Monday, 13 November 2017

Nathan Bailey's Dictionary and "Harold, the last Danish king"

I have bought another dictionary, perhaps the most wonderful dictionary I will ever own.  It is Nathan Bailey's An Universal Etymological English Dictionary and Interpreter of Hard Words.  Despite the fame of Dr Samuel Johnson and his 1755 adaptation of Bailey's production, Bailey was the first to compile an etymological dictionary of the English language in the form still used today.  Earlier attempts at dictionaries just gave word meanings.  Bailey's dictionary was also the most popular of the 18th century. Bailey innovated many of the forms and practices that Dr Johnson (whose 1755 dictionary was actually the 21st dictionary of the English language) and others emulated.

I already value two things about the Bailey Dictionary that make it infinitely superior to Johnson's effort.  The first is that Bailey recognises the etymology of a word when it entered the English language.  For example, he refers to Teutonic or Ancient German, where Johnson misleadingly says German.  There was no Germany until the first Deutsche Bund in 1814, and certainly none in the 5th to 7th centuries when many words came into use in Britain with Saxon emigration.  It is misleading and inaccurate to say words came into English from German.  The loose German confederation that emerged in the 19th century amalgamated many earlier tribes and diverse linguistic traditions.  Bailey recognised that diversity of antiquity and respected it.  Bailey also recognises a lot more scope for Old French, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Belgic, Dutch and Syrian, and even has a separate styling for Sea Term to cover nautical dialects common among mariners from India to Eire.

Bailey also includes many words which were considered too common, uncouth or vulgar for inclusion in later dictionaries aimed at schooling the gentry.  Bailey gives words associated with specialist trades, manufacturing, sea-faring, body parts, and even swearing.

I didn't find the first word to come to mind when I checked for completeness, but I did find Shite: to ease Nature, to discharge the Belly.  No entry for shite in Dr Johnson.

When schooling of children became general during the Victorian era, the priggish governors opted to put Dr Johnson in school libraries and classrooms, thereby narrowing the English mind and denying the richness of English linguistic origins.  If schools had stocked Mr Bailey's dictionary rather than Dr Johnson's, then it is likely a lot more English boys and girls would have spent time consulting the dictionary to their betterment.  Kids like looking up rude and interesting words.  Later Victorian toponymists narrowed English place names even further, as Celtic, German and Latin, ignoring the richness of Nathan Bailey's enquiry.  That narrowing of the English mind is regrettable, and has led to a fair amount of misguided history too.

I can give an example of how the narrowing of the English mind rendered history less accurate, and it is the reason I bought the dictionary.  Nathan Bailey is the only source for the phrase "Harold, the last Danish king" of England, in his entry for Battle Abbey.  The Victorians, perhaps to please a very German royal family, altered Harold to Saxon, ignoring his Danish mother, Anglo-Danish father, and other obvious Danish preferences, like slave raiding along the coast in his ships. 
Because Harold was born in Sussex, Harold became Saxon.  I suppose the children of British parents building the British Empire who were born in Hong Kong became Chinese, or those born in Bombay became Indian, or those born in Johannesburg became African, right?  Historian Edward A. Freeman was delusional in suggesting Earl Godwin had any loyalty to King Aethelred or his sons, or that the Godwin family identified as anything but Danish.  Godwin fought for Danes, was made an earl among Danes, married the Danish daughter of Viking Thorkell the Tall, and gave all his eleven children Danish names, including Harold.
Godwin's daughter Gytha became Queen Edith when she married King Edward.  After his death when she commissioned the Vita Eadwardi, however, she omitted all discussion of her parents' heritage and ethnicity, even though the purpose of the first half of the book (written before Harold died) was to ennoble her family and justify Harold's seizure of the English crown.  If Harold had any noble Saxon connections, it seems likely she would have wanted this advertised.  So if Gytha the family historian was ashamed of her parents' heritage, then it is all the more likely that there was no noble blood to claim.  Her maternal grandfather was Jarl Thorkell the Tall, famed hero of the Battle of Assendun, her maternal uncle Ulf had married Cnut's sister and been regent of Denmark, her cousin was King Sweyn of Denmark, but she chose not to advertise these connections.  She was similarly silent on her father's heritage.  Arguably if Godwin was the son of Wulfnoth then his treason against King Aethelred, raiding and slaving the coast in 1008 with 20 ships, and burning of 80 kings' ships might not be seen as wholly patriotic.  The evidence for Wulfnoth being the son of Ealdorman Aethelmar of Wessex is very thin, but if he was, he was born of a handfast Danish woman, not a Saxon wife, as Wulfnoth is not a noble Saxon name.

