Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Winchester Cathedral opens mortuary chests

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

The great Gothic Cathedral of Winchester, in Hampshire, England, is traditionally held to be the final resting place of some of the earliest kings of Wessex and England. The remains of kings and bishops from as early as the 7th century are said to be contained in decorated mortuary chests in the church’s Lady Chapel. The chests are inscribed with names, crowns, shields identifying the remains kept in them, but they were made hundreds of years after the original burials in the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster (the original cathedral on the site of the current one from 660 to 1093) so it’s not certain they were ever accurate. On top of that, the chests were interfered with by Parliamentarians in 1642. When the cathedral authorities put the bones back, they were so jumbled up there was no way to separate out individuals.

Over the years the chests have been cleaned and restored, but the human remains and artifacts within have not been examined in forensic detail. As part of a new development program aimed to promote and preserve the Cathedral and to create a better exhibition space in the south transept for the gem of its collection, the 12th century Winchester Bible, the Dean and Chapter of Winchester have commissioned experts to study and document the contents of six of the chests for the first time.

Because modern technology allows for radiocarbon dating of very small samples, Winchester officials decided to date select bone fragments, something they’ve declined to do until now because it would have required the destruction of a some of the remains entrusted to Winchester’s eternal care. The results from the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit found that the tested bones date to the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods.

Speaking of this discovery, and the coming project, The Dean of Winchester, The Very Revd James Atwell, has this to say. “This is an exciting moment for the Cathedral when we seem poised to discover that history has indeed safeguarded the mortal remains of some of the early Saxon Kings who became the first monarchs of a united England. Winchester holds the secrets of the birth of the English nation and it does seem that some of those secrets are about to be revealed as future research continues. The presence of the bones in the Cathedral, where they would have been placed near the High Altar and the relics of St Swithun, remind us just how significant the inspiration of the Christian faith was for the foundation of our national life.”

Researchers will also try to separate the jumbled bones to count the number of individuals. Once the remains have been collated, archaeologists hope to be able to determine their age at time of death, sex, stature and physical characteristics of each person. It’s possible that there will be enough circumstantial evidence to be able to loosely match the bones to the royalty and clergy that the chests and the Cathedral’s burial records claim were interred at Winchester. Possible candidates include: Cynegils, King of Wessex (611–643), Cenwalh, King of Wessex (643–672), Cynewulf, King of Wessex (757-786), Ecbert, King of Wessex (802–839), Ethelwulf, King of Wessex (839–856), Eadred, King of England (946–955), Eadwig, King of England and later Wessex (955–959), Cnut or Canute, King of England (1016–1035), Denmark and Norway, his wife Emma of Normandy (d. 1052) (also queen consort to Ethelred II, King of England), William II ‘Rufus’, King of England (1087–1100), Wini, the first Bishop of Winchester (d. 670), Alfwyn, Bishop of Winchester (d. 1047) and Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1072).

If any one of these, particularly the early Anglo-Saxon kings, pan out forensically, Winchester Cathedral would be confirmed as the first national mausoleum, akin to the cathedrals of St. Denis and Reims in France.

There’s an intriguing little throw-away line with no follow-up in the press materials.

We have discovered in the chests some unexpected contents which are not mortal remains, and one of the aspects of the next stage of analysis will be to discover why they are there.

Ooh, unmentionable objects of mysterious origin! I’m looking forward to the explanation.

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British Columbia library acquires 13th c. Papal bull

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

University of British Columbia history professor Richard Pollard with the Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.The University of British Columbia Library has acquired what may be the oldest document of its kind in Canada: a Papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. The ink on parchment manuscript was signed by the Pope and 13 cardinals, among them Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, recently appointed Cardinal-Deacon of the titular church of St. Nicola in Carcere and future Pope Nicholas III. Accompanying the parchment is the lead seal (bulla in Latin, which gives the decree its name) at the end of a tassel of blue ribbon and red and yellow silk cords. It’s no longer attached to the document, but it’s otherwise in excellent condition.

The bull is a beautiful document. It’s 2 by 1.8 feet in dimension and penned in a glorious hand on sheepskin or calfskin parchment.

Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross ­­– likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem.

Detail of first line. Image by Don Erhardt. Rota detail and monogram for 'Bene Valete' or farewell. Image by Don Erhardt.

It was purchased last year from London antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch Ltd. for $15,000 to strengthen the library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. These documents are invaluable teaching tools for the university’s English and History departments because, in addition to the information they contain, they give the students a tangible connection to the past they’re studying. Although it was in good condition when it arrived, the bull

had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.

