Medieval(ish) matters #2: arrows in the eye, The Last Kingdom, Viking dogs

Some medieval injuries don't just make for grimly fascinating reading; they can also tell us an amazing amount of detail about weapons and warfare. HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove rounds up the latest medieval (and other) content on the web this week – from podcasts to drama…

Image of a medieval skull showing arrow injury

Getting an arrow in the face in the Middle Ages must have been a singularly unpleasant experience. I’ve been reading a paper just out in the Antiquaries Journal called The face of battle? Debating arrow trauma on medieval human remains from Princesshay, Exeter, which describes research into some skeletal remains that were buried in a Dominican Friary in Exeter, now underneath a shopping centre.

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The researchers have been able to show that one unfortunate individual took an arrow (probably from a longbow) at the top of his right eye, which went out through the back of his head. That’s a very grim way to go. I’m always amazed at how much detail osteologists can draw from bone analysis. I was struck by the fact that the paper states that the arrow was probably spinning in a clockwise motion as it entered the skull; in other words, it was designed to spin to maintain its speed and accuracy, much as a modern gun bullet does (also clockwise – I don’t know if that is simply a reflection of gun manufacturers following past practice with arrow fletchers).

Anyway, I was wondering just exactly how they knew that, so I dropped an email to the lead researcher, Professor Oliver Creighton at Exeter University (who is also working on a fascinating project on medieval warhorses) and asked him. He said, “We tentatively think the arrow was spinning clockwise because microscopic analysis of the fractures emanating from the puncture wound on the skull shows that these (the cracks) consistently propagate in a clockwise direction”. Amazing. I was pleased to read in the conclusion to the report that ‘Our study brings into focus the horrific reality of such injuries’, and it very much does. What a gruesome way to go.

The researchers don’t actually know whether this individual was involved in a battle or not, but presumably there was some sort of conflict to deliver such a wound. They do make the point that injuries to the face were sometimes portrayed by contemporary writers as a divine punishment. The most famous person to die from an arrow in the eye was of course King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. Whether he did actually receive such an ocular injury has been disputed by a scholar of the Bayeux Tapestry, but Harold’s biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Robin Fleming, does make the point that it’s ‘a death associated in the middle ages with perjurers’ (Harold of course was said to have perjured himself by taking the crown when he’d supposedly made some sort of promise to support William). Makes one wonder about the manner and circumstances of this individual in Exeter’s demise. Incidentally, if you do want to look at the ODNB, you can get free access to it with a lot of local library cards (if you’re in the UK), so worth signing up with a library for that.

I’ve just finished writing a book on the Bayeux Tapestry, with Tapestry expert Professor Michael Lewis, and hopefully that’ll be out next year if you want more on that most famous embroidery. Of course, we still wait patiently for details of the loan of the Tapestry to Britain, as announced a couple of years ago now. Keep an eye on the site for any developments there.

What else? I’m sure lots of you are now getting well into The Last Kingdom. I think it’s pretty good drama and worth watching (if you’ve got Netflix). Read up on the real history behind the series here, and follow Ryan Lavelle’s episode-by-episode blog on it here.

If, like me, you’re marooned at home with school-age kids going a bit stir-crazy, you could get them to enter our brand-new postcard competition from BBC History Revealed Magazine. Get them to pick a historical figure from the past and send us a postcard from them. I made my kids do it (reluctantly I’ll admit, but they tend to rail against anything that smacks of history from me), and once they got started, they loved it.

I’m biased but I think our podcasts have been great this week. Valerie Hansen on globalism in the year 1000 is a corker, and Dan Jackson on Northumbria is full of great stories, from Bede to coal-mining, including this one on the drunkard’s cloak. Tomorrow is VE Day, of course, which is clearly not medieval, but Dan Todman will be talking about it on Friday’s podcast.  I’ve just recorded a podcast with Dr James Chetwood about his research into the changing nature of personal names in England from 800-1300, and what that tells us about society generally. That is a fascinating topic, and one that will I’m sure make good listening, particularly for enthusiasts of unusual and downright rude names.