Freeman's history inspired Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton to a more transparent flight of fiction.  Harold the Last of the Saxon Kings may have been read by generations of English schoolchildren, but Sir Edward was as inaccurate and misleading as Mr Freeman in making an 11th century Anglo-Danish earl into a Saxon hero.  Harold and his family slaved Saxons to Danish markets to their great profit.  They would never have identified themselves with the subjugated tribe they exploited.  Harold's standard at the Battle of Hastings was the Dacian wolfskin of a Danish sea-warrior.

Dacian wolfskin standard from Trajan's column in Rome, Dacian wolfskin standard with King Harold Fairhair, and detail of Dacian wolfskin standard with King Harold Godwinsson, the last Danish king of England, from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Another Dacian wolfskin standard from Trajan's column in Rome paired with the death scene of King Harold Godwinsson in the Bayeux Tapestry.

I've been saying Harold was a Danish king for four years now, and it's nice to find that an English historian agreed with me.  It's a shame minds and dictionaries narrowed so much in the centuries since.

One notable fan of Bailey's Dictionary was Abraham Lincoln.  He kept his copy of Bailey to hand as he was schooling himself in Indiana from at least 1823.  Bailey's dictionary enabled Lincoln to comprehend works that would otherwise have remained beyond his grasp.  Lincoln's skills as a lawyer and orator are probably due to his fondness for reading Bailey's dictionary for pleasure.

When I was in secondary school I was teased for 'reading the dictionary' because I had a wider vocabulary than many of my peers.  Now I really am reading the dictionary, and am taking great pleasure in doing so.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Finding the 1066 Landfall: Pefnesea or Pevenesae at Lydd and Dungeness

On Saturday we made a sort of family pilgrimage to Dungeness Lighthouse.  It was erected in 1960 using several novel principles of engineering and construction innovated by the late Frank Hay.  Frank Hay's son and two adult grandchildren were among our party.  The grandchildren had not been to Dungeness before and they were captivated by the lighthouse scale, scenery, and seeming permanence.

The principal innovation was the use of pre-cast concrete rings, a very new technology in 1960.  These were fabricated in nearby Rye.  The rings were transported to Dungeness, stacked on a foundation on the shoreline, then interlinked by four internal vertical steel cables, tensioned by anchor points either end to hold the lightweight structure intact through all conceivable forces of wind, sea and shifting shingle that might test a lighthouse on the exposed coastal spur.  Today the lighthouse still stands proud, although the coastal shingle has since shifted gradually to leave the lighthouse some hundred metres or so further from the shore. 

Nothing manmade is permanent in that shifting, liminal landscape and seascape.  The image above was taken from the highwater line on the shore, where it is in 2017.  We know from eyewitnesses that when the lighthouse was erected in 1960 it was sited on the coastal waterline.  The vast shifting arcs of shingle that have accreted to separate the lighthouse and fishermen's cottages from the sea in the very few decades since led me to think again about the mystery of where the 1066 anchorage of Pefnesea/Pevenesae might be found.
Ða com Wyllelm eorl of Normandige into Pefnesea on Sancte Michæles mæsseæfen, 7 sona þæs hi fere wæron, worhton castel æt Hæstingaport - Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript D for 1066

Scene 38: 'Herein Duke William with a great fleet is crossing the sea and is coming to Pevenesae.'