Anne Lama with humidification chamber used to treat Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”

She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”

You can see the difference by comparing the photographs in this post to the digitized version of the document.

Papal seal obverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The First Council of Lyons was the least attended church council yet with 150 bishops, but that sparse attendance was actually a ramification of how politically significant it was. Pope Innocent IV was on the run from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, stupor mundi, whose troops were besieging Rome. He escaped through Liguria reaching Lyons, which was conveniently located just outside of Frederick’s territory, in December of 1244 and in the beginning of the new year called an ecumenical council for June. Although Frederick sent three representatives of his own, many of the prelates from his German and Sicilian territories were too intimidated to attend. Turmoil in the east kept many others away. In the end attendants were primarily from France and Spain.

On the agenda at this council was the dignity of the Church (the rule that cardinals had to wear red hats was first promulgated at Lyons), reconquest of the Holy Land, dealing with the Mongol Empire’s invasions of eastern and central Europe, and last but most certainly not least, addressing the conflict between papacy and empire. On July 17th, the council issued the bull Ad Apostolicae Dignitatis Apicem which excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II on the grounds that he’d broken oaths he made to the Church, forcibly detained delegates on their way to an earlier council and was probably a heretic anyway, complete with a harem, eunuchs and Saracen guards.

Papal seal reverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The bull at the UBC Library was issued on July 30th, three days after the pope excommunicated and deposed the Holy Roman Emperor. It confirmed the benefices and properties of the Poor Clares in the church of Saint Michael in Trento, placing them under the direct protection of the Holy See. As minor an issue as this may seem compared to the excommunication of an emperor, it was all part of the rich tapestry of flipping Frederick the bird.

In 1027 Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II had established the Bishopric of Trent, an area roughly equivalent to the modern autonomous region of Trentino, as an ecclesiastical principality. Conrad deemed bishops less likely to cause trouble than German princes and Trentino was strategically important because two transalpine Roman roads connecting what is today southern Germany to northern Italy crossed through it. The Bishops were strong allies of the Emperor against local lords for two centuries. In 1236, Frederick II deposed the bishops and reclaimed direct imperial authority over Trento, appointing his personal friend Ezzelino III da Romano as viceroy.

Meanwhile, Abbess Palmeria of the Poor Clares had received the church of Saint Michael in Trento and its associated benefices from Bishop Gerald Oscasali in 1229. In 1237, the year after Frederick deposed the Bishop of Trent, Pope Gregory IX wrote to the secular authorities in Trento to complain about them harassing the sisters and levying taxes on donations to the convent. By placing the Saint Michael convent under the protection of the Holy See, the 1245 Papal bull was drawing yet another line in the sand between Church and State: this is ours and your laws/taxes/claims don’t apply.

As an aside, the question of donations was a thorny one from a religious perspective as well, since whether the Poor Clares could own property was a raging debate. Clare herself was still alive and not yet a saint when all this was going down. There was no Rule yet. The Clares lived according to strictures drawn up by Gregory when he was bishop. Innocent IV’s bull asserted their right to financial self-sufficiency, to possessions, one of a series of similar decisions from a number of popes that would materially alter the original brief of the mendicant orders.

 

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Mons Meg leaves Edinburgh Castle for tune-up

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Mons Meg lifted by crane from Edinburgh CastleMons Meg, the six-ton 15th century cannon that guards the parapets of Edinburgh Castle, has left her post for the first time in 30 years. Before dawn on Monday, January 19th, a crew of specialists strapped Meg up so she could be gingerly lifted out of her carriage by a crane, loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to an off-site facility where Historic Scotland experts will give her a thorough examination and do necessary conservation work. The oak and iron carriage that has been supporting her since 1934 also went along for the ride.

Here’s a neat timelapse of Mons Meg being lifted off her carriage while dawn breaks:

Richard Welander, Head of Collections for Historic Scotland said: “Mons Meg undergoes regular ‘health checks’ each year and is lifted off its carriage every five years for a closer inspection.

“This time it’s getting a major service, which means it must leave the castle for the first time for 30 years. The last time Mons Meg left was in March 1985, when she went to the Royal Armouries research establishment in Kent for a short technical examination.

“We’ll be using state-of-the-art equipment to examine the cannon and carriage inside and out, to assess their condition. Then we’ll commence with treatment and restoration, which is a delicate and specialist task.”

Mons Meg lifted off her carriageThere have been a great many technological advances since the last time Mons Meg got the full treatment. Historic Scotland conservators will laser-scan the cannon and create a 3D model to reveal issues not visible to the naked eye. The current paint will be stripped using a pressure wash system and bead blasting. That will expose the iron surface for proper conservation. Once Meg is cleaned and dried, she will be re-coated in protective paint.

