The woman who would be king

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Hatshepsut was a pharaoh in Ancient Egypt. The most interesting thing about this pharaoh is that he was a woman, and despite her nephew and successor’s efforts to eradicate inscriptions and monuments relating to her rule, we know enough about her for her to be the subject of this book. Actually this book is largely composed of speculation and inference, as all of our understandings of the pharaohs must be, since the Egyptians mainly recorded accomplishments and praise, rather than any minutia about everyday life, motivation, or really the human side of the these god-kings.
The author, an archaeologist and Egyptologist, is clearly very knowledgeable about Egyptian daily life and religion, and her speculation is careful and convincing, perhaps most of all because she admits to many lacunae and areas of uncertainty. This book is a fascinating account of daily life in the royal household of ancient Egypt, and if anything goes into more detail than the casual reader can possibly digest. I eventually found myself skimming the details about ritual practice and some of the architectural projects. The author goes into a lot of disturbing detail about royal incest and the extremely sexual nature of some of the temple duties of priestesses and queens, but the intent is not to shock or titillate so much as provide a more complete picture of Hatshepsut’s world. (Still, it does make me wonder if the people who keep trying to appropriate Egypt’s legacy — Freemasons, Afrocentrists, etc. — understand what they are actually in for!) Cooney’s asides about Victorian museum curators hiding away certain ithyphallic reliefs and statues of Amon and Min due to their rudeness injected some humor. There is also a bit of gruesome detail about the prevalence of disease and parasites in ancient times, and a matter-of-fact but gory description of the embalming process, neither of which you’ll want to read while eating.

I read an uncorrected proof (through the Goodreads “first reads” giveaway), which had a few plans but lacked any illustrations. I assume the finished book must have a number of plates or details from the statues, inscriptions, and monuments to which the author constantly refers.

The author makes some great observations about the tendency for people — historians and regular folk alike — to ascribe bad motives when a woman expresses the desire to rule, but unfortunately is unable to really connect these observations to Hatshepsut specifically. From what we can tell, her rule was extremely effective, bringing wealth and prestige back to a tottering empire, and innovative in terms of reorganizing the political hierarchy to ensure loyalty to the pharaoh. She also has the distinction of seizing a throne without spilling a drop of blood, and in fairness to her and her nephew, I should point out that Thutmose III did not try to eradicate her memory entirely, but only conceal the fact that she rules not merely as regent during his toddlerhood but as full pharaoh for her entire lifetime, once she took the throne. This was not so much to destroy her legacy as to reaffirm his own legitimacy, and took place many years after her death, which Cooney interprets, quite plausibly, to mean that Hatshepsut’s rule was popular.

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I usually append some thoughts about how one might find some grist for D&D in my book reviews, but I did not find myself taking any notes while reading this book.  I would absolutely recommend this book if you intend to run a game set in a Egyptian style ancient kingdom, or if you were going to run the “Valley of the Pharaohs” game. It might also be source of ideas for a campaign involving courtly intrigue, and the intersection of religious and political power, since Hatshepsut had to work so hard to hold together her unique and unprecedented place.

 

Published in: on October 23, 2014 at 9:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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Dyson’s delves

Some time ago I got a pdf copy of Dyson’s Delves. I didn’t have to pay for it — it was a consolation prize to replace something else he’d tried to send to me and which was apparently lost or stolen in the mail — and he didn’t ask for a review, but it’s only fair to post one now because I have had some time to look it over and have even used one of the scenarios. <Edit: There is also a Dyson’s Delves II? I didn’t know about that until just now when I went looking for links. So this review is just about the first one.>

Anyway idea behind Dyson’s Delves is to provide both a set of usable dungeon adventures and a set of maps, ready to be keyed and stocked (with sheets of blanks provided on facing pages for those who want to keep a permanent record in their copy). Some of the maps and adventures have already been published on Dyson’s blog. They are all pretty good. There is a “mini-mega-dungeon” that was originally published on the blog as “Dyson’s Delve,” and which consists of eleven smallish levels (with room for expansion). This mini-mega-dungeon has multiple entrances, so higher level adventurers could bypass the goblins-infested uppers, and there are multiple paths through the dungeon — the party may need to go “up one, down two” to find everything. This dungeon could easily serve as the centerpiece to a dungeoneering campaign, and yes there is dragon in there somewhere. The dungeon is designed to take a party from first to sixth level. (I have a copy of the “deluxe edition” printed out that I keep on hand just in case I ever need to run something with no preparation… though I’d probably swap out the goblins for almost anything else.)