Pevenesae was an anchorage reached on a single tide with a south wind, as we know from the detailed imagery of the Bayeux Tapestry and the description of the navigation in lines 100 to 116 of the Carmen de Triumpho Normannico - The Song of the Norman Conquest

But fearful lest dark night impose losses on your men, and wind roil the sea in contrary gusts, you order the ships to stations so the curved anchor might restrain their sterns.
In the middle of the sea you make a sea-harbour. 
You advise the sails be laid down pending the morning ahead in order that your exceedingly weary people might have rest.
The Norman Fleet clearly came to Pevenesae as a well-known anchorage in the seascape, and not a place in the landscape.  In the Tapestry, the ships are under sail, steersman are guiding by the leeboard, lookouts are scanning for defenders on the land, and the oarports on the ships are all closed.  No one steps out of a ship.  These are visual signals to the savvy mariners of the medieval age that the ships are still making progress toward the landfall which is detailed in the next scene.  At both the launch from Baie de Somme at Scene 36 the landfall at Hastinga in Scene 39, the sails have been taken in, the masts are struck, the steersmen guide ships to the strand with poles, and the oarports are meticulously detailed as opened when the bare boats line up on the strand.  In Scene 39 tousers are rolled only to the knee, and horses can walk on the firm strand.  There are no anchors in either scene, although massive anchors are prominent in Scene 6 when Harold lands at Ponthieu.

I was lucky enough to travel to many Nordic capitals while I was translating the Carmen for the first time.  While in Iceland I visited Viking World, where they have a replica, sea-worthy Viking ship.  Being able to actually walk the deck and inspect the craftsmanship was amazing.  The most striking thing for me was the swivelling oarports.  Touching the oarports and seeing how they close for sea travel and open for estuarine raiding by oarsmen changed my understanding of the Bayeux Tapestry.  Once you know about swivelling oarports, you cannot confuse Scene 6 (a coastal landing with anchors and closed oarports) with Scene 36 (an estuarine launch with open oarports) and Scene 39 (an estuarine landing with open oarports).

The detail from the Carmen about the 'sea-harbour' is one I am particularly proud of deciphering.  No previous editor has understood the line, and I might have missed its meaning too were it not for my Nordic travels and the scholarship of Chuck Stanton on Norman Naval Operations in the Mediterranean.  He illustrated the sea-harbour formation used by Venetian fleets to secure their warships and horse transports as below.  As soon as I saw the illustration I understood line 116 of the Carmen:  In medio pelagi litus adessus facis.  It had seemed nonsense, but once you have seen the sea-harbour formation it makes perfect sense.  Sterns are linked together so that archers on the bows of warships can defend against attack.  Horse and materiel transports are sheltered within the arc of sterns, safe from attack.

Ignorant modern landlubbers have equated Pevenesae with Pevensey, claiming the Normans landed at the mythical Pevensey Bay (named by Victorian real estate developers), but that is nonsense.  Pevensey did not exist as a named place in 1066.  The modern town was founded by charter of King John in 1207 after the burgesses' old port at portus Peuenesel closed to the sea from shingle drift.  There is no archaeological trace of a port at modern Pevensey, despite extensive exploration.  There is no geologic survey evidence for a navigable basin or channel at Pevensey (the west side of the bay would certainly be unsuitable, shallow, silty salt-marsh).  There was no fresh water, no fuel, no forage for horses, no food to be looted anywhere nearby, and no rational reason for settlement on the barren, sea-sprayed spur leading to the Roman-era fort.  The fort itself has yielded no archaeological evidence of sustained habitation during the Anglo-Saxon era.  Any channel through the Pevensey Levels in 1066 must have been toward the east, leading to the sheltered tidal anchorage between Hooe and Wartling. 

The nearest reference to any pre-Conquest site near modern Pevensey is a grant of Caestre near Eastbourne in a 1054 writ of Edward the Confessor.  The writ describes Caestre as having 12 cottages and salt-pan.  Notably there is no mention of a port, mill, market or church, or any other amenity of a town which would have been mentioned as revenue-earners in the writ if they had existed.   The commentary in the linked text speculates Caestre might be Hastings, but all other places in the writ are very close to Eastbourne, implying the abandoned and massive Pevensey Castle, and there was no castle at Hastings before the Norman Conquest.  The only pre-Conquest settlement near modern Hastings was a small Fecamp Abbey cell in Priory Valley to the west, convenient to Hooe.  Beyond Wartling was a tidal salt-marsh that extended more than 22 miles to Pevensey Castle, and more than 20 miles inland into the Weald.  The vast salt-marsh can still be seen on topographic maps, giving an idea of the extent of seascape and salt-marsh when the land was 2 or 3 metres lower.