Historic Scotland is hoping their conservation analysis will also shed some light on the history of the cannon. Much legend has grown up around her over the centuries, so this is an exciting opportunity to fill in a few blanks. Mons Meg was made in 1449 for Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to present as a gift to King James II of Scotland, Phillip’s grand-nephew by marriage. (James’ queen consort was Mary of Guelders, daughter of Catherine of Cleves, whose mother Marie of Burgundy was Phillip’s elder sister.) It was constructed by Phillip’s artillery master Jehan Cambier in Mons, County of Hainaut (modern-day Belgium), out of iron staves clamped together by iron hoops. Its massive 20-inch barrel, still one of the largest cannon calibre in the world, could fire 330-pound balls up to two miles.

James II took delivery of Mons Meg, known at the time just by variants of “Mons,” in 1454. Sixteen years later, he had the giant cannon transported 50 miles south to aid in the siege of Roxburgh Castle, one of the last remaining English strongholds in Scotland. The Scottish forces were successful — they ultimately took the castle once and for all — but James was killed in action when one of his own bombards (not Meg) exploded. His wife Mary ordered Roxburgh Castle razed.

Print of Mons Meg in 1681 from the "Domestic Annals of Scotland" by Robert ChambersThe records of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland note an expenditure of 18 shillings on July 10th, 1489, to have “Monss” carried by command of King James IV, James II’s grandson, to besiege Dumbarton. There James IV deployed Meg’s might against an insurrection led by Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, and Robert Lyle, Lord Lyle. That venture was less successful. The siege was broken by a negotiated surrender of the rebellious lords on condition that a new Parliament be convened.

James used Mons Meg again in 1497 at the siege of Norham Castle in northern England. Meg did her part — the castle took a lot of damage — but the two-week siege ended when English reinforcements arrived.

Meg was kept in fighting condition for a few more decades. Her last military service was in James V’s navy, after which, from the 1540s or so, she was retired from active engagement but was fired on important ceremonial occasions like the signing of the treaty of marriage between five-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, and three-year-old Francis, Dauphin of France, in July 1558. She was fired for the last time on October 14th, 1681. Here’s a description of the event from the Domestic Annals of Scotland (1859) by Robert Chambers. The quote within the quote is from Historical Notices of Scottish Affairs (1848) by Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall.

The Duke of York paying a visit to the Castle of Edinburgh, the huge cannon called Mons Meg was fired in his honour. The charge, which was done by an English cannoneer, had probably been too large, for it caused the piece to burst. This “some foolishly called a bad omen. The Scots resented it extremely, thinking the Englishman might of malice have done it purposely, they having no cannon in all England so big as she.”

I am trying really hard not to snicker at the obvious phallic competition inherent in this struggle. Trying and failing.

Mons Meg's burst hoop still visible just ahead of back wheelWith the burst hoop exposing her internal staves, Mons Meg could never be fired again. She still starred in several tugs of war between England and Scotland, though. In the wake of the Jacobite rebellion, in 1754 Mons Meg, now rusted, busted and sitting on the ground without even the dignity of a carriage, was confiscated along with other weapons to keep them out of reach of potential rebels. She was moved to the Tower of London, but she didn’t go quietly. The Tower records list a demand for compensation from the owner of the ship that brought her to London for damage to the vessel and mooring rope.

In 1829, George IV had Mons Meg returned to Edinburgh as a result of a campaign by Sir Walter Scott and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Scott believed fervently in a legendary Galloway origin story for Mons Meg.

When James the Second arrived with an army at Carlingwark, to besiege the Castle of Threave, the McLellans presented him with the piece of ordnance now called ‘Mons Meg.’ The first discharge of this great gun is said to have consisted of a peck of powder and a granite ball nearly as heavy as a Galloway cow. This ball is believed, in its course through the Castle of Threave, to have carried away the hand of Margaret de Douglas, commonly called the Fair Maid of Galloway, as she sat at table with her lord, and was in the act of raising the wine-cup to her lips. Old people still maintain that the vengeance of God was thereby evidently manifested, in destroying the hand which had been given in wedlock to two brothers, and that even while the lawful spouse of the first was alive.

Even without having amputated Margaret de Douglas’ hand, Mons Meg was and is still beloved. She was escorted back to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 by three cavalry troops and a regiment of foot, and remains today a great favorite with visitors to Edinburgh Castle.

