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Archive for the Category » Medieval «

Photo Tour: Leeds Castle

I was lucky enough to spend the summer and autumn of 2000 working in a suburb of London, and I tried to explore as much of London and the surrounding English countryside as possible during my sojourn.

One weekend near the end of September, I decided to visit Canterbury (hey, I was an English Lit. major…how could I forgo a chance to retrace the steps of the Wife of Bath?). On the way back to London, I decided to stop off at Leeds Castle.

The previous day had been uncharacteristically warm for England–82F and sunny. Alas, this brief interval of good weather did not last.

Ominously, the further I got from Canterbury, the cloudier it got. By the time I disembarked at Bearsted and hopped on the bus going to the castle, the sun had completely disappeared. I was hoping it was only fog– there’s nowhere in England that’s very far from the sea.

But the stopover proved well worth it. Leeds Castle is acres of eye candy– a postcard-perfect medieval castle in the middle of a lake, surrounded by miles of gorgeously-landscaped grounds.

I took the tour of castle first. Sadly, the foundations that owns the caste does not allow photos indoors, but it was still interesting. The building’s interior was a mix between medieval and modern (it was lived-in until about 1963, when the last owner, Lady Baillie, bequeathed it to a foundation to open to the public, because the upkeep — and the inheritance taxes– would have bankupted her heirs).

The core of the castle is Norman (those guys really went on a castle-building binge after conquering England in 1066), but with lots of later additions.

From the 13th-century on, the castle and the estate was a traditional gift of the kings of England to their queens, and most of the queens of England through Anne Boleyn were listed as owners of the Leeds Castle. From the 16th century on, it was owned by the Culpeper family and their descendents.

Although most of the rooms are furnished in the modern style, two of rooms, the Queen’s Bedroom and the Queen’s Bath, are furnished as they would have been for Queen Catherine de Valois in the early 1400′s. (Interesting tidbit: Queen Catherine, the wife of Henry V, married her Welsh gentleman-attendant, Owain Tudor, after Henry V died. She died in childbirth at the age of 36 or 37; he was executed by beheading for his presumption in marrying the Dowager Queen. Their descendants eventually rose to the throne of England.)

The castle grounds were filled with all sorts of cool stuff. They converted the medieval tithing-barn (where the portion of the crops due the lord of the estate by his tenant farmers was stored) into a restaurant. There was also a maze, a formal garden, and a Jacobean-style walled garden, with all sorts of sweet-smelling flowers laid out in geometric beds, divided by brick pathways.

My favorite, of course, was the exotic-bird aviary, complete with lots and lots of parrots: cockatoos, macaws, eclectuses, Amazons, lorikeets, conures, and toucans. Being off-season… and pouring rain by this time… I had the aviary all to myself. It was a hoot to see how the parrots reacted to the heavy downpour. Instead of huddling in their heated nestboxes, they came out in the large wired enclosures, hung upside down with wings and tails spread wide, and gleefully bathed in the rainshower.

(Lady Baillie, the final private owner of the castle, loved birds, and it was she who established the aviary at the castle. Her suite of rooms at the castle are decorated with paintings of birds and bird statues– a woman after my own heart!).

Soaked to the skin (I’d left my umbrella checked into the castle cloakroom, near the gates, along with my backpack), I decided to head home. It rained all the way back to London, but I was so glad I had decided to make this detour.

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Crusader Hospital Becomes A Tourism Center In Israel

Archaeology Magazine is reporting that building in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem which dates from the eleventh century will be opened to the public next year as a restaurant and visitor center following a long period of excavation and restoration.

This building was a hospital, drawing on Muslim medicine to treat patients during the Crusader period. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the hospital, operated by the Knights Hospitaller, was capable of serving 2,000 patients at a time, as well as serving as an orphanage.

“We’ve learned about the hospital from contemporary historical documents, most of which are written in Latin. These mention a sophisticated hospital that is as large and as organized as a modern hospital,” they said.


The newly-restored hospital in Jerusalem probably looks very similar to the one I visited on the island of Rhodes a few years ago, while doing research for the House of the Rose novels:

From In the Footsteps of the Crusaders
From In the Footsteps of the Crusaders

Photo Tour: Medieval English Castle

In August of 2000, Marian and I toured Orford Castle, located on the east coast of England, about halfway between London and Norwich.

At the time, I was working in London on a six-month software development project, and Marian came out to visit me for a couple of weeks, during which we did some on-site research in Belgium for the second half of Glass Souls and toured medieval sites in southwestern England. We were in the early stages of plotting a historical romance set in early 13th-century England (a book, alas, we never got around to writing) and decided that Orford Castle might be a good setting, so we took a detour on the way home to London and spent an afternoon visiting this extremely well-preserved medieval fortress.