The other recent breakthrough was realising Lydd, the nearest town to Dungeness,  was probably derived as a local placename from the Norse lith and Anglo-Saxon (mostly northern Anglian) LyðLith meant arm, limb or estuary, but I think it also meant tidal anchorage.  All the places associated with placenames from lith are liminal.  Lydd, Sussex, is on a shingle bar, a natural tidal anchorage in 1066 or thereafter for anchoring or beaching while awaiting the next flowing tide to enter the Rye Camber. 

Pevenesae, Pevenesel, Pevenessellum in accounts of the Norman Conquest were all references to a shingle spur or island at the gap leading to the Rye Camber, Hastingaport, Old Romney and other medieval harbours.  In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle too, all references to Pefenesea and Pevenesea make it clear that it is an anchorage for ships.  Ships shelter there, ships lay to there, ships muster there, ships are attacked and seized by Godwin there.  The only reference which indicates some land feature is in a 1087 entry, long after the Norman Conquest, when there was a castele there.  Castele can mean subsidiary fortlet or cell of an abbey, but it can also mean lighthouse or signal beacon in Old French.  A lighthouse at the anchorage to guide ships from the Gallic coast safely to shelter would make good sense.

In 1066 there would have been another shingle bar where Lydd is now, 'almost at the ness', so Peue (almost) nes (ness) sel (isle) or Peue (almost) nes (ness) sae (waters) would be apt, toponymic placenames well suited to guiding navigation.  The Norman accounts and Bayeux Tapestry all agree and make better sense once you know about liminal anchorages.
The Norman fleet crossed on one tide and anchored at Pevenesae/Peuenesel/Peuenessellum while they rested and awaited the next flowing tide which took them into Hastinge portus, the port of the cape of Hastingas in the Brede Basin.

Now that makes sense!  And I'm grateful to Frank Hay and Dungeness Lighthouse for helping me figure it out.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

A windy day in Winchelsea!

I was invited back to Winchelsea, Sussex, by the Winchelsea Archaeological Society to give an update on my researches into 1066 geography.  What none of us expected was that Winchelsea would be hit by the full force of Storm Brian, the second named storm of 2017, roaring at us from the south.

The effect of Storm Brian was somewhat comic to the audience, but not so much to me or the curate!  The gale force winds were literally blowing the roof off the church as I made my presentation.  I could see daylight looking upwards, and competed with the howling gale to get my research across.  Just as I was taking questions, four brave men ventured onto the roof above, with the winds still howling.  They started hammering some sort of shelter back onto the structure to preserve the church from the elements.

I know church roof drives are a trope of fundraising in England, but St Thomas's Winchelsea has a clear and present need should you feel inclined to help them out!  St Thomas ranks as the #1 attraction in Winchelsea on Trip Advisor, so if you can visit yourself and make a donation, even better.

About 30 brave souls had come to St Thomas's Church on the day.  The venue was apt as the church preserves parts of a much grander 14th century church, built in Winchelsea's heyday as the premier wine and oil port on the south coast of England. 

Old Winchelsea was a toll cell of Fecamp Abbey, recorded as Wincenesel in a 1028~32 charter of King Cnut.  The clerics of the monastic cell out on a shingle spur collected telonei (thelony) from ships at the anchorage at Lydd (pronounced Lith in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon).  The monks kept two-thirds and paid one-third to King Cnut to buy his royal protection from the avaricious Earl Godwin.  We know Godwin was a bad-actor in the drama as he was forced to sign 'this is done by my willing consent' instead of his usual Godwin dux at the bottom of the charter.  Old Winchelsea was destroyed by storms in 1250 and 1282, leading to a charter for the new town at Winchelsea on the spur of Iham at the end of the Icklesham ridge. 

Lith meant 'arm' or 'limb' or 'estuary of the sea', and fits with the description of Portus Hastingas et Peuenesel from the much earlier 785 charter of King Offa to the Abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris as being above the 'sea-forde'.  Of course, I also think the Brede Basin port was used by the Norman fleet in 1066 for their landings, fortifications and camps, supported by the Carmen's description as 'the land owed to you, stripped of its terrified settlers'.  Godwin had finally seized the port by force in 1052 during his rebellion against King Edward, and Earl Harold refused to hand it back after Godwin's death in 1054 when petitioned by Abbot John of Fecamp.