There are several other keyed dungeons, ranging from single-level adventures to multiple-level dungeons. The dungeons have a variety of difficulties, which is very nice for DMs looking for a quick side-adventure in a campaign, as I am often am because I did not have time to prepare or because the players go so far afield of what I expected. There is a surfeit of first-level one-page-dungeons, so it’s nice to find delves here for mid-level parties. My favorite is probably The charmed grotto (for level 5-8 characters), which I ran  in my home campaign and provided a decent challenge to a mid-level party, but you’ll also find adventures for 3rd-6th level parties, ranging from the award-winning one-page The worm’s gullet  to another multi-level crawl, Erdea Manor.

The blank maps are generally very good.  Anyone who has visited Dyson’s blog will have seen his work, so there is not much for me to add about that.

It’s available in PDF, softcover, and hardback. No-one asked me, but if he did I’d tell him to see about offering in a spiral bound edition, as my experience with perfect-bound print-on-demand has been that they do not hold up well to use at table, especially if you’re writing in them. As it is I guess you could get the pdf and print yourself a copy and have it spiral bound at an office supply store. Or just three-hole punch your printout.

In any case Dyson’s Delves is great idea, well-executed and worth a look.

Published in: on September 15, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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St. Guinefort of Lyons

This is what they did recently in the diocese of Lyons. When preaching there against sorcery and hearing confessions, I heard many women confess that they had carried their children to St. Guinefort. I thought he was some saint. I made inquiries and at last heard that he was a certain greyhound killed in the following way. In the diocese of Lyons, close to the vill of the nuns called Villeneuve, on the land belonging to the lord of Villars-en-Dombe, there was a certain castle whose lord had a baby son from his wife. But when the lord and lady and the nurse too had left the house, leaving the child alone in his cradle, a very large snake entered the house and made for the child’s cradle. The greyhound, who had remained there, saw this, dashed swiftly under the cradle in pursuit, knocking it over, and attacked the snake with its fangs and answering bite with bite. In the end the dog killed it and threw it far away from the child’s cradle which he left all bloodied as was his mouth and head, with the snake’s blood, and stood there by the cradle all beaten about by the snake. When the nurse came back and saw this, she thought the child had been killed and eaten by the dog and so gave out an almighty scream. The child’s mother heard this, rushed in, saw and thought the same and she too screamed. Then the knight similarly once he got there believed the same, and drawing his sword killed the dog. Only then did they approach the child and find him unharmed, sleeping sweetly in fact. On further investigation, they discovered the snake torn up by the dog’s bites and dead. Now that they had learned the truth of the matter, they were embarrassed that they had so unjustly killed a dog so useful to them and threw his body into a well in front of the castle gate, and placing over it a very large heap of stones they planted trees nearby as a memorial of the deed.

But the castle was in due course destroyed by divine will, and the land reduced to a desert abandoned by its inhabitants. The local peasants hearing of the dog’s noble deed and innocent death, began to visit the place and honor the dog as a martyr in quest of help for their sicknesses and other needs. They were seduced and often cheated by the Devil so that he might in this way lead men into error. Women especially, with sick or poorly children, carried them to the place, and went off a league to another nearby castle where an old woman could teach them a ritual for making offerings and invocations to the demons and lead them to the right spot. When they got there, they offered salt and certain other things, hung the child’s little clothes on the bramble bushes around, fixing them on the thorns. They then put the naked baby through the opening between the trunks of two trees, the mother standing on one side and throwing her child nine times to the old woman on the other side, while invoking the demons to adjure the fauns in the wood of “Rimite” to take the sick and failing child which they said belonged to them (the fauns) and return to them their own child big, plump, live and healthy. Once this was done, the killer mothers took the baby and placed it naked at the foot of the tree on the straws of a cradle, lit at both ends two candles a thumbsbreadth thick with fire they had brought with them and fastened them on the trunk above. Then, while the candles were consumed, they went far enough away that they could neither hear nor see the child. In this way the burning candles burned up and killed a number of babies, as we have heard from others in the same place.