The conservation is expected to be complete and Mons Meg back in place outside St. Margaret’s Chapel by the end of February.

 

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Drone Indiana Jones maps ruins of Italian town

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

It’s the first month of the new year and we already have a fine addition to my collection of Pompeii metaphors used to describe archaeological sites that are nothing at all like Pompeii. This time it’s the town of Cerreto Sannita in the southern Italian region of Campania being made to wear the Pompeii colors. The connection is that both cities were struck by a horrific cataclysm, but the comparisons pretty much end there. The town was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in the 17th century and a new Cerreto Sannita was built next to the ruins (to distinguish it from the new town, the site of the medieval ruins is called Cerreto antica). Little of the old city is visible today. Whatever is left is underground.

To ferret out the remnants of Cerreto antica, archaeologists have deployed a drone named Indiana Jones. With its onboard laser and videocamera, Indiana Jones is surveying the site above and below ground. Indiana’s lidar data will be the jumping off point for a hands-on archaeological excavation. The site will then be secured and any structures exposed will be stabilized. Artifacts recovered during the dig will be catalogued, and finally, the drone and dig information will be used to create a 3D model of the complete site. The “Medieval Cerreto” model won’t be just a virtual recreation, but a starting point for exploring the terrain, history and traditions of the town.

The Cerreto project is part of an initiative funded by Ministry of Education, Universities and Research that seeks to addresses issues of structural security while developing methods to integrate the protection, oversight and sustainable redevelopment of historical sites. The aim is to bring added safety and value to sites of cultural interest in seismically active areas, and boy is this area seismically active.

The towns, like Cerreto Sannita, in the environs of Benevento have a long, storied past of earthquake-induced upheaval. In fact, Cerreto itself once prospered mightily from an earthquake that drove residents out of the nearby town of Telesia. For centuries a regional administrative center under Lombard and Norman authorities, Telesia was seat of a bishopric from the 4th century A.D. until a massive series of earthquakes struck the central Apennine regions for an incredible seven months, from January until September of 1349. Sinkholes and landslides filled up with stagnant water, soil became swampy and volcanic fissures that emanated carbon dioxide and sulfur fumes made the air close to unbreathable. Telesia was abandoned and much of the population moved to Cerreto.

This gave the town a major economic, political and demographic boost. In 1593, Bishop Cesare Bellocchi instituted the diocesan seminary in Cerreto Sannita. After his death two years later, the new bishop, Eugenio Savino, moved into a palace in Cerreto donated by a local nobleman and made it the new official seat of the diocese which was renamed the Diocese of Telese or Cerreto Sannita. The town was now an important religious center, replete with churches, monasteries and convents.

Karma struck on June 5th, 1688. Cerreto Sannita was the epicenter of an earthquake estimated by seismologists to have been more than 7.0 on the Richter Scale. More than 4,000 people, half the population of the town, died and the entire town was razed to the ground. Six days later, Bishop Giovanni Battista de Bellis wrote to the head of the Congregation for Bishops reporting on the disaster.

“I am forced, crying, to advise you of the horrific spectacle of desolation in this my diocese, for the earthquake that struck at five the night before Pentecost while I was left weeping for my misery and that of my people. … Telese from ancient times was abandoned and my predecessor bishops moved to Cerreto, already populous, and there built a church, extremely beautiful, and to this church they transferred the services of the Cathedral where 15 Canons officiated. In this land of Cerreto there was the Church of San Martino, parochial and collegial, with 11 Canons and the Archpriest. There was a monastery of Conventual friars, a distinguished place of study, a monastery of Capuchin friars, a convent of the Nuns of the Order of Saint Clair where there were 65 nuns and converts.

Now this land with the churches, monasteries and everything, in the time it takes to recite a Credo, collapsed all, all, all, without there remaining standing even one house to take refuge in, something that anyone who did not see it would scarce believe it.”

The response was sympathetic but laconic. The Bishop went over the Curia’s head and appealed straight to Pope Innocent XI, explaining how the entire town had been leveled, that only three small dwellings belonging to a potter had survived the quake at all, and their walls were either crumbling or about to collapse, listing the numbers of dead in every convent, monastery and church, and asking that Rome help with emergency funds. He received no response. Only with the election of Pope Alexander VIII, a man known for his magnanimity, in 1689 did the diocese receive financial support for the reconstruction of the cathedral.

