Category Archives: History

Children are coming – they can forge their own path

Cross post with Chronica Minora:


The sigil of House Stark in the TV series Game of Thrones.

The TV series Game of Thrones, and the book world of A Song of Ice and Fire generally, place great importance on heraldry and family. House Stark’s motto (or simply “their words”) is “Winter is coming”, House Lannister’s is “Hear me roar”, House Greyjoy’s is “We do not sow”. They serve to distinguish families from one another and often are a concise statement of what the family’s concerns are: the Starks urge one to be prepared, the Greyjoys show their contempt for farmers and the like, for instance.

The Stark sigil as on A Wiki of Ice and Fire

The Stark sigil as on A Wiki of Ice and Fire

George RR Martin is fascinated by heraldry, perhaps too much so. It works for his series, though, because it builds a complex and realistic world. He’s drawing on medieval Europe here, which had a very complex set of rules governing what could or couldn’t be on a family crest, although the book series doesn’t follow such rules. All families are concerned with heraldry, though, and individuals often have their own crests (or sigils, as they are called; and the ones shown in the TV series do not necessarily match those described in the books). Others might have a crest assigned to them by a more highborn lord, which is probably quite realistic too. There’s a full series on Westerosi families here, but as it’s based on the books be warned that many a spoiler lurks within.

The impending arrival of my younglings has had me dwelling a lot on family. It’s not actually a new interest/fascination. I’ve always taken family seriously, and certainly after it dawned on me some years ago that if I had no sons my particular family line could be kaput – I have no brothers and my sister has no children yet. That worried me in my own head for a while, worried me in a vague sort of way at least. I don’t know why. Families come along in their own time and I certainly don’t feel particularly old.

Brian Boru probably did not look like he did in this 18th century engraving.

Brian Boru probably did not look like he did in this 18th century engraving.

When I was a teenager I became fascinated by family history. I know bits and pieces of my own heritage – one grandfather was an architect, the other built cars and later ran a dock, for instance. Game of Thrones and its obsession with family seems to have reawakened that interest.

Generally speaking, my family seems to be descended from Mathghamhain, either the brother or nephew of Brian Boróimhe (I’ve read both at various times but haven’t made any serious genealogical study). For a youngster like myself, having some sort of tangential connection to a great historical figure such as a high king was, without a shadow of a doubt, cool. Any touristy genealogy stuff seems certain of it, but putting on my medievalist’s hat I tend to look somewhat cynically on such claims now, given that for centuries families across the world have claimed descent from legendary or mythical figures. Still, somewhere along the way was somebody called Mathghamhain (it means “bear”) and I am his descendant. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I like connections to the past, and having some of my own fascinates me; perhaps when I am older or have more time I will conduct a more in-depth study of my own family line.

FamilyCrestThe family crest also intrigued me, and I have no idea how it came about. Strictly speaking, I can’t use it, as I am not the head or heir apparent of the main line. I believe that is some guy in Orleans, presumably descended from one of the many Irish who left the country after the Battle of Kinsale and subsequent Flight of the Earls. The O’Mahony Society has its own crest. I’ve also come across two variations of the family motto, which wouldn’t be uncommon in history as different branches might adopt different stances or crests/mottoes depending on their individual circumstances. The one I came across first translates from Irish as “the burning torch to victory”, though this list of Irish mottoes only lists the other variation, which translates from Latin something like “thus we guard our sacred things”. My Latin is very rusty, though.

Irish heraldry is somewhat complicated by the country’s history, with some coats of arms awarded after conquest by the English and others possibly dating to before that. The system of surrender and regrant, where Irish kings and lords swore fealty to the English crown and were given back their lands under new titles, such as earl, is probably a factor in this but I cannot say for certain. It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost all Irish people are descended from a king, as there were more than 100 across the island at one stage. Plus every Irish family had different septs (branches that held their own lands) so that adds an extra layer of complexity. Some will have Norman heritage (or Cambro-Norman), some will have Scottish, and various other backgrounds too. It’s all relevant or, perhaps more accurately, it’s all as relevant as you want it to be.


