Imagine stumbling across an 800 year old gravesite. An amazing find to be sure, but even more startling, the skeleton is completely intact except for the head which is resting on the legs. Or how about a skull with a brick jammed into its mouth, skeletons with feet and hands lopped off, leg bones broken, or actually staked to the ground?
Ever since I learned of humiliation wounds inflicted on King Richard III after his death, I’ve been wondering if such behavior was rare or the norm. As I’ve stated before, in the Middle Ages death was a public spectacle. And it appears that public opinion mattered to an enormous extent.
Archeologist Caroline Arcini of Sweden’s National Heritage Board has documented over 600 burials all over the world where corpses were found buried face-down. She’s of the opinion that “shaming the dead is a deep-rooted human trait.” This echoes other scientists’ opinions of corpses in Europe found in the prone position, that these people lived some type of deviant life, for example witches, rule-breakers, prisoners, and the like, and hence deserved a burial that deviated from the normal practices.
Normal Christian burial meant the body was laid to rest face-up with feet to the East and head to the West. The arms rested at the sides or perhaps crossed over the chest. The majority of the face-down gravesites were found outside sanctioned church yards.
But these latest deviant burials add a whole new level of bizarre. Why would the living do this to the dead?
Recent text discoveries prove the manifestation of superstition and the grip it had on medieval society. At that time bacteria and infection passing from person to person was not understood, nor how disease could spread from place to place. Deaths that came on suddenly or tragically led to the belief that the departed souls would not pass onto the next world. Overcome with fear of the unknown, medieval society tried to find answers. So, when someone died in a disturbing way, they wanted to be certain these people never rose up again to torment them. Laying their fears to rest made them feel better, feel safe. Hence, they buried these bodies dismembered or staked into the ground to be sure the dead stayed dead.
Deviant burials appear to trail off during the 1200s when the Church spread its influence to create more civilized communities and provide localized support.
But even with this understanding of the medieval mindset, it’s still really creepy.
I’m starting to wonder: every time a shovel digs down into English soil, does it hit treasure or skeletons? Three years ago, the University of Durham in northeast UK planned a new extension to the library but came up instead with a huge archaeological find: two mass graves appearing to date back to 1650.
They are believed to be the final resting place of Scottish soldiers who’d fought against Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar. Afterward, many of the Scots fell ill and died, and more along the way as Cromwell marched the prisoners to the former monastery at Durham, which later became the University. The story of the 3000 able-bodied young men was well documented but the actual gravesites were unknown.
The relatively small mass graves hold skeletons piled one on top of another. If the historical estimate is accurate, the number could reach sixteen hundred. Foreign bodies within the graves have already been discovered, likely a few Dutchmen who had fought alongside the Scots.
Imprisoning large groups was rare in medieval days. Lords captured were often ransomed, but usually the vanquished were either executed or enslaved. It was much more common for whole towns and villages to be enslaved to the conquering army. But in this case, Cromwell could not allow the Scots to continue to fight against him for their choice to the throne, King Charles II. Yet, Cromwell agonized over their suffering and demise, explaining in a letter to his peers that everything was being done for the soldiers. The officers fared better, as did the Highlanders, but they still succumbed up to 100 a day. Scientists now believe that the Scots were suffering not from dysentery but refeeding syndrome. They had gone without food for 3 days prior to the battle, and by the time they reached Durham, they had not eaten properly for 8 days.
One hundred and fifty Scottish soldiers who survived this ordeal were put on a ship bound for the English Colonies. Fulfilling Cromwell’s original intent, they were sent to work in the lumber industry and iron works in support of English ship-building. Eventually, the Scots earned their freedom and many chose to remain in New England.
Ten years ago, my local library held a Medieval-themed summer reading event featuring a group of real knights. Of course, I was all over it and jazzed when I saw these knights go steel-on-steel in full armor. This is no reenactment – it’s the real deal. That day I met Buck Holmes. He and his current group, The Knightly Order of the Fiat Lux, use their talents to raise money for charity. In addition, they help me choreograph fight scenes for my stories and answer my questions about weapons and tactics. It is an honor to welcome him to Oath of Iron.com.