Unlike Telesia, Cerreto was not abandoned. It was rebuilt from scratch. Count Marzio Carafa stopped residents who were already beginning to rebuild their homes using the rubble and instead turned to royal engineer Giovanni Battista Manni to plan a town with particular attention to seismic stability. Also aided by his bother Marino and Bishop de Bellis, Marzio Carafa moved the city center downvalley onto a broad, low hill that was significantly more stable than the land the old town had been built on. It was all private property which the Count claimed through a sort of medieval version of eminent domain.

He also took out a loan of 3,000 ducats to build one and two-room houses that he sold to residents for manageable sums of 50 to 184 ducats. Since they had lost everything, the Count authorized his debt collector to extend loans for the purchase of the houses with interest-free repayments for three years and 6% interest the fourth. Eight years after the earthquake, the new town was complete and every resident owned his own new home with seismic design features like split support windows.

Inspired by Roman urbs, the new Cerreto Sannita had two major streets (decumani) parallel to each other with one-way traffic in opposite directions running down the length of the town and a number of small streets (cardini) connecting the two arteries. There were no defensive walls, no cramped and crooked alleys. It remains to this day one of the only surviving examples of a pure planned city from the late 17th century.

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Museum acquires Anglo-Saxon St. Peter carving used as cat grave marker

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015


The Museum of Somerset in Taunton has acquired a medieval carving of Saint Peter that for years was used as a marker for a pet cat’s grave. The 18 by 17-inch stone is carved with the tonsured and clean-shaved saint with his head turned slightly to the right and two fingers of his right hand raised to his chest in benediction. A partial inscription on the top left — SC (S) (PE)TRVS — identifies the figure as Saint Peter.

The design is distinctly Anglo-Saxon, with a close parallel found in the figure of Peter the Deacon on the St. Cuthbert stole and maniple, a richly embroidered vestment made in Winchester between 906 and 916. It is a piece of a larger object, possibly a section of a shaft from a free-standing cross or larger relief panel that was later recycled as a building material. It’s made out of oolitic limestone, a stone that’s native to the south Somerset area where it was discovered. There are several religious institutions nearby that could have been the original source: Muchelney Abbey, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, was just 10 miles away from Dowlish Wake, while Glastonbury Abbey is 25 miles away.

Knowing the exact location where it was found might answer some of the questions about its original configuration, but it was only recognized as a rare surviving pre-Conquest carving after the stonemason, Johnny Beeston, who first rediscovered it had died. Beeston brought it home and installed it in his garden rockery in Dowlish Wake where it marked the grave of the dearly departed Winkles, a stray cat he had adopted. The person who recognized it was potter and local historian Chris Brewchorne who had a pottery shop across the road. It caught his eye in 2004. By then Johnny had joined Winkles over the rainbow bridge and Mrs. Beeston was willing to sell the piece.

They offered it to the Museum of Somerset for what would turn out to be a bargain price, but the museum didn’t have the funding at the time and declined the offer. So instead it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December of 2004 to Milwaukee native, timber and oil heir, art collector and all-around eccentric Stanley J. Seeger for £201,600 ($386,628).

Seeger died in 2011. His extensive collection of art was sold at auction, Sotheby’s again, in March of 2014 and the Peter stone sold for a far more modest £68,500 ($114,532) the second time around. That lower price was good news for the museum who could now arrange to buy it for £150,000 thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (who chipped in the largest chunk at £78,600), Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Fairfield Trust, the Friends of the Museum of Somerset and other donors.

The stone will go on public display in the Museum of Somerset, which occupies the great hall and inner ward of Taunton Castle, starting this Saturday, January 17th.

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New year of hoards begins with Anglo-Saxon coins

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

Barely did the year turn before news broke of a new hoard of coins unearthed by metal detectorists in an English field. The finder, Paul Coleman, was scanning farmland near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, as part of the Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club‘s yearly Christmas rally when he discovered a piece of lead and a silver coin. When he moved a larger fragment of lead, he saw there were rows of coins underneath. Buckinghamshire Finds Liaison Officer Ros Tyrrell was on site in case something notable was found, so she was able to coordinate a proper excavation after the first few coins were exposed.

The area was cordoned off and before an increasingly large crowd of detectorists (there were more than 100 club members at the rally) the find carefully excavated. Silver coins filled a large lead container, apparently a bucket that was folded over at the top to cover the hoard, buried about two feet underground. Portraits on some of the coins identified them as having been minted during the reigns of Ethelred the Unready (reigned 978-1013, 1014-1016 A.D.) and the Danish King Cnute (r. 1016-1035 A.D.).

As the coins were removed from the soil, they were packed in poly bags and then carried to the farmhouse in an orange Sainsburys plastic shopping bag. On the farm’s kitchen table spread with newspapers, the entire hoard was counted out. The final tally was 5251 silver pennies (plus half of another), one of the largest hoards of Anglo-Saxon coins ever discovered.