One woman told me that after she had invoked the fauns and left, she saw a wolf leaving the wood and going to the child and the wolf (or the devil in wolf’s form, so she said) would have devoured it had she not been moved by her maternal feelings and prevented it. On the other hand, if when they returned they found the child alive, they picked it up and carried it to a swiftly flowing river nearby, called the Chalaronne [tributary of the Saône], and immersed it nine times, to the point where if it escaped dying on the spot or soon after, it must have had very tough innards.

We went to the place and assembled the people and preached against the practice. We then had the dead dog dug up and the grove of trees cut down and burned along with the dog’s bones. Then we had an edict enacted by the lords of the land threatening the spoliation and fining of any people who gathered there for such a purpose in future. –  De Supersticione, Stephen de Bourbon

It’s probably worth noting that the legend of St. Guinefort, like so many saints, grew out of older folklore. There is a pretty solid disentangling of the story at Lapham’s Quarterly. Basically, the ‘faithful hound’ story (which has Welsh, Indian, and other versions) was apparently incorporated into the story of an actual saint, and garbled together.  The healing ritual described by de Bourbon is itself probably a sensationalized version of an older pagan ritual, as de Bourbon was a sort of inquisitor, rooting out heresy.  So there is probably a “real” saint somewhere … filtered through folklore, superstition, and an inquisitor’s penchant for finding the Devil behind things.

As far as I can tell there were not a lot of animals revered as saints. In fact the only other case I can think of is St. Christopher, who was often depicted as dog-headed (but ultimately still human).

The hagiographies of many human saints involve many animal-related miracles, such as animals raised from the dead or healed, animal companions, and extraordinary encounters with helpful wild animals.  For example several Irish saints resurrect animals like geese during their lives, and a number of English saints, working posthumously through their shrines, raised cattle and horses from the dead. Other saints speak with animals, are given warnings by birds, or are offered protection by wild animals.

Published in: on August 18, 2014 at 11:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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Alicorns

“Unicorn horns are highly sought after, since possession of one is a sovereign remedy against all poisons. Alternately, a single horn can be used, by an alchemist, to manufacture 2-12 potions of healing. Unicorn horns sell for 1,500 gold pieces or more on the open market. “AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual

So I’ve been reading Odell Shepard’s The lore of the unicorn — a treatise on unicorn lore, it should be noted, rather than a treatise on unicorns, as Shepard is principally interested in what writers said about them, how they were used as symbols, and the meaning of the symbolism and legends associated with unicorns.  It’s mostly interesting but also dry — it could well have been written in the nineteenth century, and reads like something a country vicar would have compiled in his ample free time … cf. Sabine Baring-Gould.  Still, there is some great stuff, and this post harvests some of the triva from an early chapter.

Historically, in the West, unicorn horns (or alicorns – the term has also been applied, incorrectly, to horned pegasi) were highly sought after treasures.  Filings from an alicorn were valued at ten times that of gold, by weight; a whole alicorn would be worth double that.  As the narwhal tusks which were sold as alicorns can weigh ten kilograms, a whole specimen was a rare treasure to be found only in a king’s treasury or a major cathedral.  By the late 16th century, however, nearly every prince had one or part of one as protection against poisoning, which had become a widely practiced art.  Deadly diseases like plague were considered to be a kind of poisoning, so to the medieval mind, a cure for poisoning was also a cure for diseases.

The anti-poison property of an alicorn was far from unique, however. A mixture of herbs, minerals, and animal parts called “theriaca” was manufactured as a cure-all, and used both as a salve and ingested medicine, but it was very expensive due to the complexity and time taken to create it, and would be roughly as pricey as alicorn powder.  The prince on a budget had many other options when collecting talismans against poison — many of them obtained from animals that were themselves poisonous or thought to be poisonous.

Bezoar stones (concretions of indigestible matter and minerals recovered from the guts of animals) could be dipped into a drink to purify it (bon appetit!)

Cerastes horns (the prominent scales, called “horns,” of the cerastes serpent) were said to weep or sweat in the presence of poison.  They were placed on the dining table in artful arrangements to detect poison.  Legend had it that the walls of Prester John’s palace were made with a concrete including cerastes horns to prevent any poison from ever entering his demesne.  From antiquity, Western scholars held that the cerastes serpent killed its prey by burying itself so that only its poisonous horns were above ground, and passersby who stepped on the horns would die instantly.  “Horned serpents” captured the imagination of Westerners from the time of Herodotus, who described them in his History.