When I first identified the Brede Basin as the likely port of 1066 way back in 2013 I had never been to Winchelsea and thought I did not know anyone there.  I pinged an email to asking if there was anyone in WAS who could help with the 11th century history of the port.  Surprisingly the response came from someone I had known early in my City career at the Bank of England!  He was as shocked that I had taken an interest in history, as I was to find a friend in Winchelsea.

He invited me to address WAS on my research into the port history and 1066, and that was the start of my career as an historian.  Many of the same people came Saturday.  I am grateful to them all for their encouragement, and especially for their local knowledge.  My big insights from the day included:
  • Making the connection between Lydd and Lith as the 'sea-forde' leading to the port, such that ships would cross from Gallia, anchor at Lydd while awaiting the next flowing tide, and then navigate into the estuarine ports of the Rye Camber;
  • Realising the castele of Pefenesea was likely the Fecamp Abbey cell at Old Winchelsea, with the castele being a toll station or signal beacon or lighthouse quite similar to that which stands now at Dungeness (to which I am making pilgrimage next week);
  • Confirming that the principal iron founderies and bloomeries were all to the east of the Hastings ridge, with little known development by Romans or Saxons on the site of modern Hastings.
Every time I visit the Brede Basin I discover new things and make new connections.  It's a wonderful place, full of magic.  Visit if you can, and stop by St Thomas's to drop a note in the collection box.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

I am an historian, King Harold was Danish, and the Carmen of 1066 is re-published!

In 2015 I took the momentous decision to abandon a 30 year career in banking infrastructure and dedicate myself full-time to history.  I got tired of being told I wasn't qualified to translate the Carmen or re-interpret 1066 history because I wasn't a Latinist and I wasn't an historian.  I enrolled in the taught masters programme in Medieval History at King's College London.  It was brutal.  I let myself be placed in the Intermediate Latin class instead of the Beginner class.  I also took a year long seminar in Latin Literature which required massive amounts of weekly translation and original manuscript transcription, translation and collaborative critical editing of an unpublished Latin text.  Both Latin courses were taught by Dr Daniel Hadas, whose enthusiasm for all things ancient kept me going when I felt overwhelmed.  Despite my fears I got my highest exam marks in Latin and received my MA in January 2017 with merit.

Dr Hadas also generously agreed to edit my translation of the Carmen at a rate of 25 lines per week, an effort that occupied us for almost the entire academic year.  The result is a massively improved translation of the Carmen, which is republished and available from Amazon globally as of yesterday.  If the Latin is not perfect, it is grammatically and metrically defensible, and the English translation is far more literal than either the Merton & Muntz or the Frank Barlow editions.

A lot has changed in the new edition otherwise too.  It is presented as facing pages of Latin text and English translation for easier reading and referencing.  There are appendices on Imperium in England to 966, Imperium in England 966 to 1066, the New Geography of the Norman Conquest, and jurisdictions of the church, crown and ports.  Everything I have studied and learned and researched for two years has been used to make this a much better book and it is now more than 300 pages long.  Buy it now on Amazon or click the link to the right and get a signed copy.

One thing that didn't change is my conviction that the Norman fleet landed in the Brede Basin, camped at Icklesham, and fought the battle somewhere on the cape of Hastingas to the east of the Great Ridge.  There is now much more analysis of why this geograhy makes logistical, geomorphic and military good sense.  Hopefully there will be an effort to explore the basin using the tools of modern archaeology which will unearth its Norman, Dacian and Roman past.

Dacian?  Yeah, well it turns out that the Vikings were Greeks.  They were Bronze Age sea-armies from the Black Sea and Pontic Steppe that had settled the coasts of Britannia and Gaul to secure the supply of British tin which they could turn into bronze weapons and brass fittings for ships.  There was no other plentiful source of tin in Europe 3500 years ago, and it can't be coincidence that there is Pontic Steppe DNA evidenced by haplogroups coinciding with eradication of indigenous English males beginning 3500 years ago.  Thiw was also the start of the age of settled agriculture and fabrication of bronze tools and weapons.  Bronze is 98 per cent copper and 2 per cent tin.  British tin has been found everywhere the Bronze Age sea-armies settled, from the tombs of mummies in Egypt, to the trade goods of merchants in Tyre, to the battle shields of warriors up the Volga.  All of them had Near East DNA and British tin.