Karen: All hail Sir Buck! The obvious first question is when and how did you become interested in being a knight?
Sir Buck: I got into Dungeons and Dragons when I was 12 which got me interested in legends and lore, especially from the Middle Ages. Once I started reading stories about King Arthur, I was hooked.
Karen: I know you’re an avid reader – how much does your interest in Medieval times affect what you read? Favorite authors and books?
Sir Buck: The vast majority of things I read is Fantasy or Medieval (fiction and non-fiction), so quite a bit. I have a lot of favorites: Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, the history books of Barbara Tuchman. I highly recommend Chretien de Troyes as well.
Karen: Does the armor you wear reflect a specific time period? If so, why did you choose that time?
Sir Buck: Our primary concern in KOFL is safety – we try to avoid historically accurate injuries as much as possible. So we often have to suspend historical accuracy for safety and cost concerns. Keeping up your harness (suit of armor) is time consuming and expensive. As much as possible, my armor is based after 13th century English knights. In my opinion that was when knights were the coolest. And the period was when a lot of the Arthurian and Robin Hood myths were created (basically). I love the barrel helm and surcoat look.
Karen: It’s very impressive. How much weight are you carrying when you are fully suited up?
Sir Buck: Only 60 to 80 pounds.
Karen: Only? That sounds like alot!
Sir Buck: It’s well distributed across my body so it’s not too bad. I would rather walk around with 60 pounds of armor than carry a 30 pound backpack. Plus, when you are wearing full armor, it makes you feel really macho or something so the joy is bigger than the burden. Until the temperature gets over 85 degrees.
Karen: How much does your sword weigh?
Sir Buck: Only 2 to 3 pounds. Swords were not as heavy as a lot of people believe.
Karen: What are your favorite weapons to fight with?
Sir Buck: My two favorites are longsword and sword & shield. German Longsword has a a rich history as a martial art. But sword and shield feels the most “knightly”.
Karen: What pieces of your armor wear out or break the most from battle?
Sir Buck: Interesting question. The cloth, I think. You wear padding or heavy cloth under your maille so that padding and the surcoat often rips. It also gets funky smelling and stained due to sweat and rust (just to be honest). Pins and straps break a lot as well, making the piece of armor useless until fixed. Butted maille (as oppose to riveted) will break easily so you need to be careful how you use butted maille. We tend not use it.
Karen: What is the visibility like from inside your helm?
Sir Buck: Once you train yourself how to look out, it’s pretty good. It’s similar to wearing glasses or watching action on a stage. You lose peripheral vision and some low vision (along the ground), you have to learn to adjust your head movements to compensate. I think the helm interferes with hearing more than vision. Most of us are wearing two layers of padding under the helm and over our ears so the marshals have to shout and repeat themselves to make sure everybody hears what is being said.
Karen: What does it feel like to take a blow to the head? Do you feel the hits to your body?
Sir Buck: If your helmet is set up right, a blow to the head will feel like a punch to the head. Not comfortable but not bad. A really good hit will “ring” you, much like what you see in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. But those are rare. I guess I feel about half of the hits on the body. Mostly it depends upon the exact location and the angle of the attack. Gussets (spots where the armor isn’t as strong, like the inside of the elbows, back of the knees, and the armpits) are the worst spots to get hit in. A really good hit will leave a bruise, even where the armor is strongest.
Karen: Have you ever been injured to the point of needing medical attention?
Sir Buck: I broke my collar bone fighting a woman once. I have also probably broken my fingers and toes but I didn’t go to the doctor for that.
Karen: You’re tough. How long can you do battle before your arms give out?
Sir Buck: Going full out, only two or three minutes. Past that you need to stop, readjust, grab a breather, etc. After about 30 minutes of being in the field, I’m done. It’s about the same as a boxing match: you rush in, take a rest, wind down as the fight goes on and by the end of it, you just want to collapse.
Karen: We’ve all heard myths about knights and/or their armor – which is your favorite? What is the truth?