Snake tongues would be hung, in bunches, on the table as well, and they too would weep in the presence of poison.

Glossopetra (the “tongue stone,” actually shark tooth fossils) were used in the same manner as snake tongues, and were thought to be the petrified tongues of snakes. They were also credited with warding off the evil eye.

Toad-stones, supposedly recovered from the bodies of toads, were placed in rings to prevent poisoning.  Surviving examples of these “toadstones” are probably sting-ray teeth.

Griffin’s claw (usually ibex or buffalo horns) was fashioned into a drinking horn, which would purify any beverage of poison.

Venetian glass or crystal was thought to shatter if any poison were poured into it, and was therefore a popular material for goblets and bowls.

Ruby (also called carbuncle) and amethyst, if placed over poisoned food, would make it inedible and thus prevent a poisoning.

A severed vulture’s foot was thought to clutch in the presence of poison, so candle-holders were fashioned with a claw positioned just so that if it closed, it would snuff out the candle.  (In the Middle Ages vultures were believed to be poisonous themselves.)

Terra sigillata was a specially prepared clay from Lemnos, cakes of which were imprinted with a seal depicting Artemis; hence the name.  It was used to make amulets which warded off poison, and as an ingredient in theriaca, or as a medicine in its own right.

Walrus tusks and rhinoceros horns were also believed to have some potency in this regard, yet they were were also used to counterfeit alicorns.  Some accounts say that special chemical treatments were used to give them the characteristic spiral of a true alicorn.  (Certain antelope horns which have a twists or spirals were also imported as alicorns.)

The heyday of the alicorn was in the 14th ro 16th centuries.  Belief in their efficacy decline slowly.  In Italy and France, belief in the alicorn’s power died out in the 1500s; in England, belief lasted into the 1700s.

One possible echo of the belief in alicorns is the practice of keeping stag horns as trophies.  The medieval bestiaries reported that stags ate snakes, and/or that their horns (or the smoke emitted by their burning horns) were fatal to snakes, and for this reason stag horns were hung over doorways to keep out serpents.

Published in: on July 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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Eric Brighteyes

H. Rider Haggard — best known for his adventure tales set in Africa, like King Solomon’s Mines and She — wrote one of, if not the first, modern English sagas in the Icelandic model. (William Morris’ House of the Wolfings was published at about the same time, from I’ve read so far it also models itself on the Icelandic saga, though it is set in earlier times.)

Haggard wrote this shortly after a visit to Iceland, and he did his best to incorporate the best of the sagas — poetic descriptions of landscapes, seascapes, and battle, clever word-play and dialogue, and above all the muscular paganism of the Viking world — while leaving out the most tedious part (long catalogs of lineages and digressions about minor characters). So this is a lot more accessible than similar works like E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the strong or Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s saga — both of which are excellent in their ways and worth reading too!

Haggard’s hero is a fairly typical type of saga hero: brave and honorable, strong and handsome, and doomed by tragic character flaws and choices. The story has a fairly simple set-up: two half-sisters both love the hero, and his choice between them causes the scorned sister to wreak a drawn-out, perfidious revenge.

Along the way Eric fights a berserker, makes powerful enemies who have him outlawed, and sets sail on a viking expedition where he joins the court of an English king. His fights against warriors, witchcraft, and the deadly forces of nature at land and sea, and eventually returns to Iceland to face his destiny.

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The pacing and action are excellent, and his slightly archaic language evoke the sagas well. The plot details all feel appropriate to the genre, but are also inventive and don’t just copy the sources. The elements of magic and mysticism are also appropriate, and reminded me of the more fantastic sagas like Grettrs Saga.

I listened to a dramatic reading of this via LibriVox, and the reader’s enthusiasm for the story made it an especially good LibriVox recording, though some of the voicing, especially for the female characters, was unintentionally funny.

So the above is what I posted to Goodreads.com for my review.  But what use is this book for D&D?