And the pattern holds throughout Europe.  80 per cent of Europeans have DNA from Near East tribes around the Black Sea.  Everywhere Pontic mariners spread they brought grain, cattle and exploitation of hinterlands.  The hinterland tribes of Europe were for raiding and slaving, although the sea-armies could be brought to truce.  Truce involved paying sea-armies tribute, providing stipendiary provisions, and allowing them have their own rule of law in their urban cantons and in port and mining commonwealths.  If that sounds familiar it is probably because the pattern repeats for a thousand years of English history in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Why Dacian?  Daci is the tribal name used for the warriors of King Cnut and King Harold in most original sources.  Daci is what the Danes called themselves, with Danish being applied to them much later.  The original accounts of the Norman Conquest say that King Harold came to battle with Duke William accompanied by many mercenaries and auxiliaries who were Daci or gens Dacorum.  Until Christianisation created Danes and Denmark, the region around the Danish Hellespont was called Dacia and the people of the region were called Daci - just like their Bronze Age forebearers in Illyrian Dacia on the Black Sea.  Illyrian Daci were also acknowledged to be excellent mariners and warriors.  

Because we don't have really good names for these Bronze Age sea-armies, and every nation has named them something different thinking that they were indigenous tribes, I call the pattern of sea-army raids, truces and cantons 'Pontic Imperium'.  Pontic reflects Black Sea origins (Pontus was the Greek name for the Black Sea), sea-army control of straits and pounds for navigation (Hellespont means 'strait-pound' in ancient Greek), and a monopoly on transport by ship within the limits of their pound.  Once you look for it you find the pattern of Pontic Imperium clear in many ancient texts.  Hellene would be really sensible as well, but Hellenic imperium would be confused with the Hellenic Empire, which arose much later, after the fall of Troy around 1200 BC.  It probably isn't a coincidence that the Fall of Troy and the Iron Age are at about the same time.  With iron weapons the tribes of the hinterlands could fight back!

So why was Hastingas Dacian or Pontic?  Because whoever held the cape of Hastingas and the port in the Brede Basin controlled shipping in the strait between the south of England and the continent.  And because Snorri Sturluson said so.  He names the place of the battle of Hastings in the Saga of Harald Hardrata as Helsingia-portHels means strait in Old Norse just as helles means strait in ancient Greek.  Other Pontic cantons on straits in the Baltic are Helsinki and (H)Elsinor.

Still not convinced King Harold was a Dacian?  I can offer visual proof.  Look at the wolf-skin standard at the side of King Harold when he dies in Scene 57 of the Bayeux Tapestry side by side with the image of a wolf-skin standard of the Dacians defeated by the Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century on Trajan's column in Rome.  Notice anything?  From the gaping jaws to tufted ears to the neck ruff to the curling tail, they are the same.  King Harold (a Danish name) came to battle at Hastings bearing a Dacian wolf-skin battle standard!

So now I am not just re-writing the history of the Norman Conquest, but also suggesting a much more complicated Dacians v. Romans backstory between King Harold and Duke William for control of English ports, straits and trade. Enjoy!

Friday, 14 October 2016

950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings - Why is Battle Abbey at Battle?

Ever since I first started writing a revisionist geography and history of the Battle of Hastings I have been asked the same questions.  Where was the battle?  If it wasn't at Battle then why is Battle Abbey there?

No one can answer the first question.  We don't know where the battle was because all that 100 years and more of archaeology have found is a single axe head three miles from Battle and a single skeleton of a 10th century violent death victim almost 20 miles away.  The axe could have been lost by a woodsman eaten by wolves.  The victim of violent death could have died a thousand different ways any time in that violent century.

All we can know for sure is that the nearest fortification to the battle was Hastingecaestre (not to be confused with modern Hastings which didn't exist in 1066).  The Normans had a naming convention that named battles for the nearest castle or  fortifcation, as Shakespeare reminds us in Henry V when the king names the battlefield for the nearby fortress of Agincourt.  Wherever the battle was, the nearest fortification was at Hastingacaestre.