Sir Buck: My least favorite is the one that comes to mind first: that knights waddled out into battle and bashed each other until somebody fell down. Knights were mobile, could easily get up if they fell, and relied on speed and skill as much as brute force. In KOFL, we run around, fall, get up, and jump around in our armor. And if overweight, middle-aged guys from the 20th century can do all that, I know medieval knights could do more.
Karen: I’ve seen you guys dance in your armor so I know that to be true! You and your fellow Knights of the Fiat Lux fight for charity – which ones?
Sir Buck: Just about anything that helps the needy. We donate to Autism Society of NC a lot; they are a great organization that does a lot of good. We are also proud to donate to Wounded Warrior Project to try to repay a little of the debt we owe wounded veterans. Each year we set up charity goals called “Dragons.” So our charities change from year to year and chapter to chapter.
Sir Buck: We try to use all of our nerdly talents to help the community. So we also play games for charity. Our 7th annual Fantasy Gamer’s Conclave is on July 25 and 26 in Cary, NC. All proceeds from this event will be donated to the Autism Society of NC. We will have fight demonstrations, RPGs, board games, card games, miniature games, a Retro Video Game Museum, and an Anachronic Tea on Sunday.
Karen: Sounds fun! Anything else you might want to add?
Sir Buck: I am very proud of the Knightly Order. We are from many different backgrounds, lifestyles, and faiths. And yet we respect each other and work together to help the community (and bash each other in the head). My hope is that we can show others that it is possible to make things better.
Karen: Well met! Thank you, Sir Buck and my best to you and all the Knights.
King Richard died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, England, ending the 200 year rule of the Plantegents. He was killed by Henry Tudor thus ending the wars for the throne known as the Wars of the Roses. The Tudors reigned for the next 100 years.
In the Fall of 2012, King Richard’s remains were discovered buried under a parking lot in Leicester in the foundation of Grey Friars Church. Now that scientists and experts have had time to study his remains, some startling facts have emerged. Scientists extracted DNA from his teeth while historians tracked down a modern day descendant. The mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the female line, continued 17 generations and led to 2 descendants. Their DNA samples proved the connection and identified King Richard; only 1-2% of the population carries this close of a match.
Now King Richard is about to get the works, that is, have his entire genome sequenced. While it may prove interesting to learn more about his physical characteristics such as eye and hair color, there is a much bigger prospect afoot. It was obvious even at the dig site that he had scoliosis: a three-dimensional twisting of the spine. Studies of his bones revealed that he was not born with it but developed it between the ages of 10 and 13. There is no known cure for scoliosis but it is believed that genetics play a role.
One more startling fact is that the remains were found on the first day exactly where they started digging. It almost seems as if the king was meant to be found. Now computers and technology will allow sequencing of his DNA before he is finally laid to rest.
Controversy has surrounded him in both life and death, but perhaps his scurrilous legacy will be replaced by a more positive one, a cure for scoliosis.
Also known as the horseman’s hammer since it was often wielded by a knight on horseback, the war hammer was first documented in the late 14th century as a response to the ever-increasing use of plate armor.
Roughly 2 feet (61 cm) in length, the typical war hammer resembles a carpenter’s hammer with a blunt head at one end, and a solid spike instead of a claw on the other. Models from the 1400s began to feature another spike added to the top, creating a tri-pronged weapon. The haft, constructed of wood and iron, or full iron or steel, provided the strength necessary to inflict serious damage. Similar to a mace, the blunt end could stun an opponent, dent plate (or shatter poorly-forged plate) or fracture bones beneath any type of armor. The added benefit? The broad-based spikes delivered blows that penetrated and pierced armor. The top spike provided the coup de grace, allowing for a quick, two-fisted end.
No doubt, being a knight was a serious business. In populated towns, knights were the only ones authorized by the king to carry weapons. Hence, they were the law enforcement officers of the Middle Ages. Certainly it was an honor to serve their sovereign lord on earth, but their responsibility stretched beyond, to serving their heavenly Father as well.
The knighting began with a cleansing bath, followed by all-night prayers, and the ceremony taking place in a church the next morning. Men who proved themselves in battle could be knighted on the field or on “the fly” due to war, but such occasions were rare. In any case, the knight-to-be swore fealty to his lord and to God before witnesses. A knight’s duties included defending the weak, orphaned, widowed, and oppressed, giving special care and good counsel to women, defending his fellow knights and never running from a fight. During knighting, his sword and shield as well as his person were prayed over, so that God would grant him the strength to hold to his oath, and wield his weapons appropriately. His sword was then girded to his waist.
Thus, knights were viewed as God’s judicial arm on earth. If any of their vows were broken, it was an affront not only to a knight’s sovereign lord but more importantly to God; broken oaths held divine retribution and eternal consequences.
The hilt of the Christian knight’s sword, with its straight cross guard perpendicular to the blade, created a cross that he wielded and carried on his person at all times. It was a constant reminder of the duties he had sworn to fulfill.
Timbuktu: the name conjures images of a welcome oasis in the desert, an exotic city in the middle of nowhere. Located in Mali along the Niger River at the edge of the Sahara, this city began life as a settlement for trade. Established in the 5th century and peaking at the beginning of the 16th, Timbuktu attracted Muslim scholars. Manuscripts were collected, copied, and sold; books and the trading thereof became part of the local culture.
As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Timbuktu continues to celebrate its history. But over the past year, militants took control, and were shockingly bent on destruction. On purpose, half of the city’s 16 mausoleums were damaged as well as tombs and mosques, one of which has stood since 1325. The manuscripts were also in peril.
At times prosperous, at others desolate, this city has seen it all before and her people knew what to do – they hid the 30,000 to 40,000 manuscripts. Praise God they are now free again.
The people of Timbuktu risked their lives to save their heritage and culture. Preserving and protecting these valuable artifacts is a centuries-old tradition, one they intend to keep no matter who rolls into town.
Perhaps they are not warriors in the traditional sense, but they inspire none the less.
7,000 warriors standing ready for battle fully armed with swords, axes, lances, spears, and crossbows. But these warriors never put their weapons to use. The terra cotta army discovered in the mausoleum of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) is known the world over. The warriors are made of clay but the weapons are real.
Archeologists have always wondered how this vast amount of weapons, to the tune of tens of thousands, could have been manufactured with such quality and uniformity. For some time, it has been believed that the weapons were mass produced and assembled in a line (Fordism), meaning less skilled workers doing repetitive tasks. But new evidence proves otherwise.
40,000 bronze arrowheads found in the tomb were tested and revealed unique chemical signatures based on location, indicating different batches were made at each site. The conclusion is multiple autonomous workshops operated at the same time to produce finished products, such as quivers filled with 100 bamboo-shafted arrows adorned with feathers.
Standardization of weapons and this cellular production method (Toyotism) means repairs and replacements could take place quickly on the battlefield or far from home, which may be why the Qin army was so successful in ending centuries of war and uniting China under single rule.
Interested in learning more about how Qin Shi Huang built his terracotta army?
A dead body discovered in digging up a modern day parking lot. Ancient records show the burial was beneath an old friary. The skull, severely fractured, and a metal arrowhead still embedded in the spine. But these are not just any skeletal remains, but possibly those of a king.
Sounds like the latest BBC Mystery, but this is a real life one. And the remains are being tested to determine if it is the body of King Richard III, who ruled for only 2 short years and died at the age of 32 in the Battle of Bosworth on August, 22 1485. Historic accounts state he died from a violent blow to the head by a poleaxe or halberd, driving his helmet into his skull. His body was carried to a local friary and, by one account, buried beneath the choir floor.
Whether that part is true or not, it begs the question – did the good friars fear people might desecrate the grave? Absolutely. Historical accounts tell of how two young princes mysteriously disappeared from the Tower of London (the Royal residence at the time) following their being declared illegitimate heirs, thus making Richard III king of England. Many believed Richard had the boys executed, although there is considerable debate about their fate. But if many people at the time believed Richard of foul play, the friars placed his body where no one would have an easy time finding it. And thus it remained, until now.
King Richard III was the last English king to be killed in battle.