If you’re looking for ideas for use in a Vikings type campaign, there’s plenty of grist, of course, in terms of interesting places and events you could incorporate into a game, as well as names — Haggard does not fall into the all-too-common trap of using only stereotypical Norse names (Thorsson, Thorssonsson, etc.).  A number of characters are Finnish, and have distinctively non-Norse names; others just have very usual sounding names like Ospakar and Gizur — which are actually names from the Edda and so forth.  Haggard manages to pack in just about every trope you could ask for in a Viking saga: revenge killings, ‘holmgang’ duels, a wrestling match, berserkers, the Allthing, a doom-ring, chases and battles at sea, snow storms, outlawry, thralldom is inflicted, oaths are taken and broken, rune-reading, names and -nymics are bestowed, barrows robbed, a hall is nearly burnt, and on and on.  It is in fact a checklist of just about every interesting plot device you find the sagas, though in many cases Haggard uses them inventively.

The magical elements of the story are confined to a few spells/potions (a love potion, a fast-acting poison, a sleep spell, and a pact with a demon that causes a shipwreck) as well as numerous visions and foretellings (the introduction dryly notes that such things would probably be interpolations by later writers/editors of the legends), the occasional appearance of a familiar or and a magic/cursed sword.  An arresting event early on involves a severed head prophesying doom to the one who slew the owner, but for the most part magic is furtive, “off-screen,” and open to interpretation, so there is really nothing you couldn’t equally well steal for a game in a purely historical setting.

I found myself wondering too whether Tolkien had read this novel, or if it is a case of both Haggard and Tolkien using similar sources, because many events and characters could have walked right out of Middle Earth.  (The more I read stuff like Haggard, William Morris, and the like, the less original Tolkien’s work seems to me…or rather what is distinctively Tolkien’s is less interesting than the common sources they share.)

Anyway Eric Brighteyes is well worth a look!

Published in: on July 21, 2014 at 4:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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The city outside the world

Was Lin Carter on a one-man mission to confirm Sturgeon’s Law?

I keep reading Lin Carter books thinking he’ll exceed my expectations and finally deliver a story really worth reading. It’s strange because he certainly had a knack as an editor for selecting excellent stuff in anthologies and recovering forgotten classics. But his original stories — despite his constant, awkward self-promotion — always seem like poor imitations.
He tried to write almost every sub-genre of sci-f and fantasy. Here, he’s imitating Edgar Rice Burroughs (or actually, he’s imitating Leigh Brackett imitating Edgar rice Burroughs!) with a third rate planetary romance. The hero, Ryker, is a brawny thief, and while the convention in this sort of thing is to leave the protagonist relatively two-dimensional, Carter manages to make pretty much everyone in the novel uninteresting. The setting of course is Mars, though Carter slightly bucks convention by having the planet colonized by Earthlings who have Columbused the planet and displaced the Martians. Ryker is a criminal, exiled to Mars and living on the borders of Earthling and Martian society until he inadvertently rescues a trio of outcasts and tries to help them flee to their home city far to the north (or perhaps outside the world entirely). We never really get an explanation of how they arrived in the city that Ryker starts off in, nor why they were so far from home, and the story becomes a series of cliffhangers and narrow escapes in the Burroughs’ tradition. Except the Martian world just feels like a pastiche of Burroughs and his imitators, and the characters almost to a one fail to be interesting, even the villains. (I think he tries to create something original here, but simply isn’t up to the job of envisioning an interesting, reasonably consistent world. Half-way through the book a footnote points the reader to another of his Martian novels, indicating his dedicated, but hamfisted world-building.)
The final chapters have some promise, right up until the horrible deus-ex-machina ending.  This is almost redeemed by some zombie vengeance, which was an unexpected twist, but page after page of boring monologue at the end makes this adventure end with a whimper.

Two out of five stars, mainly for some inventive scenes and action.   (I do begin to wonder if Carter’s books would be more enjoyable for me if I read more of his source material — I have only read a few Burroughs novels and one by Brackett.  Maybe aficionados of pulp genre fiction will find crafty homages and allusions to other works?)

Confession: I realized, as I neared finishing this book, that I actually have two copies of exactly the same edition of this.  I was looking for a small, light paperback to take on a camping trip and pulled out a second copy from my shelf.  One is in really good condition, and the one I read was more beat-up, but they are identical.  I must have picked them up at different times.  I think both are going to be donated back to the library book sale.