Catcrest2 Crest2 CrestSome weeks ago I found myself wondering idly what I would do if I were in the position to create my own family crest and motto (as the Game of Thrones cast do in the video above). It’s possible, through the office of the chief herald, though I understand it costs a small fortune and I can’t see any that have been granted in the past few years so that could be defunct. It’s probably a bit pretentious, though it’s not like I’m trying to forge a dynasty or anything. I suppose it’s the idea of being able to forge one’s own destiny/heritage which caught my attention. What would I want to depict, and what would I want to say? Here’s what I’ve come up with on the right, based variously on the facts that I like cats, have “bear” as a surname, and work in newspapers. It just got me thinking about whether or not the words and sigils passed down through history are still relevant to me directly. Do I want my children to recognise their past and honour it in some vague way, or would I prefer them to start afresh?

The truth is somewhere in between. The overall crest has a lot of historical relevance and is part of their (and mine) heritage. My wife is an O’Leary and her family is of similarly ancient lineage, so our little ones will have that heritage too. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

History: Under construction

Cross-posted at Chronica Minora.

I have neglected this blog terribly. It’s not by design, more that life has got in the way. I’m still researching my PhD on Bede and eschatology, but a full-time job and other responsibilities mean I haven’t blogged at all.

I’ve been bitten by the bug again, though, and hope it will make me a more productive writer overall. So it’s fitting that I resume building up my blog with a note about somebody who is literally building history.

Bert Geuten has broken ground on a ninth-century monastic settlement in his native Germany. Yes, a ninth-century one. And it won’t be built in double-quick time, either; it’s envisaged as a 40-year project that will only use the tools available in the time. Geuten is dreaming big – not only will it be a village, but if all goes to plan it will have a 2,000-seater cathedral too.

His team is clearing a site and trying to do things in roughly the same order that the monks would have done. He told The Local:

In the ninth century the monks would have built a small church first – they didn’t want to wait until the cathedral was ready to be able to pray. So we’re doing the same.

The plan is for it to be a tourist attraction, which will allow people to see the site come together and learn about how medieval craftsmen went about their business. One of the things I like is that they will only be serving food that would have been eaten at the time.

I hope this works out. There was a similar project in the US, Ozark fortress, has run into serious financial issues and so has not opened, though its supporters continue to seek new funding on the official website. One wonders what sort of finances would be required to build the likes of House Stark’s seat, Winterfell, for real rather than just the CGI below.


A more successful experiment is that in Guédelon, France, where a 13th-century castle has been under construction for about 15 years.


Guédelon, pictured above in 2009, attracts about 300,000 people a year, which is nothing to be sniffed at.

I’ve always been fascinated by living history buffs and experimental archaeology. For people in those fields, it’s not enough just to learn about history, they want to experience what it was like for themselves, or at least as close as one can get in the 21st century.

The whole idea of building medieval structures also catches my imagination. I’ve been to sites like Carcassonne and Urbino, where the modern mingles with the medieval, and I’ve always been struck not just by the style of architecture but how it has endured and been adapted over the centuries.

I’m not sure where my love of architecture comes from. I’ve always liked the combination of form and function. Part of me wonders if it’s a consequence of, or an attempt to foster the memory of, my father’s father, who was an architect but who died before I was born.

There’s also the sense of imposing on the landscape, of effectively becoming the landscape once the structure has been there for a particular length of time. There are certainly any number of medieval sites scattered across Ireland, some like Ross Castle in Co Kerry or the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary as established tourist attractions, others less so. The blog Time Travel Ireland profiles many of those sites off the beaten track and is well worth having a poke through.

I must do more on historical sites and the various books I have about them. History actually is all around us. In some places you have to look a little bit harder than others, but what you might find can be very rewarding.