After the counting was done, Ros Tyrrell brought the coins that night to the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Halton and the next day they were transported by van to the British Museum. It was December 22nd, so much of the staff was on holiday, but the conservator who was at work immediately set about cleaning and cataloguing the coins. The cleaning process went smoothly, revealing coins in excellent condition. They are shiny, unclipped and so free of wear and tear that it seems likely they were never circulated.

There was a Royal Mint in Buckingham during the reign of Ethelred within a day’s walking distance from the find site. Given the dates and flawless condition, it’s possible these coins went straight from the mint into the ground, perhaps to hide them from the army of William the Conqueror as it advanced towards the mint.

There will be a coroner’s inquest to determine whether the hoard qualifies as treasure trove which it certainly will since it’s more than 300 years old and made of precious metal. Once declared treasure, a British Museum valuation team will determine its market value and a local museum will be given the opportunity of acquiring the hoard by paying the amount of the valuation. The fee will then be split between the finder and the landowner. Early speculation puts the possible value as high as $390 a coin for a total of $2 million, but that’s just spitballing based on the Ethelred coins. We won’t have solid figures until every coin has been identified and dated.

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Earliest known piece of polyphonic music found

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

The earliest known piece of polyphonic music — choral music written for more than one part — has been discovered in a manuscript at the British Library. It was found by Cambridge doctoral student Giovanni Varelli who was looking through the British Library’s manuscript collections for medieval musical notations. On the last page of Harley 3019, a four-part composite manuscript written in northwest Germany in the early 10th century, Varelli found an inscription that he recognized as Paleofrankish notation, a style that predates the invention of the stave and of which few manuscripts have survived.

Written on the blank space underneath the conclusion of the hagiography of the late 4th century Saint Maternianus, 6th Bishop of Reims, the inscription consists of two short antiphons (responsory chants): one antiphon honoring St. Boniface martyr and one Rex caelestium terrestrium, praising God as king of heaven and earth. Above the four lines of the antiphons are a series of symbols, vertical lines topped with horizontal dashes with circles on the bottom. An expert in early music notation, Varelli realized that the symbols represented the two melodies of the first chant. The dashes are the main melody of the chant; the circles are a second lower melody to accompany the first. Their placement along the vertical lines indicates the pitch.

A chant with a second melody either above or below it in pitch is known as an organum, an early form of polyphonic music. Although two- and three-part polyphony is discussed in theoretical treatises on musical theory in the 9th and 10th century, this manuscript is the earliest known instance of polyphony as part of a performance tradition rather than something explored in theory. Before this discovery, the earliest known organa were collected in a manuscript called the Winchester Troper, written around the year 1000.

As well as its age, the piece is also significant because it deviates from the convention laid out in treatises at the time. This suggests that even at this embryonic stage, composers were experimenting with form and breaking the rules of polyphony almost at the same time as they were being written.

“What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected,” Varelli said.

“Typically, polyphonic music is seen as having developed from a set of fixed rules and almost mechanical practice. This changes how we understand that development precisely because whoever wrote it was breaking those rules. It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development, the conventions were less rules to be followed, than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths.”

The manuscript is part of the Harley Collection, the library of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, and his son, Edward Harley. 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, which was rapidly assembled from firesales abroad and in London in the first half of the 18th century. Edward’s widow and daughter sold the entire library — more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls — to the nation for £10,000, a steal even then. The acquistion required an act of Parliament, namely the British Museum Act of 1753, the same act that paid Sir Hans Sloane’s heirs £20,000 for his collection of 71,000 objects consisting of books, manuscripts and natural history specimens, antiquities, coins, prints, drawings and ethnographic material to make them the kernel of the country’s first public museum.

Harley 3019 made no particular impression on the curators of the newly minted British Museum. The weird writing at the end of the manuscipt was so insignificant to them, in fact, that they slapped the “Museum Britannicum” stamp right on top of it. (The British Library didn’t split off from the British Museum until 1973.)

Varelli has transcribed the 10th century piece into modern notation and here are Quintin Beer and John Clapham, music undergraduates from his college — St. John’s — performing the Sancte Bonifati martyr.

You can read more about the organum, the notation and the early history of polyphony in Giovanni Varelli’s fascinating paper on the find. To say I know nothing about music theory is a vast understatement, but I was actually able to follow it, much to my amazement. If you’re at all musically inclined, or even just interested in medieval scholarship, it’s very much worth a read.

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Newly shiny Bedale Hoard at Yorkshire Museum

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

The Bedale Hoard, a trove of Viking silver and Anglo-Saxon gold discovered by metal detectorists in a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire, in May of 2012, is now on display at the Yorkshire Museum after months of conservation. It dates to late 9th or early 10th century and contains almost 40 pieces: 29 silver ingots, four silver collars including a unique large one made of four twisted ropes joined at the ends, silver neck rings, a silver Permian (from the Russian Perm region) ring, a flat silver arm ring made in Viking Ireland decorated with a Hiberno-Scandinavian design, half a bossed pennanular silver brooch, and an Anglo-Saxon iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques decorated in animal motifs of the Trewhiddle style plus four oval ring mounts and six gold rivets from the same sword.

The hoard was declared treasure trove at a coroner’s inquest, and British Museum experts valued it at £51,636. In January of this year the Yorkshire Museum launched a fundraiser so they could pay the valuation price and secure the hoard. Several of the pieces are unique anywhere in the Viking world, and little is known about Viking life in the Bedale area so the museum was keen to acquire it for display and study in the county where it was found. The Art Fund and the Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund chipped in £11,000 each. Smaller grants from other organizations and donations from the public raised the rest. In June, the Yorkshire Museum became the proud custodian of the Bedale Hoard.

A few pieces — the four-strand twisted neck collar, the flat silver arm ring, some of the ingots — were put on display at the museum during the campaign to inspire donations. Since the successful completion of the campaign, the York Archaeological Trust has been cleaning and conserving the hoard, making it ready for permanent display. Conservation has revealed tiny cuts in the silver that were made before the hoard was buried to test the purity of the silver. Several of the newly cleaned ingots were found to have a cross engraved on them, linking them to Christian owners at some point in their early history.

Natalie McCaul, curator of archaeology at York Museums Trust, said: “It is only now that the hoard has been conserved that we can see its real beauty and the incredible craftsmanship involved in creating some of the artefacts. The Anglo Saxon sword pommel is probably the stand out piece. This is something that has been plundered by the Vikings and the conservation has meant we can now see the fantastic and delicate gold leaf patterns much more clearly and in some cases for the first time,” she said. [...]

Conservation work has revealed the gold leaf work, which would have been done by highly skilled craftsmen, on the sword pommel for the first time.

A museum spokesman said: “The Anglo Saxon gold sword pommel, its guard and the gold rings from the handle were all removed from the weapon at some point before burial. Samples taken from the guard reveal both textile and wood fragments, suggesting the sword may have been wrapped in cloth and the hoard was buried in a wooden box.”

As of Saturday, the Bedale Hoard is on display in the Yorkshire Museum’s Medieval Gallery, and boy does it look great. It makes for spectacular before and after pictures.

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Leaning Tower of Bad Frankenhausen saved

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

The funding cavalry has arrived to save the dangerously leaning tower of the Church of Our Dear Ladies on the Hill in the Thuringian spa town of Bad Frankenhausen. The 14th century bell tower, built on a chalk foundation over subterranean salt deposits that get washed out by the springs that put the Bad in Bad Frankenhausen, has been leaning precipitously since a 1908 landslide. It leans 15 feet eastward of the perpendicular, more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Protestant Church in Central Germany (EKM), owner of the church for most of its life, tried to stabilize it several times over the years, but to no avail. Finally in December of 2011, the EKM decided to demolish the roofless, structurally unsound church and its leaning tower. The only chance of reprieve was if the city could raise the funds necessary to restore the tower, the EKM would sell the Church of Our Dear Ladies to the city for a token sum of €1 and chip in the money they had planned to spend on demolition (about €150,000).

It was a close call. By a vote of nine votes for, seven against and three abstentions, the Bad Frankenhausen city council agreed to the acquisition of the church. The estimated total cost of restoration was €1 million. Subtracting the demolition funds, that left the city with €850,000 to scare up. They put €50,000 into immediate stabilization work in early 2012, and then went to work trying to secure government funding. Without it, the city would not be able to raise the €800,000 and Bad Frankenhausen’s most recognizable landmark, symbol of the town just as the Leaning Tower is of Pisa, would have to be demolished for safety reasons.

The city applied to the Thuringian Ministry of Construction for state funding, but were rejected. With time running out, Bad Frankenhausen threw a hail mary pass and applied to the National Urban Planning Projects, a new €50 million federal program to support city development projects of “national visibility, high quality, above-average investment volume or high potential for innovation.” The program received 271 applications, 24 from Thuringia alone, for a total of €900 million in requested funding.