 

Published in: on July 2, 2014 at 2:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Fearsome Island

The Fearsome Island by Albert Kinross.   I listened to the LibriVox recording of this (a public domain file available for free here: https://librivox.org/the-fearsome-isl…).

I stumbled across this on archive.org, and while it was not exactly riveting, it was entertaining. The story is about a shipwrecked sailor who finds himself on an island with a trap-filled castle. He has a few companions — another sailor, a cat, a bearded hag, and a mute native — most of whom are killed by the various traps.

The Victorian prose is a little rough, and the narrator is somewhat repetitive, but the idea for the story is pretty original.  Spoilers under the ‘more’ button:

(more…)

Published in: on June 20, 2014 at 11:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Flagellants and dancers

As part of project I’m working on, I recently read Sidney Heath’s Pilgrim life in the middle ages (1911 ; link is to archive.org copy). One chapter that I really got some inspiration from was “Flagellants and dancers.”  I haven’t had the time to really delve further into these topics, but I thought Heath’s discussion was pretty interesting.  Flagellants are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen Monty Python & the Holy Grail (a more serious depiction of them features briefly in both The Seventh Seal and  Black Death) or played Warhammer Fantasy Battles.  The “Dancers” mentioned here don’t quite match the modern interpretation of the phenomenon (St. Vitus’ Dance/St. Anthony’s Fire, i.e. ergot poisoning) I’ve always read about.  So I wonder if there might not have been two distinct things going (religiously ecstatic dancers as described below and ergot-poisoned people running amok) which were conflated and swept together in one explanation.  I guess you’d have to look at the source material.  Anyway, since this is a very short and very vivid chapter from the book, I’m posting it in its entirety below.

Chapter IV: FLAGELLANTS AND DANCERS

One of the most extraordinary features of the Middle Ages, and the direct outcome of pilgrimages, were the wandering bands of penitents. These companies were numbered by hundreds, and each of them possessed some individual characteristic. Some were composed of the poor only, others were limited to men, while one or two were made up entirely of children. Occasionally a brotherhood would arise with membership extended mainly to those who held peculiar opinions. The great majority, however, were free to all Christians without distinction of age, sex, rank, or opinion, though each of them had some particular form of discipline for their adherents.

Thus every now and then these bands of people would journey from shrine to shrine, praying and mortifying as they went, and gathering recruits along the way. After exciting interest for a short time the larger number of these associations would dissolve as suddenly as they had appeared ; a few survived for years, while one or two underwent periodical revivals down to comparatively recent times.

The most persistent of these bands of fanatics were the dancers, the palmers, and the flagellants.

The dancers made their first appearance at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1373, when they were composed of a 96 Flagellants and Dancers ragged set of wanderers who made begging and vagrancy a profession. They had a secret system of initiation, at which it was said, as with most of these secret initiations, they practised all kinds of abominations. Wandering about in bands of thirty, or forty, their apparent poverty, their earnestness, and their frantic fanaticism gave them an extraordinary hold on the multitude.

Wherever they went their singular reputation caused large crowds to assemble to watch their performances, and thousands who went as sightseers became infected with the mania, which came to be regarded in the nature of a contagious disease that was even more dreaded than the plague.

Everywhere the dancers became the centre of a writhing mass of humanity making violent motions of worship, offering prayers in the form of convulsive shrieks, and acting as though they would take heaven itself by storm. Their hysterical ravings were regarded as prophetic. It was quite in vain that the axe beheaded hundreds of these maniacs, or that the gibbets broke down with the weight of their bodies.

The flagellants were unquestionably the strangest of all these itinerants of faith as they were the most tenacious of existence. Wherever the shrieks and groans of the gloomy flagellants alarmed the ears, those in the vicinity fled and hid themselves, for the penitential torrent of blood and tears absorbed all with whom it came in contact. There was no escape for any, rich and poor alike ; resistance was vain, remonstrance unheeded. Under the penalty of having the flesh flogged from their bones those who happened to cross their path were forced to become flagellants until they were released at the first celebrated shrine.

It was in 1260, about the time when the enthusiasm for the Crusades was flagging, that public associations began to spring up in Italy for the purpose of discipline. Multitudes of people, of all ranks and ages, practised this mortification of the flesh along the open streets in the hope of obtaining Divine mercy for their sins.

Perugia is said to have been the first scene of this madness, and a hermit named Rainier the instigator. The custom, after practically dying out, was revived in all its fury during the fourteenth century, and for ten years the flagellants perambulated and agitated Europe. This revival is said to have had its origin during a plague in Germany in 1349, when from the first the Teutonic knights met it with fierce opposition. In 135 1 these warriors assembled and set upon a body of flagellants, massacred thousands of them on the spot, and compelled the remainder to be re-baptized.

The flagellants propagated the extravagant doctrine that flagellation was of equal virtue with the Sacraments ; that by its administration all sins were forgiven, that the old law of Christ was soon to be abolished, and that a new law enjoining the baptism of blood administered by flogging was to be substituted in its place. They were not supported by the heads of the Church, and Pope Clement VII issued a bull against them, with the result that many of their leaders were taken and burned at the stake. The custom, however, continued to crop up at intervals. At the beginning of the fifteenth century flagellants are again mentioned in Lower Saxony. They rejected every branch of external worship, and entertained some wild notions respecting the evil spirit.

The infection, as in the former outbreaks, spread with great rapidity, and was only suppressed by the Kings of Poland and Bohemia expelling all flagellants from their territories.

As enthusiasm for these various sects began to decline active measures for their total abolition were adopted by the Council of Constance (1414-18), but a remnant of them continued in existence until the close of the century. Lastly came the palmers, a class of foreign pilgrims whose real history and condition are but little known. Their designation is thought to have been derived from the palms, branches of which they brought home from Palestine as evidence of their pilgrimage. The distinction between them and ordinary pilgrims was that the pilgrim had some home or dwelling-place, but the palmer had none. The pilgrim travelled to some specific shrine or holy place, but the palmer to all. The pilgrim journeyed at his own charges, but the palmer professed poverty and went upon alms. The pilgrim might give over his profession and return home, but the palmer must persist till he obtained his palm by death. The profession of the palmer was originally voluntary, and arose from that rivalry of fanaticism so prevalent during the earlier years of the Middle Ages. During the tenth and eleventh centuries men| were sometimes ordered to become palmers — to give up wife, family, home, and country — as a penance for their sins. 

Flagellants — a 15th century woodcut; image from the Wikimedia Commons.

Published in: on June 5, 2014 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  
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The book of miracles

I get marketing email from some publishers and mostly ignore it but once in a while something pretty amazing comes up.  Taschen — a publisher of art books — recently put out a facsimile of a 1550 book describing  and depicting wonders and visions, simply called “The book of miracles.”

The illustrations in the book are pretty awesome.  (The link above leads to their catalog page with a dozen more images.)

The Book of Miracles

Published in: on May 22, 2014 at 9:21 am  Comments (2)  
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St. Edmund and his miraculous severed head

So I recently finished reading an older book about pilgrimages in Great Britain: The Pilgrims’ Way: Shrines and Saints in Britain and Ireland by John Eric Adair.  It’s a fairly comprehensive guide to the major shrines (churches, chapels, wells, and ruins) of Great Britain, with some of the lore about them and their saints, and lots of photos of the places.

My favorite anecdote has to be St. Edmund of East Anglia. After King Edward was martyred by vikings in a St. Sebastian-style beating followed by archery practice, they tossed his severed head into the woods to deny him a decent burial. However, some loyal Saxons went searching for it and heard it calling out “here, here” so they could find it. It was being guarded against woodland scavengers by a wolf, who tamely followed them back to the church where the head was buried with the rest of his remains.  Wolves would later adorn decorations in his shrine, as a sort of saintly mascot.

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef017d40aa281a970c-500wi

After he was canonized and the the body was “translated” to a proper shrine in 903 AD (Wikipedia dates his translation to 1095, but then again the article jumps around regard dates), the head was found to be miraculously re-attached! King Sweyn, who doubted the sainthood of Edmund, was killed by a blast from the relics, and later a Danish noble named Osgoth was driven insane for expressing doubts about the story, so Edmund had his revenge from beyond the grave. The shrine would be visited sailors hoping for good wings and by ladies hoping for fertility, who would perform the “Oblation of the White Bull” to ensure pregnancy.  The oblation is not quite as kinky as it sounds; it mostly involves petting a white bull and then taking an offering to the shrine.  It’s probably just another pagan survival.

Published in: on May 10, 2014 at 12:04 am  Comments (1)  
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