Research topics

Cross-posted at Chronica Minora

Working on a PhD can be a very isolating experience, even if you’re around loved ones. It’s never easy to explain what you’re doing – not only do you feel self conscious, but for those of us in what you might call more esoteric fields, it can be downright embarrassing.

It’s not that what we exegetical and intellectual historians are doing anything bad, per se. But explaining that you’re examining Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as aneschatological text is going to get you some strange looks. The “ecclesiastical” part will catch the attention for some. The “eschatological” will make others look at you strangely. Explaining what eschatology means is bad enough. I study how Bede built his mental world and how his beliefs about the end of time and geography influenced how he wrote. However, the mention of apocalyptic thinking concerning a Christian writer tends to get you pigeon-holed unnecessarily, and often without follow-up questions. You can tell by the look in the eyes.

So it was with some relief and not a bit of anticipation that myself and 9  fellow Bedans got together at University College Cork last week for a symposium on our research concerning the man himself.

No need to be embarrassed. No need to explain the basics for those who’ve never heard of the guy. Just a chance to talk about the research and bounce a few ideas around the table without an audience. It was also a chance to meet with Peter Darby, who has just published a book on Bede and the end of time (which gave me unfounded panic attacks concerning my own PhD). He’s rather nice.

What was particularly interesting was the breadth of our studies, and we were just a small band of Bedan scholars in one part of the world (from peoples once described byCummian as “pimples on the face of the Earth“, I must add). Even where our work was in a similar broad field – such as mine and Peter’s – we have gone about it in completely different ways and looked at different source material in many areas.

Many of us, in fact all of us except for Peter, have been moulded in some ways byJennifer O’Reilly, who also attended the roundtable. At a conference in Galwayrecently I and a couple of other graduates from Cork’s medieval studies courses were described as “the grandchildren of Jennifer O’Reilly”, which has a certain accuracy. Her analysis of Bede’s ouevre has greatly influenced all of our work, which was apparent during the discussion.

In many ways, we are following in her footsteps, while synthesising an array of different materials into new, original works. Bede might approve.


"My heart is broken and my blood is boiling"

(Cross-post from Chronica Minora)


That is how Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, feels about the wanton destruction carried out by looters in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. If you haven’t read the story, here it is in Dr Hawass’ words:

As every one knows, the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, is naturally lit and due to the architectural style of it, there are glass windows on its roof.  The criminals broke the glass windows and used ropes to get inside, there is a distance of four metres from the ceiling to the ground of the museum.  The ten people broke in when I was at home and, although I desperately wanted to go to the museum, I could not leave my house due to the curfew. In the morning, as soon as I woke up, I went directly there…   Luckily, the criminals who stole the jewellery from the gift shop did not know where the jewellery inside the museum is kept.  They went into the Late Period gallery but, when they found no gold, they broke thirteen vitrines and threw the antiquities on the floor.  Then the criminals went to the King Tutankhamun galleries.  Thank God they opened only one case!  The criminals found a statue of the king on a panther, broke it, and threw it on the floor.

But apart from damaging priceless artifacts – and for a rough list of what was damaged, see Eloquent Peasant – two mummies were destroyed and had their heads ripped off.  The mummies, which have not yet been identified in the media, may have been those of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, and were among the best-preserved in the museum’s holdings.

It’s possible, based on what I’ve read on Twitter and elsewhere, that the plan was to sell these on the black market. The salaries of many Egyptians are so low, and unemployment is so high (these are some of the reasons people have been protesting for the last week) that it might be a temptation too far for some. That the would-be thieves came in through the roof suggests a certain element of organisation and planning, although nothing more has been said about them.

Quite apart from attempting to steal some of the most priceless treasures any civilisation has produced, the desecration of the dead is something I find particularly horrifying. Whether it was Carter hacking up Tutankhamum in order to remove him from the coffin, or this atrocity, the destruction of a corpse is just unforgivable. I accept that removing the bodies from their original context in their tombs was, in itself, disturbing the dead, but as it was for their long-term preservation and safeguarding it was clearly for the best. What happened in the Cairo museum was mindless vandalism and cruelty, depriving not only the dead of their dignity but future generations of the chance to learn of and see these historical figures first-hand.