Construction began on the castle in 1168, as part of King Henry II’s plan for improving England’s coastal defenses along the English Channel. It was intended to guard the harbor of Orford, then an important port.

The castle has an unusual polygonal shape, with two round Great Halls (one located in the lower story and one in the upper story), with a maze of tiny corridors leading to various chambers (kitchen, chapel, latrines, prison cells, etc.) around the perimeters of these halls. Since it was in the nature of a military barracks rather than a residence, some of the usual luxury features of a residential castle are not present at Orford Castle.

A complete floorplan can be found on Orford Castle’s Wikipedia page.

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King Richard’s Lionheart

This just in from France -

King Richard I, the 12th century warrior whose bravery during the Third Crusade gained him the moniker Lionheart, ended up with a heart full of daisies, as well as myrtle, mint and frankincense.

Those were among the findings of a French study, announced Thursday, which analyzed the embalmed heart of the English king more than 810 years after he died.

 Full Story:  http://www.sfgate.com/world/article/Spices-found-in-Lionheart-s-embalming-4319146.php#ixzz2MKYPVdE0

Massage And Medieval Medicine

I had a really nice massage this afternoon, with a bonus treatment I wasn’t expecting. Given that I spend a lot of time on the computer,  between my Day Job in IT, and the writing I do in the evenings and on the weekends, I try to schedule a deep-tissue massage every three weeks or so.

This time around, my cousin recommended a “medical spa” near my home. Ben, my massage therapist,  turned out to be a Chinese chiropractor, so my massage concluded with “cupping,” which (contrary to medieval European practice) proved to be painless. I was tickled to have such an ancient technique practiced on me.

First I was vigorously massaged, using a combination of shiatsu (pressing and stretching my knotted back and shoulder muscles through a towel) and Swedish massage, done directly on bare skin with massage lotion. I particularly love getting my hands massaged, with the MT loosening the tendons and ligaments in the palm, and stretching each finger and my wrists.

Once I’d been sufficiently tenderized (and was feeling so relaxed that I was floating in a trance-like state), Ben announced he was going to “cup” me. I had visions of the medieval European practice, and figured I was about to end up with a back full of giant hickeys.

Luckily, Ben’s treatment was far less extreme.

He first slathered a fragrant medicinal oil to my back, which felt cold at first then hot and slightly tingly, like a muscle rub.

Then I heard the clinking of glass and the sounds of a cigarette lighter being struck as he heated a glass cup from the inside using a cigarette lighter (I didn’t see this part, but heard enough to guess what was going on). The cup was then applied, upside down, to the oil-anointed skin of my back, where a slight vacuum seal formed. He slid the cup around my back (it didn’t give me the characteristic “hickey” mark I was expecting from cupping, mostly thanks to the oil, I think) until the seal broke, then he repeated the heating process, and reapplied the cup, sliding it around some more.

The effect was similar to someone using a massage roller on my back, with the putative added benefit of drawing bad qi (humors) from the skin (a very medieval concept, prevalent in the Galenic and Hippocratic theories of medicine). Now, I’m very much a believer in modern Western medicine (hurrah for germ theory, vaccinations, and antibiotics!) but the historian in me is fascinated with the survival of ancient medical traditions and their practice today. Especially when it’s something as harmless and gentle as cupping (I’d prefer not to be bled or purged, thank you very much!)

The treatment concluded with accupressure applied to various point on my scalp, as well as on my forehead, temples, and around my eyesockets.

After the treatment, once I’d dressed and oozed out to the reception area, feeling pleasantly boneless,  the receptionist informed that there had been a mixup with the gift voucher I was using, because I was supposed to also have gotten a foot reflexology treatment (another ancient medical treatment). My cousin (who had treated me with the gift voucher) and I decided to rebook for next Sunday…stay tuned for further adventures in medieval medicine!

