Vosges in Paris. Henri was the first of the Bourbon line of monarchs, which included his grandson Louis XIV, the Sun King.

His head will now be reinterred in the Basilica of Saint Denis after a national Mass and funeral next year.

(My good friend Andie points out the irony of Henri’s head’s resting place: St Denis was, according to legend, martyred by beheading – but he then picked up his head and walked for miles, preaching as he went…)

The fact it was Henri IV caught my attention: he’s one of the most important figures in arguably the best period of French history, tied up as he was with the Huguenots and the ever-charming Catherine de Medici. It’s all fascinating, and made even more so (not to mention sensationalised) by Dumas’ book, La Reine Margot.

After the excitement faded (I’m a medieval geek. It comes with the territory), I re-read the article on the BBC site, and I kept going back to this line:

A head, presumed to be that of Henri IV, has passed between private collectors since then.

Yes, it’s creepy – a bit creepy even for me. Skulls don’t bother me: I grew up in a medical household with a couple of skeletons knocking around the place… but an embalmed head just comes across as being a bit, you know, yuck. And what would you do with it, anyway? Use it as a paperweight? Bring it out as the surprise guest at the end of your dinner parties? Put it on a mantelpiece and lick it every time you pass (and yes, Gary, I can well imagine you doing that)?

Then I started thinking about these “private collectors” – ironically, they made me think of nothing so much as “The Club Dumas” – possibly my favourite book. Who are they, anyway? What exactly are they collecting: weird stuff, relics of the French monarchy or… well, bits of the dead? And what are they collecting them for?

I love the idea that maybe there’s a whole subculture of pickled-head collectors. And that they get together and have conventions: attend talks on preservation, compare collections – perhaps do the odd swap…

And here’s another thought for you: if you could have (or call dibs on) any head, living or dead, to keep on your mantelpiece – licking optional – who would you pick?

Poxy Pilfering

The delightful Lee Harris (he of the Angry Robot horde) retweeted this link on Twitter this afternoon, and I just had to share it. Because I’m nice like that.

The article’s from a medieval blog – or strictly speaking, a medievalist blog, because they, like, didn’t have the internet back in the 1300s and had, like ohmigod, never even heard of Dooce – and it’s all about the earliest form of copy protection: the good old-fashioned book curse.

This Middle English curse is written as if spoken by the book itself:

Wher so ever y be come over all
I belonge to the Chapell of gunvylle hall;
He shal be cursed by the grate sentens
That felonsly faryth and berith me thens.
And whether he bere me in pooke or sekke,
For me he shall be hanged by the nekke,
(I am so well beknown of dyverse men)
But I be restored theder agen

[Wherever I might end up over all,
I belong to the Chapel of Gonville Hall;
He that feloniously ferries me and bears me from thence
Shall be cursed by this great sentence:
Whether he bears me in a pouch or sack,
On account of me he shall be hanged by the neck,
(I’m too well known by many men [to not be noticed])
Unless I be returned there again.]

–Found in a breviary held in the library of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

It’s a fun entry – mostly because there’s little as vengeful as a pissed-off monk who’s spent the last six months bent over a lectern illustrating this damn manuscript by candlelight, thank you very much, only to get to the end and realise that he’s gone and spelled “God” wrong on page 32.

It looks like a great blog, worth looking at for anyone with even the vaguest interest in the medieval. I’ll be checking back, anyway, and I’ll definitely not be pinching anything from the library.