Today I mark the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest by answering the second question of why Battle Abbey is at Battle.  I finally know why Battle Abbey was sited where it was and it is a really, really good reason.  Medieval minsters were sited along the coast so that they could be viewed by mariners coming into port.  The mariners could then give thanks for their successful voyage by visiting the minster and making offerings.  Battle Abbey was built on the promontory that  dominated the view of the mariners on ships entering the Brede Basin between Winchelsea and Rye at the ostium of the great estuarine port owned by Fecamp Abbey where the Normans had landed their fleet in 1066 and camped their army while waiting for King Harold, his Anglo-Danish earls and thanes, his Danish mercenaries and whatever Saxons may have followed him.

The breakthrough came at the 2016 Battle Conference, where we were housed in the Battle School within the Abbey's grounds.  The accommodation was basic (3 to a room and shared bathrooms on the landing) but my view was priceless.  From my first story window I could see the wind turbines turning on Camber Sands.  That gave me the idea that the abbey - which had stood just east of my window - could also see down the great Brede Basin to Camber Sands between Winchelsea and Rye.  Fortunately for me English Heritage had just opened up the roof of the Gateway Tower to the public, so I could run up the tower and check the view to be certain.  My heart pounded all the way up, and not from the stairs.  Sure enough, from the tower you can see all the way down the length of the Udimore Ridge to the ostium of the great medieval port between Rye and Winchelsea.

I jumped in my car and drove to Icklesham, which is where I believe the Normans had their camp.  I raced down the footpath into the flat bottom of the now pastoral valley.  Sure enough, from the bottom of the valley you can see Battle hill clearly against the horizon at the top of the valley.  There is a gap in the great ridge above Hastings that reveals Battle to the port.  Had I been on the deck of ship entering on a rising tide I could not have offered a more heartfelt prayer of thanks.

I raced around the valley to Udimore in the slanting afternoon sun in time to assure myself that Battle could also be seen from a tower or high window at Udimore where Court Manor had stood in the days of William the Conqueror.

Below is the photographic proof.  Battle Abbey was sited at Battle because it could be seen from the port, and also from King William's royal manor at Udimore.

It feels really good to have figured this out after all this time.  I went down to the Brede Basin again a few weeks ago with the Winchelsea Archaeological Society and we all walked out to the middle of the basin for the view.  Everyone who was with me was just as excited as I was.  We now have an answer for why is Battle Abbey at Battle: so it could be seen by Norman mariners and warriors and settlers as they came into the great port that had hosted the conquering fleet and army.

Happy 950th anniversary!  More to come as I continue my researches.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Mapping History

Perhaps it is because I am a cartographer's daughter or one of the last students taught by that wonderful geographer George Kish, but I love maps and always learn something from studying maps.  Last weekend I was chatting to a former university vice-chancellor at the Angel Canal Festival and he said that he always felt that historians should use more maps.  Whenever he listened to their presentations he found himself wishing they had started their talk with a map.

Maps help people navigate the past, just as they help us navigate the present.  Geography is intimately connected with history, influencing economic circumstances, culture, customs, legal principles and political evolution.  Ground conditions, climate, violent weather, catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods and volcanoes, all influence history.  Visually presenting a geography and/or a topography for an historical period helps the viewer/listener/reader orient themselves and mentally accept the conditions in which history was enacted.

I am now launching into my MA in Medieval History at King's College London.  I think it will need maps, but I suspect that maps are alien to the culture of historians.  This worries me.

Working my way through the reading list, I am finding very few maps.  I've just finished John H. Arnold's History: A Very Short Introduction.  It is excellent in its overview of the scope, methods and objectives of history, but it never once mentions maps and only rarely mentions geography.

In frustration I went down to the library and found George Kish's A Source Book in Geography and read it cover to cover.  What I wanted from the book was actually on the first page of the Introduction, but I read the rest of the book for fun.  George Kish was a fun professor and gives a lively account of the history of geography from the earliest sources to the modern era.

The quote I wanted is as follows:

Quum oceanus movetur, totus movetur. 
- Bernardus Varenius, Geographie Generalis (1650) 

'When the ocean is moving, everything is moving.'  That is going to be the tagline of my dissertation, which will likely be on the implications of coastal geomorphology on the continent and in Britain for early migrations, settlement, conflicts and conquests in England.  I'm going to have maps, because maps will correct the errors of perception of the past 500 years faster than any amount of historiography.

Kish translates Polycarp Leyser in Commentario de vera geographiae methodo (Helmstedt, 1726):
He who wishes to read the works of historians, or desires to hold forth in the proper manner about history, must know all disciplines, arts and sciences.  Yet there are certain disciplines which are of such a nature that they relate more closely to history than others:  chronology, archaeology, the study of coinage, and geography.

Geography, which I list in last place, surpasses all the others both in dignity and excellence.  For it assists in a wonderful way the study of history, making it easier to remember historical events when relying on geography. 

I would even add that geography is the touchstone of both history and historians, which reveals the errors of historians with ease.
I plan to reveal 500+ years of misguided interpretation of history and toponomy as historians neglected to study geography and geomorphic change.  Geography can drive history, as famine, flooding, fire, storms and catastrophes drive migration, settlement, conflict and conquest.

Monday, 24 August 2015

History needs to be more than the written and oral record these days

Few of us would choose to consult an 1840s doctor for a physical complaint, no matter how well regarded by his peers.  Phrenology and blood letting have been superseded by modern medical diagnostics and pharmaceutical treatments.  Historians routinely cite Victorians as authority, however, only rarely questioning their assumptions and evaluating their biases.

Historians are bound by the fetters of the past to a degree unknown in other research disciplines.  Few medical researchers even bother citing 20th century texts and articles as the pace of medical discovery has rendered most of the research of the 20th century already archaic.  It was valuable in advancing science at the time, but further scientific advance is no longer tied to that body of work.

I think something like that must happen to the study of history soon.  Digital humanities is making a dent by introducing better tools to structure, study and compare complex historical data.  As that progresses, many of the assumptions of the past will be shown to be inaccurate.

This is already happening with our understanding of Romans and Vikings.  Viking itself is a made up word popularised by Victorians as a catch-all for the barbarian raiders of the migration age.  They were depicted as uncivilised, tribal, infidels whose only interest was the theft of booty and women from the civilised, Christian kingdoms of Europe.  Science is now showing most of the Victorian history of Vikings was inaccurate, or at least incomplete.

Similar revolutions in historical thinking are underway regarding Roman history.  There were very, very few Italo-Romans relative to the size and population of the Roman Empire, yet Victorian historians liked to think that Britannia as a province was ruled by Rome - ignoring all the middlemen as ignorant auxiliaries following orders from Rome.  Science is showing a different picture as the complexity of military organisation gets supplemented by a better understanding of provincial civil and financial administration.

I started my career as an historian three years ago when I ordered digital images of the only manuscript of the earliest account of the Norman Conquest from the Royal Library in Brussels.  Transcribing and translating the ancient Latin script brought the Norman Conquest to life for me.  While translating I began to question the story I had learned in grade school, but the words were not enough to explain where the Normans sailed to, camped and fought the Anglo-Danish rulers of England.

It was images of geomorphology in East Sussex that revealed the great port in the Brede Basin where ancient Peueinsel and Hastingas can be found, a port known to the Romans and Belgian Gallic tribes as Novus Portus.  It was name frequency data which demonstrated that Godwin and Harold were Anglo-Danes, not the great and noble Saxons that Edward Bulwer Lytton depicted in Harold, the last of the Saxon kings.  Academics still cite the histories of Augustin Theirry and Edward A. Freeman, historians who popularised the study of British history in the Victorian era, but we should supplement what they wrote with much better science and analysis today.

Despite 500+ years of thinking we knew the Normans landed at Pevensey and Hastings, we were wrong.  We forgot that the barons of Peuenisel and Hastingas had been forced to move to the coast by inning and shingle shift which closed their ancient port to the sea.  We ignored King John's 1207 charter for a new town to the barons of Peuenisel, and ignored the navigation guide of 1170 that says the port of Hastingas was at Winchelse.

I could cite the thousands of misguided historians beginning in Elizabethan times who wrote that the Normans landed at Pevensey and Hastings, but life is too short and my time is too valuable.  Why should I bother citing and refuting everyone who has ever made the same mistake by repeating each other's misguided conception?  I would rather write and depict the accurate geography of the Norman navigation, landing, encampment and battle, reconciling modern geomorphic science with the original texts in Latin, and then move on to the next mystery offered by history.

Manuscript digitisation, coin databases, DNA databases, charter databases, name databases, archaeology and geomorphology are showing us a picture of the past which will change our understanding of trading, raiding, conquest and settlement.  It's an exciting time to become an historian.