A jury of members of parliament, academics and urban planning experts selected 21 applications for project funding. The Bad Frankenhausen tower was one of only two winners from Thuringia. The stabilization of the tower will now be funded to the tune of €950,000. Mayor Matthias Strejc was particularly pleased to note the tower was considered a historic landmark of national importance by the federal government because the state government had sent them yet another rejection letter just a few days before they heard their application had been accepted by the National Urban Planning Projects.

The next step for the tower is research into the movement of the soil underneath it. Three holes will be dug, one 400 meters (437 yards) deep and two 70 meters (77 yards), and sensors inserted into the holes. The sensor readings will be viewable in real time by visitors to the tower’s information pavilion. The data will be submitted in a new report due by December 31st. Structural engineers will use that information to fine tune the stabilization plan which as of now involves building a reinforced concrete core in the basement of the tower and creating a steel corset structure on the outside.

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St. Francis manuscripts leave Italy for the first time

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Nineteen medieval artifacts from the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi that have never left Italy since their creation 700 years ago are heading to New York. There are no known extant documents written in Saint Francis’ own hand (historians think he dictated rather than writing himself). These 13th and 14th century manuscripts are the earliest surviving documents about Francis’ and the mendicant order he founded. The exhibition, Friar Francis: Traces, Words and Images, will be on display at the UN Headquarters from November 17th through the 29th but it’s not open to the public. They will be on public display when they move to the Brooklyn Borough Hall from December 2nd to January 14, 2015.

It’s divided into three sections. The first section, Traces, focuses on documents that are closely connected to Francis’ lifetime. The centerpiece is Codex 338, a collection of the oldest existing copies of Saint Francis’ writings, including the 12 chapters of the Rule of the Friors Minor and the Canticle of the Creatures or Canticle of the Sun, one of Francis’ most celebrated poems. The Canticle of Creatures is the first surviving works written in a dialect (Umbrian) recognizably resembling modern Italian. It is considered the oldest poem in Italian literature. There are also several Papal Bulls issued in the 1220s by popes Honorius III and Gregory IX regarding the regulation of the new order and, after Francis’s canonization in 1228 just two years after his death, ordering the construction of a new church to house his earthly remains.

The second section, Words, deals with hagiographies of Francis written after his death. The oldest is a fragmentary parchment of Vita Beati Francisci (The Life of Blessed Francis) by Father Tommaso da Celano commissioned by Pope Gregory IX around the time of Francis’ canonization. There’s also a very rare manuscript of Celano’s second biography, Memoriale Desiderio Animae de Gestis et Verbis Sanctissimi Patris Nostri Francisci (Memorial of the Desire of a Soul Concerning the Deeds and Words of Our Most Holy Father Francis), aka Seconda Vita (Second Life), which was commissioned in the mid-1240s by Crescentius of Jessi, Minister General of the Franciscan Order. A later work from the end of the 14th century, Fioretti di San Francesco (Little Flowers of St. Francis), is an idealized portrayal that would become the most popular hagiography of the saint and the basis for many future works of literature and art about Francis.

The last section, Images, features depictions of Saint Francis in miniature from illuminated manuscripts. There’s Francis at the foot of the crucified Christ in Ubertino da Casale’s Arbor Vitae Crucifixae Jesu, Francis in a little box amidst floral borders in the Breviarium Fratrum Minorum illuminated by painter Sano di Pietro for the convent of Saint Claire in Siena, and Francis ranking with Adam and Christ on the first page of Genesis in a Bible.

Before these precious and fragile documents could travel, they were subject to months of careful conservation.

Over the past five months, Father Massetti, two other monks and three young restoration experts have cleaned all the manuscripts with a soft paint brush, page by page.

In some, the medieval ink had perforated the page; in others it had faded. Some were missing entire figures or miniatures, others the binding cover.

The restoration experts have repaired the fissures of the parchment with Japanese vegetable fiber or a bovine membrane. They have consolidated the ink and the colorful paintings through a starch gel.

Five of the manuscripts, ranging from the size of a choral book to the pocket format, were unbound, parchment by parchment, and were finally reassembled and stitched back together with a linen thread.

So not only is it the first (and probably only) chance people in the US will have the chance to see these rare artifacts, they will be in the greatest condition they’ve been in for centuries. The exhibition was on display at the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s lower house of parliament, in the Montecitorio Palace earlier this year, and although many countries have asked to host it, only New York has received the honor. It’s a fitting choice, seeing as 40% of the six million visitors to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi hail from the United States.

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