House Of The Rose Photo Tour: Southern France And Constantinople

Medieval Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Languedoc (present-day south of France) play a large role in the House of the Rose series, beginning in Broken Gods (House of the Rose, Book 3). In 2008, I spent three weeks traveling through western Turkey, principally touring Hittite, Neolithic, Greek, and Roman sites, but also exploring some of the Byzantine and Ottoman cities as well. The last three days of the trip were spent in Istanbul, a beautiful city built on the hills overlooking clear blue waters, with a wealth of architectural and cultural treasures. There, I had the chance to visit some of the places that Marian and I wrote about for the House of the Rose novels. It was a wonderful experience, and I look forward to a return visit to Istanbul. The following year, I spent a month in Europe, included a visit to Southern France, which plays such a key part in the events of the final two books in the House of the Rose series. I was thrilled to spend a couple of days in Lyons, the setting for one of my favorite historical novels, Dorothy Dunnett’s Checkmate (The Lymond Chronicles), the climactic volume of her classic Lymond Chronicles. Of course, the old Roman cities of Orange, Nimes, and Arles were hugely interesting to me as well, especially since a number of the Roman public buildings are still being used: the amphitheater in Nimes  hosts bullfights (a blood sport that would have excited your average Roman citizen), and the theaters in Orange and Arles are still used for plays and concerts.

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In The Footsteps Of The Crusaders – The Templars And Hospitallers

Sunny skies, clear turquoise waters, and a harbor ringed with medieval fortification walls greeted me when I arrived on the island of Rhodes, former headquarters of the crusading order of the Knights of St. John (also known as the Hospitallers) via cruise ship in June of 2006.

Behind the honey-colored medieval stone walls still surrounding the Old Town of Rhodes, we could see the tops of palm trees, crenellated castle towers belonging to the Hospitallers, and the slender white spire and large domed roof of the Suleiman Mosque, legacy of the Ottoman Turks who drove out the Knights of St. John in the 1500s, and occupied Rhodes for the next 400 years.

Passing under the arched Gate of D’Amboise, the fortification walls so thick that the gate is really a tunnel, forty feet long and with a sharp left turn halfway through, we emerged into the bright sunlit space of the dry moat, now planted with palm trees and flowering plants. More crenellated walls lay ahead, and another arched gateway, until finally, we found ourselves in the narrow, cobblestone-paved streets of the Old City.

Near the reconstructed Palace of the Grand Master, I found myself walking down the Street of the Knights. The Knights of St. John were divided into groups by nationality, and each nationality had its own mini-headquarters and dormitory, as well as its assigned portion of the city walls to defend. Nowadays, the knights’ dormitories house government offices, and in the case of the French knights’ dormitory, the Consulate of France. At least they didn’t have to change the carved marble French royal coat of arms over the doorway!

My walking tour of the Knights’ quarters ended at the bottom of the hill, in a small cobbled square shaded by a walnut tree, surrounded by shops, and fronted by the impressive two-story bulk of the Hospital of the Knights, dating from the late 1400s, which is now the Archaeological Museum.

I had about 45 minutes before the museum closed for a three-hour siesta, so I made a hurried trip through it, more curious to see the inside of a genuine Crusader building than the collection of ancient pottery and sculptures (which was actually pretty good).

It’s a very impressive building, and still in excellent shape. The hospital is built around a central courtyard, with wide arcaded walks on both floors, and stone-walled rooms opening up to the courtyard.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, these rooms served as hostel accommodations for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land, as well as hospice care for the ill or injured. Nowadays, they house the collection of the archaeological museum.

Spanning the width of the second story, just behind the façade, is the Great Hall, which is dark and mostly empty, except for an exhibit of the marble gravestones of the various knights and Grand Masters.

My first encounter with the legacy of the Knights Templar, who play such a large role in the first volume of The House of the Rose, Glass Souls, was in England in the summer of 2000. Marian and I were in the middle of working on the book, and I was excited at the prospect of actually visiting a genuine Templar building, Temple Church, located in the heart of London.

An unexpected surprise awaited us on an outing to the beautiful city of Salisbury. Touring Salisbury Cathedral, we found an effigy dedicated to the memory of William Longspee the Younger, son of the earl of Salisbury, a minor character in Glass Souls, who died at Al-Mansurah.

Finally, on a visit to Provence three years ago, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon wandering around the tiny walled medieval town of Aigues-Mortes, used by St. Louis (King Louis IX) as a seaport and launching point for his disastrous Crusades in 1248 and 1270. It’s an interesting cross between town and a fortress, surrounded by high stone walls, with cobblestone streets and stone houses. Aigues Mortes and Louis’ second crusade in 1270 are described in the fourth volume of The House of the Rose, Queen of Heaven.

And without further ado, here’s this week’s photo tour of the places described above!

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Medieval Underwear

In a news article published today, archaeologists found examples of medieval underwear at an Austrian castle…including linen items that look a lot like modern bras, but which pre-date corsets with boning. Very cool!

You can read the full Associated Press article here: 600-year-old linen bras found in Austrian castle

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