Perhaps part of my disgust is that mummification keeps the bodies so close to the state in which they were in at death. I think this adds to the horror of what happened, because these criminals destroyed two bodies which were clearly identifiable. I can only wonder at the inner workings of whoever could bring themselves to do this. Like Dr Hawass, my blood too is boiling. When I heard that the museum had been broken in to and mummies beheaded, my heart skipped a few beats. I have loved Egyptian history for as long as I can remember, and I am passionate about the preservation of all history. It is all part of human civilisation, and if we don’t remember and treasure what has gone before, what is the point of going forward?

Dr Hawass’ statement, which had to be faxed to Italy to be put online, as the Egyptian government has shut down the internet there, also mentions that stores of antiquities at various other dig sites have been looted. We can only hope that some of these can be recovered, but history teaches us that they may be gone unless turned in or otherwise stumbled across. In Cairo, Egyptian citizens mindful of their magnificent heritage surrounded the museum to keep looters out until the army could take control of the building. I am unsure what is happening at other sites.

While I know there are those who believe Dr Hawass to be more intent on grandstanding and seeking publicity, the fact remains that he is a master of his field and that his passion for antiquities sparks something in everyone who hears him. I met him once, very briefly, when he gave a guest lecture in UCC. I still have my lecture notes with his autograph, “Zahi”, scrawled across them. His enthusiasm for Egyptian archaeology and heritage was infectious, and so I know that his distress at what has happened is all the more intense.

“My heart is broken and my blood is boiling”. These words sum up the feelings of anyone who loves history and who shares the horror at the events of this week.


I’m also watching Egyptology News for updates on the situation.

UPDATE: 30/1/2011, 21.23: KV64 has more on the damage.

Faith convictions

I was asked a perplexing question recently. I had just spoken at a postgraduate seminar in Trinity College Dublin, delivering a paper called ‘”The allegory of so lamentable history”: The Old Testament influence on Bede’s understanding of apocalypse’ (see last abstract here for a similar, earlier paper). In it, I basically argued that Bede, an Anglo-Saxon historian in the eighth century, used the Bible to understand how the end would come for his people, and particularly that he used the book of Amos as a model for criticising corrupt elites.

Many medieval writers used the Bible in some sense to comment on or understand their own day, but some, like Gildas and to an extent Bede, saw in it actual prophecies of what was to come in their people’s history. All of which is pretty heavy going, I admit, but that is the world I am trying to decipher and analyse for my doctorate. The paper went well and there were good questions (and people had paid attention to our papers, which is a bonus). At the end the chairperson, a theology graduate, asked about the difference between theology and ideology in Bede’s work. In all honesty, I said that Bede would not necessarily have drawn a distinction: as far as he was concerned, a perfectly Christian kingdom was the ideal that the Anglo-Saxons should aspire to, and his work was partially designed to encourage the development of such a kingdom.

The chairperson felt that the use of the Bible to advocate national agendas was a travesty, a view I can fully understand although it does not apply to early medieval writing. As far as Bede was concerned, what he was doing was using the Bible to show how the English were part of a united Christianity: if the Bible and its messages could be shown to apply to the English, then that meant they were definitively part of the wider Christian world and were as important a part of it as somewhere like Rome. I appreciate that this is difficult to get across; I have spent more than a year working on this so it seems second nature to me. However, the chairperson came from a theological perspective, and a modern one at that, so it seemed like a travesty to use the Bible in this way. As I said, I understood where he was coming from.

After the meeting had broken up, he asked my colleague and I about our faith convictions. I wasn’t enormously pleased about this, as I believe such things are personal and you shouldn’t be put on the spot about them, although I know he did not mean anything by it really. But I had to think quickly to try and sum up some ambivalent and unarticulated thoughts that have bubbled away in my brain. It reminded me of the immigration forms for Abu Dhabi, which ask you to specify religion and sect: these signifiers of identity can mean a great deal while also meaning one must step outside old familiar zones. I gave a probably wholly unsatisfying answer referring to nominality, acceptance, etc, summed up with “I’m neutral but friendly”.

In history, we always strive for (or at least are supposed to strive for) objectivity, removing ourselves from the subject and analysing it critically. Naturally, this can only ever be an aspiration: everybody has some interpretation or reading of the text that is affected by their experience to date. And there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, although it should be recognised at least.

I tend to approach things from a literary criticism point of view, although that is usually over-ruled by historical analysis. I think what the chairperson was really wondering was if our faith convictions had determined or influenced our papers, or our interpretation of how the writers used their sources (my colleague gave a paper on early modern uses of the Bible in apocalyptic scenarios). It did not: we merely examined how medieval historians had used the Bible as a source. But his question did make me think, and I am not sure I could ever give a proper answer.

[Cross-posted at Chronica Minora]

Moving on in circles

I’ve been working on the PhD for about six weeks now (it seems like much longer) and I’m trying to throw myself into as much as I can. I taught writing skills in October, and until the end of this month I’m teaching medieval history tutorials for first years. They’re a tough crowd.

But no sooner do I feel like I’m getting on top of things than something new and massive lumbers over the horizon. In this case, several somethings. Conferences and seminars. I’m attending one at the weekend, which I’m not delivering a paper at but which I’ll use as a chance to see what other PhD candidates are doing in the humanities. Meanwhile, I’ve submitted abstracts for two and been accepted for one, a postgrad series in Dublin. The other I’ve heard not a word about for sure. I have two conferences and another seminar series to submit ideas for, which is going to keep me busy. I was able to get the bulk of one paper written today but there’s a lot of finnicky detail to do yet. Plus it looks like going way over the allotted 15 minutes.

It’s a very strange experience going back to your MA thesis and referencing it in a conference paper. It’s almost like going back over ground that is far too familiar, while almost being like delving into a difficult past that you’d like to keep closed just a while longer. When the PhD loomed I was sure I’d have the momentum to just plough into it, but the day I submitted the MA I realised I wanted nothing more to do with the writer in question (Bede) or the era of history in general (early medieval Anglo-Saxons).

I knew there was no way out of it, but I promised myself that I’d spend some time writing about something else. Anything else, just not Bede. I needed to plug out of that mental world and recharge. And yet, slowly but surely, I found myself returning to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the people it documents and the tales it tells.

One strength of the department I’m in is that there is a postgraduate seminar series where the student can pick the topic of their paper. And so, one day, almost without realising it, I started fleshing out the idea for a paper based around Dryhthelm, an Anglo-Saxon who lived around the year 700 and who Bede says was brought back to life to pass on a vision of heaven and hell. Dryhthelm came up in my MA thesis, but only as an example. This time around he will be the focus of a paper in his own right, and it’s quite likely he’ll end up a chapter or significant section in the PhD.

I’m not sure whether or not I should be annoyed with myself for breaking my internal promise to avoid Bede for a while, but the brain is in session and heading somewhere, at least. Perhaps it’s worth noting that, much like the people I’m writing about believed the world would end when it returned to the condition in which it began, I’ve come around in my own mental circle and am back where I started, only further on down the road. It’s surprisingly close to how the early medieval writers understood the nature of time.

It feeds in to the work I’m doing at the moment. The paper I’m writing has nothing to do with Drythelm but something else that’s cropped up in my reading, which lately has been how early medievalists (and indeed Bible writers) understood how the world would end. It’s a bit different to what I’ve done before, but is closely tied to the main themes of my PhD, so, even if the paper goes down like a lead balloon, I should have some substantial work done for it regardless.

Between the two parallel ideas that are running through my brain at the moment, I’ve written close to 4,000 words. Not all of it will be kept, but some of it will be fleshed out and expanded in significant detail. Which, six weeks in to a three-year PhD programme that requires me to write 80,000 words, is not a bad thing at all.