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Melissa Snell

Medieval History


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A Little News

Thursday April 24, 2014

This week, just a few items about treasure, an archaeological find, and a modern look at a medieval king's skull.

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Burgundy and the Burgundians

Wednesday April 23, 2014

The region in France that's associated with a fine wine and a deep red color has a history going back far into the early Middle Ages. Learn about the Germanic people who gave their name to Burgundy, the early medieval kingdom that rose there, and the duchy it became in this introduction.

A New Religion

Wednesday April 16, 2014

As most Christians (and many non-Christians) know, the early followers of Jesus were persecuted by the authorities in the Roman Empire. Christians were blamed for the Great Fire in Rome and thrown to the lions; many zealous converts were ostracized, exiled and even executed for their faith. At one point, it even became illegal to be a Christian in Rome.

Yet in the Middle Ages, an overwhelming percentage of the population of western Europe was Christian, and the bishop of Rome -- the pope -- was such a powerful cleric that the few kings who dared to disobey his commands found themselves in some difficult situations. The Christian Church had become the most influential institution in the western world.

How did this change come about? How could what can only be described as a sect within Judaism become a full-fledged, independent religion? What events made Christianity change from an oppressed and illegal following to the triumphant and official creed of the Roman Empire? And how did the city of Rome become the center of Christianity in the west?

Get the answers in the very basic introduction, A New Religion.

News Bits

Wednesday April 9, 2014

This week, just a few stories about sunken ships, found communities, and the return of what was lost.

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Rest in Peace, Jacques Le Goff

Wednesday April 2, 2014

Through works like The Birth of Europe and Medieval Civilization, groundbreaking historian Jacques Le Goff helped us all understand that the Middle Ages were not a time of darkness but the era in which many of our most fundamental modern western principles were formed. He did a great deal to change the focus of learning about the past from politics and events to attitude and anthropological matters. Two of his books are on my shelf (and several more on my wish list). Jacques Le Goff's impact has been strong these last several decades, and his works will continue to influence and inform for decades to come.

Jacques Le Goff died in Paris on Tuesday at the age of 90.

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King Francis I

Monday March 31, 2014

A supporter of the arts, Francis I of France invited Leonardo da Vinci to spend his declining years at his summer residence. Legend has it the artist died in the arms of the king. What was this Renaissance king like? Find out in his Who's Who Profile.

More Glossary Terms

Monday March 31, 2014
What can I say? I just added them and I thought you might like to know about them.

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Rats not to blame for the Black Death?

Monday March 31, 2014

Every now and then some scientist or other comes out with an article or book or monograph on how the disease of the Black Death could not have been Bubonic Plague, or how "evidence shows" that multiple diseases were involved in the pandemic. Usually, they're waving their papers under our noses without first looking at the entire known history of events. Now a new theory is here to exonerate those sweet little rodents that we've always blamed as carriers (oh Remy, won't you cook me a nice batch of Ratatouille?)

Everything you know about the Black Death is wrong, claims Terrence McCoy at the Washington Post. Um, really? Everything? And Black Death wasn't actually bubonic plague, Kate Seamons of Fox News tells us. Hmmm. Why, then, did period sources describe victims with black buboes?

If you've read our little feature Death Defined, you know that scholars long ago concluded that four different manifestations of the disease spread during those horrible years. This included Bubonic, which was transmitted by fleas living on infected rats; and Pneumonic, which was airborne. The Bubonic form, which was survivable, spread more slowly and killed more slowly than the Pneumonic; but both were caused by the same bacterium, yersinia pestis. And let's not forget the Septicemic variety, which could kill a healthy individual virtually overnight if an open sore came into contact with the infection. The speed of transmission varied greatly, and the different forms of the disease can explain why.

The recent discovery of 25 skeletons under London's Charterhouse Square has provided scientists with some fascinating new data. But does any of it really contradict what we already know? Check out this article by Jill Lawless of the Associated Press, made available at SFGate, and decide for yourself.

And please, think twice before you try to pet any of the critters that may be residing in your walls.

Is graffiti Art? In this case, it's evidence

Monday March 31, 2014

There's an ongoing discussion about modern graffiti. Is it art, or is it just vandalism? Personally, I believe that some graffiti is most definitely art, and I admire the renegade artists who made blank walls and train cars much more interesting and, yes, beautiful with their talents. On the other hand, anyone who tags art that's already been created (a mural in Austin springs to mind) is just displaying childish stupidity.

But we tend to forget that graffiti can also be a historian's friend. When archaeologists uncover long-buried buildings and discover names or slogans scratched into the walls, scholars of many disciplines tend to get pretty excited.

So here's a rather exciting story at BBC News about graffiti on the wall of a church in Suffolk, England -- not art, but an autograph by 15th-century poet John Lydgate.

Is it really Richard?

Sunday March 30, 2014

In case you haven't been keeping up with it, in August, 2012, skeletal remains were found under a parking lot in Leicester, where scholars theorized the burial site of King Richard III of England might be. The skeleton, which had a curved spine as Richard is thought to have had, was tested for DNA, which was compared to that of two known descendants of Richard's family. In February, 2013, the tests confirmed what scholars had been hoping for: the skeletal remains were Richard's.

But now two respected academic authorities are challenging this conclusion. Michael Hicks, a professor of history at Winchester University and a Ricardian expert, has pointed out that the DNA doesn't necessarily confirm that the skeleton is Richard. Because the DNA is mitochondrial -- from the maternal-line -- and remains basically unchanged for generations, the skeleton could be any of dozens of individuals who were descended from the same women Richard was descended from. And archaeologist Martin Biddle, who was at one time a fellow of medieval archaeology at Oxford University, maintains that records on the excavation have yet to be published and more work is necessary to establish how many burials took place at that site.

Do these serious scholars have a point? (or two, or ten?) Or are they just throwing a wet blanket on the exciting fire of academic discovery? Find out in these articles:

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