In other news, I was interested to read that researchers think they have discovered a ‘hidden fort associated with William Wallace’ by stitching together aerial drone photography. If you want to know more about Wallace, this is a good introduction. 

Also in aerial discovery news, down in Devon, another potential find has been reported, of Bronze Age forts, by a local amateur using Lidar (3D laser scanning technology).  That one needs a bit more investigation, but it’s a reminder, if you need it, that Lidar is a great resource for studying the landscape, and anyone can do it because it’s pretty easy to get Lidar images on the web. As. It happens, I was talking about this the other day on Twitter, because I’d been for a short lockdown walk around the fields near me and been surprised at how clear the medieval ridge and furrow remains were (don’t know why I’d never noticed before). I went home and looked on google maps to see the outlines and then found some great free Lidar resources too. If you’re bored and want to do some aerial research yourself, it’s easy to do – the National Library of Scotland is great for old maps and Lidarfinder for Lidar images.

I particularly liked one Lidar image I saw on twitter of an undeniable actual historical site, one of the Viking Age ring-forts that survive in Denmark and Sweden. Check it out, it shows just how geometrically perfect the fort is. Beautiful.

Talking Vikings, my interview with Professor Judith Jesch about the Viking Age is going live this Sunday in our ‘Everything you want to know’ podcast series. What Judith doesn’t know about this topic probably isn’t worth knowing, so have a listen in where she answers your (and Google’s) questions. We don’t talk about Viking warrior women though, because you can already read about that on the site or listen to Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir talk about it on the podcast here

And I expect you’re desperate for an update on my ongoing efforts to learn Old Norse. Well I’m two weeks in and I’m making progress. I’ve swapped from the book I was using (Viking Language 1, by Jesse L. Byock, which is great but a bit hard-core for me at the moment – I’ll come back to it I’m sure)  to the Old Norse for Beginners website that Dr Chris Callow suggested to me last week. If you have any aspirations to try your hand at Old Norse, I’d thoroughly recommend this site. It’s simple and understandable and doesn’t feel too scary with a series of short manageable lessons (I’ve been trying to put in an hour a day, pre-dawn, before kids and work kick in). It also has some nice little exercises at actual translation, that are directly linked to what you’ve just been learning, so you can genuinely feel like you’re making progress, even if you are just translating a very pedestrian conversation between two putative Vikings talking about their mutual admiration for cheese (ostr) and fish (fiskr). I’ve had a couple of comments from other people who are learning Old Norse too, so I might go into more detail about what I’ve found helpful in a separate post, if anyone is interested.

I’ve gone back to reading some of the sagas (in translation, come on: I’m not that good after two weeks), to remind myself of why I’m trying to learn the language. Though they have to be treated very critically as sources for the Viking Age, they are great reads, and worth a few hours of anyone’s time. I’m enjoying the Saga of the Vapnfjord men at the moment, which is a strange tale of people wronging each other and offering deliverance by return. There are alway little references that make you stop and pause. For instance, in this one, I’m diverted by a mention of a ‘well-attended games’ at one point. What went on there, what games were they playing? If any Viking experts are reading this, I’ll probably find out soon enough. Anyway, that Saga is curious, but it’s not as odd as the the Saga of Áli flekkr. Dr Caitlin Ellis has been tweeting about an article that she’s co-written about that saga, and it’s worth a look. That really is a bizarre tale of very liberally flung-about curses, and a lot of werewolf action (Twilight fans will probably enjoy it).

Don’t forget that we’re working on the video lectures for our virtual Medieval Life and Death week. We’ve got five speakers lined up to talk about various aspect of everyday life in the Middle Age. We’ll kick things off on 18 May, so look out for talks from Hannah Skoda, Elma Brenner, Chris Woolgar, Sally Dixon-Smith and Emma Wells then.

Finally, my favourite twitter feed of the week was also Viking-themed, and a discussion of Viking dogs, where some very esteemed scholars of the period talked about all the dogs they can think of in the literature. For dog or Viking fans (of which I’m both), it’s a treat.

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David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra