A Medieval Monastery In Estonia

Estonia
Estonia had an interesting time in the Middle Ages. Along with the other Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia, they were the last bastion of paganism in a continent that had become entirely Christian.

Various Christian kingdoms decided this was a good excuse for conquest and launched the Northern Crusades. From 1208 to 1224, the Germans, Danes, and Swedes attacked Estonia and eventually conquered it.

Once the knights had finished their work, it was time for the clergy to step in. Prominent among these were the Cistercians, one of the most powerful monastic orders of their time. In 1220 they were rewarded with lands at Padise near the important port of Tallinn. They built a small stone chapel there and began expanding it into a large fortified monastery in 1317.

In 1343 the Estonians rose up against their occupiers and burned down Padise Monastery, killing 28 monks. The uprising was crushed and the Cistercians rebuilt the monastery better and stronger than before. It continued being a monastery until 1558, when it became a fortress protecting the landward approach to Tallinn. The building changed hands several times during the region’s many wars. It was besieged twice, the siege in 1580 lasting 13 weeks, during which the defenders (Russians at that moment) got hammered with Swedish artillery and eventually were starved into submission.

%Gallery-180500%In 1622, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden gave the monastery and lands to Thomas Ramm, Burgermeister of Riga, in exchange for Ramm giving up the city to the king’s army. I suppose the Ramm family wasn’t very welcome in Riga after that.

I visited on a quiet, gloomy winter afternoon as part of a day trip with Tallinn Traveller Tours, after a morning spent chasing the Estonian Army. Mart, my guide, led me up some slick icy steps to the top of the tower to look out over the snowy countryside. Somehow I managed not to slip and fall to my death. Writing for you people always seems to send me up unsafe heights. At least it wasn’t as bad as the minaret in Samarra.

After we made it down safely, Mart took me around the castle grounds.

“Imagine being a kid here,” he said. “We all played like we were knights in castles, but the kids around here get the real thing.”

Lots of Estonian kids are lucky that way. Forts, manor houses, and monasteries abound in the Estonian countryside. This area was fought over for centuries yet the Estonians managed to keep their distinct language and national character. Eventually they managed to get independence too.

We entered the great hall, once used for meals and services, and admired the fine arches and carved columns. From there we explored the dark, chilly cellar, where a centuries-old oven was still black from baking bread for the monks.

“Look at this,” Mart said, shining is mobile phone light on the wall.

A mosquito was perched on the cold stone.

“I’m surprised it’s still alive,” I said.

“I should kill it,” Mart said. “I hate those things. They swarm around you all summer.”

He left it alone. I was glad. I’ve always respected survivors.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming Up Next: Gifts from Estonia!

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Search Is On For Another Lost Medieval English King

medievalIn the wake of the media blitz around the discovery of King Richard III’s remains under a parking lot in Leicester, England, archaeologists have announced they’re looking for another medieval English king.

The Times reports that archaeologists are seeking permission to exhume an unmarked grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Hyde, Winchester, that they think contains the remains of King Alfred the Great.

Alfred ruled from 871-899 and helped consolidate the patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into a unified country. He spent much of his reign fighting off the Vikings and establishing a legal code.

Alfred’s remains were buried in Winchester Cathedral and later moved to nearby Hyde Abbey. In the 19th century, an amateur archaeologist explored the altar of this abbey and dug up what he thought were Alfred’s bones. The vicar of St. Bartholomew’s later bought them for ten shillings and reburied them.

Records show there are five skulls and various other bones in the grave. While radiocarbon dating them and determining the age and sex is a simple affair, proving that one of them is Alfred will be a lot more difficult. In the dig in Leicester, the archaeologists were able to find direct descendants of Richard III to supply DNA for testing. Alfred lived centuries before Richard, however, and this makes it tricky to find a direct descendant.

The Diocese of Winchester said in a statement that the matter is being looked into.

Alfred left an enduring mark on the English consciousness. Many places bear his name, including places he probably never visited such as Alfred’s Castle on the Ridgeway Trail. It’s said Alfred defeated the Vikings nearby in 871. In fact the “castle” is a hill fort dating to about the sixth century B.C. If you’re in Oxford, go to the Ashmolean Museum and check out the Alfred jewel, made by order of the king himself and shown here courtesy John W. Schulze.

Scientists Confirm Remains Of King Richard III Have Been Found

Richard IIIArchaeologists from the University of Leicester have confirmed that they have found the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet kings and fought an epic struggle with the Tudors during the War of the Roses for control of England. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Support for the Plantagenet line crumbled and soon Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII.

After the battle, Richard III’s body was buried in the church choir of the Franciscan friary of the Grey Friars. Dr. Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist for the project, explained that the church’s location has always been generally known although the friary was dissolved in 1538 and soon all trace of the building above ground had disappeared.

Two trenches were dug at the site last August and human remains were found almost immediately. One male skeleton had suffered from scoliosis that led to curvature of the spine. It was also unusually slender and aged in its early thirties. All characteristics agree with contemporary descriptions of Richard III.

There are ten trauma wounds on the body. Eight are on the skull. One was from a bladed weapon that cut off a section from the base of the skull. A second injury, also on the base of the skull, cut through the bone as well. Both of these wounds would have been fatal. Several other blows shaved off pieces of bone or left pockmarks in the skull. It appears that Richard wasn’t wearing a helmet by this point in the battle.Two cut marks on the rib and pelvis also appear to have been inflicted after his armor was removed. The archaeologists theorize that Richard III was stripped and given “humiliation injuries,” a common practice with dead or dying victims in the Middle Ages. Historical sources state that Richard’s naked body was slung over a horse and brought to town after the Battle of Bosworth. It may have been at this time that the extra injuries occurred.

Richard III almost suffered another humiliation centuries later when the foundation for a 19th-century brick outhouse nearly cut into his grave.

Initially the archaeologists thought they’d found a barb, perhaps from an arrow, in the body but it turns out that this was probably a Roman nail disturbed from an earlier site. No other artifacts were found in the burial.

The next step was to radiocarbon date the bone. Results showed that they dated to the late 15th early 16th century. This was all interesting but still only circumstantial evidence. There was still no proof that they had found the lost king. There was also the troubling popular legend that an angry mob threw his remains into the River Soar after the dissolution of the friary. There’s even a historic plaque at the location where this was supposed to have taken place.

The university tracked down some descendants of Richard III who agreed to give DNA samples to compare with DNA extracted from the skeleton. This was the clincher. Project geneticist Dr. Turi King confirmed at a press conference today that, “The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III.”

Dr. Richard Buckley added that they could now confirm that the body is that of Richard III “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Back in December, some of this information was leaked to the press, but today’s news conference is the first official confirmation that archaeologists have, indeed found a lost medieval king.

Richard III’s remains will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral early next year. A permanent exhibition about Richard III and the excavation will open in town at about the same time. The university has also launched a new Richard III website.

[Top photo courtesy University of Leicester. Bottom image of the Battle of Bosworth courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Richard III
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Damage To Timbuktu’s Antiquities Not As Bad As Originally Thought

Timbuktu, Mali
Earlier this week we reported on the possible destruction of Timbuktu’s collection of medieval manuscripts. Now it turns out those initial reports were exaggerated.

Timbuktu in Mali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its many shrines to Muslim saints and its collection of some 300,000 manuscripts dating as far back as the beginning of the 13th century. They’re in several languages and cover everything from the history of the Songhai Empire to medical texts. They’re the biggest collection of texts from west Africa and are immeasurably important in our understanding of the continent’s past.

Sadly, the city got captured by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) last April as part of a war against the government. The Islamists enforced a harsh version of Sharia law and destroyed many of the shrines. It was also feared that they had destroyed all the manuscripts.

Now that Timbuktu has been liberated by French and Malian forces, it turns out the damage isn’t as bad as previously reported. Reuters reports that most of the manuscripts were hidden in private homes and secret caches. The people of Timbuktu have had to do this many times in the face of invaders, and so they got together to protect their heritage.

The two libraries that housed tens of thousands of the manuscripts were not significantly damaged. About 2,000 manuscripts are missing. Some were burned and others may have been stolen to be sold on the international antiquities market. Also, it appears that only “dozens” of the more than 300 shrines were destroyed or significantly damaged.

An Agence France-Presse report today states that some manuscripts were smuggled all the way to the capital Bamako in the south, where they were out of reach of the rebels. The furniture in one of the main libraries was looted and there’s a pile of ash on the floor from where the Islamists burnt some of the manuscripts, but the library and collection as a whole are fine.

So it looks like the ancient heritage of Timbuktu has survived another war. Hopefully soon the situation will stabilize and the famous city will once again become a destination for scholars and adventure travelers.

[Photo courtesy Gina Gleeson]

Goetz Of The Iron Hand: On The Trail Of Renaissance Germany’s Biggest Badass

medieval, Goetz of the Iron HandRenaissance Germany was a violent place. A patchwork of different kingdoms, principalities, and baronies with constantly changing allegiances, the land was wracked with near-constant warfare.

The people in charge were some pretty rough characters. By far the roughest was Götz von Berlichingen, also known as Götz of the Iron Hand. You can also spell it “Goetz” if your browser hiccups at the sight of an umlaut.

His last name, Berlichingen, was for many years used as a popular euphemism for the phrase er kann mich am Arsche lecken, which translates as “he can lick my ass.” This gives some insight into his character.

Götz was born around 1480 in Württemberg. As a nobleman, he was part of the vicious power play that was part of daily life for the rich and influential in Germany. He set off to war while still in his teens and fought in various conflicts, eventually forming his own band of mercenaries.

In 1504, while besieging the city of Landshut, a cannonball hit his sword, swung it around, and caused poor Götz to cut off his own forearm. Not one to be deterred by minor setbacks, Götz had a prosthetic arm made so that he could continue campaigning.

The arm was a masterpiece of Renaissance design, as you can see from this old manuscript drawing reproduced on Wikimedia Commons. It was strong enough to hold a weapon and precise enough to hold a quill pen. Various buttons and levers worked springs so that it had much of the range of motion of a real hand. You can see some images of it at work here, and a detailed look at the mechanics in the gallery. It was so advanced that it served as the inspiration for prosthetic arms for German physicians after World War I, more than 400 years after it was made.

%Gallery-177598%We know a lot about Götz’s exploits thanks to an autobiography he wrote. In it he estimates that he took part in 15 feuds on the behalf of himself and his family, and numerous others for allies. Goethe was so inspired by Götz’s violent story that he wrote a play about him. The one-armed warrior remained an icon of German manliness and during World War II the SS named a division after him.

You can still see some of the places Götz lived and fought. Hornberg Castle, in Baden-Württemberg, was his home from the time he bought it in 1517 until his death in 1562. The castle, shown below, has a museum containing his armor. The castle itself is now a hotel and restaurant that offers a “knight’s feast” with the hint that Götz himself may make an appearance and have a drink with you.

To see his famous hand, you need to go to Burg Jagsthausen, another castle-turned hotel and restaurant.
Renaissance

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]